Trump, Covid-19, and the Rally ‘Round The Flag Phenomenon

As the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases goes up, so too does President Trump’s approval rating.  This is not a coincidence. As of today, the RealClearPolitics “poll of polls” has Trump’s approval at 47.3%, the highest since he took office, and just 2% below his 49.3% disapproval number.  That gap is the smallest it has been since Trump’s inauguration. One week ago, the gap was -7.9%.

RCP “Poll of Polls”

For the denizens of Twitter, and for those whose primary source of news is cable talk shows and editorials in the NYC-Washington DC media axis, the upward trend in Trump’s approval may seem baffling, particularly given their steady drumbeat of stories criticizing the administration’s response to the corona virus. But it shouldn’t be. Trump is benefiting from a “rally ‘round the flag” effect  – the same phenomenon that has boosted support for previous presidents in times of national crisis.  First documented by political scientist John Mueller in a study focusing predominantly on Cold War military events. Mueller’s finding has subsequently been confirmed, and developed, in several additional studies that provide a clearer portrait regarding the basis of the rally effect.

The primary source of this phenomenon is rooted in presidents’ relatively unique position in the American political system. At the most basic level, presidents – as the only elected official with a national constituency – are the closest we have to the individual embodiment of national sovereignty.  The impact of that role is heightened by the fact that in the U.S., the President plays a ceremonial function in additional to his (someday her) partisan political position.  As such, when circumstances threaten the nation’s sovereignty, he benefits from his stature as both political head of government and chief of state by becoming the focal point of public concern about events. 

But the impact of rally events is not felt universally across all members of the public. Matthew Baum finds that the most partisan members of the public are the least likely to respond to a rally event. The reason is that they are the most politically aware, and their  opinions are more likely to exhibit greater ideological constraint, which lessens their likelihood of changing attitudes toward the President in response to events.  More moderate, less politically aware voters, in contrast, are more responsive to the rally event.  Interestingly, Baum finds that partisans are more likely to rally behind a president of the opposing party in response to a unifying event.  The reason is that support from this group has more room to grow, since more of them have a lower opinion of the president to start.

William Baker and Jon O’Neal, meanwhile, find that the rally effect is greater when the President actively solicits support for his action through public statements, and if that action receives bipartisan support. So it is not the event itself so much as the President’s framing of that event, and the reaction among other elites to his framing, that seems to drive the size of the rally response.

We can see, then, why Trump’s approval ratings have gone up.  First, he has appeared on an almost daily basis, often in prime time, to give press conferences documenting his administration’s response to the corona virus. Keep in mind that although that response has been harshly criticized on cable shows, only about 12 million people watch these shows regularly. That is far fewer than the almost 140 million who voted in the 2016 presidential election – most of whom do not use op eds or talk shows as their primary source of political information. 

Moreover, Trump has been flanked at these press conferences by non-partisan medical experts, including Tony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, a physician who previously served as President Obama’s U.S. Global Aids coordinator.  While Trump often uses the events to take jabs at political rivals, and to praise his own administration’s response, most of the information that is transmitted by others at these press gatherings centers on specific policies the administration has taken to combat the virus.  Most people are reacting to the information related to how to combat the virus, rather than the partisan frame in which it is discussed on cable television by Trump and his critics.   

Most importantly, Trump’s policies, if not his framing, have attracted support at all levels of government.  The most visible example is the $2.2 trillion economic relief package, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Trump yesterday.  Despite Trump’s best efforts to step on his own bipartisan message, for now at least he is reaping the benefits of the administration’s highly visible response to the Covid-19 pandemic, one that in its broad outlines is attracting generally positive reviews nationally, as measured by polls. 

Why does it matter if his approval ratings go up? Studies show that as presidents’ popularity increases, so too does their likelihood of winning reelection. For example, Alan Abramowitz’s incumbent-centered election forecast model estimates that Trump will gain about 2.5 electoral votes for every 1% increase in his approval rating, as of the June before the election.  Other forecast models show a similar positive relationship between a president’s approval ratings and his reelection prospects.

Of course, that assumes that Trump’s higher approval ratings will persist until June.  There is good reason to suspect that won’t be the case. George W. Bush received an initial boost in approval after invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  But as the Iraq war dragged on, and U.S. casualties mounted, his support dropped steadily, as shown here.

Bush Rally Events During His First Six Years

More generally, studies document that most rally effects are short-lived, and barring additional events, presidential approval typically reverts to the pre-event level.  In the event of a sustained rise in the death toll caused by the coronavirus during the next several months, one could envision a similar drop in Trump’s approval, particularly if that leads to a renewal of the partisan polarization among political elites that Trump has confronted through most of his first term in office. This is almost certain to happen as the presidential election campaign comes back into focus, and Joe Biden ramps up his attacks on Trump’s handling of the pandemic.  

