The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Trailer: When the will of the people is beside the point

In this edition: The war on ballot initiatives, another swing-state effort to probe the past election, and a new and convincing history of the 2020 Democratic primary.

There's nothing funny about holiday weekends. The Trailer will be off next Tuesday and return on June 3.

Last November, as Arizonans waited to see who had won their presidential election, a group of Democrats and teachers’ unions were already celebrating. They’d passed Proposition 208, a new state income tax of 3.5 percent on income over $250,000, with the revenue going to fund public education. It was close, but not that close, with “yes” triumphing by around 113,000 votes.

But Arizona’s Republicans had opposed the measure, and Gov. Doug Ducey (R) didn’t intend to implement it. In March, he told business leaders that he’d back a lawsuit to challenge the legality of Prop. 208, and said the GOP legislature could pass tax reform that wiped out the effects of the tax hike anyway. This week, Ducey got behind a flat tax that would cut the state’s top rate from 4.5 percent to 2.5 percent, which Democrats saw as an “end-around” to undo the new tax's impact.

“I think that voters believe this money is already in our schools,” said Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, which led the “yes” coalition last year. “I mean, they voted on something. They said, let’s do it. And now we’re tied up in this court case.”

Ducey’s response isn’t unique. Since the election, Missouri’s Republican legislature has refused to enforce a voter-passed expansion of Medicaid; a South Dakota judge threw out a voter-passed amendment to legalize marijuana; and Mississippi’s Supreme Court effectively ended the state’s initiative process altogether, negating a medical marijuana measure and halting a campaign to expand Medicaid. Nine governors, all Republicans in states where their party controls the legislature, have signed post-election legislation to make it harder to pass initiatives and harder to get them on the ballot in the first place.

“What's happening now reminds me of the way my 4-year-old plays Monopoly,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the D. C-based Fairness Project, one of several organizations that helps organize ballot measures in the 26 states that have them. “As long as the game's going his way, he's fine with the rules. But as soon as it's not, he quickly gets very inventive and decides that we're going to count spaces differently.”

Initiative campaigners are used to legal hurdles and fighting in court to implement something that voters already signed off on. But they are finding more traps than they used to, and more boldness from opponents who see few consequences to nixing voter-backed initiatives. After Florida voters passed a 2018 amendment to restore felons' voting rights, the Republican legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) required “returning citizens to pay off all related court fees before registering to vote, which kept most of them off the rolls. The GOP swept the next year's elections; an appeals court dominated by Republican appointees kept the new penalties for felons on the books.

In red states, this year has been more about offense than defense. While Florida voters rejected a measure that would require constitutional amendments to be passed twice — “keep our Constitution clean,” went one ad in support of it — Republicans passed a law capping contributions to amendment campaigns at $3,000. In Idaho, where voters endorsed the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion in 2018, a Republican-backed law will require any future petitions to get the support of at least 6 percent of voters in all 35 legislative districts. Previously, they'd needed signatures from half of them. 

The arguments for the new restrictions, or for tossing out the results, rhyme from state to state. One is that large donors are manipulating the electorate, hence the new Florida law, which would have prevented the multimillion-dollar investments that liberal donors made in the felon voting rights amendment. Another echoes the argument Trump-era Republicans have made in favor of the electoral college, that simple majority rule punishes rural voters by overwhelming them with liberal urban votes. That was the case made by some Missouri Republicans, pointing out that Medicaid expansion was supported in eight of the state's 10 most populous counties, but nowhere else.

“I am proud to stand against the will of the people who were lied to,” state Rep. Justin Hill, a Republican from the exurbs of St. Louis, said in a floor debate about blocking the expansion. “That’s our job. We took an oath to protect our citizens.”

Richard Von Glahn, who has worked with the group Jobs with Justice in Missouri for a decade, said that initiative campaigners had gotten used to watching their work be undermined if it crossed the GOP legislature. A voter-passed minimum wage hike was slowed down by state legislators; a voter-passed electoral restructuring proposal was partially undone in the same 2018 primary where Medicaid expansion passed, after Republicans put their own measure on the ballot in what was expected to be a lower-turnout election. 

“We're going to keep paying attention to what the people of the state want,” Von Glahn said. “Just because politicians are out of touch with what voters are asking for, we're not going to let that mean that we no longer participate in democracy.”

