New Year’s Irresolutions and the Democratic Field

This post gives my end of the year thoughts on the Democratic field.  I am writing it so we can all look back in a few months and see how wrong it was, and, indeed, many factors provide uncertainty about what the next few months will bring. 

Certainly many of my early perceptions were misplaced:  Joe Biden has had more staying power than I (and others) predicted.  In the Trump Era electability has remained voters’ top criterion, much as it did in 2004.  Further, while I believed Elizabeth Warren could get past Medicare for All, she has not yet done so and other candidates seem stalled in front of their own hurdles as well.  

Smarter – or more cautious – people than I would have the good sense to stop making predictions.  Throwing such good sense to the wind, here are some things that seem true or likely to me as we enter the election year: 

1.  The nominee will be chosen from the candidates who currently constitute the top five:  Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren (in alphabetical order).    I can come up with scenarios in which someone else breaks through – and a meteor could hit a debate stage.  But the other scenarios are almost as unlikely as the meteor strike.  

2.  Joe Biden is the odds on favorite.  I didn’t think this would be true at this point but it seems to be.  His lead has had staying power and while he may not win Iowa or New Hampshire, he could still win one or both, and he remains the overwhelming favorite in South Carolina which protects his staying power.

3. New Hampshire seems to me unlikely to ratify Iowa, both because it generally doesn’t and because high participation of independents in New Hampshire (in the absence of a heated Republican primary), means a very different electorate in partisan and ideological terms than in Iowa.  (If this prediction is wrong, #5 is wrong too.) 

4.  Michael Bloomberg will play a powerful and positive role in the election.  He is building a national organization and is a strong and strategic voice against Trump.  He will play a major role in the fall, but he will not be the nominee.  He will, however, offer critical protection for the nominee against Russian and right-wing craziness.  

5.   The contest will continue past Super Tuesday and likely at least through April 11, when 87 percent of the delegates will have been chosen.  The field will narrow by Super Tuesday, but with four candidates with the likely capacity to continue, it will be difficult for the eventual nominee to secure a first ballot delegate majority (unless other candidates choose to bring it to a close, which is unlikely). 

 6.  If more than two candidates remain viable in the race, we are unlikely to have a first ballot nominee.  Viable in this case means meeting the 15 percent threshold for delegate allocation in most congressional districts.  The way delegate thresholds work, if only one candidate meets the threshold that candidate wins all the delegates.  If the result is close among multiple candidates, each with more than 15 percent support, whole delegates are allocated roughly proportionately, which can often mean each candidate gets the same number of delegates.  In the final rounds, if Biden is still in the mix, his breadth of support will help him but thresholds make it very hard to win a majority of delegates with three or four contenders strong enough to accrue delegates.  (Oddly, five contenders make it easier for one to dominate as it becomes more likely that only one is above threshold – a scenario that could help Sanders with his smaller but stronger base.)    

7.  After the first four states, delegate math will be much more important, and national polling even less important than it is now.  National polling has never been very meaningful as there is no national primary but rather a sequence of state primaries and caucuses.  Given that polls do not accurately predict delegates, national polls become even less important.   

8.  Electability against Trump will remain the top criterion for a plurality of Democratic voters.   Voters may be ready to put all their internal differences aside to defeat Trump, but they will not erase them entirely.  Leaders across the ideological and geographic spectrum have roles to play in helping voters and activists retain focus on winning in November 2020.   The nominee will need them as part of the process, and in becoming the nominee.     

9.  The Vice-Presidential pick will be both more important and more controversial than in years past.  The general rule for picking a VP candidate is to do no harm as people generally vote for the top of the ticket. The divides within the party point to a need for ticket balancing, which cannot make everyone happy.

10.  The November election will result in a Democratic president and Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress.  That can and will happen even with a narrow Electoral College win given the combination of Republican incumbents in states the Democrats will likely win (like Maine and Colorado), those in competitive states (like Arizona and North Carolina), and those Republican Senators with individual problems (like Lindsey Graham and Kelly Loeffler).  

So, I end the year with nervous and irresolute optimism that is not, I hope, misplaced.  I recognize the need for caution as the impeachment trial, the candidates themselves, the failure to choose a nominee early, and intraparty schisms will create disruption.  Those factors could bring about a circular firing squad among Democrats.  There is some protection from that in shared seriousness of purpose about defeating Trump, which I trust continues.

May we all have a good New Year.

Message Morphs and the Fifth Debate

The Iowa Democratic Party Liberty and Justice (LJ) dinner is a marker in the nomination process as candidates have the opportunity to show off their organizations and message positioning. New polling suggests shifting allegiances. With just 90 days before the caucuses, the shape of the race matters more now than it did over the summer. Candidates are also adjusting their messages and positioning, with new interplay expected in the next DNC debate.

Certain thematics are contested by multiple candidates:  At least Biden, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar articulate that they can bring people together within the party and ultimately across party lines; both Booker in the past and Harris now claim the mantle of the candidate of justice; Buttigieg, in using language reminiscent of President Obama’s, is competing with Biden for the Obama meme, and both Buttigieg and Yang speak to generational change.  Sanders, Warren, and maybe Harris support bolder change on health care, while Warren and Sanders seem to share the reform lane with some Buttigieg and Harris incursions.  Buttigieg, Yang, and Steyer lay claim to outsider status.    

I am not aligned with any of the nine candidates who now look likely to make the debate stage this month (although neither do I feel a need to adhere to strict neutrality).   My thoughts on each begin with a recap, and what I will look for in the next debate from a message perspective. 

I begin with the Iowa top four based on the New York Times/Siena poll.  The Iowa caucuses are not the whole ball game but are likely to sort the “contenders from the pretenders,” as the role of the caucuses have been described.  Additionally, delegate math dictates a smaller viable field as soon as voting begins.  (See for a discussion of thresholds.)

The Top Tier:

Vice President Joe Biden – Biden’s message is not changing as far as I can tell.  He is competing on both the capacity to bring unity and on his ties to President Obama.  The sense that he is the candidate who would make the race a referendum on Trump and not on himself seems to be fading.  Voters seem to perceive Trump’s own fortunes as weaker (although they may well be wrong, particularly given this poll released today:  NY Times/Siena Poll ) and Biden seems less of a force than voters initially believed.   In prior debates, it was enough for Biden to hold firm on message and stay out of the fray.  If his Iowa and New Hampshire leads are as endangered as some polls suggest, he will need to fight back both to hold the Obama mantle and to be seen as a unifying force – morphing more to “strict father” than “Uncle Joe” in archetypal terms.     

