The Sweep: Yep, This Changes Everything

How RBG's death could shake up the Senate, and how the Trump administration might be weighing its options.

After weeks of telling you that very little affects the fundamentals of a presidential campaign—not conventions and rarely debates and never an August news cycle—the opening of a Supreme Court seat that had been appointed by Democrats is arguably a bigger deal than the Comey October surprise was in 2016.

Campaign-ish Quick Hits

Everyone sucks: For all the Republicans who said that it would be crazy to fill a Supreme Court seat in an election year and all the Democrats who said it was a constitutional imperative not to leave a Supreme Court seat open, let me introduce you to your chickens. They’ve come home to roost. And to all the conservatives out there who now admit it was always about constitutional authority and power, just remember this from Matthew Yglesias: “if Democrats win a majority in 2021 and use it to: End the filibuster, Adopt DC/PR statehood, Ban partisan gerrymandering, Create a 17-justice court with 17-year term limits, Expand lower courts on pace with population growth, Them’s also the rules!” Then again, Josh Holmes may have put it best: “Why would a Republican be the least bit concerned with the threat of something they've already said they're going to do? ... They shot the hostage before the standoff.”

What happens if: A lot of conjecture out there on the “what ifs.” Let’s try to break it down a little. 

The Supreme Court currently has eight members, which is not all that unusual. Remember, the court was 5-4 with Republican appointees before last week, so it is 5-3 now. If an election-related lawsuit were to go to the court in December without a newly confirmed justice and the court actually split 4-4, the rule is that the lower court’s opinion stays in place (i.e., the ruling on the field stands unless a majority of the refs disagree). This is highly unlikely for the very reason that the justices are well aware of what would happen. And remember, Bush v. Gore was actually 7-2 on the constitutional problems (and 5-4 on what to do about it). 

As for the pending Obamacare case that I’m suddenly reading so much about, it was highly unlikely that the case would have been resolved before January regardless (and more likely February or March). Now, the justices could hold over the case for reargument after the new justice is seated. But even if, for some unknown and highly improbable reason, the eight justices decided to make the all-but-unprecedented move of releasing an opinion that quickly, as we’ve have discussed several times on Advisory Opinions , there is every reason to believe the mandate would be held unconstitutional by five of the current justices on the court and that the mandate would be “severed” from the rest of the law—meaning the rest of the law would stay in place—by at least five if not six or seven justices on the court. And so the ninth justice will make no difference to the outcome.

Another incorrect take I’ve seen online is that the court would be involved in resolving a 269-269 Electoral College split. The 12th Amendment to the Constitution says that a tie is resolved by state delegations in the House of Representatives in which, for example, all the members from Texas would get one vote. This is also unlikely just from a math/probability perspective, but … #2020.

Losing my majority: If the Senate has not confirmed a new justice by November 30, things get one vote tricker for McConnell. Democrat Mark Kelly is currently running 6 to 8 points ahead of Martha McSally for the Arizona Senate seat. But this is a special election to fill the remainder of Sen. John McCain’s term, which means the winner could be seated as early as December 1. And if a Democrat wins that seat, the Republican majority would go from 53 to 52 votes with Vice President Mike Pence as the tie-breaker until new senators are sworn in on January 3, 2021.

Ignore polls like these: A new Marquette University Law School poll found “that 59% of Biden voters say that appointing the next Supreme Court justice is very important to their vote” compared to “only 51% of Trump voters.” And a CNN/SSRS poll found that “78% of Biden backers told pollsters that nominating the next justice was extremely or very important to their vote” compared to “64% of Trump supporters.” Or this Morning Consult poll, which found that “48% of Democrats deem the Supreme Court a ‘very important’ issue in this year’s election, down 9 points since the beginning of August.” Why ignore them? Because they were taken before Friday. And that makes them meaningless since both sides will spend millions of dollars and moles of oxygen molecules over the next 40 days to rev up their side.

And maybe these too: I discussed the “likely voter” problem for pollsters with Kristen Soltis Anderson this week for the Mop-Up. But some folks like to use polling on enthusiasm as a gauge as well. Not so fast! There’s this little nugget from Democratic pollster Mark Mellman: “In one race, we found among those ‘very’ enthusiastic, 88 percent voted; among those who were ‘somewhat’ enthusiastic, 83 percent turned out; and among those ‘not too’ enthusiastic, a slightly larger 85 percent turned out. No relationship.” He says Gallup had similar findings. Perhaps we can take those enthusiasm polls with a healthy dash of salt from now on. 

Just more proof that issue polls are the tail wagging the dog: Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg has a new book out that includes this cynicism-inducing tidbit: “82% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans support single-payer healthcare when told that Obama supports it. When instead told that Trump supports it, Dem support drop to 46% and Rep support increase to 44%.” So when you see headlines like this, “White suburbanites who feel ‘very safe’ in their communities are more likely to favor Joe Biden,” that’s not because people who feel safer are more likely to vote for Biden, it’s because people who are going to vote for Joe Biden are more likely to say they feel safer. 

But see, abortion: Not unrelated to our conversation about the future of the Supreme Court, there does appear to be one issue in which the issue itself animates voters outside of their candidate preferences: abortion. 

Tim Alberta at Politico once again brought us conversations from the field last week—this time from Cedarburg, Wisconsin, in one of the still-red WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee, Washington) that makes up suburban Milwaukee. As one voter put it, “I feel much worse about him now, but … the abortion issue, the conservative judges … I’m voting for those things. I’m not voting for Donald Trump.” Or this voter, “The abortion issue is a big problem for me.” Or this one, “The Democrats are so far to the left on abortion now that it’s impossible to vote for them.” And this one, “Honestly, I’m pretty close to a one-issue voter. Abortion is the thing I care about most.” For almost every person Tim spoke to, the issue came up immediately. They don’t like Trump, but this sentiment kept repeating: “I disagree with Democrats on a fundamental issue: abortion. And it’s hard for me to get over that. How can you advocate for social justice but approve of killing unborn babies? It makes no sense to me. So, what am I supposed to do?”

