Day 53: The state of the race


There’s no sure-fire way to know the mind of the electorate, but this map from 270 to Win expresses where pollsters and other experts think the race for the White House is going, based on the information on hand now.

To win, Donald Trump will have to hold the states of Texas and Iowa and swing all the toss-up states (Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, and Arizona) into his column.  In addition, he must recapture pivotal northern states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that he narrowly won last time but that are trending for Biden now.

Trump is a shrewd campaigner, but, as president, he has alienated and outraged so many Americans that it is hard to imagine him winning their votes.  He’s likely to do poorly anywhere with sizable minority communities.  The black population, in particular, is highly energized against Trump and eager to destroy him at the polls.  His predatory and retrograde treatment of women dooms him with this crucial demographic, too.  From day one, Trump has treated his political opponents as enemies, spoiling any hope now of making new “friends.”

Underneath Trump is a Republican party that is rotting away.  The compromises its leaders have made for Trump’s sake have driven thousands of reputable and influential followers away.  Hundreds of high-ranking Republicans have washed their hands of Trump, declared their support for Biden, and counseled rank-and-file voters to do the same.

This discord isn’t free-floating.  It’s playing out in states.  Former governors and legislators are actually working to defeat their own party’s leader.  Trump’s funding is drying up.  Many Republicans up for election are shaky.  As Trump continues to war against his own party’s establishment, he risks a victory that may doom him, too.

RELATED:
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Co-opt and Corrupt: How Trump Bent and Broke the GOP” (NYR)
Jacob Greber, “James and Kathryn Murdoch Become Some of Biggest Anti-Trump Donors(AFR).
“Trump’s August Fundraising Lags Biden’s By 150 Million” (NPR)


Image:
from this source.

The Democrats’ Winnowing Process

On Monday, a depleted Cory Booker dropped out of the presidential race, three weeks before the Iowa caucus.  He had been running for president for nearly a year.  The senator’s departure leaves a dozen Democrats still in the race.  In the incredibly silly yet arduous process used to sift through presidential contenders, sixteen Democrats who were running have already failed.

Yes, they recruited campaign staffs, solicited donations, spoke at rallies, sought friends in wine caves, and pontificated on debate stages, only to gnash their teeth in despair over low statistics gathered through doubtful methods but taken as proof that they wouldn’t catch on.  The reasons remain mysterious, but the polls “say” that these candidates are not what the American Tigger likes.

So Marianne Williamson, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Steve Bullock, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bill de Blasio,  Eric Swalwell, Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, Joe Sestak, Richard Ojeda, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam, and now Cory Booker, have all dropped out—beaten before even a single vote has been cast.

Meanwhile, likely voters (and donors) are being looked to determine what the Democratic Party needs.  The Democratic National Committee  is being decidedly hands-off when it comes to the all-important matter of picking a standard-bearer who can beat Trump.  Given the divide that has opened up between progressives and moderates, the candidate who wins the nomination will fatefully determine the tilt of the entire party.

It’s left to the voters to judge the vast assemblage that has shown up in response to what is essentially an open casting call.  The debate stage is an audition for the presidency (a crude test, given what being an effective president actually involves).  Not surprisingly, many voters are holding off in picking a favorite, until they can see what other people think.  Who is a winner?  This is what ordinary voters expect someone else to decide.

Am I a typical voter, I who could imagine voting for Sanders, or Steyer, or Bullock, or Bloomberg?  Even very well-informed voters may well yet be holding fire.  Which makes me wonder about the meaning, at present, of those all-important opinion polls that sites like FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics keep track of for us, and which have caused so many interesting Democratic talents to drop out.

Image: from this source.
Joseph Keppler’s 1884 “An Unpleasant Ride through the Presidential Haunted Forest,” shows Uncle Sam and Dame Democracy riding in terror through a woods haunted with the ghosts of some twenty “dead” presidential hopefuls. Click to enlarge.


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The Second of Two Thoughts (Bernie Sanders and Turnout)

I watched Judy Woodruff interview Bernie Sanders on the PBS Newshour last night and saw something different in his demeanor.  His speech was just as direct as ever, just as ardent, but he was unusually composed and calm.  Maybe it was the heart attack that changed him, or maybe it has occurred to him, “I can win this thing.”

