Thursday, March 05, 2020

Why Winning Alabama Matters

Chris Koski makes an important point regarding one talking point aimed at dismissing Biden's Super Tuesday performance: that it's meaningless because he was only winning "red states" that will play no role in the general election anyway.

To begin, it's not really true: of all the states which have had primary elections so far, the state most likely to be "pivotal" in November is North Carolina, and Biden won there by almost 20 points. And in terms of Sanders' victories, it's not like Utah or (in the other direction) Vermont are going to play decisive roles in the general either.

But also, Koski notes, between voter suppression and high rates of racial polarization in voting, the presidential primary is one of the few opportunities for African-American voters in deep south states like Alabama to influence national and Democratic politics at all. Given that they are a core Democratic constituency, it is a good thing that they get the opportunity to make their mark in the primary process precisely because in the general the Democratic candidate won't really have the opportunity to invest any time there.

This is changing a little bit as some shallow south states become more competitive (see North Carolina again). But if the raw bloodless political calculus is that a Democratic presidential candidate really should ignore African-American voters in Alabama during the general election campaign, that makes it more important that they have the opportunity to exert meaningful influence in the primary.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

What if Sanders Hadn't Run?

One reason you shouldn't trust me with political prognostication is that I'm not very good at it. For example: I didn't think either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders would even run this year. Biden I thought missed his window in 2016, and if he didn't want it then he wouldn't have the fire for it now. Sanders, for his part, I thought wasn't the sort of person who dreamed of becoming President -- his 2016 campaign was a gadfly effort that went further than anyone could have predicted, but four years later and in his late 70s he'd be happy to hand off the reins of the movement to someone else.

And that got me thinking: what would this race have been like if Sanders hadn't run? What if -- just as Sanders' original 2016 momentum stemmed out of the "Draft Warren" movement -- Sanders had demurred on the race and instead shunted his considerable base of support over to Elizabeth Warren from the get-go?

Obviously, we can't know for sure how that would have played out. Maybe the intense personal loyalty and fervor Bernie inspires can't be easily transferred over to another. The fact that Warren never really caught on with Democratic voters in the actual timeline gives reasonable grounds for skepticism that she would have done so in any timeline.

However, I think there's a case to be made that if Warren was running solo as the clear progressive choice, she'd have had a better chance of pulling the collective progressive wing of the party over that 50% mark than Bernie does right now (even if/when Warren drops out and endorses him).

For one, fairly or not, Sanders still suffers from the residual soreness some voters have towards the 2016 primary. That doesn't matter in terms of getting from 0% to 30% support, but it might matter a lot for the next stage of the rocket jumping from 30% to 51%. Warren wouldn't have that problem -- indeed, her opening pitch was as the candidate whom both the establishment and the insurgents could respect. That's almost a distant memory now, with the various fights and squabbles between the candidates creating some bitter rifts. But if Sanders hadn't run in the first place, the alignment between his supporters and hers would have almost assuredly gone much smoother.

By now a Warren nomination (which could only happen via a contested convention) would do nothing but infuriate Sanders backers -- and frankly they'd have a point. Yet I can't help but think that if Sanders hadn't run, and Warren was viewed as his ally all along, a hypothetical Warren nomination would have been viewed as a tremendous victory.

Warren also represents a style of progressive political change that is I think both more likely to carry a majority in the party and frankly is just plain healthier. If she was the standard-bearer for the left, the tone she'd set probably wouldn't yield the more aggressive/abusive actions of Sanders' more fanatical supporters -- behavior which really is becoming a serious electoral liability for the latter. She could have run a far more positive version of the campaign Sanders did, and since it wouldn't depend on lobbing verbal grenades at every Democrat whose been in office for more than three years, she would have had a genuine chance of cultivating the sorts of relationships with the Democratic Party officials that could have made a path to 51% plausible. Contrast that to Sanders, whom, as many have noted, is trying to manage the impossible task of running to become the leader of a party he despises. Warren, at the very least, doesn't despise the Democratic Party, which makes a big difference when you're running to head it up.

Again, I'm not saying that story would have been inevitable. There's ample suspicion on the left that "the party" would try to crush Warren with the same fervor that they targeted Sanders (I think "the party" actually kept pretty quiet this year, but okay). And moreover, there's a very strong case that Sanders' appeal depends on his ability to harness anger and rage and the rougher emotions, and that Warren filing those off wouldn't have seen her go from 30% to 50% but rather would see her go nowhere. Indeed, I think the conventional wisdom right now is systematically underrating the possibility that "electability" and "seen as a firebrand" are positively rather than negatively correlated -- this possibility to me is the best argument for why Sanders is more electable than Biden.