Danielle Kurtzleben at NPR wrote up some of the data last week too. On the one hand, she notes that “less than 0.5% of Americans told Gallup that they consider abortion the most important problem in America.” And yet. “Fully 40% of voters see abortion as ‘very important’ to their vote,” which still isn’t actually that high compared to issues like the economy, health care, immigration, etc. But here’s the thing you always have to ask yourself about polling like that: Sure, these voters think climate change or limiting gun rights is important, but do they vote on that issue alone? Rarely. But, according to Gallup, “30% of those in the pro-life camp and 19% in the pro-choice camp say they are single-issue voters when it comes to abortion,” meaning they will only vote for a candidate who shares their views on the issue. And that number has gone up 15 points—doubled—among pro-life voters since 2008.

This is one major reason why Republicans tend to be more reliable “court voters” than Democrats when the pressure is on.

Ok, But What About the Senate?

Andrew coming in hot with how a Supreme Court opening is going to shake up the Senate map ...

Two years ago, another Supreme Court appointment fight was in the middle of scrambling a campaign season. Allegations of sexual misconduct against nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and the days of wrenching testimony that followed as the Senate tried to get to the bottom of them, turned the process into the most explosive confirmation fight in a generation. When voters went to the polls that November, that fight was still fresh in their minds.

To win re-election as a member of a state’s minority party, a senator usually has to be able to brand himself or herself as a common-sense pragmatist who doesn’t take marching orders from party leaders. But you know what makes that kind of branding difficult to maintain? A high-profile, party-line SCOTUS confirmation with deep ideological stakes. In legislative fights, would-be moderates can at least push for amendments to cast themselves as somewhere in the reasonable middle. No such luck with confirmations: You’re up or you’re down.

So when the dust settled in 2018, who were the biggest electoral losers from the Kavanaugh fight? Purple-state Democratic incumbents. In Missouri, incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill spent the summer in a dead polling heat with upstart challenger Josh Hawley. But Hawley spent the fall hitting her mercilessly on the Kavanaugh issue, while McCaskill tried in vain to find some new ground to re-establish her bipartisan bona fides—ads targeting rural voters that insisted she wasn’t “one of those crazy Democrats” did little besides angering her own base. In the end, McCaskill lost by nearly six points.

Two states away in Indiana, incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly tried to find a way to thread the rhetorical needle on Kavanaugh: “I believe the process was unfair to everyone and unnecessarily divided the country,” he said in a statement after his (no) vote. “Now that the Senate has confirmed Brett Kavanaugh, I am very hopeful for his success and for him to join the other justices to make decisions based on the Constitution, our laws, and their collective wisdom.” He also tried to draw attention to his previous vote in support of Trump’s first SCOTUS nominee, Neil Gorsuch. No luck: Despite looking strong in the polls all summer, he too lost by six.

The biggest collapse came in North Dakota. Although President Trump had carried the state by a whopping 36 points two years prior, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s chances of winning re-election didn’t seem too bad going into the year: She had a strong reputation for aisle-crossing, particularly on her signature issue of agriculture, where she would sometimes break with her party on legislation that pitted farm interests against environmental ones. Going into the Kavanaugh cycle, polls had her down four points. In the end, she lost by 11. 

Note that this is not inherently a Democratic problem, but a simple exposure problem. Any given Congress will have a few senators who “shouldn’t” be there based on the ideological composition of their state, but who made their way into office based on some set of unusual circumstances. An explosive, polarizing event that sends voters running to their corners like the Kavanaugh confirmation simply plays to the detriment of whichever party happens to have more of those edge-case senators up for reelection at the moment. 

Two years ago, that was the Democrats. As we’ve written before, however, this year it’s Republicans who are defending the lion’s share of the swing seats. 

Of the seven Republican senators who are considered vulnerable this fall, only Susan Collins has partially broken with the president’s plan to confirm a third justice before the end of his first term. You can note the same moderate-aspirational tone in her statement as in those of the Democrats discussed above: “President Trump has the constitutional authority to make a nomination to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, and I would have no objection to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s beginning the process of reviewing his nominee’s credentials. Given the proximity of the presidential election, however, I do not believe that the Senate should vote on the nominee prior to the election.” 

As “Oh God let me out of this binary choice” swing-vote statements go, Collins’s is masterful: A nod to the left, a nod to the right, and a careful withholding of her actual plans. (Note that “I do not believe that the Senate should vote” is a world away from “And thus I will vote against President Trump’s nominee.”) But that sort of thing can only get a senator so far. Eventually, it’ll be time to vote. 

For the others, there’s been substantially less worry. Here’s an unequivocal statement from Martha McSally, potentially the GOP’s most vulnerable senator this year: “The U.S. Senate should vote on President Trump’s next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.” 

The Strategery

We’ve got dueling “this is why this helps us” narratives coming out of the two campaigns in Axios SUNDAY night. From Team Biden: “Biden advisers view the court vacancy as a rare last-minute chance to get a second look from independents.” From Team Trump: “They think they can demoralize Democrats, and depress turnout, if they quickly fill RBG's seat.” 

Time to think about how the Trump campaign (for legal analysis, come on over to Advisory Opinions later today) is thinking about their various plays right now:

  1. Make a nomination and vote before Nov 3. This certainly appears to be the preferred strategy. But I wonder whether the president appreciates that his incentives may not align quite perfectly with McConnell’s or even some of the lawyers advising him. 