Mayor Pete Buttigieg – Buttigieg has had a very good week, with polling that shows him in a very competitive position in Iowa and with an impressive show of force at theLJ.  His message, meanwhile, has shifted to a more moderate call for unity with an emphasis of his Midwestern roots, and away from some of his earlier progressive and values-based positioning.  Sexual orientation, age, and talent likely save him from appearing too moderate for the primary electorate.  Some of his tactics – character attacks on Warren (even with the disclaimer) and his campaign’s blaming African Americans for their lack of support for him are familiar and questionable tropes.  I don’t know that they damage him but it will be interesting to see whether they are repeated, or whether he grounds more thoroughly in his vision of a “new era” as he did at the LJ dinner.   

Senator Bernie Sanders – Sanders has the firmest support of any of the candidates and while it is not quite as broad as it was – and certainly narrower than it was in 2016– maintenance and turnout could produce a top three finish for him in early states. Being a vigorous and spirited Sanders, which comes naturally to him, is likely enough to hold his base.  One issue for him in the debate, is whether he creates any daylight between him and Warren on Medicare for All, which could help them both.

Senator Elizabeth Warren – Warren has moved into the number two spot, and some would argue the number one spot based on state polls.  Voters like her and her plans, and a shift in voters’ mood and her numbers has tamped down some of the concerns about her winability.  Still, many voters as well as party leaders are reluctant to see a campaign in which Medicare for All is the lead issue.  Her response is strong – that “hope and courage” win elections.  Her jobs moving forward are (1) to be the candidate of hope and courage and not the candidate of a single programmatic idea, even an important one; and (2) to draw a connection for voters between who she is now and her roots in non-coastal America.       

The Second Tier:

Senator Corey Booker – Booker’s message has seemed a bit transient and his positioning is not clear to me, unless it is in the personal appeal of his optimism.   He also sometimes emphasizes criminal justice reform in ways that compete with Harris.  Booker has a choice to make on whether optimism and emotionalism or issue comparisons with others will help move his candidacy forward.

Senator Kamala Harris – Harris has shifted the emphasis of her campaign to focus on Iowa and rolled out an altered message at the LJ.  Instead of starting with “as a former prosecutor,” she broadened her message to talk about justice and that she has always been “for the people” in an effort to bring them justice.  The messaging was very well received.  It certainly gives her a broader palette on which to portray her concerns about people and her core values.  Whether she can show the force of those values without appearing acerbic or tactical, remains to be seen.       

Senator Amy Klobuchar – Klobuchar is competing with Buttigieg on Midwestern cred, and with Buttigieg, Biden, and perhaps Booker as a unifying or anti-divisive force.  She has not thus far given a clear portrayal of what a Klobuchar presidency would look like, which may be her task in Debate Five.  She stood out on personal appeal in the last debate; in this one I suspect she needs to look the contender by saying how her presidency as well as her candidacy would be distinctive in the field.

Tom Steyer – Steyer is running as an outsider and a progressive.  But he entered late and his self-funding has both put him on the debate stage and is self-limiting.  Democratic voters are not in the mood for self-funding billionaires.   His efforts on impeachment have also been, perhaps, overtaken by the actual event.  Following the old rubric of Message-Organization-Money as key to political victory, Steyer seems stuck on the third.

Andrew Yang – Yang has an enthusiastic if small core of support, and the question is whether he can broaden his positioning.  The Buttigieg morph may give Yang a new opening to be more of the candidate of new ideas and a new generation, and compete with Buttigieg on those grounds. 

Conventional wisdom – which is sometimes wrong – dictates that there are no more than three tickets out of Iowa – that only three contenders have a real chance of the nomination after Iowa.  I suspect that whether there are three or four “tickets” depends on the rank order and level of support for the first three.  Five tickets requires difficult arithmetic since there is a 15 percent threshold for delegates, although five candidates bunched together is possible.  Additionally, particularly if Biden’s support fades in Iowa, South Carolina with very different demographics could have an especially important impact in making its own choice.  In any case, the race is far from over but the field of seventeen candidates is shrinking rapidly to a far smaller group that has any real argument for viability.  The November debate may be the last opportunity for the second tier to move up, and will certainly clarify message and positioning within the first tier of candidates.


Big Structural Change

Increasingly, the Democratic presidential nomination seems a battle between former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Senator Bernie Sanders impacts the race but with scant signs of growth in his support.  Senator Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg still hold on to smaller constituencies, with life in other candidacies, including Senators Booker and Klobuchar, and with flashes of passion from former Congressman O’Rourke. 

There is still time for another candidate to emerge but the race has remained in near stasis as summer has turned to fall. 

The two leaders – Biden and Warren – are the two candidates who have presented the clearest rationales for their candidacy.  Biden fundamentally promises a return to the Obama years and Warren pledges big structural change.  The latter is making some observers nervous, resulting in a spate of polls that show general election voters are not yet ready to embrace big structural change.

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a plurality of non-Democratic primary voters supporting smaller scale policy changes and majority opposition to some of Warren’s policy proposals.  The centrist Democratic organization Third Way presents data that voters want a more centrist approach on health care rather than Medicare for all.  CNN continues to show that voters prefer a candidate who can defeat Trump over one with whom they agree on the issues, which may be a false choice if they can have both.   

There are many reasons to be anxious about the 2020 election.  The stakes are extraordinarily high, we are now in an impeachment process, and, with over a year to go, many factors are simply unknowable, including the progress of Democratic candidates as they move toward the nomination and the general election, the erratic behavior of the president, and the potential for corruption of the process.

