Category Archives: Democrats

The Times, We Are Campaigning! (Starting With Biden)

Those readers familiar with my 2016 election coverage remember that I strongly believe that to fully understand a presidential candidate, it is necessary to see them in their natural environment: on the campaign trail, speaking to, and with, voters.   Without attending the rallies, it is easy to let prior assumptions drive election analysis, as happened to me when I initially failed to understand the scope of and reasons for Trump’s support, and instead was too quick to write off his presidential candidacy.  (For my analysis of what I saw and heard at his campaign rallies, see here). Direct observation also helps sidestep the influence of a media that is often too eager to fit a campaign event into an existing narrative that may not fully capture what actually occurred.

With that in mind, and given that the “invisible” primary has become slightly more visible (thanks to the first set of debates (see my debate analysis here), once again I’ve begun my quadrennial madness, dashing from campaign event to campaign event in order to give you an unvarnished (as much as possible) ringside seat for what is shaping up to be another fascinating, and portentous, election.  My initial focus will be on the Democrats’ side of the nominating process, since that is where the action is.  We begin with my visit to a Biden campaign event in New Hampshire, once of several he held in the Granite state yesterday.  Biden, of course, was coming off a subpar debate performance two weeks ago highlighted by his exchange with Senator Kamala Harris regarding mandatory busing to integrate public schools – an exchange that, as replayed by the media, likely contributed to a post-debate erosion in Biden’s polling support.  Much of the polling support Biden lost appeared to move to Harris, as she saw her polling numbers increase by about 8%, pushing her into a virtual tie for second in national polls, with Sanders and Warren.

RealClearPolitics Polling Averages

So, I was eager to see how Biden would respond in the aftermath of the debate.  Would he continue to position himself as a front runner, focusing primarily on his ability to beat Trump?  Or would he respond to the attacks by his Democrat rivals?  As it turned out, he did a little of both.  (As always, in writing these posts I am relying on contemporaneous tweets send out by me during the event, notes taken by my fellow campaign analyst and wife Alison, and my increasingly faulty memory.  All references to statements by others are paraphrased, unless in quotation marks.)

We arrived at Mack’s Apples, a picturesque little farmer’s market in Londonderry, just as Biden launched into his speech.  Although Biden was speaking from inside a small barn, most of the 300 or so people attending (but not the media) were outside, trying to stay cool on an extremely hot day. 

Inside The “Barn”

Biden prefaced his talk by saying he was in the race for three reasons: health care, climate change, and to bring the nation together. We did not hear Biden mention his Democrat rivals by name, but it was clear they were on his mind when he launched into a strong defense of the Affordable Care Act, arguably Obama’s signature domestic achievement, saying he would oppose any effort to replace it.  In a not-so-slightly veiled barb at his opponents who are pushing to supplant the ACA with some version of Medicare-For-All, Biden argued instead for strengthening and extending the existing health care legislation, in part by adding a public option, which he sees as both a less expensive and more politically feasible approach.  He also sought to link health care to criminal justice reform by emphasizing the importance of drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration for addiction.

He then turned to climate change, saying everything else pales in comparison.  He promised that the first act of the Biden presidency would be to rejoin the Paris climate accord, which generated strong applause from the audience. He noted that although the U.S. contributes 15% of global carbon emissions, it should use its position of influence to work with other nations to reduce overall emissions.  Trump, he argued, hurt this effort by isolating the U.S. and damaging relations with our allies – a pattern Biden pledged to reverse, citing his extensive experience on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. He also pointed out that there were immediate steps the country could take to curb emissions, such as increasing the number of charging stations for electric cars.  

Biden’s final point centered on an issue that has gotten him into difficulties with some of his opponents: the need to work with political opponents to get things done, which he sees as crucial to bringing the nation together. The President, he said – using language drawn straight from Richard Neustadt’s classic work Presidential Power “must be able to persuade.”   (At this point I tweeted that he had already earned my vote simply by quoting my dissertation adviser! – if I voted. Which I don’t.)  He defended the need for political pragmatism and pointed out that it was that focus on reaching across the aisle for support that led to Democrats’ victories in predominantly red states in the 2018 midterm elections.  He also made a plea to the millennial voters, arguing that they could have a transformative impact if they voted at the same rates as everyone else.  

Biden finished on a rhetorical high note by trying to draw contrasts with Trump and his political supporters. “We are for hope, they are for fear,” he roared, “We are for unity, they are for division” and finishing with “We are for truth, they are for lies!”   The music kicked in, and he waded into the small crowd in the barn to meet and greet, followed by a line for those seeking selfies with the candidate.