Note also that the jump in approval Trump is experiencing, while significant, is not as large (as yet) as what other presidents have experienced after rally events.  For comparison purposes, Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley find that highly publicized international incidents of short duration, coupled with a presidential statement explaining the U.S. role in that event, can boost a president’s approval rating by about 8%. (Note that their study predates the increase in party sorting since the 1990’s which may dampen the size of a rally event.)

An additional consideration is how the administration’s response to the coronavirus will impact the economy. Most election forecast models include a measure of aggregate economic performance as one of their explanatory variables.  Abramowitz, for example, finds that a 1% drop in GDP can cost incumbents nearly 20 electoral votes.  Should the economy fall into an extended recession, despite the passage of the stimulus bill, it could very well jeopardize Trump’s reelection chances, assuming past performance is a reliable indicator.

Most forecast models don’t kick in until midway through the election year, or later, so it is far too early to make useful predictions. Moreover, the public response to a a pandemic may not be the same as how it historically has responded to a military incident abroad, or domestic terrorism at home. So we must be cautious in predicting its electoral effects. For now, Trump appears to be benefiting from a rally-‘round-the-flag effect, at least as measured by approval ratings.  Whether, and how long, it will last, remains to be seen. 

The Scene From South Carolina: Part I

After skipping the Nevada caucuses due to teaching obligations (and limited funding) we are back on the campaign trail, spending the last three days in sunny and warm(er) South Carolina leading up to today’s crucial primary vote in the Palmetto state.  Our impression, after attending rallies, and talking to locals, is that this is Joe Biden’s race to lose, but it is an impression based more on what we are not seeing at other candidate rallies rather than overt signs of support for Joe – in fact, we have yet to make a Biden event, although are scheduled to attend what we assume will be his victory party tonight on the South Carolina campus in Columbia.

At this early stage in the race for the Democratic nomination, each contest is viewed as more crucial than the previous one.  But even by these standards, South Carolina is particularly significant.  In 2016, African-Americans made up more than 60% of the Democratic electorate in the Democratic primary here, and it proved the beginning of the end of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy, as the results were the first confirmation that he could not win the black vote; according to exit polls, Sanders received only 14% of the black vote, a pattern that would repeat itself throughout the 2016 campaign.  Unless he can dramatically improve that total today, his candidacy is likely to struggle again, although much depends on whether any other candidate can consolidate the black vote.

Joe Biden, meanwhile, has staked his presidential campaign on winning South Carolina, and doing so decisively by drawing on black voters.  Not surprisingly, his ads down here are narrated by Barack Obama, and they overwhelmingly show him on screen with the former President.  I have been arguing since Biden’s 4th place finish in Iowa, followed by a disappointing 5th place result in New Hampshire,  that pundits are wrong to write his candidacy off, and that we really wouldn’t know until South Carolina just how strong his candidacy is.  At the same time, count me as skeptical that Bernie Sanders, despite his front-runner status, has demonstrated that he can win the Democratic nomination by doing well in states with a substantial population of racial minorities.  So South Carolina is a crucial test for both candidates – one whose importance transcends the 54 delegates at stake (35 allocated across 7 congressional districts, 12 allocated statewide, and 7 superdelegates).  

We started our latest campaign trip by flying from Boston into Charlotte, North Carolina on Thursday night, and driving down for an afternoon lunch on Friday at the Palmetto Pig in Columbia, South Carolina’s capitol, with Tom Steyer.  Steyer has been flooding the airwaves down here with ads, and the RCP poll has him locked in a battle for third place with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg.  Both are trailing Biden, who looks to be consolidating support, and Sanders, who polls suggest  – as in the previous contests – is matching his 2016 performance, but not showing much evidence of expanding it.

The Palmetto Pig also gave us our first opportunity since 2016 to sample South Carolina barbecue, which we have been assured by locals is far superior to anything Texas has to offer.  While Tom worked the small luncheon crowd, we chowed down on fried chicken – saving the barbecue for later – and listened to the locals discuss his candidacy. 

Eventually Tom worked his way to our table, and we noted that we had seen him in New Hampshire art one of his events.  When I jogged his memory by reminding him that we were neighbors with a local climate activist – Steyer’s signature issue is battling climate change – and that our kids attended school together, he immediately referenced the activist’s child’s name.  “You thought I was kidding about knowing them, didn’t you?” he said. 

Steyer is a very personable guy, who comes across as incredibly sincere in his desire to combat climate change, and is earnestly working to develop a movement to achieve that goal.  At the same time, however, there’s a sense that he is coming to these issues from a position of wealth, and that he’s not always sure of the practical political steps that are necessary to draw support to his cause.  The Well Known Vermont Politician and I find Steyer a lot like a rich kid who wants to be part of the regular crowd, but isn’t quite sure how to fit in.  I’ll develop this point in a second post when I report on his visit to a historically black college in Columbia.  

