Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Hail Maria.

Donald Trump's trip to Mexico this week has the potential to be a game changer for his campaign. In what was clearly a Hail Mary tactic, Trump flew to Mexico between a fundraiser in California and a speech in Arizona to meet with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto.

It is hard to imagine that a meeting could have lower expectations than a visit by Donald Trump to the President of Mexico, and, against that backdrop, Trump outperformed. It was not simply that he was gracious--almost diplomatic--but that he reframed the discussion away from who pays for the wall toward issues of hemispheric common purpose, specifically border stability, the problems of drug cartels and guns, and the common problem that both countries have with the evisceration of manufacturing industries in the face of Asian--primarily Chinese--competition.

The opportunity to fly to Mexico came just at a moment when Trump badly needed to change the discussion around immigration away from his contentious diatribes about Mexican rapists and a border wall that for more than a year have been central to building support among his core voters. Like his campaign narrative about race over the past several weeks, the trip was less about changing the math around the Latino vote than about the white vote, which has always been the focus of his campaign. It was a high risk/high reward gambit, but Trump stood at the podium with a man who by all accounts detests him, behaved himself and even showed some diplomatic skill. It is a low bar, but he cleared it.

Despite the barely disguised glee among Democrats as Donald Trump's fortunes in the battleground states continued to sink over recent weeks, Trump's campaign is not imploding, it is arguably becoming more focused. Earlier this month, Trump finally pivoted. After months of Republican anguish, their nominee for president did what Republican leaders have been looking for him to do. As the Labor Day kick off to the final stretch of the presidential race approached, he shook up his staff and started listening to them, and, for several days at least, he spoke from a teleprompter.

This, however, was not the pivot that Republican leaders had in mind. Out was long-time establishment Republican Paul Manafort. In his place, Trump brought in right wing conspiracy monger and GOP tormentor Steve Bannon. If Paul Ryan thought things were going to get easier, he must have been sorely disappointed.

From the day he announced his campaign in June 2015, Donald Trump has been clear about the electoral theory underpinning his campaign. It is all about white voter turnout, and it is right up Steve Bannon's alley. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, the GOP spent a lot of time examining what went wrong. Famously, the official RNC diagnosis was that the party needed to become more diverse. What had once been the Party of Lincoln feared that it had lost Black voters for good and was at risk of making a similar mistake with Latino voters.

But there was a minority report of sorts, which was encapsulated in a piece written by Sean Trende in the days following the 2012 election entitled The Case of the Missing White VotersTrende's thesis, updated earlier this year in light of the Trump candidacy--and as reflected in the turnout numbers shown here--was that a large share of white voters--particularly less educated white voters--were no longer turning up to vote in presidential election years, and that the GOP could win back the White House if it reenergized these voters.

Karl Rove, along with a slew of other Republican analysts, were wildly derisive of Trende's thesis. Rove did not dispute that millions of white voters had not shown up, he just said they weren't conservatives. But Trende hadn't said that they were conservative, only that they were Republican voters. He emphasized instead that they were secular, less educated and economic populists--more like supporters of Ross Perot than the southern and evangelical voters that fit the normal profile of the Republican base.

Revisiting his 2012 article in 2013--almost two years to the day before Donald Trump entered the presidential race--Trende foreshadowed the Trump campaign succinctly: "This doesn’t mean embracing “big government” economics or redistribution full bore; suspicion of government is a strain in American populism dating back at least to Andrew Jackson. It means abandoning some of [the GOP's] more pro-corporate stances. This GOP would have to be more "America first" on trade, immigration and foreign policy; less pro-Wall Street and big business in its rhetoric; more Main Street/populist on economics." 

The simple truth is that Trump's campaign has eschewed traditional GOP themes--small government, free trade, personal responsibility, and the like. Instead, Trump's pitch has been part old-time Democrat free trade bashing and part George Wallace race-bating. There is more Huey Long in his pitch than Ronald Reagan--other than tax cuts, the obligatory price of entry into the GOP primaries--and not even a smidgen of Paul Ryan. The only Republican of recent memory that Trump is emulating at all is Patrick Buchanan.