The vast majority of efforts to undermine ballot measures are coming from the GOP. In Mississippi, the court decision that negated 2020's ballot measures has stymied a plan for a 2022 Medicaid expansion vote, because an old state law requires signatures from five congressional districts, and Mississippi now has only four. In Arkansas, where a 2020 minimum wage campaign was stymied by the pandemic, the GOP legislature has piled on new restrictions, preventing people with criminal records from collecting signatures and preventing paid signature-gatherers altogether.

But the effort to cut down on voter initiatives can be bipartisan. In California, Democrats are exasperated by the likely recall election targeting Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), which crossed the signature threshold after a judge, citing the coronavirus's effect on signature-gathering, gave campaigners a three-month extension. State Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat who was himself recalled in 2018 before being reelected in 2020, has introduced legislation to remove some financial incentives for signature gatherers and allow recall targets to find out who’d signed the petitions. It wouldn't affect the gubernatorial recall, but he sees it as a way to stop special-interest groups and Republicans from pushing measures that the state's governing majority would never consider. 

“They've effectively abandoned any hope of legitimate efforts at winning normal elections on a conventional basis,” Newman said of the GOP. “Instead of participating fully in the electoral process, they've resorted to exploiting the loopholes and legacy weaknesses in our constitutional structure to get from these special processes what they can't get from general elections.”

Reading list

“Glenn Youngkin, GOP nominee for Virginia governor, goes mum on guns and abortion,” by Laura Vozzella

He's running. But on what?

“Trump is starting to put together his own Contract with America. And he’s teaming up with Newt, by Meredith McGraw

After skipping a platform in 2020, Trump ponders one for 2024.

“Michigan’s top election official and Dominion warn counties about the risks of vote audits by outside groups,” by Amy Gardner

An attempt to halt the audits-for-all craze.

“Here's how Trump could theoretically run for president and govern the US from prison, according to 9 legal scholars,” by Robin Bravender and Tina Sfondeles

The stupidest question, or the one others were too scared to ask?

“ 'The only Bush who got it right,' as far as Trump is concerned,” by Marc Caputo

How genuflecting to former president Donald Trump set up George P. Bush's next move.

Audit watch

“America's audit.” That was what Arizona Republicans called their effort to probe Maricopa County's 2.1 million ballots, both as a branding exercise and as encouragement to election skeptics in other states. “Everything will fall like dominoes after Arizona,” MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell said when the audit began, and in her daily video update yesterday, Arizona GOP Chair Kelli Ward said that the plan was working.

“Across the nation, America's audit is expanding,” Ward said, pointing to the decision of a Georgia judge to let activists study absentee ballots in majority-Black Fulton County. “In Michigan, county officials have expressed interest in a review of their voting machines. A similar case in New Hampshire has at least one jurisdiction doing the same.”

While Ward's video was being uploaded, Wisconsin's Republican legislature was beginning its own probe of the election. Unlike Arizona's GOP, whose hiring of the inexperienced firm Cyber Ninjas gave opponents something easy to mock, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos was hiring retired police officers, who also had no experience investigating elections. Unlike the Arizona team, which initially and impossibly suggested it could finish its audit in a few weeks, Vos had a longer time frame: three months to collect any evidence of voter or election fraud. As in Arizona, he cited no evidence of fraud — just 41 potential cases have been uncovered in Wisconsin since last summer — and suggested that a probe would sooth the nerves of people who worried that the election was rigged.

“My hope is that they come back and they build the case to show Gov. [Tony] Evers and the Democrats who are in the 'Casablanca' mode — 'nothing to see here,' 'everything’s fine,' 'they just want to suppress the vote.' No. These are professional investigators,” Vos told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's Patrick Marley. “A sizable chunk of people believe the election was illegitimate. And democracy cannot flourish if both sides don’t believe in the end both sides had a fair shot.”

One of Vos's targets is the use of philanthropic grants by election officials, which emerged as a source of conspiracy theories after a Time magazine story celebrating the “shadow campaign” to prevent the coronavirus from disrupting the election. Wisconsin, which held an April 7 primary, was Exhibit A of the problems election officials had worried about. Turnout, which was up in the first voting states over the Democrats' 2016 primary, fell in Wisconsin, from 1,007,600 votes cast that year to 925,065 votes cast in 2020. 

That was still less than the falloff in states that held March 17 primaries, as the economy was shutting down and voters were getting mixed information of how to move safely in crowded public places. But it took six days to process the results, as longtime election officials stayed home, and in August, Evers mobilized the National Guard to cover gaps in managing the state's downballot primaries.