Biden Meeting and Greeting

Biden took no questions, and in total his talk lasted perhaps 15 minutes. This was a quick campaign stop wedged in among longer events he held in other spots in NH that day. In that time, however, it was clear that he was not apologizing for some of the stances for which he has been criticized, particularly his effort to position himself as the candidate best able to get things done, even if it means working with political rivals, and as someone with a voting record that supports that contention.  His tone was feisty, as he doubled down on what seems to be the core of his candidacy: that he has the best chance to beat Trump – a point reiterated by an older man when I asked him what he thought about Biden’s speech.  “It was great.” he said.  “He’s the only one who can beat Trump.”  “Well, that’s what he said,” I responded.  “He’s right,” the man replied.

It remains unclear whether Joe will get the chance to prove that claim, or whether Democrats will view him as too old, and too willing to compromise core Democrat principles as articulated by the more progressive wing of the party.  On the surface he remains as folksy and confident as ever, continuing to banter with the crowd from his SUV as he left the event. Meanwhile, we headed north to see Beto O’Rourke in action.  It was an entirely different campaign experience – one I’ll post about tomorrow.

Biden Has Left the Building!

Democrats: Is It Time To Panic?

Those who saw Mitt Romney eviscerate New Gingrich in the debate just prior to the Florida Republican primary likely weren’t surprised by Mitt’s strong performance against President Obama on Wednesday night.  Although Mitt has been justly cited for marring his debate performances with the occasional off-hand – and off-message – line (see: I like firing employees, buying Cadillacs for my wife and killing Big Bird), he has also exhibited an ability to devise and implement a debating game plan based on staying focused, sticking to his message, driving his points home and utilizing opposition research to put his opponents on the defensive.  All these traits were on display Wednesday, and he more than met my expectations that he would do well.

But if Mitt’s performance did not surprise me, Obama’s did.  While perhaps lacking the superior debating skills of a Gingrich, Obama showed in his three debates against John McCain, and against his Democratic rivals during the nomination campaign, that he is more than competent on the debating stage.  Most observers thought Obama won all three of his general election presidential debates in 2008. But even many Democrats conceded that Obama did poorly on Wednesday.

In the debate post-mortem, Obama’s defenders put forth a variety of explanations for the President’s underwhelming performance, beginning with Stephanie Cutters’ effort in the spin room to implicitly blame moderator Jim Lehrer for not putting a stop to Romney’ s bullying tactics. Al Gore – he of the 2000 debating “sigh” – suggested the President had not fully acclimated to Denver’s altitude.  Even less plausible was the argument voiced by many on left-leaning blogs that Obama was engaged in some “deep game” designed to lull Team Romney into complacency.

I suspect the explanation is far more prosaic.  Certainly the President look fatigued, which given the demands of his job is quite understandable.   In 1984 Ronald Reagan submitted a turkey of a first debate performance, and his wife Nancy argued strenuously that her Ronnie had been overworked with debate preparation while simultaneously carrying out his day job.  Reagan cut back on his workload, started the second debate with a memorable joke that addressed the whispering campaign about his age and also cracked his opponent up, and sailed to victory.

Part of Obama’s poor performance, however, may also be attributable to contextual factors that affect all incumbent presidents: the need to defend a record. Romney did not miss many opportunities to point out that the economic recovery has been slower than expected during Obama’s time in office. As I noted in my previous post, two of the three previous incumbents dating back to 1992 running for reelection lost polling ground after their first debate, and in the aggregate the three dropped slightly more than 1% in their polling average (note that I had that figure wrong in my initial midnight post), and about the same amount overall after all three debates.  To be sure, they weren’t each running on equally bad records, but they still had to play defense, at least on some issues.  Similarly, the incumbent party’s candidate has lost a shade less than 1% on average in the pre-to post-debate polls dating back to 1988.  So we shouldn’t be surprised that Obama, as the incumbent, didn’t clean Romney’s clock in the first debate – incumbents rarely do.

Nor should we overreact to Obama’s “loss”.  Going back to the Kennedy-Nixon 1960 debates, Gallup’s polling numbers show that it is rare for a candidate trailing before the first debate, as Romney was, to pull ahead to win the race.  The three exceptions based on the Gallup data are Kennedy in 1960, Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000.  So, the next iteration of this pattern shouldn’t take place until 2020!  Of course it is not clear that the debate, by itself, had as much to do with Reagan’s 1980 victory as did the Iranian government’s announcement that they would not release American hostages prior to the Election.  In 2000, of course, Al Gore won the popular vote.  And Kennedy only trailed Nixon by 1% prior to their first televised debate.