Meanwhile, after finishing up with Steyer, we headed over to Finlay Park where Sanders was holding an outdoor rally. 

It was the first candidate rally that required us to pass a security check to enter the enclosure.  Immediately after clearing the gate, an organizer came over to ask us to sit on the stage behind Bernie.  Having attended multiple Bernie events, we realized this would require us to fake sincere enthusiasm, stand frequently, wave signs like a maniac, and generally act like Bernie was the Second Coming (which he is, according to multiple Bernie Bros who have attacked me discussed his candidacy with me on social media.)  We declined the offer, and instead watched the event next to the media stand.  As we waited for Bernie to arrive, we were treated to music by the hip-hop duo from Texas (as they repeatedly told us) named Blackillac who revved up the crowd with a high-energy performance. As soon as they left the stage, the sound system played Simon and Garfunkel’s American.  I couldn’t think of a better juxtaposition of music to demonstrate who actually supports Bernie.

Ignore the Thumb

After the requisite warm up speakers, highlight by a frail-looking Danny Glover, a wickedly funny Killer Mike, and the always energetic Nina Turner, Bernie came on to deliver the standard Bernie riff.  As always, Bernie is “sick and tired” of a number of things, including: “billionaires trying to buy elections” and the outsized influence of the 1 percent more generally; student debt; ½ of people living “paycheck to paycheck”; and homelessness.  Except for a couple of deviations that I discuss below, his speech was the standard one that I’ve reported in previous posts, so I won’t elaborate in much detail here.

For a 78-year old man who suffered a heart attack not long ago, he remains remarkably energetic.  His speech deviated from his NH version in a couple of significant ways.  First, it began with an extended attack on Donald Trump’s decision to hold a counterrally in Charleston South Carolina which was designed, according to Sanders, to “meddle in the Democratic primary.”  It is a reminder that South Carolina holds an open primary, which allows independents to vote in either the Democratic or Republican contest, and that Sanders does well among those independents who have soured on the party establishment.  It appeared he was hoping to draw them into the Democratic race on his behalf.  At the same time, he pushed back against pundits’ claims that he couldn’t win the general election; here Sanders cited the multiple polls showing him defeating Trump in a one-to-one matchup.

The second deviation was a much more explicit outreach to racial minorities than what we heard in New Hampshire.  He began by describing the multiracial nature of his support, and how his candidacy depended on boosting turnout to record levels in South Carolina, particularly among blacks and Latinos.  After touting his proposals to expand health care (“ending the international embarrassment that the United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t guarantee universal health care as a human right”); eliminate student debt; raise the minimum wage; and push a Green New Deal, Sanders touted his positions on criminal justice reform.  He promised to end cash bail, eliminate private prisons, end the war on drugs and instead legalize marijuana, and expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana possession.  He also discussed restarting DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and pursuing immigration reform.

Sanders concluded by reminding listeners that this was “the most consequential election” of this generation, and that they shouldn’t underestimate the power of the 1% – Wall St., the military-industrial complex, and Big Pharma – to thwart the wishes of the majority.  He urged audience members to canvass on his behalf. “If we stand together and keep our eye on the prize, all the money in the world won’t stop us.”

All told Bernie spoke for about ½ hours to a very receptive, mixed race audience of just under 800 people.  It leaned toward the young side, although there was certainly a spectrum of ages in attendance. Given the outdoor location, however, we were somewhat surprised that the crowd wasn’t bigger.  Moreover, although they were clearly receptive to Bernie’s message, the event lacked the high-pitched energy that one might expect from a candidate poised to pull an upset.  This was a gathering of the faithful come to pay homage to their standard bearer, and from that perspective it was a success. But I didn’t come away from the rally convinced Bernie was pulling in new voters from beyond the coalition that had supported him in 2016.  We’ll know soon enough, however whether that impression is wrong.

After finishing up with Bernie, we headed out to a Tom Steyer rally at Allen University, a historically black college, where one of the more unusual scenes in the Democratic race so far took place. That will be the subject of my next post.  To whet your appetite, I leave you with a picture of a spellbound Kat Taylor watching her husband on stage. Soon she would join him back on stage, along with rapper Juvenile, to make some awkward history.

In Honor of Neustadt’s Centennial, We Celebrate Presidents Day

It is Presidents Day – when I traditionally post my column commemorating the late, great presidential scholar Richard E. Neustadt. This year seems a particularly appropriate time to do so, however, since we are in the centennial of Neustadt’s birth on June 26, 1919. I’ve been fortunate to participate in several events commemorating Neustadt during his centennial, including this very touching tribute by five of his former students and colleagues: Graham Allison, Harvey Fineberg, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore and Roger Porter.

Of course, as I’ve written previously, many students of the presidency, and pundits more generally, believe that President Trump has rendered the notion of presidential weakness, which is the core of Neustadt’s argument in his classic work Presidential Power, largely irrelevant, or at least misplaced. In their view, Trump’s willingness to shatter traditional norms of presidential behavior, from his use of social media to drive media coverage to the politicization of the Justice Department to a foreign policy that seems based on personal whim, is proof that he acts free from the constraints that shackled his presidential predecessors.