Nonetheless, this was a different timeline that it's at least possible to imagine. If Sanders doesn't run, and supports Warren, I think it's very likely that this race looks very different. The leading left candidate's campaign likely wouldn't see the toxicity that has emerged from some corners of Bernie-land, we'd never have seen the bitter divides within the left that the Sanders/Warren feuds have generated, and on the whole I can very much imagine Elizabeth Warren not just winning the nomination, but winning it in a fashion where the progressive wing of the Democratic Party feels vindicated and energized.

Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Assorted Super Tuesday Thoughts

As Super Tuesday slides into regular Wednesday, the race looks quite a bit different than it did just a week ago. Joe Biden won at least nine of fourteen states in play today -- Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Minnesota (and is ahead in Maine, though it's still too close to call). Sanders won his home state of Vermont as well as Utah, California, and Colorado.

Oh, and Michael Bloomberg won American Samoa.

So where are we now? Is this a Biden coronation? Wherefore my beloved Elizabeth Warren? And did anything interesting happen downballot?

  • Obviously this was a really good night for Biden. Early in the evening I thought people might be overstating just how good it was by over-weighting the absolute whupping Biden handed out in Virginia. But no: this was a really good night for Biden. It wasn't a complete knockout blow, but he basically ran the table on "surprises". He won all the states that were even close to "toss-ups", and at least a few which were though to be strong Sanders locales. And while Sanders had the misfortune of having his better states be further west (and thus reporting later), Biden winning Texas takes the wind out of the sails of Sanders' emphatic victory in California.
  • The Black community is not a monolith. But overall, Biden is creaming Sanders among Black voters. That's just the truth. Sanders has improved on his numbers in the Black community since 2016, but not by a lot, and in states like Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia ... that's going to leave a mark.
  • So is Sanders dead in the water? I don't think so. First, remember last week when everyone was thinking Sanders had it basically sewn up? Things change quickly. And to the extent the race consolidates down to Biden versus Sanders -- well, I think Biden might start with an edge in support, but I think Sanders can clean his clock in a debate context. There's still a lot of room for movement here.
  • That said, I do think Sanders' theory of the case has been severely damaged today. Yes, he's crushing it among young voters margin-wise -- but he doesn't seem to actually driving greater turnout. Indeed, surprisingly enough, we're seeing big turnout increases in places where Biden cleaned up. Virginia voter turnout nearly doubled from 2016 to 2020. South Carolina surged too. The thesis of Broockman/Kalla paper (go Bears!) -- that Sanders' path to victory in November relies on not just winning big among the youth but getting them to actually show up to the polling place, and that's a dodgy bet -- seems more and more plausible.
  • It's a particular mood where, anytime a particular Democratic candidate seems to be getting traction, I feel a wave of despair and pessimism about their chance of winning the general election. When Sanders was winning, I was gloomy about his November prospects. Then the race opened back up, and I felt a brief sense of relief -- until I thought about Biden as the nominee and immediately was re-enveloped in a feeling of doom. And lest you think this is just a partisan plea for Warren, on the rare occasions I felt any possibility that she might win the nomination, I immediately started despairing about the general.
  • Quite a few Sanders partisans who last week were loudly insistent that raw plurality vote wins were the only thing that matter and if you disagree you hate democracy are oddly quiet this evening. Just kidding: they're not quiet -- they're just now loudly saying things about how moderate consolidation around Biden is its own form of cheating, without even a nod at the obvious change in position.
  • What were the biggest upsets of the night? Biden winning Massachusetts wasn't on anyone's radar. But I might say that -- even with Klobuchar's endorsement -- Biden picking up Minnesota might be a bigger surprise. Sanders did really well here in 2016, and right up until Klobuchar dropped out the line from the Sanders camp was "she's only staying in the race to block Sanders!"
  • With all due respect to American Samoa, Bloomberg basically made no impact on the race today. He's apparently going to "reassess" his campaign tomorrow. I will say his team is good at making ads, so I hope Bloomberg continues to dump money into blitzing Trump over the airways.
  • Elizabeth Warren comes in third in her home state, and is only going to cross the 15% viability threshold in Massachusetts, Colorado, Maine, and maybe Minnesota. She'll pick up a few more delegates here and there in congressional districts where she overperformed, but overall, she's pretty well toast. And even the "contested convention" strategy seems difficult to pull off credibly when your best performances during the race are a big stretch into third place.
  • I predict Warren drops out by the end of the week and endorses Sanders. I also predict that the Sanders Twitterati will respond by saying basically "too late, snake". Then they'll wonder why her endorsement didn't really move the needle (they will finally conclude that it's Warren's fault).
  • What's going on downballot? The race I was watching most closely was the Democratic primary in the Texas 28th congressional district, where Rep. Henry Cuellar -- easily one of the worst Democrats in the House -- was facing a stiff primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros. Right now, with about 33% reporting, Cuellar is leading by 5 points. I tend to have a pretty high bar for supporting anti-incumbent challenges, and this was one I backed whole-heartedly, so I'm very disappointed.
  • In the California special election to fill ex-Rep. Katie Hill's seat (CA-35), the big question is who will face Democrat Christy Smith in a run-off. Smith has 33% in a highly fractured all-party primary, leading the pack. Ex-Rep. Steve Knight, whom Hill defeated last cycle, is down eight points to fellow Republican Mike Garcia in the race for the second spot. Unfortunately, combined with the various lesser Republicans, the total GOP vote in the primary is well over 50%, signaling a tough general election fight for Smith. On the other hand, Cenk Uygur right now has less than 5% of the vote, and it is frankly sinful how much pleasure that gives me.
  • Speaking of Uygur, there are a couple of other true sociopaths running (I mean, there are many, especially on the GOP side, but I'm focusing on Democratic primaries here). 