I am not, however, concerned about Warren’s articulation of the need for big structural change.  Here’s why:

  •  Warren has left herself a lot of room to define the nature of structural change.  The words establish her as the change candidate, and as a clear contrast to Biden’s return to the recent past.  As the leading woman candidate, and a Biden alternative, she would represent change in any case. Embracing that positioning seems smart and many of her proposed policies, like increasing taxes on the super wealthy, are in fact broadly popular.
  • Warren has the capacity to be a reform candidate. She is financing her campaign differently than the other candidates, and she is undaunted by demands of both big corporate interests and the super-wealthy. For the 30 years I was in polling, messaging of standing up to big corporate interests to bring change has been a strong elixir. Back in 1990, in polling for the late Senator Wellstone (who, for the record, was always clear he didn’t listen to his polling), 72 percent of Minnesotans said the problem in Congress was more that its members listened to special interests than that problems were beyond government solution. Similar results have replicated in the interim but few candidates can authentically articulate the message. Despite two Pinocchios from the Washington Post, Warren is uniquely able to articulate that her presidency would listen and respond to people and not to special interests (hopefully combined with a plan for economic growth and small business development). Genuine reform in how we conduct business in Washington would be big structural change.
  • Voters will likely be more interested in the results than in the process of change.  Warren has a variety of plans – and ways of paying for them that do not require tax increases on the middle class.  Voters favor lower health care costs, more accessible post-secondary education, more economic opportunity, fair treatment and fair pay in the work place, and Warren is talking about these issues.  Voters are not – at this point – ready to embrace Medicare for all but they may also understand that it won’t happen unless they do and there are interim steps in the process they may endorse moving forward. 
  • The impeachment process may change the context.  On the downside, it may make Washington and Congress look even more partisan and angry.  On the upside, it may focus discussion of the threats of the Trump presidency.  Democrats have so many complaints about Trump that our attacks are like spam – diverse, diffuse, and occasionally obscure to some people.  That he represents a threat to national security and to the electoral process in which people choose their own leaders can become central to arguments against him.  In either case, the process may spur greater interest in change from business as usual in Washington even if the desire for change encompasses both parties.     

None of this discussion should suggest I do not have anxieties about the leading candidates.  My principal anxiety about Warren is whether she will appear the Harvard professor who needs to be the smartest in the room, or whether she is the woman of blue collar roots motivated by instincts of caregiving and reform.  Candidate imagery and gender interact, and I am sure her campaign is well aware of the image downsides of being the “Smart Girl.”  As for Biden, his strength is in a perception that he is a known quantity and a decent man, who represents little that is radical or risky.  Other than gaffes that can undermine perceived steadiness, I worry that he will not connect with younger voters whose heightened participation is essential to prevent this electorate from being older than the 2016 electorate, a demographic change that would favor Trump.        

Additionally, Sanders may garner more support than I am crediting him with here and others may emerge.  There is room for both to happen.  A three or four candidate late field can spur another anxiety:  that no one have a majority of delegates going into the convention. 

I am not, however, anxious that Warren is the candidate of big change.  If the country moves from Trump to Warren, it will be a big change – in structure, process, and result. 

Shortly after the 2016 election, I had lunch with a colleague whom I respect.  I noted that in politics as well as physics, for every action there is a reaction.  We went from a brilliant, erudite President who believed in meritocracy to the current incumbent.  The next wave, I suggested, could bring big change.  Maybe, my colleague responded, but we are in for a whole lot of hurt in the meantime.  His prediction was correct.  We will see if mine was as well.    

Some questions for post-Labor Day Polls

I suspect we will see a spate of new polls fielding after Labor Day.  I am hoping they ask some questions beyond the horse race that tell us more about what voters are thinking around the Democratic presidential contest.  Here are some suggestions (in no particular order):

Candidate Qualities 

Here are some qualities people might look for in the candidate they ultimately support for President.  On a scale of 1 to 7, please tell me how important each one is to you, with a 1 meaning not important at all and a 7 meaning it is the most important quality.  (READ AND RANDOMIZE)

  • Can beat Trump in November
  • Shows compassion for people
  • Knows what they want to do as President
  • Would bring the country together
  • Would make significant policy changes
  • Has a new approach to governing
  • Will protect individual rights and freedoms
  • Will promote economic opportunity
  • Has the wisdom of experience
  • Will advance equality and anti-racism

Which of these qualities – or some other quality – is most important to you of all?


We know voters care about whether a candidate can beat Trump but we don’t know what qualities make a candidate stronger in their views.  How about a couple questions, like:

How important are each of these in telling you a candidate can defeat Trump in November, using a scale of 1 to 7 with a 1 meaning it is not important at all and a 7 meaning it the most important quality?  (READ AND ROTATE)

Is there another quality that is important in telling you a candidate can win?

  • Tough and willing to fight
  • Has moderate issue positions
  • Popularity with Trump voters
  • Inspires young people
  • Relates to diverse communities
  • Leads Trump in the polls
  • Likeable and appealing

Thinking about your friends and neighbors, if the Democratic candidate is a woman, will that make them more or less likely to turn out and support that candidate in November, or won’t it make any difference to them?

Thinking about your friends and neighbors, if the Democratic candidate is over age 75, will that make them more or less likely to turn out and support that candidate in November, or won’t it make any difference to them?

Thinking about your friends and neighbors who are uncomfortable with Trump, do you think they are looking more for a return to the pre-Trump years or more for new policies that will bring change?


What issues are most important to you in the 2020 election? (Open-end, multiple response)

If we elect a Democratic president in 2020, which of the following should be their top priority in their first term: (READ AND ROTATE)

  • Climate change
  • Affordable health care
  • Access to post-secondary education
  • Infrastructure like roads and bridges
  • Higher wages
  • Immigration reform
  • Criminal justice reform
  • Other (specify)

When it comes to health care, which would do more to expand access to quality affordable care – (ROTATE)  a public option in which voters can choose government-administered insurance OR Medicare for all in which everyone is in a government-administered insurance program (with response options for neither as well as don’t know)?

(IF CHOICE) Would that system be much better, somewhat better, somewhat worse, or much worse than the current system?

If there is a Democratic president, how likely is it that the proposal will become law in the next five years – very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely, or not at all likely?

The Horse Race Question

I have been concerned that asking about 20 people in phone polls flattens choices because people can only hold seven plus or minus two item in short term memory.  Consider asking the horse race in groups of 5 to 7 candidates – preferably randomizing sets although it is also tempting to ask the top 7 together.  Then add a question like:

You indicated candidates A, B, and C were your top choices within the groups I gave you.  Which of these is your first choice among all the candidates?    