A full assessment of these claims is beyond the scope of a single blog post. However, I suspect Neustadt would have a different reaction. He almost certainly would view Trump’s actions to date as largely confirming his model of presidential power. To understand why, it is worth reviewing Neustadt’s argument. To do so, we need first to understand something of Neustadt’s background, and the context in which he wrote Presidential Power.

Interestingly, Neustadt came to academia through a circuitous route that, unfortunately, is rarely used today. After a brief stint in FDR’s Office of Price Administration, followed by a tour in the military, he returned to government as a mid-level career bureaucrat in President Harry Truman’s Bureau of the Budget (BoB) in 1946, gradually working his way up the ranks until he was brought into Truman’s White House in 1950 as a junior-level political aide.  While working in the BoB, Neustadt took time to complete his doctoral dissertation at Harvard (working from Washington), which analyzed the development of the president’s legislative program. When Truman decided not to run for reelection in 1952, Neustadt faced a career crossroads. With the doctorate in hand, he decided to try his hand at academia.

When he began working his way through the presidency literature to prepare to teach, however, he was struck by just how little these scholarly works had in common with his own experiences under Truman.  They described the presidency in terms of its formal powers, as laid out in the Constitution and subsequent statute.  To Neustadt, these formal powers – while not inconsequential – told only part of the story.  They gave the President a seat at the governing table, but with no guarantee that he (someday she) could dictate the menu. To fully understand what made presidents more or less effective, then, one had to dig deeper to uncover additional sources of the president’s power. With this motivation, he set down to write Presidential Power, which was first published in 1960 and went on to become the best-selling scholarly study of the presidency ever written. Now in its 4th edition, it continues to be assigned in college classrooms around the world (the Portuguese language edition came out a few years back.)

Neustadt’s argument in Presidential Power is distinctive and I certainly can’t do justice to it here.  But his essential point is that because presidents share power with other actors in the American political system, they can rarely get things done on a sustained basis through command or unilateral action. Instead, they must persuade others that what the President wants done is what they should want done as well, but for their own political and personal interests.  At the most fundamental level that means presidents must bargain. The most effective presidents, then, are those who understand the sources of their bargaining power, and take steps to nurture those sources.

By bargaining, however, Neustadt does not mean – contrary to what some of his critics have suggested – changing political actors’ minds.  As I have written elsewhere, Neustadt rejects the notion that presidents rely on “charm or reasoned argument” to convince others to adopt their point of view. With rare exceptions, presidential power is not the power to change minds. Instead, presidents must induce others “to believe that what he wants of them is what their own appraisal of their own responsibilities requires them to do in their interests, not his.” That process of persuasion, Neustadt suggests, “is bound to be more like collective bargaining than like a reasoned argument among philosopher kings.”

At its core, Presidential Power is a handbook for presidents (and their advisers). It teaches them how to gain, nurture and exercise power. Beyond the subject matter, however, what makes Neustadt’s analysis so fascinating are the illustrations he brings to bear, many drawn from his own personal experiences as an adviser to presidents. Interestingly, the book might have languished on bookstore shelves if not for a fortuitous event: after his election to the presidency in 1960, President-elect John F. Kennedy asked Neustadt to write transition memos to help prepare him for office. More importantly for the sale of Neustadt’s book, however, the president-elect reportedly was photographed disembarking from a plane with a copy of Presidential Power clearly visible in his jacket pocket.  Believe me, nothing boosts the sale of a book on the presidency more than a picture of the President reading that book!  (Which reminds me: if you need lessons about leading during a time of crisis, or simply advice on how to organize your White House, President Trump, I’d recommend this book. Don’t forget to get photographed while reading it!)

But it takes more than a president’s endorsement to turn a book into a classic, one that continues to get assigned in presidency courses today, more than two decades after the last edition was issued.  What explains Presidential Power’s staying power? As I have argued elsewhere, Neustadt’s classic work endures because it analyzes the presidency institutionally; presidential power, according to Neustadt, is primarily a function of the Constitutionally-based system of separated institutions sharing power.  That Constitutional grounding makes Neustadt’s analysis of continuing relevance. And while many subsequent scholars have sought to replace Neustadt’s analysis with one of their own, for the most part they end up making his same points (although they often don’t acknowledge as much) but not nearly as effectively.