New public opinion polling shows Sanders’ popularity among likely Democratic voters beginning to exceed that of moderate front-runner Joe Biden.  In addition, Sanders is an unmatched powerhouse among Dems when it comes to fund-raising.  He is estimated to have raised $100 million in 2019, roughly forty million dollars more than Biden, and far surpassing even the enthusiastically backed Pete Buttigieg, who reportedly raised about $75 million last year.

After years of being a long-shot candidate, Bernie suddenly seems a lot more viable—even more mainstream.   His talking points haven’t changed, but the political atmosphere and the wishes of the American people have.  To a citizenry weary of the bizarre outbursts and imbroglios President Trump is so fond of, Sanders’ consistency and plain speech are almost soothing.  He comes across as an aging hippy uncle who has mellowed and acquired good manners over the decades by rubbing elbows with people of wildly different persuasions on Capitol Hill.  His views are reassuringly humane and, from his having repeated them over and over, no longer sound as crazy as they did at first.  He is a peacenik who believes that the US can figure out how to be fairer and deliver national health care and education more affordably.

His remarks on the Newshour zeroed in on the issue of voter turnout and political energy.  Sanders argues that he is the Democratic candidate best suited to oppose Trump because he’s most capable of energizing voters, especially young voters, and getting them to turn out.  “To beat Trump,” he was saying, “you’re going to need a massive  voter  turnout. And the only way you do that is through a campaign of energy, of excitement. You have got to bring working people. You have got to bring young people into the political process.”  In short, the nominee must inspire voters to get involved.

A crucial point.  Candidates’ varying ability to galvanize voters in the general election is a factor completely left to the side in primary polling.  A positive excitement, a charismatic appeal: precisely the ingredients missing in the Hillary debacle.  This time around, I hope to God Democrats will refrain from choosing a “meh” candidate who can’t rouse the electorate to go to the polls.  If the Dems make this mistake again—a mistake they have made innumerable times, as they did with Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and Hillary—Trump and the Republicans will almost certainly prevail.  Then a disappointed nation will be feeling the burn.

The Second Democratic Debates

Last night, I evaluated the Democratic candidates participating in the presidential debate less on the basis of their positions than on their demeanor and how they behaved. Relative to the previous night, this was a more ill-assorted group of presidential hopefuls.  Many of them showed an unappealing side.  I was particularly struck with the unbecoming way some of the aspirants chose to behave toward the putative front-runner Joe Biden.

Biden, despite his lead in the polls, is unlikely to become the party nominee.  He has served his country and his party tirelessly.  He was a marvelous vice president for eight years, he has a good heart, he identifies with others, and in the past he has been a riveting and incisive stump speaker.  Sadly, though, the old Joe Biden is no longer much in evidence; he is no longer at the top of his form, no longer brimming with humor and confidence.

Though many Democrats admire and trust Biden more than they do the other candidates, I think that he will net many fewer votes than expected when primary voters actually go to the polls.  In my view, the decline of Biden’s presidential prospects is inevitable, though presently some 30 percent of likely Democratic voters are telling pollsters that Joe would have their vote if the election were held today.

If I am right, there is no predicting who will end up at the top of the field, for, as Joe’s lead is redistributed, one or more contenders now at the bottom of the heap could rise to challenge the second and third most popular candidates, who happen to be the progressive standard-bearers Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Biden’s eventual inconsequence supplied a lens through which I assessed the behavior of the trailing wannabes.  Which of the other candidates looked presidential, remaining calm and far-sighted, and which yielded to the temptation to go after Joe Biden?  I was appalled to see several of the more junior figures on the stage tearing into a seasoned veteran instead of respecting his service and what the Democratic Party during his era managed to accomplish.  The behavior of Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and (surprisingly) even squeaky-clean Kirsten Gillibrand toward Biden came off as desperate and mean.  I loved how Biden pointed out to Gillibrand that “you thought I was fine until you wanted to be president.”  The words “Et tu, Brute?” came to mind as I reflected on this ugly scene.  It’s sad that, in their eagerness to cast themselves as in the vanguard of change, these candidates have opted to trash their own party and denigrate one of their own most popular leaders.  It shows an inauspicious lack of prudence and restraint.

Though Gillibrand otherwise had some good moments, Tulsi Gabbard and Andrew Yang owned the night, standing out as bright, positive, and self-disciplined.  Yang stayed focused on his big-picture agenda and refrained from back-biting.  Gabbard proved herself an able contender who could gain traction.  She scored off of Kamala Harris, reeling off several accusations against Harris’s conduct as California’s state’s attorney without losing her cool or seeming to have an axe to grind.  Gabbard also came across as a sincere defender of the environment, peace, and national sovereignty.  Though I dismissed her chances back when she announced her candidacy, I now view her as a sleeper candidate, whose prospects could brighten as those of her more irascible and immoderate rivals dim.