Is that the candidate you would most like to see as President or the candidate you feel can best win?  (Code for volunteered both)

Vote History

Most public polls are asking how likely people are to vote in the primary or caucus in their state.  Consider asking whether they voted in the 2016 contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and for whom they voted.

The question allows analysis of how large a primary electorate you are polling and what the standing is among those most likely of all to participate, as they have done so historically.  It will also say where the support for these two candidates is going. 


Basic demographics are fine, but also consider asking whether they live in a county that supported Clinton or Trump in 2016, as these voters may have different perspectives from each other.

# # #

Questions like these would say more about what voters are looking for in the next president (other than that he or she is not Trump).  Crosstabs of questions like these by candidate preference might also provide more insight as to why voters are making the initial choices they are, and how the contest may evolve.

Liberal Elite Is Not a Hyphenated Term

There is much discussion lately about how some Democratic candidates may be “too liberal” to win.  That term needs disambiguation. 

First, “too liberal” may be about policy: if a candidate will raise voters’ taxes and spend money in ways they do not believe benefit them, they may be judged “too liberal.” Second, candidates may express liberal social values that voters believe are out of step with their own. Often, however, too liberal is a euphemism for a candidate who appears to disrespect the way people live their lives and the struggles they face. A candidate is “too liberal” if they appear too elite. Arguably the third of these – elitism – has been more of a problem for Democrats than the first two.

Some things to watch out for:

The Politics of Pandan

Shortly after the 2016 election, I had a lovely dinner at a French-Asian fusion restaurant with my friend Ed.  The food was terrific and we ended the meal sharing chocolate encrusted Pandan Cheesecake, which cost about $12.  It was delicious.  Since we were not familiar with pandan, we asked the server about it, who extolled its subtle vanilla-like flavor, bright green color, and widespread use in Indonesian cuisine.  When the server walked away, Ed turned to me and said, “That conversation we just had, that’s why we lost the election.”

Ed had a point. 

Pandan cheesecake consumption reveals disposable income and foodie tastes. It may also show a tendency to waste money – a lot of people think it wasteful to pay $12 for an individual exotic dessert when you can get a whole frozen Sarah Lee cheesecake at Walmart here in Jackson for $4.98.

On its own, the waste may be excusable.  Until pandan-eaters start to make fun of Sarah Lee aficionados on social media.

Donald Trump is not a pandan guy.  His lack of elite tastes are an asset to him.  Especially when the pandan-eaters make fun of his putting ketchup on his well-done steak, his swoop-over hair, and the ill-fitting tuxedo he wore at dinner with the Queen.  

Just cut it out. Stick to how Trump’s policies hurt people and damage the country.  Excise from conversation any notion that elite tastes rule – or should. 

In a democracy, Ivy League grads are not better than those whose last degree was from their local community college.  Those who vacation on Martha’s Vineyard are not better than those who go up to the lake.  And pandan-eaters are not in charge of devotees of Sarah Lee. 

Victims and Executioners

Adding to a confessional of my own tastes, I acknowledge that Albert Camus’ essays on being neither victims nor executioners are core to my world view. Camus wrote that, “In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, not to be on the side of the executioners.” (He wrote it in French. I don’t read French.)

Generally, liberals are not on the side of executioners, but there are more victims and more executioners than many acknowledge. 

I have never polled the question of whether people believe they have been the victim of the arbitrary and unfair exercise of power, but I suspect just about everyone has felt a victim of that experience.    There are the patterns of discrimination – systemic racism and sexism – but also the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracies and bosses, and the feeling of being unheard, misheard, or misunderstood by people who have power over you.      

Some of the ways people are treated unfairly have policy remedies – I wish Democrats would discuss the overtime rules more than they do – but others are just there.  People are not looking to elected leadership for redress of all the ways life is unfair.  Still, it would behoove leaders to recognize and acknowledge that life is unfair for almost everyone. 

A whole lot more people face executioners and warrant support than we often recognize. When we fail to acknowledge them and their struggles, we risk their choosing – when they have the chance – to become executioners themselves.

Zero Tolerance          

I am generally uncomfortable with the idea of zero tolerance – it proscribes a world without ambiguity or exceptions – even when zero tolerance is for unambiguously bad behaviors like hate speech, drunk driving, and unwanted touching. Vaunting the idea of zero tolerance can take a judgment designed to protect a victim, and turn it into an act of execution.

I would like to think, for example, that all men will respect all women all of the time and never treat them as objects. After all, the Bible says (Matthew 5:28) “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Former President Jimmy Carter, a man who knows his Bible, acknowledged to Playboy Magazine that he had committed “lust in his heart many times.” It happens. Among all genders, binary and non-binary.

Racist images are common among white Americans.  Almost everyone has unfairly treated someone as “the other.” Or made an assumption about skill or character based on appearance.

Oppose bad behaviors that make people victims. Declare that hate speech, drunk driving, and unwanted touching are wrong. But it is a political and arguably a moral error to decide that those who have practiced a bad behavior should be the objects of zero tolerance. Argue, persuade, point out the error of their ways – and prosecute them when a crime is committed. Don’t make people the victims of zero tolerance in the name of tolerance. Only the very few who are entirely guilt-free will respond to that.

# # #

So what does all this have to do with Medicare for All?  

I don’t know if people are willing to risk losing something they have for something that may be better. It requires a leap of faith. I know they will not trust someone whom they perceive as elitist or who fails to recognize that people are nervous about the exercise of power, which in their experience is rarely benign.

The perception that Joe Biden is more electable than Elizabeth Warren is in part because he does not have the image of being a pandan-eater.  And he certainly knows that life is unfair. 

Elizabeth Warren, whose biography to a point is less elite than his, can gain on trust and empathy over the next five months. If she does make those gains, the policy nuances of Medicare for All versus a public option seem unlikely to be dispositive in a November match-up that includes either of these candidates.

Don’t just poll – research!

Political practitioners too often see polls and focus groups as the automatic choices for political research.  Polling tells you about aggregate attitudes.  Strategic reliance on polling grew with dependence on television – a medium that used to reach most everyone and so aggregate attitudes and message receptivity made sense. 

In the internet age, the strategic balance is shifting to more targeted research and a more diverse array of message options. 