Neustadt was subsequently asked to join Kennedy’s White House staff but – with two growing children whom had already endured his absences in his previous White House stint – he opted instead to stay in academia. He went on to help establish Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote several more award-winning books, and continued to advise formally or informally every president through Clinton. After the death of Bert, his first wife, he married Shirley Williams, one of the founders of Britain’s Social Democrats Party (and later a Baroness in the House of Lords), which provided still another perspective on executive politics. He also continued churning out graduate students (I was the last doctoral student whose dissertation committee Neustadt chaired at Harvard.) When I went back to Harvard in 1993 as an assistant professor, my education continued; I lured Neustadt out of retirement to co-teach a graduate seminar on the presidency – an experience that deepened my understanding of the office and taught me to appreciate good scotch.  It was the last course Neustadt taught in Harvard’s Government Department, but he remained active in public life even after retiring from teaching.  Shortly before his death he traveled to Brazil to advise that country’s newly-elected president Lula da Silva.

What might Neustadt make of the Trump presidency?  That is a topic worthy of a separate post, or two or three.  But I suspect that in contrast to many of my political science peers, who have expressed a fear that Trump’s authoritarian tendencies pose a threat to the Constitutional order, Neustadt would have a different concern:  that Trump’s inexperience – compounded by his initial decision to surround himself with equally inexperienced aides – has led to an exceptionally weak presidency, one unable to provide the energy and institutional stiffening that Neustadt believed was indispensable for making our system of shared powers work toward solving national problems.  To be sure, that weakness might yet lead a frustrated president to lash out against his political enemies, and to engage in extraconstitutional actions that could further weaken the presidential office. If so, my colleagues’ fears may yet be realized. For now, however, I suspect Neustadt would worry not that Trump’s presidency was too powerful – but that it was not powerful enough.

Elsewhere I have written in some detail about how Trump’s initial missteps during his first weeks in office, from the hiring of Steve Bannon to the ill-fated “Muslim” travel ban to the decision to follow the Republicans’ lead and attempt to roll back Obamacare cut short any honeymoon he might have had, and contributed to the eventual loss of the House in 2018, and any hope of passing any more of his legislative agenda. Or, consider the emergency declaration Trump issued a year ago which allowed him to shift appropriated moneys to fund the building of a wall along our southern border. At first glance this appears to be an illustration of effective unilateral action. However, Trump issued it only after failing to persuade the Democratically-controlled House to appropriate money for the proposed border wall in the amount he requested, and after the nation endured a 35-day partial government shutdown that failed to gain Trump any additional traction. Although Trump has subsequently used the emergency to reallocate appropriated money toward funding the wall, the maneuver is not without risks – as are most instances in which presidents act “unilaterally” through “command” authority to achieve objectives. The long-run repercussions on his sources of influence remain at best uncertain. All this is consistent with Neustadt’s warning that unilateral efforts to achieve presidential objectives are typically a sign of weakness, not strength and that in the long run they frequently undercut a president’s sources of bargaining power – particularly his public prestige and professional reputation, to say nothing of his formal powers. It remains to be seen how this latest effort to exercise command authority will play out, but I suspect it will prove less durable than if Trump had effectively bargained to achieve his wall funding.

None of this would please Neustadt, of course. As he noted in the conclusion to his classic work, “a President’s success in that endeavor [the pursuit of power] serves objectives far beyond his own, and far beyond his party’s…an expert search for presidential influence contributes to the energy of government and the viability of public policy.” The key word in that passage, however, is “expert.” Neustadt warned that “an expert in the White House does not guarantee effective policy, but lacking such an expert every hope is placed in doubt.” He was writing, at least in part, with Eisenhower in mind – a president about which Neustadt later revised his perspective, at least in foreign affairs – but it is hard, when reading Neustadt’s advice to “Men in Office” not to apply his analysis to the current President, and to find Trump’s understanding of his sources of power falling short of Neustadt’s standards.

As Neustadt was all too well aware, evaluating presidents from a distance is a difficult exercise, fraught with uncertainty. It is why his initial analysis of presidential power, based on his first-hand experience peering over Truman’s shoulder, and on talking to those who occupied similar positions under FDR and Eisenhower, proved so penetrating. It may be that when Trump’s presidency undergoes similar scrutiny, a different story will be told. Until then, caution is the word.

But today is not the time to fret about the status of Trump’s presidency or the future of the nation. Instead it is a time to celebrate the legacy of the foremost scholar of the presidency, in commemoration of his 100th year! So, take a moment tonight to hoist a glass of your favorite beverage in honor of Richard E. Neustadt, our own Guardian of the Presidency. If you are interested in learning more about him, there’s a wonderful (really!) book, now ordered electronically, edited by Neustadt’s daughter and that blogger guy from Middlebury College (see here). It contains contributions from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Al Gore, Ernie May, Graham Allison, Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harrison Wellford, Harvey Fineberg, Jonathan Alter, Chuck Jones, Eric Redman, Beth Neustadt and yours truly.

Here’s to you,  Dick!

All The Way With Amy K!

At her campaign rallies, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar often brags that she has won every race she has contested – as she puts it,  “Every race, every time, every place.”  Her electoral success, she often adds, began in 4th grade, where she won a race for student government using the slogan “All the way with Amy K!”  Here she pauses, and then admits, “I dropped that slogan as I got into middle school!” 