    The Trump campaign’s first priority is to win re-election. The conservative legal movement wants to move the court. McConnell, of course, wants to keep the Senate, but even more important than that, is his legacy, which is based on his “one true credo: Leave no judicial vacancy behind.” That is all to say: The president is getting a lot of advice that he needs to get a nominee confirmed to the court asap. 

    And there’s plenty to recommend this path on its merits too. After all, it’s another promise delivered that Trump can point to for the remainder of the race. Sure, it could energize the left, but Trump’s base is also energized when he enrages them and filling the Ginsburg seat with a pro-life woman may be the ultimate “own the libs” move. 

    His brand is not to blink in the face of threats and doomsday predictions. The more the left says they will “burn it down” in response to his actions, the more he has to do it just to maintain that brand. Plus if he were to lose re-election and the nomination stalled for some reason (see, eg, Arizona senate seat in the quick hits), it may well be considered the biggest failure of his presidency by his voters.

  2. Make a nomination but don’t vote before Nov 3. This is the strategic play in which the Trump campaign breaks with pretty much everyone else, which would undoubtedly leak and they’d have to take that into consideration. And like that Dallas on-side kick yesterday afternoon, it’s unlikely to work buuuuut …

    If there’s one thing we’ve seen in focus groups and interviews, it’s that there are a lot of Trump-leaning voters in these swing states who don’t actually like him very much and could stay home or vote third party without some additional motivation. But they like the Supreme Court more than they dislike him. If the court is already 6-3 on Election Day, does that make them like Trump more or make them think the election is less important? Or if the Democrats keep making wild-eyed (and potentially destabilizing) promises to pack the court while the nomination is pending, does that make these voters scared enough to show up?

    So why not make the implicit threat: Vote for me or you lose your precious seat. Or to put it in campaign-speak: “go vote because everything is on the line.”

  3. Don’t make a nomination until after election. The only reason this would make sense politically for this president is if the campaign had some internal poll numbers that showed that a nominee (let alone a confirmed justice) would do more to turn out Biden voters than Trump voters. But even if the campaign had those numbers, I wouldn’t trust them enough to guide my decision. Forty days is a long time to tread water. This will still be in the news every day, and it’s impossible to game out exactly how this curling stone will turn over that amount of time. 

    Sure, for a different president, there could be some argument around an ad campaign that focused on statesmanship and being the president “for all Americans” who is unwilling to let the radical left undermine such an important institution just to help him win an election.

    But that ain’t this guy and no amount of rebranding is gonna change that this late in the game.

  4. Pick Judge Barbara Lagoa from Florida over Judge Amy Coney Barrett from Indiana. As I said on Advisory Opinions last week, Trump’s release of a new SCOTUS list was politically all upside—mainly lots of easy headlines to remind wobbly Republicans of what’s at stake. 

    But was there another reason? I told David that it also seemed likely to me that this was a sneaky way to add Barbara Lagoa to the actual “shortlist” without raising eyebrows. I’ll leave the legal case for AO listeners, but the political case is obvious: Lagoa is Cuban and from Florida. 

    I can’t imagine there are many run-of-the-mill Florida voters who even know who Lagoa is (yet)—let alone feel some sort of personal affiliation with her as a result of their shared location—but that’s reality. The better question is whether Trump or campaign manager Bill Stepien think so. And at a time when Trump has been creeping into Biden’s lead with Hispanic voters in Florida, there’s a real argument that she could add momentum there simply by virtue of adding attention to those numbers.

    On the other hand, ACB is a known quantity with conservative court voters around the country. When’s the last time a conservative judge had her own swag? And that’s before she’s even nominated. She crushed her nomination hearing when she was appointed to the Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, winning that coveted Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) vote (and Joe Donnelly and Tim Kaine to boot) and embarrassing California Senator Dianne Feinstein. She has seven children and a whole lot of pro-life, Catholic voters rooting for her. 

    Politically speaking (and remember we’re only talking campaign strategy here), I think the edge goes to ACB, but it’s a close call and I’d want to see the campaign’s internal numbers in Florida before I made a final call.

Self-promotion alert! We’re about six weeks away from Election Day. If you came to this newsletter from Facebook or Twitter or elsewhere on the internet and would prefer to have it delivered to your email inbox, sign up here.

The Sweep: Swing States and Voter Registration Trends

Plus, which forms of electioneering are the most productive.

Campaign Quick Hits

If I were a rich man: In July, the Trump campaign raised $165 million, which was $25 million more than the Biden campaign. But last month, the Trump campaign raised $210 million—$150 million less than the Biden campaign. We’ll get the full FEC reports this week to tell us all the nitty gritty and the most important number: cash on hand. But if the reports of the Trump campaign’s spendthriftiness are accurate (the campaign manager had a car and driver?!), that number may be even more disheartening for Team GOP.

Look who’s voting: In 2016, about 40 percent of Americans voted before Election Day. In 2020, that number may be closer to 60 percent. North Carolina already mailed out more than 500,000 ballots. Georgia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan will all begin voting this week. And not surprisingly, absentee ballot requests are still lopsided. Nearly 500,000 more Democrats have requested absentee ballots in Florida and 250,000 more in North Carolina. As I’ve said before, though, the vote-by-mail numbers this year will tell us far more about how people are voting by party and far less about the eventual outcome of the race in any given state. What does all this mean for campaigns? Most important, perhaps, is that money that comes in the door from this point forward is about to become far less valuable because it will be harder to spend it in meaningful ways as more and more votes are already cast.