Here are some traditional research goals and some new (and old) approaches:

Exploratory research

One goal of almost any campaign is to avoid generic messaging.  If you want voters to think your candidate understands the unique problems of their region, the first step is to learn about those problems. In a national campaign, that can mean speaking to the dairy crisis in Wisconsin or the historic importance of the glass industry in Toledo. 

Local political conversation remains a basic.  Meanwhile, Google Trends can provide localized search data, voter file analysis combined with Census data can tell you the demographics and partisanship of who votes and who does not.  Sophisticated modeling like that of the Peoria Project can say a lot about people’s political attitudes and interests and the breakdown of Google affinity groups can say a lot about people’s non-political interests.   

Message Development:  The Core Argument

Review the candidate’s records against what you have learned about voters.  The core argument is almost always that your candidate will represent people’s interests and the other candidate will represent someone else – be that partisan interests, special interests, or an ideology (although most voters say philosophy) that is alien to people.  Alternatively, you can argue your opponent has a character flaw but these days a lot of voters think most politicians have character flaws, so it better be an egregious flaw.    

If you know the turf, have analyzed the available voter info, and read information on each candidate, the likely core arguments logically follow. On the presidential level, for example, Pete Buttigieg has to develop generational change as an argument. Joe Biden must run on his experience and the comfort of familiarity. Should either become the nominee, they will have different contrasts with Trump.  Already, Buttigieg articulates that we can’t continue the way we are while Biden promises a return to the balanced decency and rationalism of the recent past. Much is baked into who they are. The same is true in a local race. The candidate defines the message.

Message Development: The Media Mix 

Here’s where there are a lot of new opportunities in the internet age.  You can’t have a different core argument in different media; but you have more options for how to express the argument  than ever before.

Let’s take a congressional example:    

Your candidate is running against a Republican incumbent who has opposed funding an array of programs that would put money in this single media market district.  The district includes the city of Townville and surrounding rural counties. It tilts Republican and is predictably fiscally conservative as people figure that government money goes to someone else.

From exploratory research, you know a rural hospital is of danger of closing, local stores and the Family Dollar store have closed in small towns, and tariffs are hurting farmers, each of which can be tied to incumbent votes or statements opposing ACA, opposing online sales taxes and so helping Amazon, and supporting Trump economic policies.  The consequences, however, allow localized messaging that the incumbent has let bad things happen in the district.

You also want to make sure that voters who turn out for the presidential race in Townville vote down ballot. 

You are going to need a television ad that establishes a basic argument that your guy is going to put the people of the local area first, and not fall in with what party bosses tell him to do in Washington.  It should likely reinforce that he won’t waste their money on things that don’t help them. (It will be less generic than that because your candidate will be a person with a history and personality.)

Polling to sort through some options may be appropriate at this stage but instead of testing “message” paragraphs, you might look instead simply for what bothers people most, since your paragraphs will never translate directly to ads and can lead to swing voters terminating the poll as they get annoyed by them.

Then you have a lot to work with on specific executions that can reinforce each other as appropriate in television, mail, and online.  Start with online testing because it is easiest to do.  You are now looking at executions of varying content, but also varying tone and style.  

Message Testing

Your creative team is not limited to a 30 second format but can use a longer-form story, a metaphor, or a meme.  They can show how your candidate’s spouse has to drive farther for groceries since Family Dollar closed or how ambulance response times will increase if the hospital closes.   

As long as the ads are under the message umbrella, and sensitive to what you know from affinity group and other analyses of the district’s interests from Google, Facebook and other sources, the team can develop an array of options.

Internet ads can be self-testing.  It is easy to see what engages interest – either through clicks, viewership, or by varying search terms.  Conduct brand-lift surveys.  Such surveys are a standard for commercial advertisers – asking one question, exposing someone to an ad, and asking a follow up question later to test movement.  Brand-lift surveys can and should be conducted within affinity groups or whatever targeting scheme you will employ, or they can help you choose internet targets.

You can also design your own experiments:  If you are canvassing, expose some people to one message and others to another.  Gauge their reaction.  You can also contact them a few days later and see what they retain and how their attitudes may have changed. Add to your canvassing script what people have heard lately, and you will have another measure of what is breaking through as advertising begins.  (Don’t ask them to recall the medium – people are not very good at that.) 

The end result should be a mix of messages, measured for effectiveness within affinity groups or other online targets.  Television and mail can overlap with internet messaging and some internet messaging may stand alone as it impacts a discrete group only (like efforts to reach Democratic Presidential voters in Townville).


The final historic purpose of polls is to predict the outcome of the race.  Conduct tracking polls if you want, but they won’t guide your final resource targeting online because the sample size will be insufficient and your targets are generally behavioral not demographic.  Analysis of the canvassing stream will help as you monitor what people are hearing.  Tailored analytics can tell you whether you are above or below partisanship among people who are principally streaming online or are more traditional in their media habits, and by attitudinal groups as available.    

Currently, most analytic efforts are too divorced from campaign strategy to help but that will likely change as campaign practitioners see the broader uses for analytics and as analytics professionals are better integrated into the strategic discussions of campaigns. 

In any case, there are new tools available designed for the internet age.  Polling is not about targeted online communications. These days television alone will not reach everyone, and it misses opportunities for tailored messaging about issues that touch people’s lives.

Is Joe Biden the most electable Democrat? Maybe – but maybe not…

Joe Biden’s lead in the Democratic primary field apparently rests on the three legged stool of long-standing familiarity, appreciation particularly among older African American voters as President Obama’s trusted second, and a perception that he is more electable than other Democrats. 

Electability is not actually a testable proposition as the Democrats will have only one nominee who will win or lose.  Still, the concept of electability is important to voters and thus worth examining.

Biden’s perceived electability may rest in part on his having been part of a winning national ticket.  But as Natalie Jackson pointed out in the Huffington Post, of the nine Vice Presidents who ran without first acceding to the office on the death of the President, only three have won.  George H.W. Bush was the most recent Vice President to win, then Richard Nixon, although he lost before he won.  Before Nixon, you have to go back to Martin Van Buren to find an example of a Vice President who won election without becoming an incumbent first (Vice Presidents Elected President). 