So it would be surprising, but not unprecedented, if Romney pulled ahead on the basis of his performances in the three debates this fall.  However, I have been arguing for some time that the economic fundamentals suggest that this race will be quite close come November 6th and that the swing state polls showing Obama with a nearly unbeatable Electoral College edge right now are likely going to tighten, coming into closer alignment with national tracking polls, as more individuals begin focusing on the race. For this reason, I have suggested paying less attention to swing states, and more to national tracking polls.

To be sure, my view is not shared by all (Most?  Any?) of my political science colleagues.  For example, Emory political scientist Drew Linzer, whose election forecast website is a must read for anyone interested in the state of the current race (and whose work is completely transparent!) doesn’t think the presidential race is close at all.  Instead he has Obama ahead by a comfortable margin in the Electoral College.  Based in part on the polls, Drew argues, “If anyone tries to tell you the presidential race is close, don’t believe it. It’s just not true.”  My claim, of course, is that those swing-state polls will begin to tighten in relatively uniform fashion, and in fact there was evidence that they were doing just that prior to Wednesday’s debate.  Moreover, if the debate served to focus voters’ attention on the fundamentals, then one would expect the race to tighten even more – if my interpretation is correct.

If that happens, of course, the general sense of unease that suddenly descended on Obama Nation two nights ago will turn into a full-scale panic, and we will begin seeing exactly the type of carping and finger-pointing that broke out among Republican opinion leaders like Peggy Noonan, Bill Kristol and David Brooks when Obama appeared to open up a big post-convention,  post-“47%” gaffe polling lead.*   My message to Democrats tonight is similar to what I told Republicans then:  Obama did not lose the race Wednesday night, any more than Bain Capital, or the 47% remark, killed Romney’s chances.  Polls ebb and flow in response to media coverage and interpretation of campaign events like debates (although the polls gain predictive power as we get closer to the Election), and forecasting models based on them will respond to those fluctuations in kind.  I persist in believing the race will tighten down the home stretch, so that Obama’s final vote total will come much closer to the median political science forecast than indicated by the swing state polls now.

Could I be wrong?  Sure.  (See 1992 and 2000!)   That’s what makes this so fun!  In the meantime, let the panic begin!

*See tonight’s Saturday Night Live!  Wonderful parody of MSNBC cast in post-debate meltdown here.

Advice To Obama Supporters: Get An Effing Grip On Yourselves!

Once again, my best intentions have been dashed – DASHED! –  I tell you, by the demands of my day job.  I thoroughly intended to provide an in-depth post-debate analysis designed to both talk Obama supporters back off the ledge and to caution Romney’s true believers from engaging in a bout of irrational exuberance.  Instead, it’s pushing midnight and I only have time for a quick synopsis.  So let me start with this succinct advice to Obama supporters: GET A EFFING GRIP ON YOURSELVES!  (And I mean that in the nicest way possible. Really.)  Contrary to what the devotees worshiping in the Church of Obama have tweeted/blogged in the last 24 hours – e.g., “How is Obama’s closing statement so fucking sad, confused and lame? He choked. He lost. He may even have lost the election tonight” – the race is not over.  Indeed, last night is not even a game changer – no more than the secret 47% tape, or the Bain ads (sorry Kevin Drum!)  doomed Romney.   Let me be clear: Romney clearly “won” the debate, however we measure these things – that much, I think is indisputable.  Even Democrats seem to acknowledge as much in the post-debate polls.  (It is also indisputable that many pundits/Obama supporters will disagree with me.)  But what impact does “winning” a presidential debate really have?  History suggests not much (as I meant to tell you before last night).  Here’s some evidence, courtesy of political scientists Chris Wezlien and Robert Erickson (but I could cite a lot more!):

Note that if we look at first debates that involve an incumbent dating back to 1992 (WARNING! N of 3!) the average loss for the incumbent in the post-first debate polls has been about 1.2%*.  Of course, that’s just the first poll – but across three debates (we still have two to go!), incumbents have lost on average about 1%.  So, given that historical record, what is the likely polling impact (notice I said polling –not vote change?) of last night’s debate?  Most of my colleagues are suggesting it will be minimal – for example, John Sides is betting that Romney is going to pick up a point or so based on last night’s performance. I think it will be closer to the 2.5%-3.5% range – but that won’t be entirely attributable to the debate (although pundits will attribute any polling gains by Romney in the next week to the debate).  Instead, I think Romney was poised to close the polling gap even if last night’s debate had not happened.

