Tag Archives: Biden

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!

Early Voting, National Polls, Bachmann, Biden and…er….Hard Wood

Here’s what’s happening in the presidential race:

First, within the next two days, half of all states will see residents begin casting their presidential ballot, through some combination of either early or absentee voting provisions. In 32 states and the District of Columbia, any qualified voter may cast a ballot in person during a designated period prior to Election Day. All states offer some form of absentee ballots, with 27 of them, along with D.C., permitting any qualified voter to request an absentee ballot with no explanation needed. In 21 states, an excuse is needed.  Approximately 46 million people, or a bit more than 1/3 of voters, are expected to take advantage of these provisions in this election cycle – up from the 30% who did so in 2008.  Typically, non-Hispanic whites make up a greater proportion of the early vote than they do the election-day turnout (this was the case in the 2010 midterms), so it is crucial that Romney – who is likely to draw more heavily on this voting bloc – already have his get-out-the-vote (GOTV) organization in place.  Note, however, that in 2008, minorities were a greater proportion of the early vote than they were on Election Day – a testament to both the historic nature of Obama’s candidacy and his superior GOTV organization. I expect the Romney camp to do better with the early vote than did McCain four years ago. But it is a reminder that the campaign season is actually shorter than the election calendar indicates, which builds on a point Stuart made in his comments on my last post: among a sizeable chunk of voters, the time for Romney to close the gap is shorter than you might realize

Speaking of gaps – or a lack thereof – Obama campaign manager Jim Messina is downplaying daily tracking polls by Gallup and by Rasmussen that show Obama and Romney in a dead heat.   Messina argues that we should focus instead on the battleground states, most of which see Obama leading in the polls.  Because of Obama’s lead in these key states, Messina believes, “[T]he national polls aren’t relevant to this campaign.”

I would make two points here. First, while it is true that both the Gallup and the Rasmussen national daily tracking polls are showing, as of this morning, that Obama and Romney are tied, most other national polls are still showing Obama leading this race.  As a result, in the RealClearPolitics aggregate poll, Obama still leads by 3.3%, 48.1-44.8%.  In my view, that national number is more telling than the statewide polls in battleground states, mainly because  – as I’ve said several times before – Obama is unlikely to win the Electoral College while losing the national vote. Yes, it can happen – but I wouldn’t want to count on it.  So, national polls matter – if Romney gains nationally, he’s likely to pull closer in the battleground states as well.

Meanwhile, Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann continues to raise more campaign dough than anyone else in the House aside from Speaker Boehner himself, and she does it largely through small contributions. I note this because journalists often cite small donors as better representing middle America, as opposed to wealthy fat cat donors who contribute big checks in order to buy political access.  The reality, however, as my colleague Bert Johnson has talked about, is that these small donors are typically drawn not from moderate voters, but instead from the two parties’ extreme partisan wings.  That’s why Bachmann, one of the Republican Party’s more conservative members, does so well raising money in small bills.  Similarly, Obama’s advantage over Romney among small donors – 30% of his contributions last month were in donations of $200 or less last month – probably should not be read as a sign that he is drawing better among moderate voters, or is somehow tapping into “middle” America. Instead, these are the party activists who are representative of the very group that make it so difficult for elected officials to bring change “from the inside”.

Finally, there’s this latest Joe Biden story – another reminder of why part of me secretly hopes Obama wins reelection and we get four more years of Joe on the national stage.  Last week the Vice President made an unscheduled stop at a high school in Newport, New Hampshire – a key battleground state – where he gave a shout-out to the various sports teams – football, soccer, lacrosse, etc.  – dressed in their uniforms.  Joe then asked if any other teams were represented:

“Cheerleaders,’’ a group of girls shouted.

“Guess what, the cheerleaders in college are the best athletes in college.’’ VPOTUS told them. “You think, I’m joking, they’re almost all gymnasts, the stuff they do on hard wood, it blows my mind.’’

“Anyway it’s so great to see you guys.’’

To avoid any trouble, I think I’ll simply stop here, and let Joe have the last word.

Scratch that last line.  Let’s let Jill Biden have the last word (video link courtesy of Kate Hamilton):

[youtube  /watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IKfH_E-NsFQ]

Say it ain’t so, Dr. Joe! (And More Specter fallout)

Leading the news today is Dr. Joe Biden’s medical advice, issued on the Today show, that people should avoid riding in airplanes, or taking the subway, or using other forms of mass transit.  Never mind that health officials don’t agree with Dr. Joe – he’s the vice president!  With one foot-in-mouth moment, Dr. Joe singlehandedly counteracts the impact of the $800 billion stimulus bill. We love this guy!  (So does the President, I am certain.)