Blue collar appeal – or the avoidance of elitism and its imagery – will certainly be important in the 2020 election, given the states needed for an Electoral College win. Biden has a reputation for appealing to blue collar voters, although the evidence seems largely anecdotal.  He grew up in a blue collar family but such roots are not unique in the field. They are shared by at least Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.  Others grew up in families that were far from wealthy. Several are the children of school teachers or of a single parent who struggled financially.  It is not a field of elites.   

Here are some other considerations where Biden may not reach parity with others in the field:

A Referendum or a Choice:  One of the most fundamental framings of an election is whether it is a referendum on the incumbent or a more lateral choice between the contenders.  The Democratic nominee will be the challenger to an unpopular incumbent.  Democrats should be advantaged if the election is a referendum on Trump. 

Biden may be the best positioned to make the campaign a referendum because he is more moderate, has lower negatives (at least now), and is a comparatively comfortable choice for many. 

There is, however, a risk that the electorate is not in the mood for such a referendum election.  They may want to know what is next on raising wages, lowering health care costs, making America safer, healing divisions, and changing the way we do politics.

Biden may have answers on all of those issues, but his long record can be a hindrance in saying that he will bring more positive change than the country experienced in the Obama administration.  As popular as President Obama is, the demand for change may exceed the nostalgia for him.

A Different Electorate.  If the electorate were similar to the 2016 electorate, a return to the Obama years might be enough.  The 2018 election saw enough dissatisfaction with Trump, and enough change in turnout patterns with higher Democratic and lower Republican participation, that it is tempting to simply try to carry the 2012 – or 2018 – election forward.   

The electorate seems unlikely to be a mere extension of the last two elections, however.  The eligible electorate will have more voters of color, especially voters of Hispanic origin, and it will be older, absent a shift in turnout that increases the number of younger people who participate. (Pew: An Early Look at the 2020 Electorate).

The 2020 electorate promises to be larger than the 2016 electorate.  The Trump campaign and its allies are already spending millions online to find people who have not voted before or voted irregularly whose participation they can compel.  Emotion on the Democratic side likely means higher turnout organically – and presumably Democratic efforts to expand the electorate will eventually match Republican efforts.

Still, an electorate that is more Democratic than 2016 likely depends on turnout, particularly among younger voters who have the most room for turnout growth.  It may be that an anti-Trump message will compel turnout, but it would also be useful to have messaging and a candidate who can optimize that young voter participation. 

Biden does not appear the best candidate to motivate younger voters.  Younger candidates, particularly Pete Buttigieg and Julian Castro are speaking to generational change, while Jay Inslee is making climate change – an issue particularly compelling to young voters – central to his campaign, and Elizabeth Warren is speaking to student debt and child care issues, which resonate with younger voters. 

Indeed, on the message level, several other candidates seem to have stronger youth appeal than Vice President Biden.   

Anti-Partisan Voters.  Swing voters by definition are not locked into a party – that is part of what makes them swing voters – and the voters who supported both Obama and Trump fall into this category.  Biden seems to be betting that they will like bi-partisanship, and speaks to his historic civility with Republicans. 

Many swing (and third party) voters, do not like either political party and are more interested in non-partisanship than bi-partisanship.  They are looking less for politicians to “reach across the aisle” (a term they often do not understand) than for leaders to be separate from either party.  That is a tougher case for Biden who has lived party politics, than for those like Governors and Mayors who have some separation from the hyper-partisanship of Washington, or those who are newer to politics than Biden is. 

Swing voters tend to be younger than average and are disproportionately women.  Biden may not be ideally positioned to motivate either young voters or women voters who are mistrustful of politicians of either party.  There are white, blue collar, older men who voted for President Obama and for Trump, but not very many and they are unlikely to be the core swing vote, as opposed to younger women without college experience – across ethnic lines – who are low or moderate propensity voters.     

# # #

The first test of electability is whether a candidate will be nominated.  Biden has the lead right now in most polls, although the size of the lead depends on assumptions about the shape of the electorate.  Biden is stronger among older Democrats than younger Democrats, and seems especially strong among older African American voters. 

Biden seems for many Democrats to be the safe choice at a time when defeating Trump is Priority One. The problem is that playing it safe may not be the best winning strategy.

The first test for some of the contenders with apparent advantages among younger voters, is whether they can motivate their participation in the early primaries and caucuses.  If so, they have more room to overtake Biden.  In showing their capacity to attract younger voters, they may also take away his electability argument.

Women and Electability – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I argued that there is no solid reason to consider women less electable than men in the 2020 Presidential contest.  Women candidates do need to grapple, however, with four areas that may create misconceptions of their potential.  First is implicit bias, second is the nature of leadership archetypes (and negative stereotypes), and third is the management of the strong value among women voters of caregiving and the “Caregiver” archetype.  Finally, there is the differing nature of media coverage of women candidates.  None of these are barriers but they are considerations for women candidates and those observing them.

1.    Association and Implicit Bias.  One reason men may be currently considered more electable is simply how often they have been elected.  Older men look more like the panoply of former Presidents than women do, even though men have given up both the wig of our first president and the mutton chops of many.  People are more used to seeing men in leadership positions and so they associate men and leadership qualities.

Both academic and popular research shows that people have stronger associations with men and leadership qualities than with women and leadership qualities.  Such “implicit bias” is not necessarily unconscious and it does not necessarily project behavior.  In fact, there is some academic literature lately that suggests it does not predict behavior.  Still, there is such bias. 

To measure yours, the American Association of University Women has provided a test on line.  It is anonymous and instructive:  AAUW Implicit Association Test of Gender Bias.   Implicit bias is not a barrier because at a time when people may want change – and perhaps big, structural change, as one candidate promises, such associations may not matter, or perhaps even underline the change a woman might bring. 

2.   Archetypes and Negative Stereotypes.  At a deeper level than the associations shown in implicit bias tests, there is leadership imagery that is sometimes more male than female. Jungian psychology introduced the idea that we share unconscious ideas, often gender-associated.  Thirty years ago, Robert L. Moore and Douglas Gillette wrote King, Warrior, Magician, Lover about the archetypes of mature men (as opposed to other archetypes like “the Trickster,” who survives challenges through trickery and deceit, which may remind you of someone). 