The problem with Trump's theory of the missing white voter has from the outset been turnout and education. Trump's strongest support has been among the least educated voters, who, historically, have the poorest record for turning out on election day. From 1988 to 2012, turnout among voters with less than a high school diploma declined from 37% to 33%, while overall non-Hispanic white turnout increased from 56% in 1988 to 65% in 2008, before dipping, as noted above, to 62% in 2012.

As much as Trump's new campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, might claim that Trump support is understated in the national and battleground state polls, his most avid, less educated white supporters are historically tough to turn out on election day. Indeed, Trump's campaign messaging since Conway and Bannon took over has been less about pumping up his less-educated base than softening his image among educated whites in the hope of stemming his losses among those voters.

For all the flurry of media discussion about Trump's outreach to African American voters since Conway came onboard three weeks ago, that rhetoric has had far less to do with black votes than white ones. The campaign's objective is less to increase Trump's black support in polls from 2% to 9% than it is to stanch his deteriorating support among Republican women. This is Kellyanne Conway's specialty, and Trump has clearly heard her message that to win back moderate Republicans--notably women--he has to act a bit less like a racist thug.

As it turns out, Mexico President Peña Nieto extended his hand just at a moment when Trump needed one, and gave him the opportunity to change the media focus from an immigration discussion that was spiraling out of control, to a discussion of the U.S. and Mexico's collective hemisphere interests. Peña Nieto invited both candidates, but only Trump took him up on it, and he made good use of the opportunity. It matters little whether or not they discussed who was going to pay for Trump's wall, as President Peña Nieto suggested in a post-meeting kerfuffle. What matters is that just at a moment when Hillary Clinton's own problems appear to have led to some tightening in some national polls, Donald Trump stood on the public stage and behaved himself, and suggested to educated white voters, who have increasingly been slipping from his grasp, that they might be able to vote for him after all.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A friend of the devil is a friend of mine.

The Tweet: Firebrand Steve King endorsed Hillary's ability to work across the aisle. What better way to sell her to Republican voters who are done with Trump?

Steve King (R-IA) said it this week to an audience at the Iowa State Fair. “I’ve sat across the table with Hillary Clinton eye-to-eye, and when you’re working outside of staff and outside of the press she is somebody I can work with.”

Much is made of public opinion polls that suggest that a fair percentage of the Republican electorate believe that Hillary Clinton is a follower of Lucifer. But here is Steve King, a leader of the House Freedom Caucus and darling of the Tea Party, suggesting that Hillary Clinton is someone he can work with.

This is an important point that must not be lost. Steve King famously loathes President Obama, but apparently shares the more positive view of Hillary expressed by former Congressman and GOP stalwart Vin Weber (R-MN) during the Republican Convention in July. "The story line seems to be at the grassroots level, the Republicans just hate Hillary Clinton, they all want her in jail, blah blah blah. Ain’t so. Not true in the Congress. The people who served with Hillary Clinton in Congress as Republicans got along with her, respected her, and worked with her. Didn’t agree with her, don’t want her to be President, but the notion that she will come in hated by everyone in Congress simply is not an accurate statement."

Hillary has moved ahead in national polls over the past few weeks. In the wake of one inexcusable episode after another--his spat with the Gold Star Khan family, the Second Amendment comments and his new rigged election narrative--Donald Trump's poll numbers in both national and battleground state polls have deteriorated, with his support falling into the 35-40% range.

An increasing number of Republicans are prepared to not vote for their party's nominee--Trump has been losing ground in particular among educated white women, and to a lesser extent among educated white men--but it is less clear that those voters, having decided not to vote for Trump, are willing to take the next step to support Clinton.

