Which Kentucky Democratic primary candidate is best positioned to challenge Mitch McConnell in November 2020?

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Senator Mitch McConnell

There are ten Democrats vying for the honor of challenging incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell this fall. The three most prominent are Amy McGrath, a retired Marine Corps Lt. Colonel who narrowly lost a 2018 challenge to incumbent Congressman Andy Barr in Kentucky’s 6th district, Kentucky State Representative Charles Booker, and Marine Corps veteran Mike Broihier.

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Amy McGrath

In a recent debate, McGrath presented herself as an electable moderate who can appeal to Trump voters while Booker and Broihier hammered her for these moderate positions and presented themselves as solidly liberal alternatives. While there is, again, a conspicuous absence of head-to-head polling in this race, McGrath is heavily favored to win due to her name recognition and fundraising advantage, as well as her strong endorsement by the DSCC. That said, Booker’s profile has risen in recent days due to his visible participation in the ongoing protest events in Louisville surrounding the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others.

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Charles Booker

All three argue that they are the best bet to beat McConnell this fall, and have drawn attention to the smattering of polls from January that show McConnell and McGrath or a generic Democratic challenger in a statistical tie.

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Mike Broihier

The fundamentals are that partisans tend to vote for their party’s candidate in federal-level elections, and roughly 53% of Kentucky voters identify as Republicans or Republican-leaners. Assuming this pattern holds, the Democratic Senate nominee will need to persuade and mobilize the handful of voters who identify as pure Independents as well as a critical mass of Kentucky Republican voters, 90% of whom have a favorable view of Donald Trump, in order to win.

There is some recent precedent for this. Last year, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear won an extremely narrow victory over unpopular Republican incumbent Matt Bevin by, in part, winning 16% of Republican voters. This may not be a “perfect parallel,” though, as Perry Bacon Jr. has written, “because governors races tend to be more localized and Senate races more nationalized. In 2016, every U.S. Senate election was won by the same party that won the presidential race in that state.”

The key question, I think, will be whether Kentucky Republican voters see Mitch McConnell as more like Trump (who they like a lot) or more like former Governor Matt Bevin (who they didn’t like as much). If they see McConnell more likely they see Trump, he’ll probably have a relatively easy path to reelection. If they see him more like Bevin, though, then the Democratic candidate might have a shot if he or she can peel off some Republican voters. Which candidate is best poised to do that?

A 2019 Kentucky exit poll fielded by yours truly and a collaborative of political scientists from institutions around Kentucky showed that among these 16% of Republican voters who crossed party lines to vote for Andy Beshear, 42% said they had a very/somewhat favorable view of Joe Biden and 27% said the same about Bernie Sanders.

Now, Biden and Sanders are not the same people as McGrath, Booker, and Broihier. That said, if Kentucky voters are thinking in terms of ideological lanes and strategy styles, Biden and McGrath both present themselves as pragmatic moderates and Sanders, Booker, and Broihier present themselves as more consistent ideologues.

If (and it’s a big IF) those same Republican-Beshear voters think about the Senate race the same way they did about the governors race last year, this would suggest that McGrath has an edge over Booker or Broihier in attracting Republicans who might be willing to cross party lines, as they more of them view Joe Biden favorably compared to Bernie Sanders.

Digging even deeper, this same exit poll shows that among Kentucky Republicans who have a favorable view of Donald Trump but an unfavorable view of Mitch McConnell, 22% view Biden favorably compared to 16% who view Sanders favorably. Again, assuming that they view the Senate race the same way they did about the governors race last year, McGrath has a very small edge in the likelihood of attracting Republican voters  who like Trump but not McConnell.

The bottom line? This November, most Kentucky Republicans will vote for McConnell and most Kentucky Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate, regardless of whoever wins the primary election this month. All three leading Democratic primary candidates would have a shot of peeling off the Republican votes that they would need to win, but the exit poll shows some evidence that, all other things being equal, Amy McGrath might be able to peel off a few more than either Charles Booker or Mike Broihier.

 

The varieties of racial bias: a brief overview of academic definitions and concepts

The events of the past week have intensified the ongoing and much-needed discussions about racial prejudice and racism in American society. From my vantage point as a social scientist who studies public attitudes and behavior, I’ve frequently noticed that these important conversations are stymied by differing ideas of what “racism” means and in which contexts. Here I briefly define and discuss some of the most common definitions and conceptualizations of racism used by academic social scientists. Of course these are not the only ways to think about and define racism, but they’re the ones most commonly used by political scientists and sociologists who study individual-level public attitudes.

OLD-FASHIONED RACISM

First, “old-fashioned” or “Jim Crow” racism is the belief that blacks are simply inferior to whites due to an in-born deficiency or difference. Social scientists measure this type of racism with questions like: “Do you think there should be laws against marriages between blacks and whites?” or “On average, blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most blacks have less in-born ability to learn?” Whereas this type of racism was common in the United States through the mid-20th century, it has steadily decreased to where now less than 10% of the American population indicates agreement with statements like these (see links).

On one hand, we can look at these patterns and be glad that “old-fashioned” racism is relatively rare compared to half a century ago. On the other hand, that somewhere between 5% and 10% of Americans (tens of millions of people) continue to say “yes” to questions like this helps explain why we still see thousands of hate crimes every year in the United States.

MODERN/SYMBOLIC RACISM

Second, “modern,” or “symbolic” racism is a type of resentment toward blacks (or other racial groups) on the part of whites. In this sense, “resentment” means “anger over a perceived disadvantage due to someone else’s advantage.” Racial resentment, then, means being bothered by a perceived unfair advantage or consideration given to blacks to compensate for past or present discrimination.

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, based on dozens of interviews with white folks in Louisiana, thought it best described in terms of a “deep story”:

Think of people waiting in a long line that stretches up a hill. And at the top of that is the American dream. And the people waiting in line felt like they’d worked extremely hard, sacrificed a lot, tried their best, and were waiting for something they deserved. And this line is increasingly not moving, or moving more slowly [i.e., as the economy stalls]. Then they see people cutting ahead of them in line. Immigrants, blacks, women, refugees, public sector workers. In their view, people are cutting ahead unfairly.

This type of racism is generally measured in public opinion surveys by agreement with survey questions like these: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” or “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

Why is this defined as a form of racism instead of a principled belief in the importance of hard work and fairness? It is because it manifests in a stereotype being applied systematically to an entire group.

According to the 2018 American National Elections Study survey of over 50,000 Americans, somewhere between 50%-60% of white Americans possess at least a moderate degree of symbolic racism (i.e. either “somewhat” or “mostly” agreeing with statements such as those above). This includes sizeable proportions of just about every demographic and political group.

