“Electability May Be Hillary Clinton’s Secret Weapon”: “Can Win In November” Is Top Candidate Quality Voters Are Looking For
It’s a bit early in the presidential nominating process for “electability” arguments to become prominent. Voters are just now hearing candidates’ messages, which do not typically revolve around the ability to win a general election (though that may be a component in the message). Some of the more ideological voters may sense that caring more about electability than about core values or policy goals is unprincipled. But in polarized times like our own, the closer we get to the final choice of presidential standard-bearers, the more we’ll hear discussions of their strengths and weaknesses as general-election candidates.
Interestingly enough, entrance polls from Iowa and exit polls from New Hampshire show almost identical percentages of Democratic and Republican participants saying “Can win in November” is the top candidate quality they are looking for (as compared to perceptions of candidates’ empathy, honesty, and experience). But how these premature general-election worrywarts distribute their support differs considerably.
Among the 21 percent of Iowa Republicans placing a premium on electability, 44 percent caucused for Marco Rubio, 24 percent for Donald Trump, and 22 percent for Ted Cruz. As it happens, all three of these candidates stand for different theories of how a general-election campaign would be waged.
But among the 20 percent of Iowa Democrats prioritizing electability, 77 percent caucused for Hillary Clinton and only 17 percent for Bernie Sanders.
In New Hampshire, 12 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of Democrats ranked electability first among candidate characteristics.
Again, the Republicans so inclined were scattered, with 33 percent voting for Trump, 29 percent for Rubio (far above his overall percentage), and 16 percent for Kasich (New Hampshire Republicans were not, it appears, as impressed with Cruz’s “54 million missing evangelicals” electability argument, since only 6 percent of electability-first voters went in his direction).
But again, electability-first Democrats went 79-20 for Clinton.
Now it’s possible there’s some extrinsic reason for this finding other than Clinton having a superior perception of electability; maybe voters already inclined to vote for her simply find it easier to call her electable rather than “honest and trustworthy,” another choice. It’s more likely, though, that voters simply figure this well-known candidate running for president a second time is a better bet than a septuagenarian democratic socialist with a hybrid Brooklyn/Vermont accent and a strident tone. There’s really no reliable evidence for that; Sanders does as well as or better than Clinton in early general-election trial heats, but even if he didn’t, such polls aren’t terribly useful given the inclusion of many voters who aren’t yet paying attention to politics at all.
Later in the process, however, electability will begin to matter a lot to Democrats, especially if Republicans seem poised to nominate Rubio, who creates troubling generational comparisons to both Clinton and Sanders, or Donald Trump, whose character and conduct could create many millions of swing voters.
As I noted when listening to her in Iowa, Clinton does spend a good amount of time warning Democrats of the long-term damage Republicans could do if they controlled both Congress and the White House in 2017. That certainly gets people thinking about electability, and also thinking about liberal policies that need to be defended as opposed to less-immediate goals like amending the Constitution to ban unlimited corporate-campaign spending or building a majority to impose a single-payer health-care system on a balky Congress.
In any event, Clinton would be smart to explore these themes more often, and see what happens. It’s one thing to accuse Sanders of promoting “pie in the sky” policy ideas. It’s another altogether to describe him as a high-risk candidate who’ll invite catastrophe if he loses and won’t accomplish much if he wins. And Sanders would be smart to spend more time talking about the unconventional alliances he put together in and out of office in Vermont. Electability will eventually matter a lot.
By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, February 11, 2016
“Bernie Sanders And The God Factor”: Less A Matter Of Sanders’s Own Behavior Than That Of His Most Avid Supporters
The “S-word” — socialist — hangs over Bernie Sanders’s campaign like a spectral question mark. His self-identification as a “democratic socialist” is a matter of indifference to most supporters — especially the young — and even to many conservatives who assume all Democrats are socialist these days (remember the weird effort at the RNC a few years back to insist on labeling the opposition the “Democrat Socialist Party”?). But it’s certainly a new thing historically in a country where socialism never really caught on as a mainstream ideological tradition.