Contact (not starring Jodie Foster): The Trump campaign announced it had contacted its 100 millionth voter through door knocking and phone banking this week. The Trump Victory army includes “2,000 paid field staffers in 17 states and more than 2 million volunteers.” According to the New York Post, the “RNC says it has knocked on the doors of 12 million potential voters in battleground states since mid-June — that’s around 1 million a week — while the Biden campaign has knocked on zero.” Mirroring the Obama 2012 re-election bid, if Trump wins, you can bet there will be books dedicated to nuggets like this: “the GOP's new ground-game strategy uses data to drive even the most mundane decisions, such as where to locate a local field office.”

Checking in on how debate prep is going: “President Donald Trump has not held a single mock debate session, and has no plans to stage a formal practice round,” according to NBC. Why? “Trump has repeatedly told aides that he’s not worried about debating Biden because the former vice president is likely to have a gaffe moment or stutter.” But then his campaign manager tried this blatant, if logically perplexing, attempt to raise expectations: “Joe Biden is not formidable anywhere else but he is formidable on the debate stage.”

Hola, voy a votar por Donald Trump: In what is only the latest example of how political allegiances continue to shift as a result of Trump, three polls this past week in Florida found Trump winning Hispanic voters over Joe Biden. Even in Miami-Dade County, which Trump lost by 30 points in 2016, he is now leading Biden 47 percent to 46 percent among Hispanic voters. If these numbers hold, they will have a huge impact on the politics of the immigration debates to come and could be the biggest long-term story for the future of the Republican Party coming out of 2020. And if Biden loses the presidency, will Democrats look back on their convention and the party’s focus specifically on black identity politics, as the biggest mistake of the race?

Interesting polls of the week:

  • In the wake of The Atlantic story that said the president referred to people who died in wars as “losers” and “suckers,” Morning Consult found little changed in military households. Trump is still leading Biden by 10 points and 53 percent approve of his job performance—a number largely unchanged since he took office. Even so, Biden is up 7 points from where Clinton was in 2016. 

  • Is Trump flagging with religious voters? A recent academic survey “predicts an 11 percentage point swing toward Biden among evangelicals and Catholics who backed Trump in 2016, based on input from both demographics across five major 2020 battleground states: Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.” Last month, a Fox News poll showed Biden winning 28 percent of white evangelicals, which would be a 12 point uptick for Democrats from 2016.

  • Yikes. A majority of voters in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin told pollsters they believe both Biden and Trump are mentally unfit to be president. 

Andrew Egger saw two headlines last week coming out of Pennsylvania that seemed to say exactly the opposite of one another. And so he dug in. I love when that happens ... 

A Tale of Two Party Registration Numbers

If you’ve spent much time following swing state polls over the last few months, you’d be forgiven if you’d started to suspect the 2020 cake is baked.

Let’s unpack some of the numbers out of Pennsylvania to see how things may still be a little messier than they seem at first glance—and for a good illustration of how the parties massage their messaging to put the best possible construction on a number of distinct and sometimes contradictory data metrics.

Start, again, with the polls: By this metric, Biden is significantly up in Pennsylvania. This spring, while the Democratic primary was still in gear, the smattering of statewide polls we were seeing were breaking both directions roughly evenly. That’s changed dramatically over the summer: Out of the 46 Pennsylvania polls recorded by FiveThirtyEight’s polls index since July 1, 44 have shown Biden in the lead; in 29 of those, that lead exceeds 5 points. One September poll by Rasmussen Reports showed a dead heat, and one July poll commissioned by the conservative think tank American Principles Project gave President Trump a 1-point edge.

But over the last few weeks, Republican and Democratic party officials and strategists in the state have been squabbling over a different metric entirely: Voter registrations. Like most states, Pennsylvania keeps publicly available lists of registered voters, including information on party affiliation. This information can help campaign-watchers get a sense of partisan sea changes at a more fundamental level than polling data can always provide. The snapshot of voter sentiment polls record is passive—the pollster calls you—while registering to vote is an active statement of intent that tends to correlate strongly with actually getting off your butt and going down to the polling precinct come November.

So what do the Pennsylvania voter registration numbers tell us? Well, it’s a bit of a snarl. In fact, you can find headlines that seem to tell exactly contradictory stories about Pennsylvania: Here’s NBC telling us that “Democrats have voter registration advantage in four battleground states,” and here’s Politico informing us that “Since 2016, Republicans have netted nearly seven times as many registered voters in Pennsylvania as Democrats.”

What accounts for this disparity? Well, it turns out that “new registered voters” can actually mean two different things. If you’re talking about “new registered voters” in the sense of “people who were not previously registered to vote, but are now,” it’s Democrats who have the edge: Data analysis from Democratic data company TargetSmart shows that 922,000 new voters have been added to the rolls over the last four years, with about 132,000 more Democrats than Republicans among those numbers.

But Republicans have an advantage of their own to flaunt in the voter numbers: Despite new registrations tilting away from them, they’ve actually gained significant ground when it comes to the overall registered-voter picture: They’ve got nearly 200,000 more voters on the books than they did this time in 2016, while Democrats sit only about 30,000 above their 2016 numbers. While several factors contribute to this phenomenon, the most important seems to be the significant number of Rust Belt former Democrats who are now part of the Trump coalition. They’re not newly registered voters, but they’re new to the GOP.

It will perhaps not shock you to learn that state political operatives tend to think the metric that favors their own party is the one that will prove decisive (or at least tend to say as much to inquiring reporters). Republicans argue that the shift shows that the white working-class voters who broke for Trump over Hillary Clinton have found in the president’s first term ample reason to justify that choice, and that their change in registration signals that what was once a trial run is now looking more like a permanent realignment.