IMPLICIT BIAS

Third, “implicit racism” or “implicit bias” is a type of racial bias that manifests itself unintentionally, unconsciously, and uncontrollably. Others have described it as negative “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.” Implicit racism is often formed at a young age based on the messages, attitudes, and stereotypes we pick up from the world we live in which usually tend to line up with existing social hierarchies.

Social scientists measure implicit bias using an “implicit association test” or (IAT) (which you can try out for yourself here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html) and research has revealed that somewhere between 50% and 70% of Americans have a moderate or strong degree of implicit racial bias (depending on the study). A 2015 Pew study found that about 50% of white Americans have an implicit bias for whites over blacks (but interestingly, so do about 30% of blacks). Conversely, only about a quarter of both whites and blacks have no strong implicit bias toward one group over the other.

It is easy to be defensive when someone suggests that we might have an “implicit bias” against this group or that, but we should remember that by its very definition, this is a type of bias that we are not consciously aware of. Every human on the planet has implicit biases toward some groups and against others: it’s how our brains are hard-wired. That said, these implicit biases exert a significant effect on our social attitudes and behaviors, most often without us even realizing it. To the extent we can become aware of it, then, we can consciously do our best to acknowledge and reduce it when we’re making decisions or forming opinions.

SYSTEMIC/INSTITUTIONAL RACISM

This type of racism isn’t an individual-level attitude, but rather a bias that is produced in societal and political systems. This type of racism “includes the policies and practices entrenched in established  institutions, which result in the exclusion or promotion of designated  groups. It differs from overt discrimination in that no individual intent is necessary. It manifests itself in two ways: institutional racism, or discrimination that derives from individuals carrying out the dictates of others who are prejudiced or of a prejudiced society, and structural racism, or inequalities rooted in the system-wide operation of a society that excludes substantial numbers of members of particular groups from significant participation in major social institutions” (source).

This type of racism manifests itself in societal patterns like:

  • Blacks are 4 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, despite roughly equal levels of use between the two groups (source).
  • “Black boys raised in America, even in the wealthiest families and living in some of the most well-to-do neighborhoods, still earn less in adulthood than white boys with similar backgrounds” (source).
  • “The infant mortality rate for Black women’s babies was more than twice that of all races … and Black women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes compared with their white counterparts” (source).

This is called “structural” racism because when comparing people in the same economic and social position, blacks still consistently have poorer outcomes. It’s not “individual” racism because it’s not usually the result of one racist person saying or doing a racist thing, but rather a result of the collective biases that have been baked into our economic, health, educational, religious, and political structures over the course of many decades and centuries.

HOW THIS AFFECTS OUR CONVERSATIONS ABOUT RACISM

It is extremely important here to note that while these four types of racial bias are related, they can exist independent of one another and in different degrees in different people. Someone who sincerely abhors old-fashioned racism can still have high levels of implicit racial bias operating outside their conscious awareness. Someone with low levels of symbolic or implicit racism can still contribute (unintentionally or otherwise) to a racist structure or institution.

I’ll also note that “symbolic racism,” “implicit bias,” “structural racism,” etc. are academic “ivory tower” definitions of different types of racial bias. In talking about these different types of bias among individuals and society, it’s often helpful to be able to briefly clarify a concept in non-technical language before getting too far into a conversation.

In my experience, many (but certainly not all) debates over racial issues in contemporary society and politics are often one long exercise in people talking past one another due to a different default idea they have of what racism means when brought up in conversations.

Example: I’ve seen people labeling something as “racist” when referring to structural racism (“look at the racist health care system we have!” when they mean “wow look at the way that the health system consistently produces these disparities in outcomes for black women!”), but then their conversation partner assumes this is an accusation of old-fashioned racism (“are you implying that that doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals all have secret swastika tattoos?” instead of assuming one of the other forms of racism based on the conversational context). “No, of course not!” “But you said the health care system was racist!” “It is, even if individual doctors aren’t!” “What!?” And so it goes.

This is, in my experience, why many conversations fall apart: people have different ideas in their minds of what is meant when the word “racism” is used in important discussions and conversations. If there’s no agreement on definitions, it’s hard to make any meaningful progress. This is why it’s important to have an understanding of the different types of racial bias and racism and how they manifest in different situations, especially as we work toward our goal of a society where all forms of racial bias are eliminated.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Divided by Color: Racial Politics and Democratic Ideals by Kinder and Sanders

Racialized Politics: The Debate about Racism in America by Sears, Sidanius, and Bobo (eds)

Post-Racial or Most-Racial?: Race and Politics in the Obama Era by Tesler

Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Banaji and Greenwald

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Rothstein

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Alexander

The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap by Baradaran

Kamala Harris has an edge in the Veepstakes, according to political science research

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The 2020 Democratic “Veepstakes” is now officially underway. Given that Biden often refers to himself as a “transitional” candidate, his choice of vice president is all the more important given that his running mate will be seen by many as the “heir apparent” to succeed him as president a stronger degree than is normally the case. Also, if elected Joe Biden will be the oldest president ever to assume office and Social Security actuarial tables say that he has roughly a 1 in 4 chance of not making it to the end of his first term in office (so to speak) which may affect his decision to run for a second term in office. So who will Biden choose as his running mate?

Political scientist Jody Baumgartner has studied the vice presidency selection process at length. Looking at veep choices since 1960, he found that there are five key factors that tend to predict who “wins the Veepstakes” from the initial shortlists for both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates alike:

  1. High media exposure: all other things being equal, those who are more prominent and visible in the media for a year or more before the nominating conventions tend to be tapped as a running mate.
  2. Previous experience in the federal government by way of the Senate, House of Representatives, or other federal-level appointment.
  3. Military experience tends to give potential candidates a boost.
  4. Age: all other things being equal, younger veep candidates tend to have an edge over older candidates.
  5. Gender/racial/ethnic balance: if the presidential nominee is a white male of northwestern European ancestry, veep candidates who are not one of those three things tend to have an edge (and vice versa).

All together, Baumgartner found that these five factors reliably predicted vice presidential selections about 70% of the time from 1960-2016.

What is surprising from Baumgartner’s analysis is what does not tend to consistently predict someone getting the vice presidential pick, given how often these factors are brought up by media pundits: candidates who will provide geographic balance or are from a what is considered to be a “swing state” in hopes of delivering the state’s electoral votes. Similarly, veep nominees tend to come from smaller and larger states alike and are no more likely than not to have had state-level government experience (governor, state legislature, etc.). They also tend to be about as likely as not to be among the presidential nominee’s competitors in the primary, and the idea of “ideological balance” makes a different about as often as it doesn’t.

How does Biden’s shortlist this year stack up against these five key factors? I looked at the six shortlist candidates most frequently brought up over the past month: Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Val Demings, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and former state Rep. Stacey Abrams.