While Sanders is asked about the S-word regularly, another first he would represent has not really come into focus: his religious identity. He would definitely be the first Jewish president (or major-party presidential nominee), using the standard ethnic definition of that term. But he might also be the least religious president. Are either of these a real problem for his candidacy?
That question was posed in the Washington Post on Wednesday in an extensive article that quotes Sanders as confessing a rather vague belief in some sort of deity but no connection to organized religion. During his upbringing in Brooklyn by parents who immigrated from Poland, his Jewishness was “just as uncontested as saying you’re an American,” according to his older brother, who also recalls himself and Bernie listening to World Series games outside a synagogue where his father was attending Yom Kippur services. His first wife was from a similar background, while his second was raised Catholic.
According to public-opinion research, Sanders’s Jewish background shouldn’t be much of an issue. According to a Gallup survey in 2012, 91 percent of Americans (up from 46 percent when Gallup first asked this question in 1937) say they would vote for a Jewish president. Only 54 percent would vote for an atheist, however. So for Christians and Jews, at least (Muslims are another matter), having a religious affiliation is better than spurning God altogether.
That’s a good example of American exceptionalism. Just as center-left parties and leaders in Europe have no problem calling themselves “socialists,” the religious affiliation of politicians is not terribly significant. Last year Ed Miliband led the British Labour Party into a general election. That he was a professed atheist (like many if not most Labour politicians) from a Jewish background wasn’t an issue. In sharp contrast to American standards, Tony Blair’s religiosity was something of an oddity in the U.K.
So it could be that Sanders’s Jewish-socialist background and nonreligious identity represents a combo platter of associations that just don’t seem terribly American, at least to older swing voters (it is assumed that conservatives would reject Sanders on so many separate grounds that religion would hardly stand out).
Sanders is probably dealing with it as best he can by expressing sympathy with religious motives for political action, and most of all by not exhibiting that allergy to religion that besets a lot of highly secular people, including the kind of activists who are heavily represented in his base of support. That was probably the real value of his startling appearance at Liberty University last year. He didn’t make many conversions to his brand of politics. But he showed he did not consider himself as coming from a different moral universe from people with an entirely religious frame of reference. And interestingly, a new Pew survey shows that Sanders is perceived as more religious than the Republican candidate currently leading among conservative Evangelicals, Donald Trump, and roughly equal in this respect to the pious Methodist Hillary Clinton.
There may be a temptation in the Sanders camp to compare him to Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, who were great presidents not identified with any organized religious group (the former claim is a bit off since Jefferson, for all his heterodoxy, was an Anglican vestryman). But that could be a false analogy, since Jefferson was strongly interested in religious speculation and polemics (with his own highly expurgated version of the New Testament), while Lincoln’s rhetoric and thinking were saturated in a sort of nondenominational folk piety.
Perhaps the smartest tactic for Sanders is to remain authentic and more generally stress his distinctively American credentials. Every time he says with great frustration that he wants this country to “join the rest of the world” in providing health care as a right or in offering some other commonsense benefit, he simply reinforces the impression that his values are exotic and perhaps even suspect.
For the kind of Americans who administer religious litmus tests, there’s nothing Sanders can or should do. Many conservative Evangelicals and some traditionalist Catholics, after all, deny Barack Obama’s Christianity, and some deny fellowship with liberal Christians generally. It’s not an honest standard, as was made evident in 2004 when the occasional churchgoer George W. Bush inspired great passion among conservative Evangelicals via various verbal tics and dog whistles, while the very regular Mass-goer John Kerry was regarded as a bloodless, faithless liberal elitist.
But for people of faith who do want to find common ground with Bernie Sanders and the movement he represents, it’s important that he doesn’t view religious motivations for social action as cheap imitations of the real thing or silly superstitions that real grown-ups have overcome. This may be less a matter of Sanders’s own behavior than that of his most avid supporters, who sometimes strike others as a mite superior. While God may rightly have no formal place in Bernie Sanders’s world, he needs to find a place for God’s followers among his own.