Wisconsin Democrats swatted at Vos, contrasting his unilateral action on investigating the election with Republicans' refusal to consider accepting Medicaid expansion despite a windfall of federal money. As of Thursday morning, Vos had not officially announced who would be investigating the election or what their budget would be. “I’m sure they’ll be experts in election law with a reputation for nonpartisan probity,” joked Wisconsin Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler. 

But in a talk radio interview, Vos suggested that retired police officer Mike Sandvick, the former head of the Milwaukee Police Department's special investigative unit, was under consideration. In 2008, Sandvick published a 67-page report on election fraud, suggesting an “illegal organized attempt to influence the outcome of an election in the state of Wisconsin” four years earlier, and noting that he had not been permitted to send officers to polling places to monitor the vote.

Ad watch

Andrew Yang, “Evelyn.” Just as he did when he ran for president, the New York City mayoral candidate is introducing voters to his wife as the election grows closer. Evelyn Yang appeared in other spots, but she narrates this one in its entirety, starting with her worries about rising crime and ending by describing her family as long-haul New Yorkers, pushing back on the idea that Yang isn't local. “Our kids were born here,” Evelyn Yang says. “They go to school here.”

Jay Jones, “Forward.” Two years ago, after the discovery of a racist photo in Gov. Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook, nearly every Democrat in the state urged him to resign. He didn't, and buoyed by support from Black voters, he recovered his popularity and became a sought-after endorser in this year's races. Here he sits down with Jones, a state delegate running to be Virginia's first Black attorney general. “My proudest day, and you were standing right there beside me, was when we ended the death penalty,” Northam says in a cut-together conversation.

Mark Herring, “Why I Do It.” Jones is challenging Herring, the Democratic incumbent seeking a third term, who called on Northam to resign before admitting that he'd worn blackface for a college dance routine. The first voice in one of his closing ads is state Sen. President Louise Lucas (D), who leads a chorus of Democrats crediting Herring with helping save the Affordable Care Act and ending the commonwealth's ban on same-sex marriage.

Tahanie Aboushi, “Justice for All.” The New York left is divided in the race for Manhattan district attorney, a county office that doesn't have ranked-choice voting, which widens the opening for a more conservative candidate to win. (Only city races, which will appear on the same June 22 ballot, are implementing ranked-choice voting this year.) Aboushi has distinguished herself as the race's outsider, who has never been a prosecutor. “The first time she entered a courtroom, she watched her father get sentenced to 22 years,” a narrator says. “The next time, she was a civil rights attorney.”

Corey Johnson, “Make It Back.” The New York city council speaker bigfooted his way into the comptroller race, with more name ID and money than the candidates already in the race. The ad leaves the details of Johnson's agenda in a website link, telling instead about Johnson coming out as gay 21 years ago while playing on his high school's football team.

David Weprin, “Comptroller This, Comptroller That.” One of Johnson's rivals, a longtime city councilman and state assemblyman, introduces himself here as a friendly crank obsessed with balancing budgets, interrupting ordinary conversations to talk about fiscal responsibility. “It's like he's been preparing for this his whole life,” says one voter, sounding equally confused and impressed.

Poll watch

Compared to a year ago, is there more or less crime in your local area? (Fox News, 1003 registered voters)

More crime: 54%
Less crime: 28%
About the same: 15%

Fox's polling, which finds voter optimism about the pandemic and the economy keeping the president's approval rating above 50 percent, drills down into perceptions about rising crime. Unlike most topics, it doesn't create an obvious partisan divide. Every demographic group reports that crime is up; the “more crime” over “less crime” margin for self-identified liberals is 13 points, while Republican men pick “more crime” by a 43-point margin. Voters aren't blaming President Biden for it, and one factor is that urban voters, who are most opposed to the Trump-led GOP, are the most worried about crime where they live. That's playing out in mayoral and district attorney races as arguments between Democrats, with Republicans on the outside.

Would you like to see Donald Trump run for president in 2024, or not? (Quinnipiac, 1316 adults)

All voters
Yes: 30%
No: 66%

Republican voters
Yes: 66%
No: 30%

Democrats have benefited from the last president's refusal to cede control of his party and let it rebrand to fight them. Quinnipiac's polling finds Biden viewed favorably by a seven-point margin, and Trump viewed unfavorably by a 20-point margin. Asked whether they want him back, nearly every demographic group says no, including some that Trump won twice. By an eight-point margin, White voters with college degrees say they don't want Trump to run again. But by a 36-point margin, Republican voters do want Trump to make a comeback; asked additionally whether they want the rest of the GOP to run on his agenda, 85 percent of Republicans say yes. The result is a sort of stalemate, with Trump driving the agenda for his party and its messaging, even though that messaging complicates the party's efforts to drag down Biden.

