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.

Bernie, Biden and Buttigieg, and Liz and Amy Too: Explaining the Iowa Results, Part I

With 96% of the popular vote counted, it appears that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has won Iowa’s recently concluded caucuses, narrowly defeating South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg by about 2,500 votes, although they are nearly tied in state delegate equivalents. [Update: Iowa has updated the results. With 99% reporting, here’s what they are showing:

But it is Buttigieg who appears to have gained the most momentum heading into next Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary.  An Emerson College New Hampshire tracking poll shows Buttigieg gaining 9 points across the last two days. A Suffolk poll in the field during the same period also shows Buttigieg moving into second place and gaining on Sanders. He still trails the Vermont Senator by a bit more than 6% in the RealClearPolitics aggregate polling tracker, but is the only candidate along with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar to see their support going up in the Granite State since Iowa’s results were announced.

What explains Buttigieg’s bounce? Most of his gains seem to be coming among moderate Democrats, and at the expense of former Vice President Joe Biden, who finished a disappointing 4th in Iowa, and who has dropped 2% in New Hampshire since then, and now sits third in the state’s RCP aggregate polls.  Although he was second in the RCP aggregate polling heading into Iowa, Biden fell victim, in part, to that state’s somewhat unique caucus voting system.  To understand why, it is worth looking more closely at how the Iowa caucuses operate.  The next three posts will take on that task.  Along with my wife, the well-known Vermont politician, and fellow researcher (and Middlebury student) Maggie Joseph, I spent three days in Iowa, culminating in observing voting in Des Moines on caucus night.  I was fortunate to have Des Moines resident (and Middlebury student) Abbott LaPrade guiding our research team during our stay in Iowa.  Before describing caucus night, and what I see as the reason for Buttigieg’s rise, let me set the context for the vote.

We began our Iowa swing by flying into Kansas City on Saturday, Feb. 1. The next day we headed north on Rte. 35, stopping to see candidate events and talking to voters on the way.  One of the more interesting conversations took place with a long-time Democratic Party caucus coordinator working at a rest stop.  She was quite candid in noting the limitations of the caucus system, and her preference for replacing it with a statewide primary, which she argued would be more representative of the state’s electorate.  She said she was particularly worried about the influence of college students who turned out in large enough numbers to influence caucus results in college towns, even though many were only recently registered to vote in the state. I’ll return to her criticisms, and Iowa’s role in the nominating process, during my final post.

Our first candidate event was an Elizabeth Warren rally at Simpson College in Indianola just south of Des Moines.  It was packed with what we estimated to be 400 plus people, with fire marshals keeping dozens more outside.  We managed to work our way into the main room by badgering security.  Once inside, we got our first glimpse of the massive media presence that we saw at all these events, and in Iowa more generally during our time there.  This included a number of foreign correspondents. 

Warren’s speech was similar to what we’ve heard from her in a New Hampshire rally. She opened with a brief review of her biography, followed by laying out the major theme of her candidacy: the need to fight corruption, fueled by big money, that is preventing the government from acting on the public’s preferences on a range of issues, from gun control to climate change to expanded child care.  As always, however, she addressed most of her plans for “big structural change”, including the wealth tax, expanded health care coverage, loan forgiveness and free tuition to public colleges, in response to audience questions.  She is very adept at using questions to segue into the points she wants to make.  The talk was vintage Warren – animated, personable and with detailed policy responses.  Unlike her speech in New Hampshire, she seemed far more energized here, perhaps because of the urgency created by the impending vote, and the realization that her poll numbers have been trending down. After concluding her speech, because of her tight schedule, she limited pictures to families with small children, but we were able to interview her dog Bailey.

We then headed to Lincoln High School in Des Moines for a Buttigieg rally, which turned out to provide an early glimpse into what would happen on caucus night.  All of the candidate events were well-attended with enthusiastic crowds, but Buttigieg’s was the largest, with the most vocal contingent of supporters.  Here’s Mayor Pete on stage at the Lincoln High School gymnasium.