The line invariably draws laughter – but it also reveals how Klobuchar uses humor to effectively drive home her point that she is the candidate best suited to defeat Donald Trump.  It is a message that appears, slowly, to be gaining traction among Democratic voters who, if surveys are to be believed, are hyperfocused this election cycle on nominating a candidate who can take back the White House. Klobuchar finished 5th in Iowa’s caucuses, earning  a shade under 13% of the first popular vote (and is projected to take home a delegate from the Hawkeye state as well.)

Her popular vote was about 4% above what the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll of polls suggested she would receive, although she was hurt in the final balloting because many of her supporters, not wanting to waste their votes with Klobuchar just under the 15% threshold, switched to back other candidates, particularly Peter Buttigieg, during the reallocation phase of the Iowa caucusing process.  It also didn’t help that, along with senators Sanders and Warren (two candidates with better name recognition than Klobuchar), she spent most of the two weeks preceding the caucus in Washington, D.C. listening to testimony at Trump’s Senate impeachment trial just when polls showed her gaining momentum.

Despite her strong closing finish and outperforming the polls, however, the national media continued to portray the Democratic race as a four-person contest between Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren heading into New Hampshire. In a reminder how the media’s difficulty in grappling with complexity leads them to inadvertently put their finger on the scale, graphics on the evening news showed the Iowa results for those four, typically excluding Klobuchar’s stronger than expected 5th place result.  It was only when two tracking polls showed Klobuchar gaining support in the Granite State that the media began taking her candidacy somewhat seriously, although they were still surprised when she finished third last Tuesday, less than 5% behind Pete Buttigieg’s second place showing, with about 20% of the vote. That was more than 10% ahead of both Warren and Biden.

But as I saw in both Iowa and in her closing rallies in New Hampshire, Klobuchar’s message is beginning to attract voters’ attention.  On the last weekend before Tuesday’s primary, we attended rallies by Sanders (twice!), Buttigieg, Warren, Andrew Yang, and Klobuchar.  Both Sanders and Warren had enthusiastic standing room only crowds, but our sense from conversations at their events was that most of those attending had had made up their mind to support the candidate. The events were more like pep rallies designed to mobilize the vote.

That was not the feel we got when attending Klobuchar’s rally on Saturday in Hanover on Dartmouth’s campus.

The crowd was slightly smaller than what we saw with Sanders or Warren (although the venue was as well.)  Klobuchar spoke at length, starting with an anecdote about FDR’s funeral procession, and how people felt that he knew them. Building on that theme, she rhetorically appealed to different voting groups, finishing each time by saying “I know you, and I will fight for you.” She then segued into her biography, discussing her grandfather’s work ethic toiling in Minnesota’s iron mines and her father’s struggle with alcoholism. She used her father’s recovery, and his care in an assisted living facility (“It’s not bad – he says he can’t get a good drink there”) to drive home her point that everyone deserves access to decent health insurance and long-term residential care.

Because of those working-class roots, she said she’s not running for president out of a sense of entitlement, but from a sense of obligation.  She touted her record of accomplishment passing Senate bills, many with bipartisan support, as proof that she could work with legislators across the aisle.  Although she portrayed herself as progressive on issues like expanding Obamacare – “It’s 10% more popular than the President!” – she also stressed the need to build coalitions in order to see progressive policies pass – an ability that she says her record shows she has.   

Klobuchar makes clear that she does not share the more statist progressive agendas pushed by Sanders and Warren, which she portrays as both more divisive and politically impractical.  She wants to make college more affordable not by eliminating tuition for the wealthy, but by doubling Pell Grants and lowering eligibility requirements to help lower-income students.  And rather than college debt forgiveness, she wants to link college loans to a post-graduate public service option. The economy of the future, she points out, will not offer jobs for those with “sports marketing degrees” but for those graduating from vocational schools; there will be “millions of jobs” for home health care providers, nurses, plumbers and electricians. 

She took a similar pragmatic approach to address climate change, which she linked to flooding in the Midwest.  To combat it, she argued, you must make its economic implications salient to those whose livelihoods are affected, like those in the fishing industry, hunters and maple syrup providers.  “You have to make clear the dividends to the people [of climate change reforms], not just the costs.”

Again and again, she hammered home her central theme that “We aren’t going to win by out-dividing the Divider-in-Chief.”  This election, she said, was “a decency check.” She made repeated reference to the similarities between Minnesota and New Hampshire – “We can both see Canada from our front porch!” – focusing not just on their rural economies and how much they depend on extracting natural resources, but also on the civility of their voters.