Special elections

When The Trailer returns next week after a Memorial Day break, the race in New Mexico's 1st Congressional District will be over. It's nearly over already. By Wednesday, 71,309 votes had been cast early, in person or by absentee ballot, according to the Albuquerque Journal's Dan Boyd. That's nearly as many votes as were cast in the entire special election for Texas's 6th Congressional District this month, and the parties are in completely different positions now: 59 percent of voters so far in New Mexico have been Democrats, while around that much of the vote was cast in Texas for a crowd of Republican candidates.

That's a strong sign for state Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D), who has continued to outspend state Sen. Mark Moores (R) on the air. Stansbury got some time, and a photograph, with first lady Jill Biden during her visit to New Mexico last month; she will be joined today by second gentleman Doug Emhoff at a canvass launch. 

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff should be spending his day meeting with law enforcement, the families of these victims, and city leadership to see how the federal government can help us clean up our streets, Moores said in a statement.

Biden's and Emhoff's visits have been the highest-profile surrogate stops in the state, and former president Donald Trump, who endorsed Republican candidates in special elections where they were favored to win this year, has been silent on the race. In an interview with The Trailer before early voting began, Moores said he would welcome Trump's support, though the president lost the seat by 23 points last year.

No seats have changed parties in special elections so far this year, marking a shift from 2017, when Democratic enthusiasm helped the party capture some previously Republican seats in low-turnout races. The best Republican performance above the baseline was on Jan. 5, when most of the political world was focused on Georgia's runoffs; Democrats only won by three points in Virginia's 2nd House of Delegates district, after winning the seat by double digits in the past two general elections. 

In other suburban races, like New Mexico's, Republicans have sometimes run behind Trump's 2020 performance. Last month, Republican nominee Jake Merrick held onto Oklahoma's 22nd state Senate district by 30 points; Rep. Stephanie I. Bice (R), who had left the seat after being elected to Congress, had last won the Oklahoma City-area seat by 37 points. Republicans struggled to match Trump's numbers, too, in last week's special election in a Scranton, Pa. 

What ended up working in New Mexico? We'll know next week.

Buy the book

Pete Buttigieg was watching Joe Biden lose, and Edward-Isaac Dovere was there. The Atlantic correspondent, the author of “Battle for the Soul,” got backstage with Mayor Pete as Biden struggled to keep a crowd at New Hampshire's pre-primary Democratic fundraiser in February of 2020. 

“One of the great political figures of our time,” Buttigieg remarks, “and he's running on autopilot – his hand in his pocket, wandering around.”

Two days later, Biden would tumble to a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire; 19 days after that, Buttigieg would drop out of the presidential race and endorse him. “Battle for the Soul," which follows the Democrats from their 2016 defeat to Biden's inauguration, is largely about a primary that became more crowded than any chase for a party's nomination, then petered out as Biden revived in the South and the coronavirus pandemic made further campaigning impossible.

Rip-and-reads of “Battle for the Soul” have grabbed anecdotes that make the participants look selfish or catty. The New York Post focused on Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) love of private jets and frigid hotel rooms, details that had been reported elsewhere; Dovere covered the campaign on the ground, breaking news and profiling candidates, but saving some stuff for the book. The Guardian highlighted Barack Obama's disgust for Donald Trump, a meta-commentary on how the two dozen-plus candidates who ran for the nomination — including Biden — don't stir emotions or grab media attention as much as Trump did.

Trump is mostly off-screen in Dovere's story, but the primary and the internal debates among debates are shaped by disbelief that the party lost to him in 2016, and hubris about what it would take to beat him. There is just as much hubris about Biden, who rivals really were writing off once he crashed in Iowa and New Hampshire. You could sum it up in a sentence — other Democrats were in denial about how much Black voters liked Biden and how much white liberals worried about other candidates' electability — but then, you wouldn't need a book.

But we have one, and it's good. Dovere covers the primary as a parade of missed opportunities by candidates who could not afford to miss them. “Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Kamala D. Harris asks during debate prep, doubting in advance the attack on Biden's busing record that boosted her in polls but quickly backfired. Mike Bloomberg skips debate prep and gets humiliated onstage by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); his data team, Dovere reports, watched him lose 120 delegates off their projections, overnight. (He wound up with just 59 and a victory in American Samoa.) 