 

Harris Klobuchar Warren Demings Whitmer Abrams
New York Times mentions 01/01/2019-05/29/2020 1583 1415 3574 241 347 244
Prior service in Senate/House/other federal appt Yes Yes Yes Yes No No
Military experience? No No No No No No
Age 55 60 70 63 48 46
Gender balance? Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Racial/ethnic balance? Yes No(?) No(?) Yes No Yes

 

Biden has pledged that his vice president will be a woman and none of the leading candidates have military experience, so all six candidates are equal on those two factors.

Stacey Abrams has a clear edge when it comes to her age and adding racial/ethnic balance to the ticket but has no federal government service experience and relatively low media visibility compared to some of the other candidates.

Gretchen Whitmer’s only key advantage (in terms of Baumgartner’s factors described above) is that she is younger than most of the other candidates, but also lacks federal government service and does not add racial/ethnic balance to the ticket.

Val Demings has an edge when it comes to adding racial/ethnic balance to the ticket and she has previous federal government experience. She is also the least visible of the six candidates here, at least as measured by NYT media mentions.

Elizabeth Warren has a strong edge when it comes to visibility and prior federal government experience. Her DNA test showing some Native American ancestry notwithstanding, she is no longer emphasizing a non-white ancestry and so wouldn’t balance the ticket in that respect. She’s also older than the other five candidates by at least ten years.

Amy Klobuchar is about middle of the pack on these factors: she has previous federal government experience and is younger than some of the candidates but older than others as well. She has a high-ish level of media mentions/visibility. According to Baumgartner’s research, “racial/ethnic” balance is defined as not being of “northwest European” ancestry, so technically Klobuchar’s Slovenian ancestry would qualify, but similar to Elizabeth Warren, this is not something she is emphasizing and so likely would not boost her chances here.

On balance, Kamala Harris seems to fit Baumgartner’s veep selection model the best of these six candidates. She has relatively high visibility/media mentions, she has previous federal government experience, she’s a notch younger than the average age of the six candidates, and adds clear racial/ethnic balance to the ticket.

It’s interesting to note that the strongest candidates, according to Baumgartner’s model, are the same as are currently leading the betting markets: Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Comparing the two, Warren has the edge when it comes to visibility but Harris has the edge when it comes to age and racial/ethnic ticket balancing.

Given these considerations, I’d say that Harris has about a two-in-three chance of getting the nod as Joe Biden’s running mate this year, and perhaps even odds of being the  Democratic presidential nominee in 2024 given Joe Biden’s advancing age.

Strategic voting in a presidential primary after a presumptive nominee is selected

So for those who haven’t still voted in the spring primary presidential election, how are you all thinking about the voting choice?
At this point both parties have presumptive nominees and that very, very, very likely will not change regardless of whom we cast our vote for. How does that factor into your voting choice?

FOR DEMOCRATS:
National convention delegates are allocated both state-wide and by congressional district. A candidate has to get 15% of the vote either state-wide or in a district to get a delegate to go to the convention. In Kentucky where I live, Biden is projected to get about 2/3 of the vote in Kentucky and Sanders 1/3 of the vote, so they’re likely the only two to get delegates from Kentucky.
One option is to vote for either Biden or Sanders, regardless of who your original preference was. This way you get a voice in sending delegates to the convention who generally correspond to your vision of the direction you’d like the Democratic Party to go over the next four years (as delegates help write the platform and rules).
Another option is to vote for whoever was your original preferences (if not Biden or Sanders) with the idea that a higher popular vote (even if no delegates) corresponds to more visibility and sends a signal to Biden about which candidates/platforms were popular, and potentially also popularity as a potential VP pick or cabinet position nominee.
FOR REPUBLICANS:
National convention delegates are allocated on a winner-take-all basis. Whoever wins the most wins all of the delegates. The two options on the ballot in Kentucky will be Trump and “uncommitted.”
For most Republicans the obvious choice is to vote for Trump as he’s the only candidate on the ballot.
For the few Republicans that are dissatisfied with the way that Trump has changed the Republican Party over the last 4 years, do they vote for “uncommitted” on principle even though “uncommitted” will almost certainly not get any delegates? Or is this worth it to rack up the “uncommitted” vote just to send a message?

How are you all thinking about this? What factors are relevant to your primary vote now that the nominees are set?

The “Revolution” will probably not help Bernie Sanders win the General Election. It might even hurt.

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One of the most common arguments in favor of the nomination of Senator Bernie Sanders as this year’s Democratic presidential candidate is that he gets people excited, especially younger voters, and that this will result in a “Revolution” of voter excitement and participation that will sweep him and like-minded Congressional candidates into the White House.

As a Bayesian thinker, I will allow that this outcome is possible, but very, very improbable. This is why.

First, Sanders’ key base right now includes younger Millennials and GenZ voters (with whom Sanders did very, very well in the Nevada primary). Based on this, the argument is that Sanders can motivate younger voters to turnout at higher rates than in previous elections.

Consider this chart of voter turnout since 1984 by age:

turnout20by20age202018

For decades, people under age 30 consistently show up at low, low rates in both midterm and presidential election years. Sanders is arguing that his charisma and revolutionary appeal will be enough to suddenly boost turnout among young people to historic highs. Is that possible? Sure. Is it probable? I don’t think so.

Observe that in 2008, where there was a young, charismatic Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama on the ballot. Young voters indeed turned out at higher rates than in previous elections, but not much more so than was the case with older voters.

In general, turnout in the aggregate between age groups is remarkably consistent from election to election, regardless of the candidates on the ballot.

Second, one could argue that turnout has been so consistent because Bernie Sanders, with his unique charisma and revolutionary appeal, has never before been on a national presidential candidate before. This is true. At the same time, he ran a nation-wide primary campaign in 2016 against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. How did turnout do in 2016?

ft_16.06.08_primaryturnout

Voter participation in the 2016 managed to excite roughly 14% of eligible voters to participate: lower than the 20% who participated in 2008 between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In fact, participation in 2016 was roughly average for Democratic primary voters compared to the last few decades.

Bernie Sanders is arguing that his presence on the ballot will produce the Revolution that will turn out voters in droves. The last time he was on the ballot for a presidential primary election, however, turnout was… roughly average. On what basis should we predict, then, that this presence on the general election ballot will increase turnout beyond what is usually the case?

Third, an extremely detailed analysis of voter preferences recently examined potential trade-offs between nominating Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden. As would be expected, most Democrats will vote for the Democratic candidate no matter who it is. That said, there were some differences in their coalitions of support:

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Sanders does better than Biden specifically among younger voters and perhaps a teensy bit better among lower-income voters. Biden does better among older, wealthier, and better-educated voters.