Of all the candidates we saw, however, it was Klobuchar who in my view made the most effective closing appeal, not by rallying her base to get out and vote, but by wooing the significant number of undecided New Hampshire voters.  She closed by describing how much she learned from her mentor Paul Wellstone, the former Minnesota Senator who was killed in a plane crash in 2002, and who was noted for taking unpopular stands such as his vote against the Iraq War – the only Senator facing reelection who chose to do so. This explains why her campaign adopted the green color of Wellstone’s campaign bus she tells the crowd.  She acknowledged, again referencing Wellstone’s experiences as an underdog, that the 2020 campaign “playing field is not even” which was why she needed New Hampshire voters to defy expectations and support her.  She finished by exhorting the crowd: “Let’s go, let’s win it, let’s do it.”  The crowd gave her a big round of applause and many waited to get their picture with her.

As is traditional we also waited in line so that the well-known Vermont politician could get a picture and exchange policy views with her.

When she finished with pictures, Chris Matthews, who was standing next to me for much of the event, moved up to interview her. His presence signaled that the media had belatedly recognized that she was gaining momentum, although many still seem surprised when she finished with nearly a fifth of the Democratic vote.

Moreover, despite her strong closing, national news outlets continue to portray her primarily as a spoiler who cost Buttigieg the victory in New Hampshire rather than as someone who has a shot at uniting the Democratic party and winning the nomination.  Ironically, conservative pundits seem to give her greater respect than do many journalists; in a recent column America Greatness’ Conrad Black writes, “If Klobuchar, a candidate no one has anything against, and who is genuine, plucky, and articulate and doesn’t take herself too seriously or fulminate, even against Trump, can get accelerating momentum these next three weeks, she could be the uniting candidate.”

Today I received a Valentine’s Day email fundraising pitch from Klobuchar’s husband, John Bessler, asking me to help him raise $18,000 on Valentine’s Day.  Why $18,000? He writes, “As Amy has said before, in her first U.S. Senate campaign (when people were still struggling to pronounce her last name) she raised $17,000 from ex-boyfriends. But given her impressive showing on Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary, I’m betting that I can do even better.”  It is another reminder how her campaign has infused a bit of humor into the very serious task of choosing the Democratic nominee. 

Make no mistake about it – the road gets more difficult for her moving ahead.  Like Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, she has yet to prove she can draw support from racial minorities who will compose a much larger share of the voters in Nevada, South Carolina and the March 3 SuperTuesday states.   However, she has some tailwinds coming out of New Hampshire, and an infusion of cash because of her strong showing. Although anecdotal, conversations I’ve had with African-American students indicate that their parents are giving Klobuchar a second look, primarily because they are most interested in backing a winner.

A final thought. A surprising number of New Hampshire voters told me they were choosing between Klobuchar and Warren. At first glance this doesn’t seem to make much sense, since they are occupying different ideological “lanes”, if you subscribe to that theory. But as I noted in an interview with Vermont Digger’s Kit Norton, I think voters are more focused on who can beat Trump, and they will sacrifice ideological purity to achieve that goal if necessary.  It appears that, in the last days before New Hampshire voted, some Warren supporters began to have doubts regarding her viability, and some of them switched over to Klobuchar.

I’ve described her before as the “Little Senator That Could” (she is fond of reminding voters that James Madison was also only 5’ 4” tall.) However, her candidacy still has major hurdles to overcome, and it remains to be seen whether it will have a storybook ending – or whether it is heading down the wrong tracks.

My Visit To Bernie World On The Eve of the New Hampshire Primary

In anticipation of tomorrow’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, I spent the weekend crisscrossing the western side of the state going up and down the Connecticut River valley, visiting candidate rallies and talking to voters.  Here’s what I found, beginning with two Bernie Sanders’ rallies in Hanover and Claremont.

Polls suggest that Sanders has consolidated his support, and nothing I saw at his two rallies yesterday contradicted that.  The Hanover event took place at the downtown Inn just off the Dartmouth campus.  The main room where Bernie spoke was filled when we arrived, and after going through a security check (the only one we have seen at any candidate event so far) we were shunted with the overflow crowd to a side room where we could view Bernie on television.  I estimate that there were more than 500 people here.  The Claremont event was also well attended, with close to 600 people in the high school gymnasium.  (This was about half the size of the crowd I saw there at my first Trump rally in 2016 however.) Here’s a shot of the Claremont rally.

Since I left the first Bernie event in Hanover to see Andrew Yang (we went back to Bernie’s first rally when Yang finished), who was next door at Dartmouth College, I’ll focus my remarks here at Bernie’s Claremont rally.

Bernie is far more sedate at his rallies than he is on the debate stage, only raising his voice when he wants to signal moral outrage. Instead, at Claremont it was his preliminary speakers, particularly Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman and Sanders’ campaign coordinator Nina Turner, who stoked the crowd’s emotions with messages alternating between soaring hope for the future mingled with anger at the injustices in the world.  The crowd, mostly middle aged but with a fair smattering of youngsters sprinkled in was solidly in Bernie’s corner as much as I could tell – this was more of a giant pep rally designed to motivate the base one day before the primary than an effort to expand Bernie’s coalition.