A large share of Republicans, on and off Capitol Hill, share Steve King's view of the President. They find him to be patronizing and aloof. And, to be fair, the disdain is mutual. If there is a part of his job that President Obama has shown that he dislikes, it has been meeting and dealing with Republicans in Congress as his Constitutional equals. He and John Boehner may have a good time playing golf now that the former Speaker of the House is retired, but back when Boehner was Speaker, he made little effort to hide how much he disliked dealing with the President. Whomever was to blame, Obama's early promise of bipartisanship rapidly deteriorate into mutual antipathy.

One of Hillary's campaign strategies has been to tie herself closely the President Obama, which was particularly important as she faced the challenge from Bernie Sanders. As the campaign moves into the fall, she should use her history of and commitment to working across the aisle as an opportunity to put some light between herself and the White House, as she reaches out to voters who are less positively inclined toward the President.

It is a difficult step for people to turn their backs on a political party that they believe in and that is part of their identity. Republicans--as well as Republican-leaning independents--who are disgusted with Donald Trump nonetheless share in large measure negative views of Hillary. That, as they say, is baked in the cake. Hillary needs to demonstrate to those Republicans who are prepared to abandon the candidate of their party that there is reason to believe that, as president, she will be a more reasonable collaborator with Congress than President Obama has been. King's words this week present an opportunity to make the case, as House Deputy Majority Whip Tom Cole (R-OK) has suggested, that Hillary "could be easier to work with than the President has been."

Hillary should embrace Steve King's comments. She should talk about when she worked with King and say a nice word or two about him. She should then expand her comments to mention issues on which she has worked with Republicans, and which Republicans that she worked with. She can use the opportunity to discretely put some distance between her and the President--who would probably be willing to acknowledge that he did not care for working with Republicans in Congress, and offer that many of them probably think more highly of her than they do of him. It is, after all, a low threshold.

Hillary's comments should not overstate the case, but should provide enough detail that reporters would want to contact the Republicans in question to verify what she said. Those Republicans, many of whom themselves detest Trump--even if politically they are not prepared to disown him--would likely acknowledge, as Steve King did, that in the real world, Hillary Clinton is someone they have worked with, that they respect and that they can imagine working with in the future.

Neither Hillary Clinton nor her surrogates can tell Republican voters that she is respected across the aisle, and by implication that relations between the White House and Congress might be better on her watch than they have been over the past four years. They must hear that from Republicans who have worked with her over the years. Hillary's objective should be to have Republican members of Congress--in whatever subtle ways it can be achieved--become testifiers on her behalf, and in doing so give Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters a rationale to acquiesce to, if not embrace, her candidacy in November. Steve King's words were a validation of Clinton from the most unlikely source. If King--a firebrand of the right and Trump supporter--has a nice word or two two say about Hillary, one can only imagine the comments that John McCain or Lindsay Graham or others might say, should they be asked.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The party of Booth.

The Tweet: Each @realDonaldTrump outrage is calculated to boost election day turnout. These are not gaffes. His strategy is Grover Norquist on steroids.

Each time Donald Trump makes some outrageous statement, the media goes crazy, demanding that he apologize and walk back his comments. Predictably, embarrassed Republicans plead with his campaign strategists to get him under control, to have him use a teleprompter. Yet for Donald Trump--the reality TV celebrity and leader of the Birther movement--all of that outrage, from the media as well as establishment Republicans, is part of his strategy. Last week, Trump denigrated the voting rights act and suggested that the fall election would be rife with voter fraud. This week, it was about the Second Amendment, barely skirting language promoting political assassination, if not civil insurrection. Next week, perhaps he will focus on abortion mills, or the killing of Christians.

These are not gaffes, and the candidate is under control. Each outburst is geared toward a singular objective: turnout of his base on election day. Despite all the outrage, none of this should be new to establishment Republicans. After all, Donald Trump's electoral strategy is essentially the strategy of energizing target voter groups that Grover Norquist developed decades ago, this time on steroids.

