Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Winnowing the Democratic Field


Twenty-eight Democrats put their names in to run for President. Now only 12 are left, most of whom have little chance. Why have some candidates survived, while others had to drop out?

First, please note that the above paragraph is not actually correct. In fact, at least 305 people have registered as Democratic presidential candidates for 2020, along with 153 Republicans, 53 Libertarians, and 22 Greens. The great majority are not serious contenders and won’t appear on any ballot. They have no chance, because the media pay no attention to them, so we have never heard of them. They attract no campaign funds, so only the Federal Election Commission, with whom they filed their papers, knows their names. It might be interesting to examine this long list to see who takes this step and why.

How did the 28 racing Democrats become “12”? Or maybe it’s really only the 6 who will debate tonight in Iowa. But beyond the 6 stands Michael Bloomberg and $1 billion.

So this is complicated. I’ll say up front that I mined information from these places:
Politico’s site about all the polls among Democratic candidates over the past year through December;
nice charts of the ups and downs in the polls of most of the candidates at Real Clear Politics and Wikipedia;
the constantly updated New York Times story about all the candidates, in and out;
an enormous amount of facts about the Democratic debates at Wikipedia.

It’s been confusing, but delightful to see so many serious and skilled people with the most diverse identities making a serious run at the Presidency. There is nothing like it anywhere else in American history or in American politics today. I’m trying to reduce my own confusion here, and this is longer than I usually write.

Many of the Democrats had little name recognition beyond their own state:
Mike Gravel, former Senator from Alaska
John Hickenlooper, former Governor of Colorado
Wayne Messam, mayor of Miramar, Fla
Seth Moulton, Congressman from Massachusetts
Richard Ojeda, former West Virginia state senator
Tim Ryan, Congressman from Ohio
Joe Sestak, former Congressman from Pennsylvania.

Three similar candidates managed to qualify for the first or second debate, but it made no difference:
Steve Bullock, Governor of Montana
Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State
Eric Swalwell, Congressman from California.
They got no attention because they got no attention.

Several who remain officially in are also mostly unknown to Americans outside of their own states, where the heavy weight of the 2020 campaign has not yet landed:
Michael Bennett, Senator from Colorado
John Delaney, former Congressman from Maryland
Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman from Hawaii.
In December, over 30% had still not heard of them. Tulsi Gabbard might appear to be a different case, since she got to the 5th debate, while Bennett and Delaney didn’t debate after July. Perhaps the controversy she caused by some unorthodox foreign policy positions and a history of anti-gay advocacy attracted a bit more attention and funding. But she peaked at 2% in national polls in December, where she remains, and she has already had her last debate. Of those who had heard of her, more than half had an unfavorable opinion.

Only one other candidate had underwater favorability ratings from those who knew of her: Marianne Williamson. If Gabbard was unorthodox, Williamson came out of left field. Her political history consisted of an unsuccessful run for Congress in California in 2014. She is not a politician, but a very successful author, self-help guru, and political progressive. She came at this campaign from the side, and always stood out among her rivals, all politicians. She wants to cure our spiritually diseased society with love. Williamson only debated twice and then her continued inability to get over 1% in any polls doomed her ability to shift American politics toward feelings.

This uniquely unfavorable polling data for Gabbard and Williamson could have an explanation in today’s hot question: can a woman get elected President? At the moment Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are heading toward a disastrous he-said no-he-didn’t confrontation on that question, that adds charges of lying to charges of sexism. I’ll interrupt the flow of candidate data to say that I don’t think it is automatically sexist to believe that a woman can’t win in 2020, or to say it. Nobody denies that Clinton’s gender hurt her vote in some way. How many of those disinclined to vote for a woman in 2016 have changed their minds? This is a legitimate question for discussion and each answer, yes or no, deserves to be heard. Sanders might know something about American voting patterns that would make his judgment about whether a woman could win useful.