By: Ed Kilgore, Daily Intelligencer, New York Magazine, January 27, 2016
“The Dark Side Of Hillary Clinton’s New Inevitability”: We Live In The Age Of The Enemy-Of-My-Enemy Politics
For her birthday, Hillary Clinton got some conventional wisdom.
In the wake of a dominating debate performance and equally impressive turn at the Benghazi hearings, the usual Washington suspects have decided being inevitable isn’t so bad after all. She became “the heroine of a captivating political drama,” says Reuters. Her 11-hour testimony was, says Vox, “her best campaign ad yet.” Once again, quoth The Fix at The Washington Post, “Republicans saved Hillary.” The Guardian saw a “triumphant October” and “political observers’ doubts fade.” “The Most Likely Next President Is Hillary Clinton,” declared Mark Halperin at Bloomberg News.
Now, Halperin’s judgments on candidates’ political fortunes are fickle enough that there could be a Hallmark card designed for those on their receiving end. (It’s shelved next to the “So I heard Bill Kristol thinks you should run for president” line.) Just last March, based on Clinton’s lackluster response to the revelation that she used a private email server to conduct some State Department business, Halperin got his syntax in a bunch and huffed that he had revised a yet earlier opinion: “I now think that she’s not only not easily the most likely, I don’t think she’s anymore the most likely.”
I’m probably the last one who needs to remind Clinton that the favor of the Washington media isn’t so much a gift horse that requires a look in the mouth as a pile of what comes out the other end. More enduring support has come in the form of dollars; the campaign claims to have had its most successful single hour yet between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. on the night of her Benghazi testimony and added 100,000 new donors in October.
That is clearly more encouraging news than whatever fresh-baked takes are wafting across Twitter, but the mechanism behind the outpouring of support isn’t an unalloyed gift. We live in the age of enemy-of-my-enemy politics, and analysis that stops with seeing Clinton benefit from the Republicans’ attack on her misses the equal and opposite reaction on the right.
At the moment, that reaction is diffused into the clown car of chaos chugging across the primary landscape. There are more than a dozen campaigns all trying to lay claim to the mantle of Clinton-slayer, and at the moment they look less like an opponent than a tribe of minions trying to scrabble to the top of a living pyramid. Once votes and money coalesce around a candidate, it will be more difficult to count Clinton as the winner in any given contest.
But look, I don’t think your average swing voter cares about the controversies that obsess the right. Republicans have a historically and hysterically bad record at overestimating the degree to which mere annoyance with the Clintons’ foibles translates into active support for their agenda. What’s more, the GOP seems determined to nominate someone whose views aren’t just unpopular with the vast majority of Americans but actively repellent to many. (If the right wants to die on the hill of fake “religious liberty” causes, it’ll die alone). The Republican Party has made little progress on defusing the demographic time bomb that will soon make winning the white male vote an even more dubious distinction.
So I’m not worried so much about the Republican nominee winning come next November, but I am worried that the Democrats’ best hope for holding the White House for the next eight years performs best from a defensive posture. She needs the GOP as much as it needs her. It’s a stance of mutually assured fundraising, a recipe for continued gridlock and a million clever social media memes, but not much progress.
On some level, this winningest loser strategy mirrors the exact scenario Clinton’s anti-Bernie Sanders surrogates stoke: He’ll never get anything done, they argue, he’s too polarizing and extreme! In real life, Sanders is one of Congress’s most successful brokers—the “amendment king” of the House and the co-shepherd of the last bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs, one of the Senate’s few bipartisan successes in recent years.