“You switch your registration for a reason. There’s an intensity to that,” GOP consultant Charlie Gerow told The Dispatch. “You don’t just wake up one morning and say, ‘I think I’ll be a Republican now.’ So if it was just folks that were inclined or trending to vote for Trump, they clearly are cemented into his column now, because folks that register for the first time or change their registration tend to vote in the next election, almost uniformly.”

State Democrats, for their part, argue that this overstates the case, and that the shift is at least partially accounted for by nonpolitical quirks in the data like inactive voters falling off the rolls. But when it comes to those areas where historic Democrats are switching to the red team, they concede they’re likely not getting those voters back.

But will it matter in 2020? In an interview with The Dispatch, TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier argued that, when it comes to assessing this year’s campaign relative to 2016’s, the net registration numbers that favor Republicans are a “lagging indicator”: These former Democrats who are now registering Republican are voters who helped push Trump over the top last time, not new pickups for the Trump campaign.

“All that tells us is that Pennsylvania wasn’t as Democratic as we perhaps thought it was four years ago,” Bonier said. “It doesn’t tell us that it’s getting less Democratic now. That’s the key distinction.”

New registrations, Bonier argued, are definitionally the opposite: They represent a change in affairs between the last election and this one. And by that metric, it’s the Democrats who hold a modest but significant edge. 

This sort of thing might sound like the hair-splitting of operatives with too many charts in their heads and too much time on their hands. But the strange reality of this cycle is that, if it’s anything like 2016, it will be a cataclysmic choice between visions of America that comes down to a bare handful of voters in states with razor-thin margins like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. And in that case, little electoral changes like this might make all the difference in the world.

You Better Work, B****

The race is on and so is a global pandemic. Assuming you feel strongly enough about who you are voting for that you’d like to help your chosen candidate, what’s the most effective thing you can do between now and Election Day, with or without a mask?

And remember that persuasion is not the name of the game. Turnout is. There’s very little evidence that there’s much of anything campaigns can do to persuade voters to vote for their candidate. But they can get voters to vote. So the real question is what’s the most effective thing you can do to get registered voters who already like your guy off their butts and to the polls (or the mailbox as it were)? 

This is what we call the field operation. Let’s go through your options. 

Yard sign

What is it: If you’ve never had the pleasure of building hundreds of yard signs, you may have never pondered the existential question of ‘what is a yard sign.’ At its most basic, it is a three-sided frame made of wire onto which a very tight plastic sleeve shuffles its way over. But a yard sign is also a symbol of the perennial struggle between darkness and light, hope and reality.

For all his hundreds of insightful, thought-provoking pieces, Philip Bump at the Washington Post has never touched my heart the way this 2015 headline did: “Sorry campaign managers: Lawn signs are only 98.3 percent useless.” 

As he correctly identified, “[t]he problem with lawn signs, as any campaign manager would probably tell you, is that they are expensive, annoying, logistically tricky to distribute and — most importantly — don’t seem to do much of anything.” But candidates are obsessed with them. For a campaign manager to persuade her candidate not to invest in yard signs, a study “would essentially have had to demonstrate that candidates who used them lost before a candidate would have second thoughts about the efficacy of lawn signs. And even then, he’d probably still buy them.”

Does it work: Yard signs are everywhere. Bump, in fact, cites one study that found their use had quadrupled between 1984 and 2012. But the most recognized study in this area found that the yard sign that you, as a supporter, place in your yard has zero effect. That’s right. Your yard sign is entirely pointless. Although randomly tossing them along public streets had a modest effect in down ballot races, it’s still hard to justify the cost and all my hours sleeve-hustling over those wire frames.

Verdict: If you must, you shall. But don’t fool yourself. You’re not actually helping your candidate so much as virtue-signaling to passersby. 

Phone banking

What is it: In the olden days, a phone bank was a plastic picnic table surrounded by plastic chairs and a dozen hardwire phones (hey kids, we call those landlines; pronounced lændlaɪn) manned by a dozen old ladies (aka bluehairs).

But some campaigns have more money than time. In 2004, for example, both presidential campaigns made 1.6 million phone contacts in the four days before the election. But while Republicans had a million volunteers to make those calls, the Democrats had only 250,000 and made up the difference with paid workers, which some have cited as their reason for losing a tight race.

Fast forward to 2020, it’s never been easier to phone bank. Campaigns can send you a script and automatically connect you to the numbers on your list anywhere in the country as you sit in your bathrobe. No mask needed!

Does it work: Political scientists Alan Gerber and Donald Green found that “a volunteer phone bank that reaches 1,000 people will produce about 28 new voters” and costs around $36 per vote. Not bad. (And especially compared with robocalls, which not surprisingly “never raise voter turnout. They have no mobilization effect, and no persuasion effect either.”)

But reaching 1,000 people isn’t as easy as it used to be. As more and more people ditch their landlines, it is increasingly hard to get people to pick up unknown numbers on their cell phones and match cell phones to voter files. The DNC, however, announced earlier this year that it had “purchased high-quality cell phone numbers for every possible voter in all 50 states and the District of Columbia which will be integrated into the DNC’s national voter file and add tens of millions of new numbers.” 

Verdict: If you want to boost your candidate, this is a no brainer. Use your extra hour after dinner each night to knock out 10 phone calls and feel good knowing you’ve done your part.

Door knocking

What is it: Door knocking is the introvert’s nightmare. At its most basic, a group of volunteers will head out with a folder containing a map, a list of addresses, door hangers to leave on the “no answers,” and pamphlets for the ones that do. When they get to the neighborhood, they will break up into couples and try to speak to voters in their own homes. 

Does it work: That Gerber Green study found that 5,000 doors—if we assume a high response rate in which 1,000 people actually answer—will generate around 40 new voters for about $33 a vote. But remember, those “new voters” aren’t switching their vote. They are just showing up to vote when they would not have done so otherwise.