Decades of voting patterns have consistently shown that older voters and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds vote regularly and at rates much, much higher than younger voters and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Given this reality, the evidence seems to suggest that, if anything, a Sanders nomination would likely result in somewhat lower turnout than would be the case with another generic Democratic nominee.

(Now, I would be the first to cheer higher turnout rates among younger voters. Given that they consistently choose not to show up on Election Day, year in and year out, decade in and decade out, I’m not holding my breath that a Sanders candidacy will suddenly change the basic patterns of the American political universe.)

BOTTOM LINE TL;DR

Generally speaking, the results of U.S. presidential elections tend to track pretty closely with prevailing economic and domestic conditions and turnout remains remarkably consistent election to election. So, if the economy and other conditions are in bad shape, any Democrat (including Sanders) will probably win the fall. If, however, the economy is booming this summer and Trump maintains his 45%-ish approval rating, he’ll probably be reelected comfortably regardless of whoever the Democrats nominate.

All indicators right now, though, point to a very, very close election this fall, which means that it might make a difference who the Democrats nominate in terms of this year’s general election outcome.

In that case, nominating Sanders is a gamble. Having him on the ballot in the general election will very likely not result in a voter turnout Revolution that will sweep him and other like-minded Democratic Socialists into the White House.

If anything, his nomination might produce a slightly lower level of turnout in the general election than other Democratic nominees (because his core base of younger voters tend consistently to vote at lower rates than just about every other voter demographic).

There are times when political parties have the luxury to take a gamble. Given the stakes of this year’s presidential election, this is not one of them.

Alexander Hamilton’s Constitutional Convention Speech: paraphrased and modernized

For my January 2020 course I took the liberty of paraphrasing Alexander Hamilton’s constitutional convention speech of June 18, 1787 so as to be more readable to a modern audience. The paraphrase as an approximate 8th-grade readability level.

Enjoy.

Hamilton convention speech paraphrased modernized 01-19-2020

 

Ranking the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates: Round 3

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Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, Flickr.com

This is the third in my series of 2020 Democratic candidate rankings. The first is here and the second is here

From my previous post:

A reminder that my personal preferences lead me to prioritize candidates who: 1) have strong foreign policy expertise/experience and recognize global democratic backsliding as one of the most alarming international trends of the current moment, 2) display a nuanced approached to analyzing complex issues, 3) eschew populism, both right-wing nationalist/racial populism and left-wing economic populism, 4) have previous electoral experience and a background that helps understand the life experiences of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and 5) have a realistic “plan of action” for enacting a policy agenda that takes into account the reality that they have to pass stuff through Congress, which is hard. (More detail on each of these is available in my earlier post.)

I fully admit I’m a pragmatist. As a scholar who studies American politics, I tend to favor incremental but achievable progress over pie-in-the-sky idealism that has almost zero chance of actually becoming political policy based on the bottom-line realities of the current American political system.

I’m limiting my ranking to the seven who qualified for the December debate. Otherwise I’d include Cory Booker and Julian Castro on the same tier as Amy Klobuchar. I’m also disappointed that Kamala Harris had to drop out. Otherwise she’d still be my #1.

 

1. Amy Klobuchar

  • PRO: she has a realistic set of expectations about what is and what is not achievable as U.S. president and focuses on the things that she would likely be able to achieve. She emphasizes the importance of democratic institutions like the freedom of the press and NATO. She would be a highly-visible and honorable role model to young women and girls around the world.
  • CON: she has almost zero foreign policy experience, which is problematic because presidents have much more ability to influence American foreign policy than domestic policy.

 

2. Pete Buttigieg

  • PRO: as I’ve written about previously, he’s one of the only ones who seems to have a more accurate diagnosis of the causes of dysfunction in the American political system: the way we organize our political and electoral systems. He’s a deep thinker with strong training in data analytics and has served the United States honorably as a military veteran.
  • CON: for Democrats to win in 2020 they’ll need to mobilize Latinos, blacks, and other racial/ethnic minorities to turn out. So far Mayor Pete is not showing much evidence that he can effectively connect with these constituencies.

 

3. Joe Biden

  • PRO: he unquestionably has, by far, the most extensive foreign policy experience of any of the candidates and would be a strong voice against democratic backsliding in the global community. Also, the fact that he enjoys strong support among the African-American community counts for a lot.
  • CON: as I’ve said before, he’s the wrong candidate for the #MeToo era. Also, if he becomes the nominee, his son’s connections with Ukraine will be Hillary Clinton’s emails, but on steroids. And while he’s served the United States honorably as a U.S. senator and vice president, his performance in debates and other public settings suggests that he’s slowing down a little. The presidency requires being able to make snap decisions several times a day for several years on very little sleep. What will his abilities be in five years? 

 

4. Elizabeth Warren

  • PRO: she’s smart as hell, she sweats the details, does not suffer fools easily, and is a policy-wonk. Like Klobuchar, she would be a highly-visible and honorable role model to young women and girls around the world.
  • CON: In brief, I disagree with her principal diagnoses and recommended solutions to America’s most pressing issues and am wary of her populist rhetoric and “fight fire with fire” approach to political change if elected.
  • A lengthy treatment of my thoughts on Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy is here.

 

5. Andrew Yang

  • PRO: like Elizabeth Warren, he’s smart and engaging and sweats the policy details. 
  • CON: what’s his plan to get any of his plans through Congress?

 

6. Tom Steyer

  • PRO: he’s a better option than Bernie Sanders.
  • CON: Why in the world is he on the stage? Because he has a lot of money and that’s about it.

 

7. Bernie Sanders

  • PRO: he’s less of a risk to American democratic institutions and norms than Donald Trump.
  • CON: the “revolution” isn’t happening, and thus neither is his agenda.

Kentucky exit poll suggests more warning signs for Mitch McConnell than for Donald Trump in the aftermath of Tuesday’s gubernatorial election

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There has been no small amount of punditry this week on what implications, if any, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin’s narrow loss to Democratic challenger Andy Beshear might have for President Trump or Senator McConnell in 2020 next year.

Some have argued that Bevin’s loss was “a smack at both Mitch McConnell and the president, sending up a cautionary note” while others have said that Bevin’s loss “tells us nothing about McConnell’s chances in 2020.”

The 2019 Collaborative Kentucky Exit Poll (CKEP) surveyed nearly 4,000 voters in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election. The results offer some clues into what Bevin’s loss might mean for 2020 for both Trump and McConnell.

President Trump

Partisan identity is the strongest and most consistent predictor of presidential voting patterns in modern American elections. The CKEP survey showed that Republicans (and Republican leaners) made up about 53% of Kentucky voters in this Tuesday’s election. The survey also showed that 88% of Kentucky Republicans say that they have a very/somewhat favorable view of Trump as well as roughly half of Kentucky Independents (who made up about 6% of all voters). If these patterns hold through next year, Trump is on track to win roughly 55% of the vote next year, give or take.