Where Warren’s tone had a sense of urgency, Buttigieg sounded supremely confident.  He began his speech by asking the crowd to visualize the sun rising on the first day after Trump was no longer president.  In contrast to the fighting theme Warren emphasized, Buttigieg explicitly couched his candidacy in terms of its appeal to independents and even moderate Republicans.  He stressed the need for unity to overcome the polarization in Washington, DC.  Buttigieg sprinkled in policy statements during his address, and again during the Q&A, but this was a speech painted in broad thematic strokes, designed to inspire more than to anger.  He ended by noting that it was in Iowa campaigning for Obama that led him to believe that “someone in the Midwest like me could wear a wedding ring.”  This was Buttigieg’s final Iowa rally, and you could sense he felt confident heading into the next day’s caucuses.

We then dashed off to a Bernie rally, only to miss the candidate by a few minutes.  The media were still lingering, however, as were his supporters, many of whom told us they were canvassing in previous days and were convinced that most of the supporters of candidates not likely to be viable would move to Bernie during the caucus.  We also watched Abbott give interviews to foreign reporters (he would conduct several during the next two days).

That evening, after a wonderful meal at the LaPrade’s house where we watched the 49’ers cough up the Super Bowl, we headed out to our final candidate event – a Klobuchar rally at Jethro’s, a local restaurant in Johnston just outside of Des Moines.  Again, the place was packed and we were only able to barely squeeze inside the main entrance.  Because we couldn’t move very far, it was difficult to estimate crowd size, but it was definitely smaller than the Warren or Buttigieg events. Fortunately for us, Klobuchar came right through that entrance and set up shop just inside the door so we had a prime viewing spot for her speech.

She had flown in from Washington, where she was sitting with her fellow senators (including Sanders and Warren) as a judge during the impeachment trial, and yet she was still able to muster the energy to exhort the crowd to turn out the next day.  Her voice was almost gone, but she was feeding off of recent polling which showed her gaining support in Iowa and she urged the crowd to build on the momentum by asking anyone and everyone to turn out on caucus day.  She began her speech using her trademark humor, this time tossing out football metaphors on Super Bowl Sunday before switching to her campaign themes.  Even more so than Buttigieg, she emphasized the importance of electing a candidate who could attract independent and Republican support and reminded her audience that she had never lost an election.  She finished by promising she would fly back to Iowa from the impeachment trial the next day.  It was a short speech, and she took no questions.  As we left the building I ran into Phoenix, the Kid Reporter, who I had first met weeks before at a Tulsi Gabbard rally in Lebanon New Hampshire.  Like me, Phoenix has been following the candidates across the country, and so we shared our political insights. He gives me confidence that our country’s future is in good hands.

Thus ended our first full day in Iowa.  In my next post I’ll look more closely at the dynamics that partially explain why Buttigieg did so well in the Iowa caucus, and why Biden did not. In my third and final post in the Iowa series, I’ll examine Iowa’s place more generally, and preview the New Hampshire primary. But I’ll leave you with an explanation for why we went to Iowa in the first place, compliments of the well-known Vermont politician.

Addendum: The Boston Globe has just released this latest Suffolk tracking poll which also shows Buttigieg surging.

Channeling My Psychic Energy From Last Night’s Debate: The Key Takeaways

Quick takeaways from last night’s debate while I channel my positive psychic energy in preparation for returning to the campaign trail this afternoon.

Beware the instant pundit analyses that declares “winners” and “losers”.  First, as I noted yesterday, that’s not how most normal people view these events – if they view them at all.  (Tuesday’s debate only drew 8.7 million viewers, a 43% decrease from the 15.3 million who tuned into the June 26 debate.)   Although it is typical for cable news and media analysts to fit the debate into the horse race paradigm that dominates their coverage, normal people are just taking bits and pieces from the event as they try to begin arriving at a rough sense of what the candidates stand for and who they will support.  And the debates are just one bit of information that will guide their decision-making process.