Now, in response to your inquiries, more on the Specter decision. Several of you have asked why I discount the political science research showing that a switch in party labels usually leads to a switch in voting patterns.  In fact, based on that research, most political scientists that I know believe Specter’s voting pattern will now move quickly and significantly to the Left (see here, for example).

The reason why I don’t believe this is necessarily the case is because that research is based on House switchers, not Senate switchers. In addition to the differences in how the two chambers operate (the House is designed to empower the majority party as a voting bloc, the Senate operates on a more individualistic basis), House districts are almost always smaller, and more ideologically homogeneous.  Senators, on the other hand, represent typically larger and more ideologically diverse states.  As a result, House incumbents usually are less vulnerable to electoral defeat (their reelection rates hover in the mid 90% range), and find it easier to stake out a more partisan voting position congruent with the majority of voters in their district.  Not so for Senators, who typically face stronger challengers who are more effective at using their voting record against them, and who must appeal to a more diverse electorate.   That’s why I am skeptical that previous research on party switching based on the House is applicable to the Senate.

But this provides the opportunity for a natural experiment.  According to Simon Jackman (see chart below), Specter now ranks as the third most liberal Republican in the current (111th) Senate.  (These rankings are based on the Nominate scores – moving Left, along the negative numbers, means you are more liberal, right toward positive numbers is more conservative. The Senators are broken into two columns to save space.)

If I’m right, Specter’s voting record should keep him somewhere in the middle of the Senate pack, ideologically, over the course of the next two years.  If my poli sci colleagues are correct, he should move sharply left closer to the middle of the Democratic Senate voting ranks (say, into Dianne Feinstein/Harry Reid territory).   So we can revisit this issue in two years!

So, why did Specter switch parties?  Largely because of the fallout from the stimulus bill – another reminder why bipartisanship is so difficult in today’s polarized climate.  A March Quinnipiac poll of Pennsylvania voters found the following (see poll here): “Overall Pennsylvania voters have a 45 – 31 percent favorable opinion of Sen. Specter, but he gets a 47 – 29 percent unfavorable score from Republicans. The Republican gets a 60 – 16 percent thumbs up from Democrats and a 41 – 35 percent positive from independent voters.” Much of that disapproval is rooted in Specter’s support of the stimulus package. “Specter’s support of President Barack Obama’s Stimulus Package wins 87 – 6 percent support from Democrats and 56 – 38 percent support from independent voters, while Republican voters disapprove 70 – 25 percent.”  It is not a good sign when your own party’s constituents disown you. As a result, he was likely to lose if he ran in the Republican primary against the less well known Republican Congressman Pat Toomey.  The Quinnipiac poll found Specter trailing Toomey 41 – 27 percent in a Republican primary for the 2010 Senate race, with 28 percent undecided.  A more recent Rasmussen poll (see here) of likely Republican primary voters has Specter getting crushed by Toomey, 51%-30%. More generally, Specter’s approval ratings began nosing downward after the stimulus vote, although he still has more favorable than unfavorable support among all voters.

There are two lessons to draw from this.  First, if Specter has negotiated an understanding with leading Democrats to clear the field of potential challengers in the Democratic Pennsylvania Senate primary (as it appears to be the case), then he has a strong shot at winning the general election for another term as Pennsylvania Senator.  But that wouldn’t happen as a Republican; he wasn’t likely to make it out of the Republican primary.

My larger point is to reiterate an earlier observation: it is often said by pundits, particularly those on the Left, that the Republicans have become the party of “NO”, unalterably opposed to anything Obama proposes.  But the reality, as Specter discovered, is that many Republicans on Capitol Hill face a potential backlash among their core Republican voters in the primary if they appear to support programs that involve increased spending and a greater government role in the economy.  From this perspective, Republican opposition to much of Obama’s program is perfectly logical (and quite predictable).  As an aside, note that Obama doesn’t seem to grasp this, at least not based on his public statements.  Last night during his press conference, he once again reiterated his reminder to Republicans that, “we won.”   Of course, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, from the perspective of individual members of Congress, this is not the case – Obama ran behind most of them, and of course didn’t win very many Republican districts at all.

Aside to Jack, Vijay and Marty:  I don’t have polling data on Tom Ridge versus Specter, but I think Ridge is precisely the kind of Republican who would make it difficult for Specter to win in the general election. However, (for reasons Vijay alludes to in his comment on my earlier post) Ridge would also have to get through the Republican primary – not a sure thing, although he doesn’t have the baggage of a stimulus vote to defend.  Also, I don’t think he has lived in Pennsylvania in some time, although given his history there that may not make a difference to voters.  For what it is worth, here’s Ridge’s statement on Specter’s defection:

“I’ve known Arlen Specter for many years. In no way does his departure from the Republican Party diminish his long record of service to his country and to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“As Arlen will understand, my support is with my Party and with the people of my home state, whom I believe can best be served in the Senate by the GOP.