In a look at Obama’s 2012 ground game, it looks like it probably made less than a point’s difference. And there was a potential downside as well. Campaigns have less control over canvassers. And in 2012, these “individuals who were interacting with swing voters on the campaign’s behalf were demographically unrepresentative, ideologically extreme, cared about atypical issues, and misunderstood the voters’ priorities.” In other words, they often turned voters off while thinking they were persuading them. 

There’s also a relatively new thing called deep canvassing. The idea is that “instead of short, scripted conversations where canvassers essentially tell voters what they should believe, deep canvassing involves asking questions and listening empathetically to answers.” Initial research has shown it can be effective—even at the ever-elusive persuasion—but it would also be nearly impossible for a campaign to utilize because of the training required for those thousands of volunteers across the country.

Verdict: It’s good exercise in good weather. If you’re a Trump fan, this is the way to go. But bear in mind, you may want to tone it down because it turns out voters “can be less receptive to those who don’t share similar characteristics like age, gender or accent” and are not nearly as ideological as you. 

It will be extra fascinating this year because we have the control experiment we’ve always wanted. Biden’s campaign is foregoing door knocking entirely despite the conventional wisdom that Obama’s superior ground game won the 2008 and 2012 elections. (But see, Hillary Clinton’s superior ground game.) Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, is boasting 100 million doors. Note: This is the number of doors knocked and not the number of people who answered their doors—although in this work-from-home era, the response rate may actually be higher than previous years.

Friends and family

What is it: I hate to even suggest it, but this one is pretty simple: Post your ‘I voted’ sticker on Facebook and shoot a text to 20 friends reminding them to vote. It’s literally the least you can do, right? Sure, but it also might be the most effective. 

Does it work: We know through any number of experiments that social pressure is the most effective turnout tool. In fact, there’s nothing that political scientists appear to agree on more. As Dylan Matthews over at Vox noted last week, “there’s widespread agreement and optimism across the political scientist/data consultant spectrum about the possibilities of ‘relational voter turnout’ that exploits people’s friendships and social attachments. As just one example, the effect can be as high as 13 percentage points in local elections. 

It turns out that if you instituted purely evidence-based electioneering, “you might have fewer campaign ads clamoring for your attention in every form of media you encounter, but you’d be hearing a lot more campaign ads from your friends and family.”

Verdict: With great power, comes great responsibility. Don’t make me regret this ... but ... post away!

Photograph by Rosenfeld/Getty Images.

The Sweep: Can Trump Steal Minnesota?

Plus, how Biden's team can best prep him for media interviews.

Campaign Quick Hits

Mo’ money, mo’ states: Judging campaign spending can be assessed in a few different ways. When it comes to state spending numbers, I think of it both in terms of the raw numbers and the per electoral vote spending. I’ve broken down the Biden campaign numbers to let you decide what is interesting to you. 

Total: $40.05 million
EV: $1.6 million

Total: $24.57 million
EV: $1.2 million

North Carolina: 
Total: $16.62 million
EV: $1.1 million

Total: $14.78 million
EV: $1.3 million

Total: $14.24 million
EV: $900,000

Total: $13.01 million
EV: $1.3 million

Great expectations: It is as true in campaigns as it is in life, but it is extra true when it comes to presidential debates: Expectations are everything. And yet, at least superficially, it would appear that the Trump campaign has been in overdrive lowering expectations for Joe Biden. USA Today/Suffolk’s latest poll found 47 percent of registered voters predicted Trump would win the debates compared with just 41 percent who picked Biden, meaning plenty of Biden voters still believe Trump will beat their candidate on September 29. On the one hand, that means if Biden can turn in a coherent performance, he beats expectations. (Note: The Trump campaign is already pitching stories on debate prep and included this hilarious “let’s-try-to-raise-expectations-at-the-last-minute” line from Jason Miller, “Biden has been debating for a half-century. He is very good.”) On the other hand, stumbles that would have gone largely unnoticed from other candidates will be amplified by the Trump campaign to fit the narrative that Biden doesn’t have the stamina to be president. The real question is how “real” the stumbles are and how the media will respond. Lots more to come on this topic as we get closer.

Absentee but not forgotten: As of the beginning of this month, there has been a 16-fold increase in absentee ballot requests over 2016. And more than half of those requests have come from registered Democrats. Only 16 percent have come from Republicans. This, of course, doesn’t mean that Biden has more enthusiasm or that the race is headed toward a blowout, but it does confirm that we will almost certainly have a big partisan divide on mail-in ballots. Speaking of which …

Vote early, vote often: Fifty-two percent of adults in an NBC/SurveyMonkey poll say they will vote early — with 19 percent saying they will vote early in person and 33 percent more saying they will vote by mail. One-third of adults, 33 percent, say they will vote in person on Election Day, and 11 percent say they might not vote at all. But, of course, that’s not the whole story. “Fifty-four percent of adults who identify as Republican or lean that way say they will vote in person on Election Day, while just 22 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democratic say the same.” Speaking of which...

Paging Count von Count: As of now, there are “12 states that do not allow mail-in ballots to be processed before Election Day, including the battlegrounds of Michigan, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.” But between lawsuits and pending state legislation, I expect that to change. The Pennsylvania legislature, for example, just advanced a bill that would—among other things—allow ballots to be counted three days early (instead of the three weeks requested by county officials), but the governor is expected to veto it. 

Mind the gender gap (cont’d): Renowned Iowa pollster Ann Selzer released her latest look at the state of the race. Notable cross tab: “Biden’s support is strongest among women (56-34%), including a better than 2-to-1 margin among suburban women (64-31%).” That’s “a wider gender gap than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received in 2016 and larger even than the 19-point advantage House Democratic candidates earned over Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections when they reclaimed control of the chamber.”