But what about the Kentucky Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for Andy Beshear last week? The CKEP survey showed that one in six Republicans (16%) voted for Beshear. Given the similarities of their campaigns and the governing styles of Trump and Bevin, would those same 16% be persuadable to vote for a Democrat for president in 2020?

Not necessarily. It turns out that Trump has a 55% favorability rating among those Republicans who voted for Democrat Andy Beshear for governor. Among that same group, only 42% view Biden favorably and 34% view Warren favorably.

Does favorability, though, translate into voting? The Boyle County portion of the KCEP asked voters whether they believed that various elected officials deserved reelection or whether it was time to give someone else a shot. Among Boyle County voters, 92% of those who view Trump favorably believe he deserves reelection compared to only 5% among those who view him unfavorably. So it’s fairly safe to assume that for President Trump, favorability and intention to vote are virtually interchangeable.

Let’s say roughly half of the Republican-Beshear voters (8% of all voters in Kentucky voters on Tuesday) who have an unfavorable view of Trump (45% of them) defect to the Democratic candidate in 2020. That’d put Trump somewhere around 51%-52%. This is definitely close, but still enough to win the state.

The bigger takeaway, in my view, is that Kentucky voters did not end up linking their views of Donald Trump and Matt Bevin in Tuesday’s election as strongly as either of them had intended and hoped for.

Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be running for reelection as Kentucky’s senior senator next year. The CKEP survey revealed that McConnell is not as popular as Donald Trump in his own home state. McConnell is viewed either somewhat or very favorably by 46% of Kentucky voters on Tuesday compared to 55% who say the same about President Trump.

Also, the link between favorability, partisanship, and reelection is a little weaker for Mitch McConnell than it is for Donald Trump.

For example, McConnell enjoys only about a 74% favorability rating among Kentucky Republican/leaners, 44% among Independents, and 11% among Democrats/leaners. Also, when we drill down into opinions on reelection among Boyle County voters specifically, a full 19% of those who view McConnell favorably think he should not be reelected. Also, one full third (31%) of Boyle County Republican/leaners think he should not be reelected.

As far as the link between attitudes toward McConnell and Trump, only 81% of those who view Trump favorably see McConnell favorably while 92% of those who view Trump unfavorably also view McConnell unfavorably.

Looking again at those Republican-Beshear voters which made up about 8% of the electorate on Tuesday, McConnell has a 62% unfavorability rating. If that same group is willing to cross party lines again next year (emphasis: a big ‘if’!), that’s potentially 10% of Kentucky Republicans (or 5% of everyone who voted this past Tuesday) who might be persuadable to support a Democrat in next year’s Kentucky senate race.

Of course, the odds are still in McConnell’s favor given that Kentucky is a red state and that he outperformed the October polls by about 6% in his last Senate race in 2014. It’s still an uphill battle for any Democrat looking to take on the nation’s Senate Majority Leader.

At the same time, McConnell’s support among Republicans and those who approve of President Trump is weaker than he would prefer going into an election year. Kentucky Democrats will be strongly motivated to knock him out and will likely turn out en masse to vote against President Trump as well in 2020.

This suggests that one good strategy for Kentucky Democrats might be to focus their efforts on the 16% of Republicans who were willing to cross party lines to vote for Beshear last week. The CKEP survey showed that nearly two in five of these (38%) were under age 40. It may be a smart move for the eventual Democratic nominee to focus his or her appeal on Kentucky’s younger voters.

2019 Boyle County Exit Poll: Topline Results

A PDF version of this report is available here.

The 2019 Boyle County Exit Poll (BCEP) was administered by Dr. Benjamin Knoll, Dr. Ryan Lloyd, and Dr. Jaclyn Johnson of Centre College in Boyle County, Kentucky on November 5, 2019. This 2019 BCEP is part of a wider series of surveys administered around Kentucky on Election by researchers at the University of Kentucky, Morehead State University, Campbellsville University, and the University of Cincinnati.

Approximately 75 Centre College students were on-site from 6:00 AM through 6:00 PM surveying voters as they left the polling locations. Respondents were randomly selected by interviewers to participate in the survey. In all, 1,832 Boyle County voters participated in the exit poll. For comparison, the Kentucky Secretary of State’s website reports that 10,400 individuals voted in Boyle County on Election Day, meaning that this survey contains the views of approximately 1 out of every 6 voters in Boyle County.

This year’s survey had a response rate of 55.1%. (We asked a total of 3,325 people to take the survey and 1,832 of them agreed.) This is slightly higher than the response rates that were achieved in previous Boyle County Exit Poll years of 48.4% in 2016, 47.5% in 2015, 47.4% in 2014, and 50.5% in 2012. (This is similar to other national exit poll response rates.)

It should be noted that this is an exit poll of voters only and therefore these figures should not be interpreted as fully representative of all adults in Boyle County, but rather of 2019 Election Day voters in Boyle County, Kentucky. The margin of error for the full sample is ±2% and approximately ±3.5% for subsamples.

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Michele Margolis, Dan Hopkins, and David Azizi at the University of Pennsylvania for their valuable assistance in preparing and processing the survey results. All errors are our own.

 

VOTING FOR GOVERNOR IN BOYLE COUNTY: DEMOGRAPHICS

The following tables are read going across. Example: 54.6% of men voted for Bevin compared to 42.6% who voted for Beshear, while 42.7% of women voted for Bevin compared to 56% who voted for Beshear.

Figures due not round to 100% due to a small number of write-in candidates for each office.

  MATT BEVIN (R) ANDY BESHEAR (D) JOHN HICKS (L)
Male 54.6% 42.6% 2.9%
Female 42.7% 56% 1.2%
White 51.9% 45.8% 2.2%
Black 15.9% 84.2% 0%
Other race/ethnicity 41.3% 58.7% 0%
Income over $50K/year 47.3% 50.6% 2%
Income $20K-$50K/year 52.2% 44.1% 2.8%
Income uncer $20K/year 43.2% 53.8% 3%
High school or less 53.8% 41.2% 4.3%
Some college 47.9% 51.3% 0.7%
College degree 38.2% 49.6% 2.4%
Age under 40 36% 60% 4%
Age 40-64 61.6% 46.3% 2.1%
Age over 65 53.8% 45.6% 0.6%
Attend religious services weekly or more 57.8% 40.5% 1.7%
Attend religious services sometimes 45.9% 51.4% 1.6%
Attend religious services never 29.5% 66% 4.6%
Consider yourself an Evangelical or ‘born-again’ Christian? 60.8% 37.9% 1.3%
Do NOT consider yourself an Evangelical or ‘born-again’ Christian 30.4% 65.8% 3.8%