Look, I acknowledge that  I am either going to be the one guy who didn’t get it, or someone who looks impressively prescient (or stubborn) when this is all over, but I have not bought into the media-driven narrative that Obama has been pulling away in recent weeks.   In part this is because I tend to downplay swing-state polling in favor of relying on national tracking polls, in the belief that national tides will affect all states – swing and non-swing – somewhat evenly.  And the national tracking polls have shown this to be a closer race than have the swing state polls. But the bigger factor is that I’m  not yet ready to abandon the political science forecast models just because a bunch of cable guys (and some name-brand prognosticators [you know who I mean]) are convinced that recent polling indicates a drop in Romney’s win probability.  Yes, I know that the political science forecasts are predicting a range of outcomes – but as regular readers know, I tend to think the median prediction of the dozen or so models is pretty reliable.   In other words, debate or no debate, I think Romney was likely to close this polling gap as we got closer to the Election Day.  It is also worth noting, however, that those models, in the aggregate do NOT suggest that Romney will pull ahead.  Contrary to what many think, the economic fundamentals do not suggest Romney should win this race outright.

So, if I’m right (and all those other pundits are not) why is Romney behind in the polls by more than what the average of the forecast models suggest? In our regular “professor pundits” taping for today, my colleague Bert Johnson sought to explain the discrepancy in the national and swing-state polls by suggesting it reflects Romney’s decision to hold back a bit on advertising in the battleground states, in the belief that he who advertises last, advertises best.  The idea here – based on an interesting paper by a bunch of political scientists – is that the impact of political advertising on voters’ support has a very short shelf life.  So rather than spend money early on swing-state advertising – as Obama has been doing – the better strategy is to come in late with a dominant buying spree.  Of course, the fact that roughly 35% of voters will vote early makes this a risky strategy.  As does relying on a single finding based on a Texas gubernatorial race, I might add! (I should note that Bert isn’t claiming that this is what Romney is doing – only that it is a potential explanation for his willingness to let Obama take the early advertising lead in the swing states.)  I don’t claim to buy Bert’s explanation; I can think of a variety of reasons for why Romney’s swing-state polling hasn’t matched the forecasts as yet, ranging from oversampling of Democrats/slightly screwy likely voter screens to the usual tendency of many voters to answer polls at this point in the election in terms of which candidate is getting the best of current media coverage rather than based on who they will vote for when they are in the polling booth.  (For what it is worth, I reject the conservative pundits’ claim that pollsters are in the tank for Obama.)

The bottom line is I’m sticking by my fundamentals-based methodology that has stood me well in the past. (Ok, maybe not as well as I’d like to think – my forecasts have missed two of the last six elections!  Which reminds me: I owe you my traditional forecast. It’s coming, day job permitting)  And that methodology says this race was going to tighten no matter what happened last night (barring, of course, a disastrous performance by Mitt.)  The fact that Mitt won the debate will likely focus attention on the fundamentals in a way that might accelerate what was going to happen anyway.

Yes, Romney won the debate last night. But no, Obama did not lose the election as a result, and Romney did not win it. There are two more presidential debates to go, for Pete’s sake. (True, they will be even less influential.)

That’s my story, and I’m sticking by it. Tomorrow (day job permitting) I will explain why Obama lost the debate.  In my view, it has far less to do with him, and far more with the institutional constraints that affect all incumbent presidents in their first debate.

*In my initial late night posting, my math skills departed completely and I reported incorrect post-debates averages. These have been corrected (I hope!)

The DNC, True Lies And The Twitterverse

My unscientific sampling of the twitterverse tweets during the Democratic National Convention’s first two nights of speechifying revealed what seemed like a distinctly lower frequency of instant fact-correcting than what I observed during the Republican convention.  That may be because Democrats are an inherently more truthful group of speakers than are Republicans – or it may indicate that my twitterverse feed is dominated by left-leaning pundits.  I’ll let you decide.

Despite the relative lack of prodding from the twits, however, the main stream media fact-checkers such as Factcheck.org  and Politifact.com gamely persisted in informing us about what the former labeled “Democratic Disinformation from Charlotte.”  At the top of their list of misinformation? The claim during the first night by keynote speaker San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and other speakers that Romney would “raise taxes on the middle class”, followed close behind by a misleading claim of job growth under Obama.  (The list of false assertions is actually longer, but these two will suffice to make my point.)  Factcheck is correct that Romney has made it clear that, contra