I happen to favor Elizabeth Warren, and I constantly hear and see opinions that she can’t win, because a woman can’t win. But that takes us back to unfavorability. It might be that a dose of sexism raised the unfavorability ratings of Gabbard and Williamson. Kamala Harris also had notably high unfavorability. But in the latest poll this month, Warren and Sanders had the best favorable to unfavorable ratios among all candidates. That ratio appears to me to be quite stable. As new people learn about a candidate, the favorable and unfavorable piles grow at the same pace. It may be that the incessant scrutiny of Warren’s personal impression on voters, as opposed to chuckles at Sanders’ angry old man cuteness thanks to Larry David, displays media stereotyping. Voters appear to have gotten beyond this.

To get back to the list: some candidates did succeed in gaining national attention.
Beto O’Rourke had a national reputation as former Congressman from Texas and a losing Senatorial candidate a year ago, but he could not repeat the magic of that campaign. He never got beyond that hurdle of 2% in national polls, below which so many candidacies failed.
Kirsten Gillibrand and Bill de Blasio, Senator and Mayor from New York, were probably better known than the western Congressmen and Governors who dropped out early, but they also went nowhere. She, and especially he had too many people who disliked them.
Julián Castro won election 3 times as mayor of San Antonio, then served 3 years as Secretary of Housing under Obama. He did well in the first 4 debates, but ended up under 1% in polls and dropped out last month.

Among the many sitting Senators who got into this race, three were able to stay in the race in the second tier:
Corey Booker from New Jersey
Kamala Harris from California
Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota.
Their names were broadly known, especially the first two. They all participated in the first 5 debates from June through November, creating clear campaign personalities. And they all remained in the second tier, except for a brief breakthrough for Harris reaching third place and 15% in July. Then she fell precipitously to below 5% in December and dropped out. Neither Booker nor Klobuchar have been above 3% since July, but they hung on. Booker just dropped out and Klobuchar remains in, but I don’t see much hope for her. All the latest state polls have her at or below 4%, except for Iowa, where she is counting on her Midwestern roots to move her up in the field. But even there, she only gets 6% to 8% in fifth place.

On Monday, Booker dropped out. Tuesday’s debate will have only white candidates. The winnowing of a historically diverse field of candidates to fewer all white debaters was not due to Democratic National Committee debate rules or to black candidates’ inability to raise funds. The choices of black Democrats made the difference. In November, black voters preferred Biden, Sanders and Warren, with only 2% for Kamala Harris and under 1% for Booker. The Washington Post-Ipsos poll in early January confirmed what had been obvious since the beginning of the campaign. Joe Biden is the most popular choice among black Democrats, at 48%, concentrated among blacks over 35. Bernie Sanders is second at 20%, Elizabeth Warren at 9%, Booker at 4%. Even as a second choice, Booker could get only 8%. Booker could only get third place as best able to handle issues important to blacks, but most significant, only 2% thought him best able to defeat Trump.

Deval Patrick, two-term Governor of Massachusetts, considered opening a campaign in 2018, decided against, then jumped in three months ago. But he got less than 1% of black voters in January, a bad sign.

Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York, has become a wild card in this race. He had been talked about as a presidential candidate every election since 2008. He registered as a Democrat in October and opened his campaign in November, too late for the earliest primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire. He is financing his own campaign, so he will not meet the donor thresholds for participation in the debates. He is better known across the country than any of the candidates except the top 4, and has risen suddenly in polls to tie Pete Buttigieg for 4th place. Can he go higher? Maybe not much, because he is viewed more negatively than anyone else among the top 10 candidates.

Tom Steyer is another billionaire who said he wasn’t going to run, then changed his mind, and began a campaign in July. In October he was only known to 64% of those polled, like the many candidates who dropped out, but that had climbed to 71% in December, and 75% this month. He is polling at or below 4%, but he appears to be rising, and is staying in. Billions buy ads, and I have seen a number of them, even in Illinois, so he is becoming better known.

Steyer and Bloomberg demonstrate the necessity of money, lots of money, for American politicians, especially presidential candidates. Billionaires represent .0000003% of the US population, but 2 out of 12 remaining Democratic candidates and 1 (guess who?) out of 3 Republicans.