Last weekend marked the 51st anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. Old school Republicans continue to cherish the role that the GOP played in the passage of both the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commemorated the event with the following statement recognizing Republican leadership in its passage: “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a monumental step forward in ensuring equal rights for every American, and today we honor not just that legislation, but also those who devoted themselves to its passage."

Voting Aye that day a half-century ago were 30 of the 32 Republican Senators, constituting 94% of the GOP members of the Senate. Perhaps as a harbinger of things to come, the two Nay votes were long-time Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond--who had converted to the Republican Party a year earlier to protest the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964--and John Tower, the first Republican elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. In contrast, 70% of the Democratic Senators voted in favor of the Act, with all 16 dissenting votes coming from the states of the Confederacy.

Priebus was by no means the first GOP leader to hang his hat on GOP support for the 1960's civil rights acts to curry favor with minority voters who have shied away from the Republican Party in recent decades. In its Growth and Opportunity Project--the internal assessment of the challenges facing the GOP in the wake of the 2012 presidential election--the authors noted that "The African American community has a lot in common with the Republican Party, and it is important to share this rich history."

That rich history dates to the Civil War, when the GOP was both the Party of Lincoln as well as the Party of Frederick Douglass, and continued on through the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Just last month in Cleveland, GOP wise man and former Congressman Vin Weber (R-MN) fell back on the 1960s votes in arguing why a reasonable share of Black voters should be willing to look to the GOP as their political home. Like Weber, House Speaker Paul Ryan embraces the identity of the GOP being the Party of Lincoln, and, like Weber, Ryan is loath to acknowledge that today's Republican Party is no longer the Party of Lincoln, much less the party of the Voting Rights Act.

A half century ago--in the wake of the civil rights acts and cultural turmoil of the 1960s--Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and their political strategists redrew the political map, while setting the GOP on a path that brought it to where it is today. As described in Kevin Phillips 1969 book, the Emerging Republican Majority, that strategy entailed luring the rural and working class white voters to the GOP, while casting off the Party's historical commitment to Blacks and liberals that dated back to the founding of the party.

And the strategy worked. As presented here in data from Gallup, in the 1960 presidential contest, Richard Nixon and the GOP won 51% of the white vote and 32% of the non-white vote, while winning 50% of the overall popular vote. Twelve years later, in the 1972 contest, Nixon and the GOP won 68% of the white vote and 13% of the non-white vote, and increased its overall share of the votes cast to 62%, as the constituencies represented by the 16 dissenting Democratic senators migrated to the Republican Party. Beginning with Nixon's Southern Strategy, and continuing through the Reagan Revolution, the GOP successfully swapped its historically large share of the Black vote for what had long been the Democratic white votes of the "solid south" and working class constituencies of the former New Deal Democratic coalition of FDR.

Under the watchful eyes of long-time running buddies Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, the GOP mastered the use of racial dogwhistles and social wedge issues to stir the passions of the white working class electorate that emerged as the new base of the GOP, as well as voter suppression strategies to reduce Democrat turnout. Grover Norquist built what for decades became the core Republican electoral strategy of energizing single issue voting groups--pro-gun, pro-faith, pro-life, anti-tax, among others--to boost election day turnout. Barack Obama may have been indelicate in his references to Republican base voters clinging to their guns and their religion, but it was, nonetheless, elemental to the electoral strategies embraced by Norquist, Atwater and Rove.

With the nomination of Donald Trump, Nixon's Southern Strategy has come full circle. What started as an electoral strategy now threatens to trample the last vestiges of the Grand Old Party. As Maine senior Senator Susan Collins suggested this week in an op-ed denouncing Trump's candidacy, "Donald Trump does not reflect historical Republican values nor the inclusive approach to governing that is critical to healing the divisions in our country."