In a related point, some candidates may experience a short-term polling impact in response to their debate performance, as mediated by the coverage.  Similarly, you will read about individuals “trending” on social media during and after the debate. (I’m looking at you, Tulsi Gabbard!) Again, read with caution.  As we saw in 2016, in a large field of mostly less well-known candidates, those in the second tier can often parlay a strong debate performance into a surge of support, only to see the subsequent scrutiny cut into some of that boost.  As I noted in my last post, Harris’ post-debate bump has mostly receded, and Biden – prior to last night – regained most of the support he lost (evidently to her).  And it’s hard to know why a candidate is trending – maybe it reflects people trying to figure out who this person is, and why she is warning about “dark psychic energy.”

As my adage goes, there is the debate you saw, and then there’s the debate the pundits would have you believe you saw.  Take everything your read on social media with a huge barrel of salt – many analysts have an ideological or political axe to grind, and in the absence of objective measures of debate performance, these underlying predispositions can bias their analysis in subtle ways.   How else do you explain the dozens of different takes regarding the debate’s “winners” and “losers.”  In short, believe the debate you saw – be skeptical of everything someone else tells you you saw.

In every debate I find myself impressed by the second tier (as measured by polling) candidates – not necessarily because I agree with their viewpoint, but because they effectively articulate it.  On Tuesday, it was Maryland Governor John Delaney, Montana Governor Steve Bullock and Ohio Representative Tim Ryan who made forceful cases against the progressive agenda pushed by Sanders and Warren.  Last night I thought Colorado Senator Michael Bennett, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard were similarly effective.  But there’s a reason for these strong performances by second-tier candidates: they have the easier job.   They come into the debate under the radar, so no one sharing the stage with them is concerned with attacking their records.  That means they are free to train their guns on the top-tier candidates without having to fend off similar attacks.  No wonder they seem so articulate and poised compared to, say, Biden or Harris last night, both of whom endured a barrage of criticism from their opponents, egged on by the moderators.  (On a side note, I’m wondering if this exchange will come back to haunt Harris – see how she dismisses Gabbard’s attack.)

In 2012, Newt Gingrich’s presidential candidacy essentially ended in a debate prior to the Florida primary, when Mitt Romney used superior opposition research to, among other issues, gut Gingrich’s attacks on his financial investment in Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac by pointing out that Gingrich owned stock in these entities as well.  Last night we saw similar attempts to use opposition research to create “gotcha” moments, with mixed levels of effectiveness. First, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand tried to force Biden to explain an op ed he wrote in 1981 – 1981! – explaining his vote opposing a childcare tax credit, which she implied was evidence that Biden was against working mothers.  Needless to say, Biden disagreed with that interpretation.  Here’s the actual op ed

I leave it to you to decide whether this is a legitimate criticism of Biden’s views toward working mothers or opportunism by a candidate deliberately mischaracterizing an editorial from almost four decades ago in a search for polling traction.

A second noteworthy exchange came when moderators invited Tulsi Gabbard to critique Harris’ record as Attorney-General in California.  Gabbard was ready and didn’t miss her target. Here’s the exchange. The scope and detail of Gabbard’s attack suggests she did her homework, and was expecting this question. (Note: I wouldn’t be surprised if this information was fed to her by another campaign that saw advantages in Gabbard doing the dirty work for them.)  Part of the reason her critique might resonate more deeply than Gillibrand’s attack on Biden is that it was more detailed and articulated a line of attack that others have been making against Harris for some time now.   In contrast, I haven’t head anyone else make the case that Biden is against working mothers.

It’s hard to believe that Jane and Joe Q. Public really grasp the nuances of the various health care policies proposed by the Democrat candidates that has occupied center stage in the debates to date.  Do they understand the differences between Biden’s, Harris’ and the Sanders/Warren health care plans?  I don’t think so.   Do they need to understand the differences in order to make informed choices regarding which candidate to support?  I don’t think so.  Studies show that voters are very good at rank ordering candidates ideologically, even if they are not thoroughly well-versed in the details of their specific policies.  In this regard, I think most voters know that Warren and Sanders have a more “liberal” health care plan than Biden’s.  