Sanders, who likes Biden but considered Hillary Clinton a far more talented opponent, ignores his team's advice to attack the only candidate who could beat him. And Warren never recovers from her decision to endorse Sanders's health-care plan; she didn't poll it, but Buttigieg did.

“A progressive could have won the 2020 primary,” Dovere writes, suggesting that Sanders set off a time bomb for himself and Biden's stronger rivals by getting them to endorse his Medicare-for-all bill, locking them into an endless debate over ending private insurance. “Arguably, with the energy in the party where it was, one probably should have.”

Dovere has clashed with the online left, most memorably when he wrote about Sanders's ally David Sirota and his off-the-books work for the campaign. But disgruntled Sanders voters will find a lot to like here. Dovere is unsparing about Obama's record as party leader, recounting how little he cared about party-building and asserting that his grass-roots group Organizing for America turned into “an abandoned religious sect.” When he calls Buttigieg during New Hampshire debate prep, Obama thinks he's encouraging the candidate to prepare his exit; Buttigieg thinks he's urging him on. Warren emerges as the race's Captain Queeg, in denial about what was going wrong, then, in defeat, helping Biden dispatch Sanders.

“All I want is for Joe to win,” she tells Obama, according to Dovere, considering an endorsement of Sanders (in his words) a way to “have the credibility and connection to help push the senator out of the race.” She ended up staying neutral.

Like Donald Trump, Biden benefited from an understanding of what the party's voters wanted and by his rivals' unsuccessful search for some deus ex machina to upend the race. Days before the South Carolina primary, the Rev. Al Sharpton tells Sanders that he's ready to endorse him at a moment when Sanders seemed to be heading into a showdown with Bloomberg; moments later, Rep. James Clyburn (D) tells Sharpton that he's going to endorse Biden, so Sharpton holds off. A key Sanders surrogate lucks into a seat next to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who Sanders had once backed for president, but Jackson can't be convinced to endorse the senator from Vermont with Warren in the race. As he thrashes around for an advantage, Bloomberg gets his team to pitch Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D), and Stacey Abrams on joining him on a ticket. ("Booker polled well, they told him.")

None of it worked. Why? Dovere portrays a Biden campaign that knew what it was doing, knew when it was losing, and knows when rivals have screwed up. The Biden team successfully turns the Biden-Harris busing debate into a problem for Harris, who struggles to explain her position offstage, and it obtains a draft of Warren's Medicare-for-all transition plan, baiting her into a news conference where she unconvincingly defends it. Biden's rapid-response spokesman Andrew Bates even gets Rudy Giuliani's number, trolling Trump's personal attorney via text ("I think you'd look STUNNING in orange") and leaning in to the idea that Trump was so afraid of Biden that he got impeached over it.

Dovere also uncovers how Biden's team navigated its crises, something “Lucky” mostly skipped. When a one-time Hill staffer accused Biden of sexual assault, the candidate is furious, and the campaign quietly works to keep supporters in line, expecting the story to fall apart. “Biden had only waited this long to talk because he couldn't get focused enough to speak, and because he and his aides believed it would go away on its own," Dovere writes of a Biden interview on “Morning Joe” that silenced most doubters. Biden's campaign knew that Trump's team has obtained data belonging to Hunter Biden; that was what the year of mocking Giuliani and Trump over their Ukraine obsession was for. “We had been preparing the whole ecosystem to respond to some crazy Trump October surprise," an aide says, anonymously.

There's no single reason why Biden won, but Dovere's evidence builds to a theory. Other Democrats deluded themselves about how much the country wanted Trump gone, what Democratic voters wanted in an agenda, and what would and would not captivate the media. Biden had a better sense of the territory. Things that seemed important to the Democrats' intellectual class, such as backtracking on his opposition to a super PAC or releasing plans that climate activists did not think could prevent the apocalypse, didn't matter. He never got crowds like Sanders or Warren or Buttigieg, but he understood who wasn't showing up: the White, working-class voters who'd drifted away to Trump, the ones Obama didn't understand until he was an ex-president.

“There used to be a lot more people than this,” he remarks to Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania (D) as they run through Pittsburgh's Labor Day parade. Biden ran around 63,000 votes ahead of Clinton's margin in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County, and wouldn't have won the state without it.


… five days until the special election in New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District
… 12 days until primaries in New Jersey and Virginia
… 26 days until New York Citys primary
… 61 days until the special election in Texas's 6th Congressional District
… 68 days until the special primaries in Ohio’s 11th and 15th Congressional Districts
… 159 days until the special primaries in Florida's 20th Congressional District