After introducing members of his family including Jane, “the next First Lady of the United States” Bernie seamlessly launched into his standard stump speech, hitting all the major themes of his campaign, and with the familiar raised arms and finger jabbing when he wanted to emphasize a point.  He began by thanking New Hampshire voters, reminding them that it was his victory here in 2016 that really propelled him to national prominence.  Here he quoted Nelson Mandela, saying “Everything is impossible until it happens.”  And then he moved to the familiar litany of issues: the need for a higher minimum wage of at least $15; higher pay for public school teachers of at least $60,000 annually; making public colleges tuition free; eliminating student debt; eliminating tax breaks for the 1%; the need to combat climate change; and health care for all as a human right.  Regarding health care, he touted the elimination of all “absurd” deductibles, lower pharmaceutical costs, no premiums and expanded coverage for all. The goal is to put money in the hands of care providers, including doctors and nurses, rather than giving it to government bureaucrats. As he made each point, the crowd would burst into applause, and the talk was punctuated by shouts of  “That’s right!” and “Yes!” from an energized group of supporters.

As we left the hall to hurry north to an Elizabeth Warren rally, Bernie was still going strong, discussing how his health plan would make eyeglasses, hearing aids and dental coverage less expensive.  I will say more about Warren’s rally in a separate email, but it’s worth comparing their messages in order to understand why her support has evidently plateaued (if polls are to be believed), while Bernie’s is consolidating here in New Hampshire.  

As I noted in an extended twitter feed last night, there is a beguiling simplicity to Bernie’s world view.  Issues like free college tuition, higher minimum wage and health care for all aren’t policy options whose details must be negotiated – they are basic human rights, and thus nonnegotiable.  And since they are human rights, there is no plausible excuse for anyone to oppose these policies.  This allows Bernie to portray the opposition as evil and motivated principally by greed. Indeed, Bernie explicitly incorporates villains into his speech.  He notes that in his office they openly debate who is more corrupt:  Wall St., the insurance companies or the pharmaceutical industry?  “I think the pharmaceuticals are and here’s why” he says before castigating them for knowingly causing the opioid crisis by putting profits before people.   “When they learned these drugs were addictive, they spent more money on hiring salesmen than on treatment!” he thundered.

The moral certitude animating Bernie and his followers goes a long way to explaining the social media scourge that is the “Bernie Bros”: typically a white male who brooks no opposition to Bernie or his message and is not shy about making that known.  But it is too simplistic to reduce his support to this caricature.  Many of my very thoughtful students are strong supporters, and it is easy to understand why.  They are entering a world in which their life prospects seem more dismal than what their parents encountered.  Climate change, job loss driven by automation, and a general uncertainty about the future clouds their perspective.  But Bernie’s message is an antidote to this bleak prognosis.  He shares the younger generation’s anger at what previous generations have left them, but he also offers hope through a message of change – one rooted in identifying the evildoers and overcoming them through a mass movement.  Most importantly – and here’s where I think Bernie is drawing support from Warren – Bernie’s voice is authentic.  His message is one he has voiced since he first narrowly won election as Burlington’s mayor more than four decades ago.

Will it work?  Are Bernie’s policies feasible?  What is the alternative, his supporters ask?  The status quo is unacceptable.  There is no room for compromise when it comes to basic rights for all.  You are with Bernie – or you are against humanity.  It is that simple.  If the polls are accurate, Bernie is poised to win New Hampshire tomorrow – the RealClearPolitics poll of polls has him firmly in the lead, and his support consolidating during the last two weeks.

But as I noted in an interview on WCAX’s You Can Quote Me with Darren Perron yesterday, a victory in New Hampshire is only tantamount to Bernie holding serve.  In 2016 in a largely two-person primary race, Bernie won 60% of the New Hampshire vote, easily besting Hillary Clinton by more than 20%.  He won’t come close to that tomorrow, given the multiple candidates.  And a victory in New Hampshire will not quell the criticism that Bernie has not expanded his coalition, particularly among voters of color who form a crucial and growing part of the Democratic coalition.

And that points to the potential weakness to Bernie’s world view – one that more moderate Democrats, particularly South Bend Mayor Peter Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, are trying to exploit.  Both are making the case that you can’t retake the presidency by dividing the world into good and evil – as Klobuchar says repeatedly, “We won’t beat the divider by out dividing him.”  Sanders’ followers are deeply committed to him – but that commitment comes at a potential cost.  They see no room for compromise, and no justification for opposition to Bernie’s message.  It remains to be seen whether that take-no-prisoners strategy will expand Bernie’s coalition – or drive potential supporters elsewhere.

Next up: Mayor Pete and Amy too!  Meanwhile I leave you with this shot of Jeff Zeleney, on a box, trying to make sense of a Bernie rally.