It’s my third party (and I’ll cry if I want to): Here’s an interesting nugget from Mark Murray at NBC: The NBC/WSJ polls from this year have “interviewed 215 voters who said they backed either Johnson or Stein in 2016, and Biden holds a 2-to-1 advantage among them.” Combined, that was about 4.5 percent of the vote last time around and could make a big difference if a big chunk of those 6 million plus third party voters decide to vote for one of the two major party candidates.

Something I don’t say often: Thank you, Glenn Greenwald. “[J]ournalism is not supposed to be grounded in whether something is ‘believable’ or ‘seems like it could be true.’ Its core purpose, the only thing that really makes it matter or have worth, is reporting what is true, or at least what evidence reveals. And that function is completely subverted when news outlets claim that they ‘confirmed’ a previous report when they did nothing more than just talked to the same people who anonymously whispered the same things to them as were whispered to the original outlet.” Greenwald was referring most recently to the The Atlantic piece that quoted Trump disparaging our military dead from four anonymous sources. But it could equally apply to reporting about Michael Cohen’s book, as Steve pointed out: “If you suddenly believe he's being honest, it's because you're seeking affirmation, not truth.”

Stuck in Minnesota With Arizona Blues Again

As Andrew and I were discussing politics this past week, Minnesota kept rolling around in my head. As the only potential pick-up state for Trump and a new battleground state that I’ve never worked in, I had some questions. First and most obviously, is it really even in play? Or is it just enough in play that Trump’s team can force the Dems to spend some money in the state like they’ve done to Republicans in Texas for a decade now? Andrew dives in …

A few Sweeps ago, we discussed how 2020 is a heavily defensive election year for Senate Republicans. The same is true of President Trump: He resoundingly won the Electoral College against Hillary Clinton, but faces few opportunities to expand his map this time round, and even trails Joe Biden in most of the swing states he won last time.

The notable exception is Minnesota. While Trump notched surprise skin-of-the-teeth wins in Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016, Minnesota stayed blue—not an enormous surprise, since the state has long been the bluest of the three. In the last 60 years, only one Republican has ever carried Minnesota: Richard Nixon, who lost there in 1968 but picked it up in 1972 during his 520-16 trouncing of George McGovern.

Given its history, neither Trump nor Clinton gave Minnesota much thought. The Trump campaign never bought TV ads there, and Trump himself only spent a single day campaigning there during the general election.

But the state still ended up shockingly close, as the white working class’s furtive slide toward Trump that carried him to victory across the Rust Belt made itself felt here too. Barack Obama had carried Minnesota by 10 points and then by eight; Hillary Clinton barely managed a margin of 1.5 points. Trump is still bothered by what he considers the missed opportunity: “I almost won last time,” he told a Minnesota crowd last month. “I went to Michigan. I had a choice. … One more speech, I would have won. It was so close.”

So far, the (somewhat sparse) state polls are still going Biden’s way. But neither campaign is taking the state for granted: Biden is airing ads there already and has said he hopes to campaign there if and when he resumes his electoral circuit.

Electorally speaking, Minnesota is sort of an odd duck. Through the early 20th century, the state was home to a seriously strong working-class movement, which found its expression in one of the nation’s most powerful ever state third parties, the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. In 1944, that party buried its hatchet with the Democrats, joining to form the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is still the major Democratic party in the state today.

Counterintuitively, however, the strength of Minnesota’s labor movement is a large part of what makes it an odd fit for the party of today. Democrats’ growing role as the party of upwardly mobile suburbanites and its growing focus on environmental issues have begun to drive a rift between them and the loggers and miners who were once a reliable voting bloc outside the Twin Cities. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party used to be on the bleeding edge of progressivism, but what it means to be “progressive” has changed faster than they have in recent years.

You can see this dynamic at work in the state’s current crop of elected officials: The state’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, rode to a sixth-place finish in this year’s presidential primaries pitching herself as an everywoman and a sensible, moderate dealmaker. She and her colleague Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed to the Senate after the 2018 resignation of Al Franken and faces an election of her own this year, have shied away from the current crop of signal progressive policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

There are two main components, then, to President Trump’s Minnesota strategy. First, he’ll continue aggressively to woo working-class whites, particularly in the Iron Range mining districts in the east of the state, with the “forgotten man” rhetoric and populist trade policy that started those wheels turning in the first place back in 2016. The second part of the strategy is much more recent: Going after white suburbanites hard with law and order rhetoric, hoping to capitalize on a reactionary wave against the protests that have rocked U.S. cities—and Minnesota ones in particular—this summer.

Earlier this summer, this seemed an unlikely strategy. The death of George Floyd had sent public support for the Black Lives Matter skyrocketing; to the extent that white suburban voters were thinking about racial issues, it was, as one pollster told us in June, that they “do not want to be associated with any positions perceived to be racially offensive.”

But since then, months of rioting and unrest across a number of cities—combined with a relentless Republican messaging effort to tie the Black Lives Matter movement to a number of more broadly unpalatable causes, such as Marxism—have seemingly swung the needle at least partially back the other way. In early June, a Civiqs poll found an all-time high 53 percent of respondents supporting BLM with only 28 percent opposing; this week, the same poll found 50 percent supporting, 38 percent opposing.

Will that rebalancing effect be more pronounced in the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where the protests began and have sometimes burned the hottest? The Trump campaign is banking on it.

It’s Biden’s Turn in the Barrel

Last week, I wrote a speech that Trump coulda/shoulda delivered at the RNC, and I said I would discuss Biden this week. But while Trump needed help with speechwriting, that’s not Biden’s problem. Biden has been giving speeches since well before I was born. And he is the Democratic nominee running against Donald Trump; he has the best speechwriters “loathing Donald Trump” can buy, with talented folks offering their services from the political world to Hollywood. For the most part, his nomination acceptance speech was politically flawless. 