Andrew Yang is also in a category by himself. He is a tech entrepreneur and author, who has never run for public office. His signature proposal is that the government fund a universal basic income of $1,000 per month for all Americans. His focus on the economy and his unique persona have brought him a devoted following and much media attention. He qualified for all the debates until tonight, where he misses some of the polling qualifications. He ranks above politicians like Klobuchar and the billionaire Steyer, but at 5% he doesn’t yet threaten the leaders. He ranks sixth in all states but California, where he is fifth.

What about the top 4? Amidst all these comings and goings, the top 4 have remained pretty firmly in place. Joe Biden has been leading the whole time, but in the most recent polls has fallen to just under 30%. He also led in nearly every state poll, except for the most recent Iowa poll, where Sanders beats him. Bernie Sanders seems locked in second place, but he has narrowed the gap in national polls from about 15 points to 6 points in the latest poll. He is competing for the more progressive voters with Elizabeth Warren, who seemed to pass him in September, but has fallen back to third since then. Pete Buttigieg has been in fourth place for months, briefly jumping up over 10% in December, but falling back to 8%-9% now. He may also see hope in Iowa, where he does better, but in states with significant black Democrats, he does poorly.

Looking toward the next few months, the New York Times shows us how much money each candidate has collected and how much media attention they get. The top 4 have each collected more than $35 million, with Bernie leading at $61.5 million. They also get the most media attention. Everybody else is far behind in contributions, all under $16 million. Bloomberg occupies a peculiar position, since he has collected no contributions for his entirely self-funded campaign, yet ranks 5th in the national polling average at 5%. Steyer also has elevated himself from the pack of also-rans, by qualifying for the January debate, as he did for the December debate, through heavy advertising in the early primary states.

Tonight’s debate may shake things up, but that seems unlikely to me. The next important moments will be the caucuses in Iowa on February 3 and the primary election in New Hampshire on February 11, two of the whitest states in the US. Caucuses in Nevada and an election in South Carolina follow later in February, with much more diverse populations. After these contests, the projections and predictions will multiply, with a much firmer basis. Losers will drop out and their supporters will look for a new home. I think the tug of war between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party will continue into the summer.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
January 14, 2020

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Politics at the State Level: Maine


These days, all of our attention is directed at Washington, DC, as if that’s where the most important things happen. Watch the national networks – what’s happening in state government is rarely mentioned. States only count if their polls can tell us about the next national election. The political stalemate in Congress means that very little is being legislated. Our lives are more strongly influenced by state governments, which might ban or support the right to abortion, try to suppress or encourage voting, raise or lower taxes.

To understand the state of American politics, let’s look at my former home, Maine. Its recent political shifts are not typical, if any state is typical, but they are revealing about what separates Republicans and Democrats at the beginning of 2020.

In 2018, the Democratic wave washed over Maine. Attorney General Janet Mills ended Republican occupation of the Governor’s mansion, by winning 51% in a 3-way race. The State Senate, which had been narrowly controlled by Republicans 18-17, went Democratic 21-14. Democrats had controlled the Maine House of Representatives since 2012. They increased their majority from 73 to 89 seats. This was part of a national trend in favor of Democrats, who held 42.6% of the 6073 state legislative seats up for election across the country, and won 47.3% in 2018.

My source for Maine’s legislative politics last year is one-sided: the Legislative Scorecard produced by the Maine People’s Alliance, a very liberal advocacy group. On 13 bills that the MPA thought significant, we can see what each party is trying to accomplish and how they vote.

The MPA encouraged passage of bills that: gave teachers the right to negotiate over working conditions in their contracts; increased for renters the minimum advance notice of rent increases from 45 days to 75 days; gave workers at Maine businesses one hour of sick time for every 40 hours of paid work; lowered the threshold for the state’s estate tax, which had been raised recently by a Republican administration; established a Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial and Ethnic Populations in Maine; guaranteed insurance coverage of abortion care for Maine plans; created two overdose prevention sites, where addicts could use drugs in a safe environment and get treatment; made labor arbitration binding on issues of wages, benefits, and retirement; established a Green New Deal task force to create a plan to reach 80% reliance on renewable electricity by 2040; restored access to welfare services for low-income legal immigrants; directed the Public Utilities Commission to consider creating a consumer-owned public utility; changed the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day. I have always been a big supporter of the MPA, which is why they keep sending me their newsletter.