What’s up with that flurry of closing statements citing candidates’ websites?  You can thank the Democrat debate rules for that – unless candidates get at least 2% in four separate polls AND receive contributions from at least 130,000 unique donors they won’t make the September debate stage.  Thanks to this, you can expect billionaire Tom Steyer to be soliciting money from you soon!  Candidates who don’t make the September debate stage cut are, essentially, finished because the media will use that as prima facie evidence that their candidacies are not viable, and will write stories accordingly.

I was on local WCAX again last night, doing a live postmortem of the debate. This is what happens when you watch Joe Biden for three hours – a pervasive inability to complete a full sentence. I may have to start drinking BEFORE going on live.

Your faithful campaign team is heading out to Cornish NH again this afternoon to attend a Marianne Williamson campaign event.  Williamson, the highest trending figure from Tuesday’s debate, is hoping to parlay her performance into a boost in polls and contributions in order to qualify for the September debate.  Here’s hoping we avoid any “dark psychic energy” on the road to New Hampshire.  Live tweeting begins at about 5:30, with the campaign write up to follow.

Are Extremists Less Electable? Some Perspective On Last Night’s Debate – And Tonight’s

Last night’s Democratic debate in Detroit offered two distinct visions for the future of the Democratic Party, and of the nation more generally.  The two progressives, senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, shared center stage literally and figuratively, collectively making the case that it is time for big ideas to reform the political and economic system, including Medicare-for-All; more restrictive trade agreements, higher minimum wage, a more progressive tax system, free college tuition, and immigration laws that don’t criminalize those entering the country illegally.  In contrast, the pragmatists – who included almost everybody else on the stage (Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke are more difficult to categorize although on many issues they seem closer to the progressive wing) – chided the Big Two for, as former Maryland Representative John Delaney put it, pushing “fairy tale economics.”  Similarly, Montana Governor Steve Bullock chastised what he called the progressives’ “wish-list economics.”  And Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, after blasting the progressives’ health care and college tuition plans, warned that her colleagues on stage seemed “more worried about winning an argument than winning an election.”   But the progressives pushed back, arguing that the pragmatists were pushing “Republican talking points.”  As Warren put it, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”    

Who had the better argument? Polling suggests that pluralities of voters are skeptical of some of the progressives’ more ambitious policy proposals. Ohio Representative Tim Ryan alluded to this when he warned, “…in this discussion already tonight, we’ve talked about taking private health insurance away from union members in the industrial Midwest, we’ve talked about decriminalizing the border, and we’ve talked about giving free health care to undocumented workers when so many Americans are struggling to pay for their health care. I quite frankly don’t think that that is an agenda that we can move forward on and win.” However, Sanders and Warren believe that the president’s job is to lead public opinion – not be limited by it. 

Political science can’t help voters make a choice between these two paths. But it can potentially shed some light on the electability argument.  Are more ideologically extreme candidates less electable? As Seth Masket tweeted earlier today, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting the answer is yes – that moderates do perform better at the polls, at least in House elections.  As an example, in previous posts I’ve talked about the electoral price Democratic incumbents who voted for Obamacare paid at the polls during the 2010 midterms.  That policy was viewed as relatively extreme at the time and helped contribute, along with Democrats’ votes in Congress on the stimulus bill and climate change legislation, to the rise of the Tea Party movement and the Republican takeover of the House in the 2010 midterm elections. Moreover, the Obamacare example is consistent with a broader finding by Andrew Hall showing that parties pay a clear electoral price when they nominate extremist over more moderate candidates.  Looking at House elections from 1980-2010, Hall calculated that “when an extremist—as measured by primary-election campaign receipt patterns—wins a ‘coin-flip’ election over a more moderate candidate, the party’s general-election vote share decreases on average by approximately 9–13 percentage points, and the probability that the party wins the seat decreases by 35–54 percentage points.”  

However, it is unclear whether ideological extremism costs presidential candidates, at least during the general election.  At least one study by Cohen et al., indicates that more ideologically extreme presidential candidates did NOT pay an electoral price at the voting booth during the period 1948-2012, once you control for other factors influencing election outcomes.   The chart below captures their findings.  It shows a strong positive relationship between economic growth and the incumbent party’s popular vote share, but a weaker one between vote share and the relative incumbent party ideological extremism.    While I’m not sure I agree with the interpretation of the results, their research should give one pause about using House elections to generalize about presidential results.