Yet, notwithstanding her own political and moral clarity, Susan Collins, like many in the Republican Party, seem to be missing the larger context underpinning the rise of Donald Trump. The New York billionaire is not the cause of the decline of the Grand Old Party, rather, those forces were set in motion decades ago.

Recent polling suggests that Trump is losing ground with core constituencies that many in the GOP view as integral to his chances in November. He is down by as much as 30% among educated white women, for example, a group that Mitt Romney won by 6%. Even educated white men appear to be slipping from his grasp. Ryan and others continue to believe that when confronted with this data, Donald Trump will change his ways and pivot toward the center, moderating his language as well as his more extreme positions.

But Donald Trump sees the Republican landscape differently, and his strategy has been consistent from the day he entered the race. He is not seeking to replicate and then expand on Mitt Romney's failed election campaign, he is taking a different tack entirely. Trump is looking to build an electoral victory from among the same alienated and resentful white working class constituencies Kevin Phillips described almost a half-century ago, but with those voters at the center of an electoral majority rather than as as subordinate participants in a larger coalition.

The chart above presents two data sets relevant to Trump's electoral strategy: non-hispanic white turnout, and turnout among less educated voters, in this case non-high school graduates. For Trump, white voter turnout--and in particular less educated white voter turnout--is the key to his victory in November. Those white working class voters who were brought to the GOP to provide an election day advantage will no longer be an appendage to the Republican Party, they will be the Republican Party. Trump's strategy may not be successful, but there is method in Trump's madness.

White nationalist activist Peter Brimelow summed up the Trump campaign succinctly the other day. “Trump’s only path to victory is a Brexit-type spontaneous popular surge. In fact, that’s all he’s ever had going for him. To get that, he has to raise Nationalist issues, like immigration/TPP, that will terrify the GOP Establishment and enrage the MSM [main street media].”

For decades now, those voters that Donald Trump has courted have dutifully supported one Republican after another who paid homage to their social issues, but ignored the economic devastation laying waste to their communities. This time around, they have in Trump a candidate that speaks their language, and, as far as they are concerned, the rest of the party can either fall in line--as they did for decades--or slink off into the shadows. Establishment Republicans may not like what they see, and what it says about what has become of the GOP, but Donald Trump is in charge now and he knows exactly what he is doing.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Dire consequences.

The Tweet: @realDonaldTrump willing to tear down public confidence in democracy itself if it serves his own interests. Shameful!

A friend from Tennessee wrote to me this morning:

As I continue to experience what might be described as "the recurring bad dream about a Trump presidency," I can now say that it his statements about NATO and our role and obligations to it that worry me the most.  The reason is that should he pull out or decline to fulfill our treaty obligations as he has threatened, there could be an irreversible multi-legged collapse in world order.  That outcome coupled with his itchy nuclear trigger-finger could spell disaster, comparable to any sequence of events in past history.

... I truly fear that Trump's bravado, his blinding ego, and his ignorance could be a bad, bad mixed cocktail for the U.S. and the world.

My friend's words left me musing about what it is about Trump that worries me most. There are certainly options here. There is the wall, the rapists rhetoric, and the Muslim ban. There is the facile enchantment with Vladimir Putin and indifference to Europe. There is the short tempered man with his finger on the trigger. And then there is all of that rhetoric taken together, and its impact on the rest of the world looking on with trepidation and wondering what is happening here.

So many of us have family that came here from elsewhere. My grandparents traveled by foot and boat for four years, leaving Russia during the turmoil of the Revolution and World War I--landing for a while in Turkey and Moldova before making their way here. My grandmother came illegally, as it turns out, as she feigned being her brother's wife, as he had papers and she did not. For all the criticism that one can easily be cast toward the United States--corporatism and cowboy capitalism come to mind--it remains an essential country in the world, one that other nations turn to when all else fails. But more to the point, it remains the country that people strive to get to, when time comes to vote with their feet.