So why do we all have this sense that Biden’s message isn’t quite … there yet? It’s the same reason we all know the words to “Call Me Maybe” despite such profound lyrics as “ripped jeans, skin was showin’; hot night, wind was blowin’” but my high school boyfriend’s Gin Blossoms-esque band, Better Mindwear,”never caught on. This has been studied and it turns out that the perfect song “needs to be similar enough ‘to evoke the warm glow of familiarity,’ but atypical enough to ‘feel new and exciting.’” It’s that je ne sais quoi, ineffable blend of familiarity and surprise. 

And when it comes to politics, Trump has it in spades; Biden doesn’t. And that’s the problem we are going to tackle this week. 

After the convention, we already noted that Biden’s personal likability numbers ticked up among his own supporters. These folks want to want him. But while Trump’s supporters need to know their guy can deliver a speech without accidentally insulting mothers and apple pie, Biden’s fans need to know he can talk without a script but also without stumbling over his own name.

And this brings us to “media prep.” A good press secretary who travels with her candidate will always be ready to “run questions” whenever there’s an unexpected break in the schedule. The candidate will always try to throw herself out the nearest airplane window rather than engage. And so the dance goes. 

Media prep is different from debate prep, but they have similarities. And like running on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day is different from running a marathon, the one can help you prepare for the other. Media prep before a big interview can be formal with advisers and policy experts sitting around a table peppering the candidate with questions and offering suggestions or data points. But everyday media prep is a press secretary in the back of an SUV with a list of topics drawn from the news of the day that he asks in the voice of Jake Tapper or Chris Wallace. 

Most candidates will insist that they “just want to talk about the answers together as a group” rather than have to give an answer and then have it picked apart by someone 30 years younger. Those candidates need to be broken like a stubborn mule. That’s not media prep. That’s called a conversation. Although in fairness, there is nothing more annoying than a press secretary who offers nitpicking critiques after every answer. 

Back in my day, I found the best way to run questions was to do Q&A for about 15 minutes without interruption so both of us could get into character. I’d work off a list I kept in a notepad during the day and I’d jot down little one word notes to myself about answers I wanted to revisit. At the end of the 15 minutes, I’d read my notes. Maybe we’d have time for another 15-minute round after that and I’d throw in a few of the same questions again and add in some new ones. And I’d always make sure to ask one “off topic” question like “why are you running for president” or “what’s your favorite style of BBQ” or “what’s the price of your favorite ice cream” just to make sure they weren’t so deep in their own heads that they couldn’t answer a softball like a human being. You’d be surprised. 

Despite what the movies portray, a great press secretary isn’t writing out an answer to every question and handing it to the candidate to memorize. Back to my curling analogy, you take the candidate as you find them. They got here for a reason; your job is to smooth the edges, present options for how to handle novel messaging problems, and provide meticulously accurate facts and data that are at your fingertips at all times (and if you don’t know, you say “let me check”—never give the wrong answer or he will repeat that wrong number for months). 

Biden should be in 15-minute media prep sessions at least six times a day at this point and against his will if necessary. Here’s the questions I’d run with him today and the notes I’d offer at the end:

  1. Your vice president recently said that “she would not necessarily trust a vaccine approved by the Trump administration before Election Day, unless a ‘credible’ source agreed it was safe.” Do you have any concerns that this type of rhetoric could politicize any vaccine and discourage Americans, including people of color, from getting a potentially life-saving vaccine when it’s available?

  2. We are in a very polarized time in our country. If President Trump wins in November, what will you say to your supporters who do not want to accept his victory? 

  3. You lead the president on every issue with voters except the economy. Why do you think Americans trust President Trump more than you on the economy and are there any of his economic policies that you are prepared to adopt to persuade voters on this issue?

  4. Yes or no question, Mr. Vice President. Do you believe America is a racist country?

  5. Have you spoken with Speaker Pelosi and do you believe it was appropriate for her to violate her city’s COVID rules to get her hair done?

  6. Earlier in this administration, there was a push from some Democratic lawmakers to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Do you support that change? Are there any agencies you would abolish as president?

  7. Do you have a fantasy football team this year and who did you draft as your QB?


  • Ok, sir. Biggest thing. You’re giving them WAY too much to pull apart in each answer. Keep the answers tighter. You control the headline. If you give them seven different headlines in a single answer, they control the headline because they get to pick. 

  • I liked when you turned the question around on the reporters with “how would you feel.” It draws on your strength—empathy—and pulls the reporters in. Perfect answer, sir.

  • Didn’t love the attempt at humor. Hard in one breath to reach for emotion and empathy and in the next say something snarky about mental health. I think dad humor would be fine but not snark. It’s not on brand for you.

  • Don’t assume voters are watching the whole press conference. They’ll see a single clip on cable TV or a headline. So don’t treat it as one big event. Repeat yourself if the question is similar. Six questions means six separate interviews.

  • “It’s hard to respond to something so idiotic” was great. If you want to get off the ‘respond to Trump’ questions, use that. But also leave it at that and then move onto the next question. Don’t be afraid to keep it short!

  • Think about your audience for each question. Is it the reporter or the person flipping through CNN who isn’t sure whether they are going to vote this year? It’s important for you to know a current quarterback’s name and not to turn it into a serious answer. You’re winning the “get a beer with” vote so don’t give it away on questions like this. Ex. you can say you’re trying to get the “Tompa Bay” vote. 

  • Now let’s go again. This time, remember: Control the headline.

Photograph by Brendan Smialowsky/AFP/Getty Images.

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