The somewhat sad truth is that Sanders is polarizing because of his positions, not because of who he is. Clinton’s provocativeness is, on the other hand, half intentional bluster and half protective coloring. As a woman, because she bears the burden of being first and among the few, her skill in turning these things into triumphs is an adaptation, an evolutionary advantage that ensures her survival—even as it draws into question her ability to build a legacy.
As it is, the higgledy-piggledy nature of the Republican debate field remains her best friend, even if what it takes to win isn’t the same as what’s required to govern. When the CNBC Gong Show ends Wednesday night, Washington’s wisest will no doubt find more proof of her ascendance. They should keep in mind that’s largely because the rest of the field has sunk so low.
By: Ana Marie Cox, The Daily Beast, October 27, 2015
“Do Republicans Think It Will Be Easy To Beat Hillary?”: Continuing To Believe In Circumstances Shaped By Their Own Talking Points
What is the Republican theory of the 2016 election? Is it that the Democrats have developed a durable demographic advantage in national elections and that the GOP must nominate someone who can broaden the party’s reach beyond core constituencies, as Republicans concluded after the 2012 debacle?
Or is it increasingly that such demographic concerns can be tossed to the winds — that Hillary Clinton is such a flawed candidate that Republicans don’t have to worry too much about picking a standard bearer with broad general election appeal?
The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein has a good piece today in which he posits the latter theory. Klein’s overall point is that the two parties are each making wildly different assumptions about next year’s contest — and that this has driven each party further into its own ideological corner, portending an unusually charged and intense general election battle.
Democrats, Klein points out, are betting that the last two presidential elections show that the way to win is to reconstitute the Obama coalition of millennials, nonwhites, and socially liberal college educated whites. The robust liberal consensus on display at the last debate shows that Hillary Clinton is fully embracing this coalition’s priorities. As I’ve also argued, Democrats see no need to believe this will compromise her in a general election, since many of these policies also have majority support.
The Republican theory of the 2016 election, however, is very different. Here’s how Klein describes it:
Republicans, on the other hand, are making a completely different calculation. Looking ahead to the 2016 campaign, they see Hillary Clinton’s numbers steadily tanking under an ethical cloud, as a growing number of Americans say they don’t trust her. Polls have shown Republicans ahead of Clinton even in Pennsylvania, a blue state that has eluded GOP nominees for decades. They’re confident that her weaknesses as a candidate have made the presidency ripe for the picking. Given this sense of optimism, they see no reason to settle.
Instead, as of this writing, half of Republican primary voters polled nationally are supporting candidates who have never held elective office. At the same time, candidates who fit the profile of a traditional Republican nominee (such as Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich) are at about 10 percent — combined….when the dust settles, it’s difficult to see the Republican electorate deciding that to beat Clinton, they need an “electable moderate” in the mold of Bob Dole, John McCain or Mitt Romney.
Klein seems to be talking mainly about what’s driving the thinking of GOP primary voters. This gives rise to a question: Do serious Republican strategists and establishment figures really believe this? Do they think Clinton is suddenly proving so unexpectedly flawed — thanks to the email scandal and Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly robust challenge — that they are now less inclined to worry about the need for a candidate who can help offset the party’s structural and demographic disadvantages?
If so, you’d think recent events would undercut that confidence. After months of being on the defensive over the email story, we’ve now seen an unexpectedly strong debate performance from Clinton. New fundraising numbers show that she enjoys a large advantage over the serious GOP candidates, and that rank-and-file Democrats may be very energized. A series of disastrous moments of candor from Republicans about the Benghazi probe have undermined the credibility of GOP efforts to exploit the email story. While none of these guarantees anything for Clinton, you’d think they’d remind Republicans that politics changes quickly and that placing too many chips on Clinton’s weakness might be misguided.