The MPA-supported bills protected reproductive rights, supported wage workers and renters, tried to deal with the drug crisis, moved forward on the environment, and promoted racial equality. The MPA opposed an amendment to the Maine Constitution that would have made it more difficult to put a citizen’s initiative on the ballot by requiring more signatures. Thousands of bills were submitted during this legislative session, but these few illustrate the politics of each party.

The voting demonstrates the lack of a middle in Maine, or more precisely, the total rejection by Republicans of the Democratic agenda. On 10 bills, the 57 Republicans in the House provided only 12 positive votes. Another way to put that is that 45 Republicans voted for none of these bills, and 12 voted for one, mostly for the bill mandating sick leave. The Republican votes in the Senate were similar, with 12 of 14 Republicans voting for none of the bills.

Democrats provided a more diverse spectrum of voting. Of 89 Democrats in the House, 29 voted for all 10 bills, 27 voted against one or two, 14 voted against 3 or 4, and 9 voted against 5 or more. The bill to create “overdose centers” was the least popular, with 40 Democratic “no” votes, and it did not go any further. Nearly one-third of Democrats supported the Constitutional amendment to require more signatures, but that needed a 2/3 majority to pass and failed. Enough Democrats voted against lowering the estate tax threshold that it failed. The bill to increase the advance notice of rent increases passed by slim majorities, with about one-quarter of Democrats voting against, and was vetoed by the Governor. The Governor also vetoed the requirement for labor arbitration, which had 12 Democratic “no” votes in the House.

Big Democratic majorities and approval by the Governor were achieved by the bills to change the name of Columbus Day, to provide paid leave to workers, to establish a Commission on minorities, to protect reproductive rights, to create a Maine Green New Deal, and to consider a consumer-owned public utility.

That’s a lot of details, but it helps to delineate the nature of party voting at the state level. Some moderate, or even conservative Democrats exist, and they may vote more with Republicans than with their own party. The liberal agenda is to provide workers with more rights and pay, to continue to fight racial discrimination, to take small steps to counteract climate change.

Republicans vote as a bloc against proposals which give workers more rights against their employers, which deal with the environment, which acknowledge that discrimination continues to exist, or which accepts the reality of abortions.

Democratic control of the Maine legislature and Governor’s office, sometimes called a “trifecta” by those discussing party control of state government, is only one year old, and is moving slowly to implement a liberal agenda. The Democratic votes against getting more very wealthy Mainers to pay the estate tax show a hesitancy to reverse Republican tax cuts for the wealthy, despite polls showing that most Mainers feel that the wealthy pay less than their fair share. Governor Mills was cautious about anything that was opposed by the Maine Chamber of Commerce, notably on tax and budget issues.

We might expect a more vigorous agenda, if Democrats keep their majorities in the 2020 elections, and win at the national level. We can expect unified rejection of all progressive legislation by Republicans.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
January 7, 2020

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Tea Party Revisited


Ten years ago, the Tea Party was big news. The Tea Party announced itself just as I began writing political op-eds in 2009. I found them deeply disturbing. They proclaimed their allegiance to freedom as loudly as they threatened mine. I didn’t agree with their economic claims that the deficit was America’s biggest problem, and I suspected their pose as the best protectors of the Constitution was a front for less reasonable beliefs about race, gender, and religion.

Founded in 2009 as a reaction to the election of Barack Obama as President, the federal bailouts of banks and other institutions in the wake of the great recession of 2008, and, later, the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the Tea Party entered conservative politics with a splash in the 2010 elections. NBC identified 130 candidates for the House and 10 for the Senate, all Republicans, as having strong Tea Party support. Among them, 5 Senate candidates and 40 House candidates won election. Those numbers are very high, because many Tea Party candidates defeated established politicians. Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Marco Rubio in Florida, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, and Mike Lee in Utah defeated more established politicians, including some incumbents, in both parties. They are all still Senators. Among the 5 Senate candidates who lost, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and John Raese in West Virginia took extreme and sometimes laughable positions; Ken Buck in Colorado and Joe Miller in Alaska lost by tiny margins.