 

VOTING FOR GOVERNOR IN BOYLE COUNTY: KENTUCKY ECONOMY

  MATT BEVIN (R) ANDY BESHEAR (D) JOHN HICKS (L)
Kentucky’s economy has gotten better recently 79.9% 16.3% 3.7%
Kentucky’s economy has gotten worse lately 5.8% 92.8% 1.4%
Kentucky’s economy has stayed the same recently 24.3% 74% 1.6%
Trump’s trade war with China has had a positive impact on Kentucky’s economy 85.2% 12.7% 2.2%
Trump’s trade war with China has had a negative impact on Kentucky’s economy 11.4% 85.5% 3.1%
Trump’s trade war with China has had no impact on Kentucky’s economy 49.7% 48.5% 1.4%

 

VOTING FOR GOVERNOR IN BOYLE COUNTY: PARTISANSHIP AND POLITICAL VIEWS

  MATT BEVIN (R) ANDY BESHEAR (D) JOHN HICKS (L)
Republicans 81.8% 15.3% 2.3%
Democrats 5.4% 93.6% 1.1%
Independents 42.4% 45.44% 12.3%
Favorable view of Donald Trump 82.1% 15.9% 2%
Unfavorable view of Donald Trump 7.2% 89.7% 3.2%
Voted for Cameron (R) for Attorney General 80.8% 15.6% 3.7%
Voted for Stumbo (D) for Attorney General 6.2% 92.8% 1%
Voted for Adams (R) for Sec of State 83.5% 12.6% 3.4%
Voted for Henry (D) for Attorney General 9.1% 89.4% 1.4%

 

COMPARISON OF VOTING FOR OTHER STATE-WIDE OFFICES IN BOYLE COUNTY:

KY GOVERNOR MATT BEVIN (R) ANDY BESHEAR (D) JOHN HICKS (L)
Republicans 81.8% 15.3% 2.3%
Democrats 5.4% 93.6% 1.1%
Independents 42.4% 45.44% 12.3%

 

KY ATTORNEY GENERAL DANIEL CAMERON (R) GREGORY STUMBO (D)
Republicans 92.2% 7%
Democrats 9.1% 90.3%
Independents 64.1% 35.6%

 

KY SEC OF STATE MICHAEL ADAMS (R) HEATHER FRENCH HENRY (D)
Republicans 88.7% 11.3%
Democrats 4% 95.4%
Independents 49.7% 45.2%

 

 

OPINIONS ON LOCAL ISSUES

“What is the single most important problem our local area needs to solve? (check only one)”

  • Prescription drug abuse: 21.5%
  • Crime 17.8%
  • Education 15.7%
  • Job creation 10.8%
  • Roads and sidewalks: 10.3%
  • Economic development: 7.1%
  • High taxes: 7%
  • Health care availability: 4.7%
  • Racial/ethnic tension 3.3%
  • Expansion of parks/trails: 1.1%
  • Expansion of cultural opportunities: 0.8%

“Over the past year, do you believe that Danville/Boyle County’s economy has generally…?”

  • Gotten better: 37.2%
  • Stayed the same: 55.5%
  • Gotten worse: 7.3%

“Over the past year, do you believe that Kentucky’s economy has generally…?”

  • Gotten better: 42.6%
  • Stayed the same: 39.5%
  • Gotten worse: 17.9%

Regarding the “recent lane reconfiguration on Danville’s main street”: 80.8% approve and 19.2% disapprove.

Regarding ranked choice voting, where voters cast their ballots by “voting for political candidates by ranking in order of preference (1st, 2nd, 3rd) instead of choosing one of several options”: 46.4% approve, 53.6% disapprove.

“Do you think the following officials have performed well enough to deserve re-election, or do you think it’s time to give a new person a chance?” Proportion who said “deserves re-election” for each elected official/entity:

  • Boyle County Judge Executive Howard Hunt: 60.5% (79.3% of Republicans, 38.8% of Democrats, and 48.9% of Independents)
  • Boyle County Fiscal Court: 57.8% (67.1% of Republicans, 47.3% of Democrats, and 54.4% of Independents)
  • Danville Mayor Mike Perros: 46.2% (53.4% of Republicans, 36.3% of Democrats, and 54.5% of Independents)
  • Danville City Commission: 55.6% (54.4% of Republicans, 57.3% of Democrats, and 53.8% of Independents)

 

OPINIONS ON NATIONAL ISSUES

The following table is read going across. Example: 43% of Boyle County voters have a “very favorable” view of Donald Trump, 12.3% of a “somewhat favorable view,” etc.

“Please tell us how you feel about:”

Very favorable Somewhat favorable Somewhat unfavorable Very unfavorable
President Donald Trump 43% 12.3% 6.2% 38.5%
Senator Mitch McConnell 22.6% 24.5% 13.1% 39.9%
Senator Elizabeth Warren 13.1% 31.1% 15.1% 39.8%
Former Vice President Joe Biden 17.3% 27.8% 16.2% 38.7%
Senator Bernie Sanders 14.2% 26.5% 14.6% 44.7%

 

  • Donald Trump somewhat/very favorable among: 88.3% of Republicans, 10.3% of Democrats, 64.2% of Independents.
  • Senator Mitch McConnell somewhat/very favorable among: 75.2% of Republicans, 10.5% of Democrats, and 60.4% of Independents.
  • Senator Elizabeth Warren somewhat/very favorable among: 17.8% of Republicans, 76.7% of Democrats, and 48.4% of Independents.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden somewhat/very favorable among: 16% of Republicans, 79.6% of Democrats, 38.9% of Independents.
  • Senator Bernie Sanders somewhat/very favorable among: 11.5% of Republicans, 76% of Democrats, and 38.8% of Independents.

 

“Do you think the following officials have performed well enough to deserve re-election, or do you think it’s time to give a new person a chance?” Proportion who said “deserves re-election” for each elected official/entity:

  • President Donald Trump: 52.3% (88.4% of Republicans, 7.7% of Democrats, and 49.4% of Independents)
  • Senator Rand Paul: 49.9% (82% of Republicans, 11.3% of Democrats, and 54.7% of Independents)
  • Senator Mitch McConnell: 41.2% (69.2% of Republicans, 6.8% of Democrats, and 50.3% of Independents)
  • Congressman Brett Guthrie: 53.7% (77.9% of Republicans, 23.6% of Democrats, and 57.8% of Independents)

 

Regarding “the construction of more walls along the U.S.-Mexico border”: 49.7% approve (87.7% of Republicans approve, 8.9% of Democrats approve, 44.9% of Independents approve).