But all of Donald Trump's most egregious rhetoric pales compared to his most recent foray into preemptive election nullification. At the Republican National Convention, the theme of election nullification lay barely below the surface of all of the anti-Hillary diatribes. After a couple of days of lock her up chants, it seemed only a matter of time before one Trump advisor, Al Baldasaro, concluded that Hillary's conduct constituted treason, and that "anyone that commits treason should be shot."

This week, faced with declining poll performance, Trump pronounced his belief that the election was being rigged against him. When things have been looking down, Trump has used the rigged game narrative to great effect. It was after his loss to Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primary, when the Senator from Texas seemed on the verge of making a serious challenge to the Trump campaign, that Trump rolled out the rigged game rhetoric to great affect. In that iteration, the rigged game was about the economic decline of the American middle class, and the perfidy of American--and Republican--elites that had rigged the system against the working man. And it worked. From that low moment, Donald Trump regained his mojo, and never looked back.

But now, this rigged game that Donald Trump sees is American democracy itself. Trump cannot reconcile his decline in the polls with the continued enthusiasm of the crowds that flock to hear him every day. And no doubt, many of those who flock to see him cannot imagine how Trump could be foundering if not by the nefarious efforts of the media and those same elites who have rigged the economic system against them.

But Donald Trump is not a man who walks through any serious social critique or analysis to arrive at his conclusions about the rigging of the system. Trump is all about tactics, and he fully expects that his new rigged election narrative will drive the passions of his base, and his comments over the past few days that the impact of the Supreme Court striking down voter suppression laws over the past few weeks will have the effect of allowing people in some states--people who are not Trump supporters--to vote as many as ten times on Election Day.

There is a tradition in Delaware called Return Day, that dates back to colonial times. Two days after Election Day, the winners and losers march together in a parade through the streets of Georgetown, DE. This photograph from Return Day 2010 shows U.S. Senator Chris Coons and his Tea Party backed campaign rival Christine O'Donnell a they literally "bury the hatchet," to put the animosities of the recently ended campaign. Return day is not about the candidates, but it is about the public, and the importance of all candidates bringing their supporters along to accept the validity of the results of the campaign that has just ended. A democracy in which the supporters of the losing candidates do not accept the validity of the results will not long endure.

I have great fears about the ease with which Donald Trump uses language to his own ends. As he said to the New York Times editorial board, building a wall along the Mexico border was not something he had given any thought to, he only brought it up because he was losing his audience and needed something new to amp up the energy and excitement. So it was with the rigged system in the wake of his loss in Wisconsin, and so it was again this week with the rigged election in the wake of his declining poll numbers. As he found himself back on his heels--losing ground in the wake of the Khan family confrontation and new defections amount Republican leaders--his new rigged election rhetoric changed the focus of media attention, and communicated a new sense of urgency to his base.

The outcome in the fall election is expected to depend in large measure on how effective each campaign is in turning our their base. Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher suggested at a symposium during the Democratic convention in Philly that--notwithstanding the recent attention to white suburban woman--the presidential election will hinge on overall white voter turnout. If white voter turnout is 70% of the total, Trump cannot win. If white voter turnout is 74%, he likely will win. Based on this summation of the election, the Clinton campaign is right to be concerned about enthusiasm and turnout among its Black and Latino base--particularly in the wake of the selection of Tim Keane as her partner on the ticket--while Donald Trump is making a sound tactical decision if he can turn the heat up under his base by asserting that the election is being rigged against them--and him.

My friend from Tennessee is right to be concerned that Trump's bravado, his blinding ego, and his ignorance could be a toxic combination for the U.S. and for the world in a commander-in-chief. But that presumes that he wins. My greater concern is for the damage that Donald Trump is fully prepared to do to undermine public support for our democratic institutions, if, in doing so he believes he can advance his own interests. That is damage that he is prepared and capable of doing, whether he wins or loses, and that may have even more dire consequences for our nation in the wake of a Trump loss that it would in the increasingly unlikely event that he wins.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at