“So let’s begin the discussion of ideas with a respectful contest as Pennsylvania and the nation continue to work collectively through these challenging times.”

Does that mean Ridge is jumping into the race?  I have no idea.  As for the “Club for Growth” and PAC’s more generally, as my colleague Bert Johnson’s research reminds us, the power of PACs to shape elections appears to have diminished a bit compared to the relative impact of campaign contributions from strongly partisan individuals.  I hope to post on this more extensively.  In any case, I wouldn’t suggest that Specter is the victim of an orchestrated party purge, so much as he fell prey to diminishing enthusiasm among likely Republican voters.  There is a fascinating story here on why politics is increasingly polarized and I hope to discuss it more fully in later posts.

Joe Biden – lost opportunity?

As you all know by now, Obama has chosen Delaware Senator Joe Biden to be his running mate. Assuming Joe doesn’t say something off the cuff in the next two days that will get him kicked off the ticket  – a big assumption – he will likely be ratified by the convention this week. My email predicting that Biden would be a poor choice (I think I compared him, unfavorably, to Dick Cheney) prompted – as I expected with the Cheney comparison – some heated objections from you.  So let me explain by way of providing some brief background on the vice president’s role today.

Presidency scholars typically date the advent of the “modern” vice presidency to Walter Mondale, the Minnesota Senator who served as Carter’s vice president from 1977-81.  Previously, vice presidents were chosen primarily for their ability to a) secure the nomination for the president and/or b) for their vote getting potential in the general election. Once in office, they typically exercised very little influence. Most were shunted to subsidiary roles heading obscure commissions, sent overseas to attend state funerals, and generally waited to see if the President would die in office.

Mondale changed this.  Carter relied on him for insight into how the Washington establishment worked.  Carter had campaigned as a Washington, DC outsider, with very little national experience, and was smart enough to realize he needed someone who understood Capitol Hill.  Mondale, unlike previous vice presidents, received an office in the West Wing, developed an extensive staff, met alone with Carter for weekly meetings, and generally was an effective adviser who enjoyed strong relations with the President.

Ever since Mondale, every vice president has assumed a more integral policy and advising role. This has had two ramifications for the selection of the Vice President. First, it has elevated the need to choose a VP with whom the President feels some comfort. Now, as I indicated in my previous email, that comfort sometimes takes a while to achieve (Reagan and Bush I) and sometimes it disappears (Clinton and Gore). But generally presidential candidates today do not want to choose a VP with whom they do not have some rapport.  By all accounts, Biden and Obama are comfortable with one another. The exception – and it is an important exception that applies to Obama – is if there is a potential vice presidential candidate who carries some electoral clout or who can otherwise bolster the ticket.  In that case, electoral considerations may outweigh compatibility issues.

This leads to the second implication of the Mondale modernization of the vice president’s role. It is now possible to “sell” your vice presidential choice not just in terms of the nominee’s delegate or vote getting ability, but also their policy expertise. If they are perceived to compensate for a presidential candidate’s weaknesses – say, inexperience in the ways of Washington, or a lack of foreign policy gravitas – then they may enhance the presidential ticket. Or so the argument goes.

This was Bush II’s rationale for choosing Dick Cheney – he wasn’t selected because he could bring Wyoming into the Republican fold!  Cheney has extensive foreign policy experience within the executive branch as well as having served several terms on Capitol Hill.  As an added virtue, he had no presidential ambitions of his own, so Bush did not worry that at some point Cheney’s interests might clash with Bush’s (see Gore and Clinton after 1996). My point here is not to defend (or critique) Cheney’s policy views – I leave that to you. But I do claim that, among the modern vice presidents, Cheney has been among the most effective for serving as an influential adviser and in helping the President achieve his own policy goals.  That’s the additional quality that a president wants from the vice president today.

Now consider Biden.  Obviously, he wasn’t selected because he’s going to bring Delaware into the Democratic column. He has some electoral virtues – he may help with the Catholic vote, he may bring in blue collar workers in Pennsylvania (an important swing state), he has extensive experience in the Senate.  But these are marginal benefits at best. In fact, Biden was chosen to be Bush’s Cheney – to compensate for Obama’s perceived weakness on foreign policy.  As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, Biden has extensive foreign policy experience.  But it’s the wrong type of experience, in my view.