Julian Castro‘s advocacy of open borders makes him unelectable, while Bill de Blasio came across as a snob whose inaction with respect to the murder of Eric Garner at the hands of the New York City police dooms him to fail.  I appreciated Michael Bennet‘s conduct and ideas but his lack of charisma makes me doubt whether he can make much headway this time around.  Jay Inslee presented himself as a single-issue candidate with an opening statement focused solely on climate change.

Image: from this source.
In 1848, supporters of the popular Whig senator, Henry Clay, were outraged
when their party passed him over to make General Zachary Taylor their presidential nominee.
The cartoon shows a crowd of prominent Whigs conspiring to stab Clay in the back,
as he reads the Tribune in his drawing room.

Getting To Know The Democratic Field


I had barely walked in the door from a long car trip when the second round of Democratic presidential debates began.  So I grabbed the nearest note pad and sat down to begin assessing the candidates in the Democratic field.  Unlike the first round of debates, which were too dizzying to make sense of, the presidential candidates are beginning to come into focus in this second round.

Most Americans are centrists, so it was heartening to see several of the lesser-known candidates pointing out the dangers of falling into line behind the so-called “progressive” policies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.  To my mind, at least, these two appeared to function last night less as rivals than allies, a relationship visually reinforced by their position together at center stage.  The main axis of the debate, no matter what topic the candidates were discussing, had to do with whether the policies Sanders and Warren are advocating are either fair or achievable, or genuinely appealing to Americans at large.  Particularly controversial is their embrace of Medicare for All, which in their formulation would do away with the nation’s current reliance on private medical insurance.

As the night wore on, Warren, Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, and John Hickenlooper all drifted lower in my estimation, partly because the challenges that Steve Bullock, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, and Tim Ryan mounted against Warren and Sanders were sensible and to my mind represented the interests of a wide swath of the electorate.  These more moderate and pragmatic candidates circled back time and again to the issue of what was achievable and what kinds of government help the public will truly appreciate and need.  Whereas Warren and Sanders thundered away, waving their arms and insisting that nothing but radical change could rescue the nation, Klobuchar, Ryan, Delaney, and Bullock voiced innumerable objections, in some cases questioning the desirability of the outcomes; in others, skeptically probing progressive assumptions; in still others, arguing that progressive policies were unworkable and would fail.

Governor Bullock of Montana, who entered the race only belatedly, made a good impression, if only because his presence reminded viewers of how important it will be for Democrats to choose someone who can do well in the “new West” and in purple states.  Amy Klobuchar improved over her first debate performance, exuding confidence and holding to a spontaneous style.  She easily eclipsed Beto O’Rourke, who was trying too hard to look and sound presidential, and Pete Buttigieg, who, in trying to differentiate himself from the competition, ended up marginalizing himself as a niche candidate representing the young.  Some viewers were turned off by Klobuchar’s touting her own record of electoral achievement, but others will take to heart her underlying message, which is that, to beat Trump, Democrats will need to nominate someone who can capture more votes in the moderate Midwest than Hillary did.

John Delaney, a former congressman from Maryland, came across as accomplished, thoughtful, and in command of the facts.  I was glad to see him standing up to Warren and Sanders and objecting to plans that will pull the Democratic party completely off the rails.  He managed to stay calm and listened politely while Elizabeth Warren lectured and whined her way past rules meant to prevent any one candidate from hogging an undue portion of the available time.

Which brings me to Marianne Williamson, who, despite not being an ideologue, perfectly articulated the central ideal of republican government both on the debate stage and in a post-debate interview with CBS.  She comes across as an authentic voice for using government to help individuals reach their full potential, which can only happen when the political class remembers that its job is to help “the people.”  Though she is not likely to become the party’s nominee, her impassioned and spontaneous riffs on environmental injustice and the dark psychic force of hatred that Donald Trump is unleashing stirred listeners’ hearts as nothing else did.  Somehow, this off-beat outsider is channeling the old soul of the Democratic party, delivering jeremiads to the complacent and prodding Americans everywhere to “stay woke.”  I found her refreshing and wouldn’t be surprised to see her star burning brighter for a while.