Regarding “how Robert Mueller handled the investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election and Donald Trump’s possible connection”: 47.7% approve (35.9% of Republicans approve, 60.2% of Democrats approve, 43.5% of Independents approve).

“What impact do you think President Trump’s actions on trade policy with China have had on Kentucky’s economy?”

  • Positive impact: 37.8% (65.1% of Republicans, 6.3% of Democrats, and 50% of Independents)
  • No impact: 15.7% (18.9% of Republicans, 13.4% of Democrats, and 7.2% of Independents)
  • Negative impact: 46.5% (16% of Republicans, 80.2% of Democrats, 42.8% of Independents)

 

METHODOLOGY:

All figures presented here are statistically weighted by education levels and partisanship as per the 2018 CCES survey (weighted and voter-validated) results of Kentucky voters in the 2018 midterm election. This is a standard procedure in public opinion survey research to increase the representativeness of public opinion polling samples.

Demographic breakdown of survey respondents:

Do you think of yourself as a (an): 37.4% Democrat, 3.8% Independent but lean Democrat, 6.3% pure Independent, 10.3% Independent but lean Republican, 42.2% Republican (for the purposes of this report, partisan leaners are combined with partisans); 51.7% of survey respondents were female, 48.3% male; 54.4% report an income over $50K/year while 19.9% report an income under $20K/year; 26.1% report never attending religious services and 51.3% report attending once a week or more; 86.4% report white ethnicity with 9.7% reporting African-American ethnicity; 41.1% report a high school education or less, 27.1% report college level of education; 28.5% reported being under 40 years old, 45.4% reported being between 40-64 years old, 26.2% report being 65+; Evangelical Protestants make up 44.1% of the sample, with non-“born again” or other Christians 17.1%, 7.5% Catholic, 17.7% “nothing in particular,” 13.6% “other” religion.

The pros and cons of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential candidacy: a reassessment

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[ Photo credit Greg Skidmore]

 

TL;DR – I have been somewhat cautious about Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign in the past because of some of her positions and political rhetoric, so I did my homework. After doing my homework, I think my caution was mostly misplaced. I do, however, continue to have differences with her diagnosis of the cause of America’s major political and economic problems and I disagree with her use of populist rhetoric in her campaigning and political style. That said, she is a talented, smart, and passionate public servant whom I would gladly support against Donald Trump should she win the 2020 Democratic nomination.

 

While much can change between now and the Iowa Caucuses next January, as of right now Elizabeth Warren has roughly as good a shot as Joe Biden of winning the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. I will admit that I have eyed Warren’s candidacy with some degree of caution, as her rhetorical style a fair amount of anti-elite economic populism, and I am wary of populism and populists, especially given the recent election of Donald Trump to the presidency.

That said, populism (a political style that pits a good, virtuous people against an immoral elite of some kind) is not a binary: politicians can run the scale from exhibiting a small amount of populism here and there all the way all the way to a Stalinist “elites are the enemy of the people”-type populism. Given Warren’s reasonable chance of becoming the 2020 nominee, I recently made an effort to give Warren’s candidacy a fair shake and as much of an objective assessment as I could, reading two biographies of Warren and listening to several hours of one-on-one podcast interviews with her. This is what I learned.

 

THE COMPELLING CASE FOR WARREN:

Elizabeth Warren’s life story is impressive. She went to law school at a time when it was hard to do that as a woman and she did it while raising small kids. Her academic career and research led her to study bankruptcy, thinking it would confirm her early-life worldview that those who declare bankruptcy are morally lacking and mooching off the system. Instead, she found that the data and evidence showed very much the opposite, and she changed her political and societal views accordingly. This is an important cognitive skill that we all could use more of in our lives and especially could use more of from our political leaders.

Then, she spent much of her political career looking to put her research knowledge to use by working to address what she perceived to be the causes of the systems that led to those bankruptcies in society, as well as economic inequality more broadly.

Example: her proposal to give corporate employees control over 40% of the seats on the boards of directors that govern the institutions they work for (“codetermination”) is a cool idea. Research shows that countries that adopt some form of this type of corporate governance tend to also have higher wages for workers and lower levels of economic inequality in their societies.

Elizabeth Warren is smart, talented, and a workhorse. She’s a badass who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She knows what it’s like to be working parent of small kids. She was a talented and distinguished law professor. Her presidency would serve as an excellent and empowering model to young women and girls both in the U.S. and around the world. She would represent America honorably on the world stage and use her platform to address the very real and important issues of economic inequality and wage stagnation for the middle class.

 

MY DISAGREEMENTS WITH WARREN:

The causes of economic inequality

Warren’s explanation of the current state of economic inequality in the U.S. goes something like this: at key moments when government policies have been made that affect levels of economic opportunity and inequality, elected officials chose to enact policies that favor the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless because they had been “bought” by campaign donations from powerful interest groups, lobbyists, and special interests. The solution, as she sees it, is to “stand up” to the influence and power of the special interests, thereby freeing policy-makers to pursue policies that benefit the majority.

As best as I can make sense of the research on the causes and consequences of economic inequality in contemporary American society and its relationship to the political process, Elizabeth Warren’s explanation is partially, but likely not entirely (or even mostly) correct. Instead, wider structural factors over the last half-century including globalization, industrial automation, and to a smaller extent technological innovation are among primary culprits for widening levels of economic inequality in American society.

These trends have of course been exacerbated by deliberate policy choices that have weakened labor unions and restructured tax codes in ways more favorable to those with higher income levels, but it’s not at all a foregone conclusion that economic inequality would not have grown over the last several decades in the absence of the influence of lobbyists and interest groups. We’d still have the wider forces of globalization, automation, and technological innovation at work.

If a President Warren is going to be effective at addressing economic inequality, her policy prescriptions will need to address much more than simply limiting the influence of lobbyists and the wealthy donor class on public policy.

Political change and the influence of lobbyists

This same explanation accounts for Warren’s theory of political change. For example, in a recent NPR interview, Warren was asked why meaningful gun control legislation has not been passed in recent years despite overwhelming public support for such measures. Her answer was that the NRA has bought off members of Congress with its campaign donations, and thus members of Congress listen to the NRA above their own voters who want these policies.

My best explanation would go something more like this: members of Congress of course pay attention to donors, but the best political science research tends to show that money can indeed by access to and attention from lawmakers, but not necessarily votes. Instead, most members of Congress (who are from safe electorally lopsided districts) pay most attention to the vocal members of their partisan primary constituencies because they are most worried about being primaried out by a more ideologically extreme/pure challenger. Republican primary voters care about gun rights. And it’s not because they’re bought off by the NRA, but because they believe strongly in an expansive interpretation of the 2nd amendment. These people show up to vote in primary elections and they care about gun rights, and so members of Congress from red states and districts tend to vote against restrictions on owning, buying, selling, and operating guns because voters who feel the same way control their electoral fates.