Senators, by the nature of their job, are not conceptualizers or managers – they are counter punchers, and from a partisan and constituency-based perspective. Biden has spent his lifetime viewing foreign policy through a senatorial perspective. That means conducting oversight of the executive branch policy and intervening when he sees partisan and/or constituency benefits. It is largely a reactive role.  Biden has never been forced to manage foreign policy, or implement it. This shows in his handling of the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq. In both instances he has largely supported the primary thrust of the policy, while critiquing its implementation. Obama says he never would have voted in favor of the Iraq war resolution. But Biden did. Note that Biden’s foreign policy activity to date is appropriate in his role as Senator; he is expected to oversee the executive branch’s conduct of foreign policy.   But it is a far cry from running the Defense Department in wartime, as Cheney did with Bush I, or sitting in the Oval Office next to the President while he decides whether to launch military action, as Cheney did with Ford.  In short, Obama may find out if he is elected that Biden’s foreign policy expertise is not what he needs in the Oval Office.

Let’s be clear here – selecting Biden is not a disaster.  My guess is he will cost Obama very little at the polls, and may even prove to be marginally beneficial. But this was Obama’s first major choice as the presumptive nominee, and he lost an opportunity to solidify his image as an agent of change. Biden is a white male who has twice failed in his bid to be president and who brings very little to the table electorally beyond a perception of foreign policy experience and it is the wrong type of foreign policy experience in my view.  More importantly, on the signature issue, which arguably did more than anything else to bring Obama the support of the Democratic, left – the Iraq War – Biden voted the “wrong” way.   So what kind of signal does the choice of Biden send?  Rather than change, it looks like Obama is trying to take on McCain in an area – foreign policy -where Obama cannot beat McCain.  Choosing Biden is a decision to fight this election on the wrong terrain, from Obama’s perspective and, I suspect, from that of Obama’s core supporters.

Perhaps more significantly, he has provided an opening for McCain to use his vice presidential selection to demonstrate the imaginative leadership that Obama’s choice does not do by, for example, choosing a woman as his VP.  At the same time, McCain can use Obama’s snub of Clinton as an opening to woo her core supporters who are more centrist and thus more amenable to entreaties from a “maverick” Republican.

If he is smart, McCain can take advantage of Obama’s miscue – but will he?  In my next post I’ll examine McCain’s short list of vice presidential candidates. Condi Rice, anyone?

I knew Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney was a friend of mine.  Joe Biden is no Dick Cheney….

The Obama VP sweepstakes choice du jour is Joe Biden.  Biden, of course, is an appealing choice because he chairs the Senate Foreign Relations committee, and has served in the Senate since 1973 so has extensive Washington experience.  Despite serving in the Senate for 35 years, he is still relatively young (he will turn 66 this year) for someone who has been a Senator for this long (he’s fifth in seniority among Senators, if my math is correct).  He thus provides Obama with both experience and foreign policy credentials.  He is also a former chair of the Senate Judiciary committee, which gave him a platform for pushing some strong anti-drug policies and to generally craft a relatively strong law-and-order profile.  Combined with his personal story – he lost his first wife and infant in an auto accident shortly after he was elected to the Senate (he has since remarried), and almost died from a brain aneurysm in 1988 – he is a very attractive choice.  For all these reasons – his foreign policy expertise, his years working on the judiciary committee, his appealing personal history, his longevity in the Senate – he has been touted as the front runner for the VP.  He is also a very personable person who, based on media accounts, seems to have developed a good rapport with Obama.

But he is not a good selection.  Those of you who have seen him on the stump understand that he has a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease. In this internet/you-tube age, his verbal gaffes will be played again and again.   He has twice run for the presidency and in both cases showed remarkably little rapport with voters.  As the Senator from Delaware, he also brings very little to the electoral table.

The primary liability, however, is the fact that his foreign policy experience has been gained from serving in the Senate.  This is what sets him apart from Dick Cheney.  Cheney gained valuable foreign policy experience as Secretary of Defense under the first George Bush. Prior to that he worked under Don Rumsfeld in the Ford White House, before succeeding Rumsfeld as chief of staff.  Like Obama and Biden, Bush the Younger chose Cheney to compensate for his relative lack of foreign policy credentials.  But Cheney had actual executive branch experience in managing the Defense department, and in making key foreign policy decisions, most notably during the first Persian Gulf War.  Biden has none of this experience.  As a Senator, he tends to view foreign policy primarily through the lens of oversight of the executive branch, rather than as someone who has developed his own foreign policy or who has managed the foreign policy establishment.  Note as well that Biden supported Bush’s decision to invade Iraq by voting for the October 2002 resolution to invade.  After 9/11, he supported Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan, and he also agreed with Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed.  He has since criticized Bush for failing to manage the war effectively, and perhaps is best noted for supporting a plan to partition Iraq into three zones of influence.  But Republicans will have a field day pointing out that Biden was one of Bush’s strongest supporters in the war on terror.

In short, he lacks the right type of foreign policy experience, and his voting record on the key foreign policy issues is almost indistinguishable from Clinton’s.

A final point: if Obama wishes to make a selection that cements his image as the candidate of change – who plays more strongly to that message:  Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden?  For the moment, Biden is the media darling.

But he is the wrong choice for Obama.