Monday, March 02, 2020

A Few More Reasons Why Black Voters Back Biden

Huge numbers among Black voters in South Carolina gave Joe Biden his first primary victory -- and re-energized the question "why do so many Black voters back Biden?"

Back in January, I gave one partial answer to that question: many Black voters with moderate or conservative views who, absent Republican racism, might be Republican are Democrats because -- again -- Republican racism makes GOP affiliation a non-starter choice for them. Consequently, there is likely (and polling bears this out) a significant percentage of self-identified conservative Black people voting in Democratic primaries, and it shouldn't surprise that they'd find a candidate like Biden relatively appealing compared to other options. More liberal Black voters will find someone like Sanders more appealing (and so it isn't surprising that younger Black voters -- from an overall more liberal generational cohort -- also are far more likely to support Sanders).

Elie Mystal in The Nation offers another hypothesis today: Black voters -- and especially older Black voters who lived through Jim Crow -- know better than to trust that White people really will go for the sort of radical egalitarian politics that Bernie Sanders is putting out there. So even if they might find Sanders appealing in abstract, they're voting pragmatically based on their assessment of White American voter behavior.

I think Mystal's hypothesis (and to be clear, these accounts are not mutually exclusive) also dovetails with a related explanation: the distinction between those who think things can't get meaningfully worse and those who believe they can get much worse. One argument I've seen from some Sanders supporters is basically a claim of "why not try it?" They think things are so screwed up that even if Sanders represents a dice roll it's worthwhile. While sometimes this is framed as them understanding the "real stakes" of this election, to some extent this outlook is based on minimizing the stakes -- not between Sanders and Trump, but between Trump and anyone-not-Sanders. The differences between Trump and all other candidates are collapsed into being two species of very bad (to borrow from a great movie review, one outcome may be materially better than the other, but "only in the same way that dying from natural causes is preferable to crucifixion").

To that, some people -- and again, I can imagine those who've lived through Jim Crow being more prone to this sort of view -- would say you have no idea how bad things can get. The difference between Trump winning and losing -- to any Democrat -- are massive. The degree to which four more years of Trump would intensify human misery among the most vulnerable among us is almost impossible to imagine unless you've lived through something approximating it.

This connects to two different "lessons" I think left-of-center persons could draw from the 2016 election. One lesson is that moderation and safe choices don't win elections, so why not go big? What 2016 discredited was establishment liberalism and its conventional wisdom. Another lesson, though, is that anyone who acts as if there isn't a huge gap between the absolute worst and most compromised Democrat and a Republican is not facing reality. What 2016 discredited was anyone who thinks that the differences between the parties are scant enough so that it ultimately doesn't really matter if Donald Trump is put into office as against establishment alternatives.

It's the difference, ultimately, between people who genuinely feel as if they have nothing to lose, versus people who feel like they know exactly how terrible things could get if they do lose. Different outlooks, and I'm not saying one is better than the other. And of course, there are plenty of supporters of both campaigns that do so for reasons that have nothing to do with this logic -- for example, they think Sanders is the safer pick against Trump (I've found this somewhat persuasive myself, actually!). But I think something like this debate is probably part of what's distinguishing at least some Biden versus Bernie backers.