The Tea Party claimed to follow an ambitious agenda. One list on teaparty.org of “Non-negotiable Core Beliefs” included many economic items: “national budget must be balanced”; “deficit spending will end”; “reduce personal income taxes a must”; “reduce business taxes is mandatory”. A slightly different list called the “Contract from America” was also heavy with economic priorities: a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget; a single-rate tax system; “end runaway government spending”; “stop the pork”. The Contract included no social issues at all. The Core Beliefs began with “Illegal Aliens Are Here Illegally”, and included “Gun Ownership is Sacred”, “Traditional Family Values Are Encouraged”, and “English As Core Language Is Required”. Tea Partiers claimed complete allegiance to the Constitution as originally written.

Recently many commentators have asserted that the Tea Party was a failure and is dead. A NY Times article said “the ideas that animated the Tea Party movement have been largely abandoned by Republicans under President Trump”, because deficit spending has ballooned since he took office. Senator Rand Paul said “The Tea Party is no more.” A New Yorker article noted “the movement’s failure”, because they did not achieve a repeal of Obamacare. Jeff Jacoby, the conservative columnist for the Boston Globe, “mourned its demise in February 2018 under the title, “The Tea Party is dead and buried, and the GOP just danced on its grave”. He focused on the Tea Party’s inability to get Republicans to rein in spending.

Most of the successful Tea Party candidates from 2010 are no longer in Washington. Aside from the 5 successful Senators, only 16 of the 40 Tea Party House members are left. Justin Amash recently left the Republican Party after indicating support for impeachment. But those figures are not a surprise. The average tenure in office of a member of the House is just under 10 years, so about half should have left by now. Two moved up in the political world. Mick Mulvaney is now head of the Office of Management and Budget. Tim Scott won election as a Senator.

The whole narrative of Tea Party failure is wrong, in my opinion. While Tea Party organizations proclaimed high-minded principles of fiscal restraint, I don’t think that complex budgetary issues or particular readings of the Constitution motivate masses of voters. Today’s Republican Party is entirely in the hands of Trump, he completely ignores adherence to the Constitution and maintaining a balanced budget, and Tea Partiers are delirious with joy. The enthusiasts who scream at Trump rallies are the same people who signed on to the Contract from America in 2010. Trump embodies their real core beliefs: white supremacy; opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage, transgender people and anything that appears to deviate from their mythology of the “traditional family”; opposition to government regulation of private business, but support for government intrusion into private life; opposition to gender equality.

The social scientist Theda Skocpol, who studied Tea Party grassroots at the beginning, dismissed their economic policies as window dressing. She argued in 2011 that these white older conservative Americans “concentrated on resentment of perceived federal government “handouts” to “undeserving” groups, the definition of which seems heavily influenced by racial and ethnic stereotypes.” She noted that “the opposition between working and nonworking people is fundamental to Tea Party ideology”, and that “nonworking” was assumed to refer to non-white. In a recent interview, Skocpol identifies Tea Party advocates as Christian conservatives, not libertarians. Today the Christian right shouts its joy about Donald Trump from every pulpit.

I was right and wrong about the Tea Party in 2010. I recognized that “The Tea Partiers are wrong. The people they support will increase government intrusion into our private lives, under the guise of protecting us from enemies all around, and will help big business exploit our private resources.”

I also wrote, “They won’t change American politics. Despite putting pretty faces like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin on their posters, they’re way too unattractive. Like the guy who strolls into Starbucks with his gun, they might get a lot of attention, but they’ll make no friends.” How wrong that was. Their disdain for the views of other Americans, their distorted understanding of the Constitution, their blindness to facts which do not support their ideology, their racism and sexism, are now in control of the White House. The Republicans they called RINOs are gone.

They only supported limited government when a black man was President. Now they shout for the arrest of anyone they don’t like. The Tea Party no longer needs to attack the Republican Party from the right. They are the Republican Party, and their desire to recreate our country in their image is non-negotiable.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
December 31, 2019