And yet recent history demonstrates that GOP strategists sometimes do place too much stock in overly confident, ill-thought-through assessments of the weakness of the opposing candidate and what appear to be insurmountable (but actually prove ephemeral or misleading) political circumstances. In 2012, for instance, the Romney campaign convinced itself that there was no way Obama could possibly get reelected amid such difficult economic circumstances: this made it inevitable that Obama would meet the fate that befell Jimmy Carter, when undecided voters shifted against him to hand Ronald Reagan a big victory. (That itself is bad history, but that underscores my point.) The larger Romney campaign calculation was that there was no way swing voters could possibly see Obama as anything but a total, abject failure, since Republicans knew he had been one. But that reading turned out to be seriously flawed.
Meanwhile, the Romney camp also convinced itself that there was no way the 2012 electorate could possibly be as diverse as it had been in 2008, presumably since Obama’s election was probably a fluke driven by the cult of personality that driven nonwhite and young voters into a frenzy that had worn off once they realized who he really was. That also turned out to be wrong. The point is that Republican operatives adopted a strategic view of the opposing candidate and his circumstances that was largely shaped by their own talking points about him and less about a hard-headed and nuanced look at deeper factors.
Hillary Clinton will of course not be as strong a candidate as Obama was. She does have serious weaknesses. History tilts against one party winning the White House three times in a row. And the question of whether she can mobilize the Obama coalition in Obama-like numbers is a big unknown. But superficial assessments of her current weaknesses — which could be reinforced if Republicans believe their talking points about her — could obscure an appreciation of the built-in advantages that she may enjoy. She could benefit from structural factors such as continued demographic change. The Democratic agenda (this is another possibility that the Romney camp seemed incapable of grasping) may prove more popular than the Republican one with the national electorate, brash assessments that Hillary has lurched “left” notwithstanding. The very real chance at electing the first female president could prove a major factor. And it’s possible — yes, possible — that the Clinton camp may successfully neutralize the email mess after all.
It would be interesting to know just how seriously the smartest GOP operatives are taking these possibilities. Paul Waldman argues today that Republican operatives and establishment figures are not exactly adopting a hard-headed approach to the electability question.
Of course, if Klein is right, and GOP voters are deciding that Clinton is so weak that they need not worry about their standard-bearer’s electability, then it may not matter what Republican strategists and establishment figures think. They aren’t the ones who are picking the GOP nominee.
By: Greg Sargent, The Plum Line Blog, October 16, 2015
“Significantly Ambivalent On Key Issues”: The White Working Class As “Yes, But” And “No, But” Voters
I think we are beginning to understand this year more than in the past that non-college white voters–a.k.a. the “white working class” are currently bifurcated into those who intensely dislike government but aren’t sold on conservative economic panaceas and those who are very angry about the “rigged” economy but aren’t sure they trust government to do anything about it. The former are heavily represented in the current support base of Donald Trump, while the latter should be targets for Democrats. That proposition about the latter was, of course, the main message in Stan Greenberg’s essay on the white working class in the current issue of the Washington Monthly, which also served as the basis for the roundtable discussion WaMo sponsored in conjunction with The Democratic Strategist.
In his WaPo column yesterday, E.J. Dionne grasped the importance of this realization in writing about “yes, but” voters who may have partisan voting habits but are significantly ambivalent on key issues. After discussing some polling from WaPo and Pew, Dionne noted:
[A] third study, a joint product of the Democratic Strategist Web site and Washington Monthly magazine, points to the work Democrats need to do with white working-class voters.
One key finding, from pollster Stan Greenberg: Such voters are “open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda” but “are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed.” This calls for not only “populist measures to reduce the control of big money and corruption” but also, as Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation argued, “high-profile efforts to show that government can be innovative, accessible and responsive.”
This ambivalent feeling about government is the most important “yes, but” impulse in the American electorate, and the party that masters this blend of hope and skepticism will win the 2016 election.
Yessir. The broader lesson is that the stereotype of swing voters as Broderesque, Fournierite “centrists” looking for bipartisan compromises that don’t upset elites misses the real swing voters, who may not be as numerous on the surface as is years past, but who could move political mountains in response to the right combination of messages that take seriously their concerns.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, July 27, 2015