Relationship Between Disposable Income (Left), Ideology (Right) and Vote Share

Of course past performance is no guarantee of future results.  It is perhaps telling that the pragmatists’ embrace of the public option is now viewed as the moderate alternative to the progressives’ preference for Medicare-for-All; in 2009, Obama dropped the public option from his health care legislation when it became clear it was viewed as too extreme to pass the Senate.  Clearly, the Democratic Party has shifted left in the ensuing decade – but how far left, and has the broader public moved with them?   We are about to find out!

A couple of thoughts as we head into tonight’s debate. 

In my experience, normal people don’t generally look at debates in terms of who “won” or “lost.”  Rather, they tend to discuss what they heard from specific candidates on particular issues, and whether they agreed with it or not. Here I’m using “normal” in its statistical sense to reference the majority of people who have neither the time nor inclination to obsess about which debaters’ comments went “viral” or what a talking head on cable television said about the meaning of what just transpired.  What normal people want from a debate is some idea of what the candidate believes, and how they plan to govern.  Of course, this is not to say that the subsequent framing of a debate by pundits has no impact – if enough analysts agree on a key debate theme or takeaway, that conventional wisdom can shape public opinion – up to a point.  Nonetheless, those instant takes can be misleading. So, if you plan on watching tonight’s debate, I urge you to turn off your social media feed while doing so, lest you succumb to the idea that those on twitter, Facebook and other interweb platforms somehow represent what normal Americans are thinking.  They do not.  Instead, listen to what the candidates actually say – not what the chattering class tells you they are really saying.   

In that vein, I think anyone who watched last night’s debate carefully came away with a clear sense of the quite different choices facing them in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.  At least part of the credit for that should go to the CNN moderators who did a decent job encouraging the candidates to talk to one another in a way that highlighted policy differences, even if the candidates were not given enough time to fully explain those differences.  In this respect, the real winners last night were the voters.

As for tonight – I expect a slightly different dynamic.  To be sure, as we saw with Bernie last night, I fully expect Biden to come out far more energized and aggressive compared to the first debate, where he appeared somewhat surprised at Kamala Harris’ decision to confront him regarding his opposition to federally-mandated forced busing to integrate public schools back in the 1970’s.  And make no mistake –  Biden, and to a lesser extent Harris – have a giant target on their backs, as second-tier candidates (I’m looking at you, Bill de Blasio!) trying to insure a place on the September debate stage will undoubtedly try to score points at the front-runners’ expense, much as the pragmatists – all of whom are polling in low single digits – did last night.  The difference is that Biden is not just the frontrunner – he’s also closer to the pragmatists, particularly on the electability issue.  So I expect the shoe to be on the other foot tonight, with Harris, Booker and Castro making the case that Biden’s time is past, and that they represent the future of the Democrat Party, demographically and ideologically.  For his part, I expect Biden to reprise the pragmatists’ electability argument from last night, while wrapping himself in the comfortable blanket of the Obama presidency.

Second, we shouldn’t overreact to short-term movements in polling numbers based on either or both of these two debates, despite pundits’ constant efforts to identify “game changing” moments. Many analysts decided Harris had “won” the first debate due to her highly-publicized exchange with Biden regarding his views on forced busing.   And, initially, that analysis seem validated by Harris’ poll numbers, which spiked in the immediate aftermath of the debate, while Biden’s went down.   But as we see in the RCP poll, she’s since lost about half of that surge, and Biden’s numbers are back up to about where they were before the debate.

Biden Regains Lost Support, While Harris Slips Back

In short, beware of instant punditry – particularly the kind practiced by the cable news commentators who need to fill time after the debate is over.

So where should you go to understand what happened tonight? Move on over to Channel 3 to watch my live post-debate analysis and, not incidentally, gauge the progress of my living room ceiling repairs!