The use of archetypes for communications and branding is recounted in Margaret Mark and Carol Pearson’s classic book, The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands through the Power of Archetypes.  Their work helped establish Nike as “the hero” brand, and Apple as “the magician.” 

Some archetypes are more gender-laden than others.  The King is certainly a gender-based term (and the Queen has different associations), as is the “Everyman” or “Regular Joe” that their book discusses. There are, however, women Warriors, Magicians, and Sages, which are among the highly desirable leadership archetypes, in mythology, in history and in popular culture.

The shadow (a Jungian term too) of the Queen archetype bears watching. There we find negative stereotypes like the manipulative “Queen Bee” who destroys other women while the men work for her; the Queen with her clique of Mean Girls so well-profiled by the movie of that name; the Bossy Beyatch (to use the more acceptable colloquialism), and her sister the “Angry Woman,” with the latter two carrying qualities less acceptable for women than for men.      

Another archetype, the Innocent, is not inherently negative but not what voters want in a President.  Children and some women are perceived as The Innocent and we do not want a President who is untutored in the ways of the world. 

The “Good Girl” or “Daddy’s Girl” archetype is more likeable but follows status quo authority a little too much rather than bringing change, and generally follows men rather than aligning equally with other women.

The “Victim” archetype is also not a desirable President.  The victim feels powerless and blames others for their predicament.  There is a fine line for women leaders in talking about discrimination against women and sounding like they believe women – perhaps including them – are victims.  The President of the United States should show compassion for victims but should never be a victim.

3.  The Caregiver.    One of the biggest challenges for women candidates is integrating one of the most powerful, positive – and generally female – archetypes:  The Caregiver.  The Caregiver is compassionate, generous, thoughtful and kind.  It is reputedly part of the branding of Campbell’s Soup, Johnson & Johnson, and McDonald’s – with billions and billions sold.  

Women identify with caregiving.  In a survey I conducted for a client many years ago, nearly 70 percent of women voters said caregiving was one of their most important values.  The importance of caregiving is presumably why George W. Bush modified his declaration of being a conservative with the word “compassionate.”

Women candidates – despite their self-evident ambition and aggression – generally have advantages on compassion, as they do on issues associated with it like health care.  Failing to display Caregiver qualities can alienate other women, who value caregiving in themselves and in leaders. The challenge is in nurturing the caregiver, which almost all successful women candidates do, without appearing to be the Innocent or the “Good Girl.” 

Part of the answer for women candidates in balancing strength and compassion is to define who and what they fight for:  in the mythological world from which archetypes derive, the male fights to be the Alpha male; to win the competition for its own sake.  The woman or female fights to protect her cubs (if she is a lioness or a bear), or her children, family or community. The behavior may look the same but the motivation is different.  

Note that if she fights for victims, then you have to see yourself as a victim to believe she fights for you – and most people do not see themselves that way – and even fewer want to be a victim.  The strong Caregiver fights for what she loves to make it stronger.  The Caregiver is not patronizing.

4.  Media Bias.  Others have written about how the media cover men and women differently and how some men candidates do the same (Suzanna Danuta Walters Washington Post Op Ed).  I do think the coverage is more balanced than it has been in the past and some in the press clearly make a conscious effort to diversify their sources.  Still, the reality remains that most of the press corps covering the presidential campaign and reporting it on television are men, and, indeed, white men.  The media need to understand and give women candidates’ credit for messaging and strategies that incorporate gender differences – women candidates and their strategies are not supposed to be just like men’s. I hope the press talk to more women – and many more people of color – who live outside the bubble of punditry about what they hear the candidates saying, and what they are listening for.  The perspective is likely to be different, but also more reflective of the majority of voters.

# # #

It is still 230 days until the Iowa Caucuses when the first votes are cast.  The electorate in Iowa will very likely be larger and younger than eight years ago, and in other states it will be larger, younger, and more ethnically and racially diverse than in the past.  In every state, the majority of the primary electorate will be female. 

In what may be a historically large primary and general election, pollsters don’t quite know who to talk to – and not everyone wants to talk to pollsters.  The best anyone can do at this point is to reach out to the extent they can, and be aware that the dynamics of gender, race, ethnicity – and generation – are changing the electorate in ways that may be difficult to predict.  The picture may look similar in seven months.  Or it may be very different, indeed. 

Women and Electability – Part 1

Punditry has focused lately on Democratic voters’ desire for an electable presidential candidate with the suggestion that the electability criterion biases them against women candidates.  Some of the discussion has been silly:  The random Bernie Sanders staffer declaring with more arrogance than evidence that Senator Elizabeth Warren is unelectable; the challenger the popular Mayor of Duluth, Minnesota announcing that voters don’t want a Mommy (which likely helped Mayor Emily Larson as I hear there are many Mommies in Duluth).  On the other side, any number of women have tweeted that individual women presidential candidates have never lost an election, clear proof of nothing at all especially as our last Democratic president had been through the learning experience of an electoral loss.   

The problem is not punditry alone.  Voters, also, are uncertain that a woman is equally electable as a man (Pew Study on Women in Leadership), which may make the matter somewhat relevant to which candidate they choose. I say only somewhat because I question whether electability will matter as much – or be framed the same way – as we all get closer to actual voting.  Further, Iowa prospective caucus attendees have now told the Des Moines Register poll that women may have a very slight advantage over men in defeating Trump.   

The reality is that there has not been a test of whether women, writ large, are less electable.  In the one circumstance in which a major party nominated a woman, she lost.  Further, she lost to someone many women believe is an embodiment of toxic masculinity. That experience may have created doubt but not a reality.

The loss of one woman in a particular election year is insufficient data to draw the conclusion that women are less electable.  The 2016 election had unique dynamics that will not replicate in 2020.  Hillary Clinton was an imperfect candidate (as all candidates are) and had a complex individual history (as all candidates do).  She is not a generic woman – and neither is anyone else.  Additionally, she won the popular vote and narrowly missed an Electoral College win (by some 70,000 votes) across three states.  Since the 2016 election, Michigan elected Gretchen Whitmer Governor, Wisconsin re-elected Tammy Baldwin Senator, and Pennsylvania sent four new women to Congress in a national wave that elected more women than ever before.   