Take the NRA out of the equation entirely, and you’d still very likely have massive pressure from partisan constituencies who care strongly about this issue. Having a president who “stands up to the NRA” (as she promises to do) likely wouldn’t move the needle much in terms of congressional incentives to support gun control legislation.

Democratic norms and the legislative process

Recognizing these electoral and institutional constraints, Elizabeth Warren is now advocating for the elimination of the Senate filibuster so as to be able to pass all legislation with a simple majority.

On this point, I agree with her. (I say this someone who, as part of a U.S. Senate simulation as an undergraduate, argued passionately in favor of the sacred rights of senators to filibuster. I changed my mind somewhere around 2014.) I support the elimination of the filibuster so as to enable majorities to govern and to increase accountability on the majority party to govern effectively (they can’t blame a Senate minority for poor governance if the minority can no longer block the majority from enacting its program). I support the elimination of the filibuster going forward, regardless of whether “my side” is in control or not.

When you hear Elizabeth Warren advocate for abolishing the filibuster, though, you hear a different rationale: “This business that Democrats play by one set of rules and Republicans play by a different set of rules — those days are over when I’m president. We’re not doing that anymore.” What she means is that under the leadership of Mitch McConnell, Senate Republicans have tended to put the exercise of political power ahead of respect for the norms of democratic governance that hold a liberal democracy together.

On this point, I still agree with her: McConnell’s complete lack of regard for democratic norms of reciprocity and fair play are egregious and shameful. Where I disagree is on how to respond. She’s saying “if they’re going to play dirty, than so are we.” I worry that this will continue to hasten the arms race of political power, continuing to raise the stakes of the outcome of each election which will further incentivize abandoning democratic norms in favor of securing political power (example: Merrick Garland). This is not a recipe to ensure the long-term health or stability of our political system.

The use of populist rhetoric

When Elizabeth Warren talks about lobbyists, special interests, and the donor class, she says over and over again that they’re “corrupt.” I’ll admit that I’m wary of the use of this word, because in an international political context “corruption” usually refers to politicians or other authority figures taking cash bribes in exchange for granting political favors. It is true, though, that “corrupt” can also simply mean “unfair” or “distorted” which is what I think she means: that the system unfairly benefits the wealthy at the expense of the middle- and lower-class. When she accuses politicians and interest groups of being “corrupt,” though, it’s not unreasonable for listeners to infer an accusation of lawbreaking and other illegal activity.

This matters because it’s a common strategy for populists. Example: Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he lost the popular vote in 2016 only because millions of illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton or that the electoral system is “rigged” against him (something Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common). Accusing lobbyists of “corruption” (whether you agree with their positions or not) for exercising their first amendment rights to freedom of speech and association is, to me, a gesture in the same direction (although not near as egregious) as when Donald Trump says that the news media is a purveyor of “fake news” and therefore is “the enemy of the people.”

This rhetorical populism also targets other Americans. At her town hall meetings, Warren often focuses her rhetoric on the wealthy and super-rich, accusing them of selfishly hoarding their wealth at the expense of the less fortunate. She talks derisively about the people with vacation homes and yachts and says that she’s going to pay for her expansion of welfare state programs (universal child care and health insurance, etc.) by enacting a “wealth tax” on the net worth of the wealthiest vacation home and yacht owners.

Now, I want to be clear that support proportionately higher levels of taxes on those more fortunate to support the provision of services like education and healthcare to those less fortunate in an effort to broaden opportunity and prosperity for all. This can be done, though, in ways that do not rhetorically demonize those who are being taxed at higher rates.

When Elizabeth Warren casts rhetorical dispersions on the wealthy, making them out to be antagonists against the good, virtuous middle- and lower-classes, this is populism. Rhetorically, it’s the same political style that Donald Trump uses (although again, not near as egregious) when he makes straight-up racist comments against immigrants and Muslims, making them out to be the enemy of the good, virtuous white, Christians. When populist leaders are able to convince a majority of the people that another group of people are corrupt or threatening, they are more easily able to infringe upon the rights of those minority groups (whether the wealthy or the immigrants or the Muslims, etc.) to boost their popularity among the masses.

 

WARREN’S CANDIDACY IN PERSPECTIVE:

I tend disagree with Elizabeth Warren about the causes of economic inequality in U.S. society and as well as her view of the effect of lobbyists on the American political system and political change. Those are honest differences of opinion, though, and I fully appreciate Warren’s efforts to apply her understanding of the world to make meaningful change, as I hope we would all do.

I am wary of Elizabeth Warren’s comfort with “fighting fire with fire” when it comes to responding to recent Republican efforts to weaken democratic norms and institutions in the pursuit of policy outcomes. I am wary of the populist notes she inserts into her stump speeches. I understand and sympathize with much of the motivation, but I do not support such political styles and strategies becoming the “new normal” in the United States, as neither is conducive maintaining a strong and vibrant liberal democracy.

As I said at the outset, though, these characteristics do not exist in a binary but rather in matters of degree. In my estimation, if we were to put someone like Vice President Biden on one end of the spectrum around a 1 and President Trump on the other end of the spectrum around a 10 in terms of populism and disrespect for democratic norms and institutions, I’d put someone like Elizabeth Warren around a 3-ish. She’s not actively trying to sow doubt in the institutions of the news media, the judiciary, NATO (as Donald Trump has done), or even capitalist democracy (she goes to great length to assure us that “I’m a capitalist to my bones” and her record supports this). She’s not actively calling for a ban on travel of all wealthy people to the United States (like Trump did with Muslims, and tried very hard to follow through on, achieving some degree of success with his travel ban).

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, I’d rank around a 6 or a 7. He’s actively disparaging the “1%” and the “billionaire class.” He’s taken to criticizing the free news media. He calls for a “revolution” of the people substantially reform the political and economic institutions of the United States. He is a populist through and through. Elizabeth Warren is nowhere near as far along this spectrum as Bernie Sanders, who I am on record of actively opposing for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

Therefore, if the primary election were held today, Elizabeth Warren would perhaps not be my first choice for the reasons outlined above. That said, should she win the nomination for president in 2020, I will gladly support her candidacy. She has not “crossed the line” of populism or the delegitimization of our political institutions the same way that Trump or Sanders have. The risk to democratic norms and institutions from a President Elizabeth Warren is low, and much, much lower than from a President Bernie Sanders or a re-elected President Donald Trump. And the potential for her to enact meaningful change in American public policy about the issues she cares about is pretty good (assuming, of course, that the Democrats win the Senate – odds are currently low – and the Senate nukes the filibuster. If not…?)