Indeed, the 2018 election results suggest that interest in increasing women’s political leadership role has continued unabated and perhaps has grown.  Polling, including the Pew study cited above, suggest that voters want to increase the number of women in leadership and believe women generally work harder, are more compassionate, and perhaps more honest than men.  These advantages are stronger among women voters who are not only a majority of the electorate but the overwhelming majority of the Democratic primary electorate.  The first stage to being elected is being nominated.   

Having a woman head of state is still rarer than not – most countries have never elected a woman.  More than 50 (59 is the most recent figure I could find) have done so, however.  Sri Lanka led the way in 1960.  Currently, there are women heads of state in every continent except Antarctica and here in North America. 

Despite the growth in women’s political leadership it would not be intellectually honest to argue the advantages for men have been eradicated.  Some advantages for men candidates rest in institutional support and most certainly in the nature of media coverage (See Jess McIntosh and Alexandra Rojas on CNN).  There are also differences in how men and women are perceived and how those perceptions interact with campaign messages for women candidates.

Next week, I will launch the second part of this post which looks at some of those differences.  

A Consumer Guide to Polls

I have tweeted that many of the public polls are “flawed and meaningless,” which was a bit hyperbolic on my part.  It was born of frustration with the high number and lower quality of polls and their own tendency toward hyperbolic analysis and over-prediction. So here are some more considered thoughts, using more than 280 characters.  

There is no such thing as a perfect poll.  If there were, it would include only people who are going to vote in the election of interest, and the sample would match their demographics precisely, both overall and within subgroups.  That won’t happen because there is no way of knowing exactly who will vote – voters don’t yet know if they will – and while the pollster can work at getting the demographics right, there is always the chance that they are not, or that samples are affected by response bias.   

That said, not all polls are created equal.  Some are conducted responsibly and analyzed thoroughly, with the pollster applying their own skeptical and analytic oversight in reporting the results.  Other polls are “quick and dirty” with less caution in sampling and an analysis that seems to stop at the top lines. 

Here are some things to look for to separate the better ones from those that are fundamentally flawed.

The Sample.  No one knows exactly who is going to vote.  Voters can tell you whether they currently think they will but they are not very accurate about that.  Campaign pollsters usually use a model based on vote history, which means they are pretty sure they are talking to likely voters but may also exclude some people who are new to the electorate.  Most public polls use a random sample and self-report, which is more inclusive but often more inclusive than reality. 

Only about 58 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2016 general election and 28 percent in the primaries (across both parties).  Democratic turnout may be higher in 2020 but when a poll includes all adults and reports that 47 percent of those who are registered are likely to vote in the Democratic primary, something is likely wrong.  (And not all states require advance registration so that screen alone introduces a small bias.)

Consumers of polling should make a judgment about how good a job the pollster did finding the electorate of interest before considering the results.

Demographics.   We know the demographics of who has voted in the past (using voter file analysis) and chances are who will vote in the future is roughly similar, although how similar is a matter of conjecture.  Roughly half of Democratic primary voters are of color, and they are more female and have more formal education than average. In the past, Democratic primary voters have been older than average although millennial participation increased in 2018 and may in the 2020 primaries (   A poll of primary voters that matches overall census demographics is very likely wrong.  A poll that doesn’t consider the potential for turnout shifts is over-confident.

Data Weighting.   These days nearly all polls weight by demographics because different groups of voters have different probabilities of responding to polls (although there are stratification procedures in sampling that minimize the need for weighting, few public polls use them).  A procedure called “raking” weights the data to expected demographics.  How finely honed those demographic goals are can impact the sample in unexpected ways.  An initial sample that is low on African Americans and on young voters can double-weight young, African Americans, leading to wrong conclusions about both young people and African Americans.   

Few polls report how much weighting they did or how, which means analysis of subgroups within the electorate can be dicey.  Because younger voters are less likely to complete polls, I generally assume they have been weighted and am more cautious about results by age.  (My former firm used to stratify by age to minimize weighting – but that is an expensive process.) 

Days in the Field.  One way to get a better demographic distribution with less weighting is to stay in field longer and try each prospective respondent multiple times.  Be wary of polls that fielded only a day or two, especially if all the calling was on a weekend.  Chances are the data are weighted extra-heavily because it takes longer to get a more representative sample.

Decidedness.  Campaign polls usually ask something like, “Are you certain you will support that candidate or do you think you might change your mind?”  When you interrupt someone’s evening to ask whom they support for President, they may give you an answer they believe is a firm commitment, or they may just pick the candidate they know best or have heard about most recently.  Some measure of certainty is useful.  It is rare to see most supporters certain of their choice until the closing weeks. 

Additionally, Mark Blumenthal presented work at the AAPOR conference showing that news events can create polling response bias. If someone has been in the news recently, their supporters may be more willing to complete your poll.

Relevance.  By the time I vote on March 10, 2020, the field of candidates will be different – many of the current 23 will likely have suspended their campaigns and there could be new entries still.  The current preferences of voters in later states is not, I would submit, terribly relevant to the process that will winnow candidates before they get to the later states. 

The dialogue of the race may also change.  Voters’ focus on perceived electability may shift with perceptions of Trump’s fortunes or simply as voters know the candidates and the differences among them better. 

In any case, national polls of primary voters have odd samples as the rules are different state by state.  They also are imposing simultaneous responses on a sequential process.  

Prediction.  Polls don’t predict.  It is a cliché – but still true – that they are “snapshots in time.”   The “horse race” alone is the more-or-less casual preference of someone who may or may not have given the matter much thought, given that they will not act on their preference for at least eight months. 

Analysis of other data allows some cautious hypotheses – candidates who are less known have more room for growth; candidates whom voters actively oppose surely have less. 

A Pop Quiz.  Given all of this, which of the following statements about the Democratic primary election is most likely true?

  1.  Joe Biden is the front runner.
  2.  Joe Biden has almost 40 percent of the vote.
  3.  Polls consistently show Biden with more early support than other candidates.
  4.  We know nothing at all about any of this yet.

I would submit that #3 is true – Biden has more early support than others – but what that will mean for eight months from now – or a year from now – is a matter of conjecture.  Voters like Joe Biden but others have more room for growth.  Polls, however, should not create self-fulfilling prophecies or false narratives. 

I am going to find the election very interesting to watch. I really don’t have firm predictions on how it will develop.  To me, that’s what makes it interesting.