In this edition: Democrats welcome a fight over a “border crisis,” liberals take a straw poll, and Virginia is already voting again.

If you thought an indecisive senator “Flake” was an incredible political character, get ready to meet a focus-grouped presidential candidate named “Vague.” This is The Trailer.

Tonight's presidential address on the government shutdown is the most dramatic part of the White House's political strategy: portraying a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border as the only solution to a mounting immigration crisis.

The president has talked about declaring a national emergency and using the powers that would result from that to begin wall construction. Republican political strategists have speculated that Democrats, confronted with angry federal workers and a president heading to the border to talk about the emergency, would fold. 

They are probably more susceptible to concerns about workers who aren't getting paid and the government failing to carry out some of its functions. But Democrats trying to get reelected in 2020 and Democrats looking at running against Trump are confident on the border argument. Unlike the shutdown of early 2018, when Senate Democrats fretted about the optics of an immigration fight and quickly caved, the 2019 crisis is pitting the president against Democrats confident that they are on the issue's winning side. 

There are four reasons. The first is polling, which is sparse but finds no advantage for the president's position outside states where he is already overwhelmingly popular. Since the president entered the Republican primary in June 2015, the concept of a wall between the United States and Mexico has never enjoyed a majority of popular support. The most recent poll on the question, a December study from Quinnipiac, found just 43 percent of Americans supportive of a border wall. The idea has become synonymous with the president, tracking with his own popularity, and he is simply not terribly popular right now. 

“Attaching the shutdown to the wall made an already unpopular policy even less popular,” Democratic pollster Nick Gourevitch pointed out this morning.

On immigration, Trump has hardly ever enjoyed majority support, though he has had the backing of a majority of Republicans. This was true even in 2016, when Trump outplayed Hillary Clinton in the Midwest and won the presidency. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the states that decided the election, exit polls found 11 percent of voters calling immigration the “most important issue facing the country,” and on average, 75 percent of those voters backed Trump. But in the same states, on average, 68 percent of voters said that immigrants working in the country illegally should be offered legal status, and 55 percent said that immigrants writ large “helped the country.”

“Trump significantly overplayed his hand, and he misjudged how this was going to play with suburban, highly educated voters,” said Mike Madrid, a California Republican strategist who has blamed Trump for speeding the party's decline there. “He literally embodies everything that's set the Republican Party on a downward trajectory. He's doubling down on a strategy that's failed; the size of that failure, in California, was extraordinary. Whites generally support building a wall; everybody else does not.”

And the 2016 election was Trump's strongest political moment. The second reason Democrats are comfortable waiting him out is the 2018 election, just three months ago, which looms larger for them than it does for the president. For Democrats, that election reset the politics of immigration, with a near-perfect test for how the perception of a border “crisis” would change voter perception.

In the closing weeks, the president and Republican campaign groups attempted to make the election a referendum on the humanitarian “migrant caravan” moving from Central America toward the border, designed as a way for thousands of people fleeing their countries to travel safely and then seek asylum.

“This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense,” the president said at one rally for Montana's Matt Rosendale, the Republican who unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Jon Tester (D).

At the time, Democrats initially worried that the caravan would change the conversation in swing districts. In some places, it did — Democrats with knowledge of internal polling  have said that in a few places where Trump won by double digits in 2016, such as Minnesota's 1st District, voters inched toward the GOP in the final weeks.

But in most of the country, the issue fell flat or backfired, and that experience is seared in the memory of newly elected Democrats. Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), who won the most Republican-leaning seat in California's Orange County, recalled how the GOP tried to make the final weeks of his election a referendum on whether he'd stop the migrants and whether he backed the president's decision to send 5,000 members of the military to the border.

“They definitely tried to make the caravan into an issue,” Rouda said. “They went as far as sending direct mail, putting up yard signs and buying digital ads, all with my name and the phrase 'open borders.' And now I think, just like I thought with the caravan, that we want to focus on the facts. The true fact that matters right now is that the president is holding federal workers hostage over a temper tantrum, to build a monument to his ego.” Rouda is in Republicans' sights as they try to win back the House, and he is comfortable characterizing the wall as a pet Trump project that his constituents don't want.

The president's plan to visit the border and bring attention to the issue doesn't rattle Democrats either, for a simple reason: They believe the White House is vulnerable on the family separation issue. After all, Trump will arrive days after a large number of Democrats held their own events on the border. Rep. Xochtil Torres Small (D-N.M.), whose district contains a facility where an 8-year-old from Guatemala died in custody recently, joined a delegation of Democrats near that facility for a news conference yesterday; Torres Small outran Hillary Clinton in the district by 11 points, and did so while accusing Republicans of fabricating a “caravan” issue instead of listening to locals who understood the immigration reality.

The White House's attempts to highlight a crisis on the border are complicated by what Democrats have already spotlighted — a stream of migrants that the Trump administration responded to with a “zero tolerance” policy of separating families, a move it said was to discourage further movement across the border. Republicans say that the June controversy over this policy was the nadir of their midterm campaign, a moment when polling collapsed, and that they only began to recover by attacking Democrats who wanted to respond to the policy by dismantling Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I just had nine town halls in Oregon, and when somebody in the audience would say, 'I want to thank you for stopping the mistreatment of children,' people gave me a standing ovation,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), a prospective presidential candidate who spent Monday at the New Mexico facility. “People feel it in their guts, that this is absolutely wrong. "

And then there's the speech itself. It is incredibly hard to find a Democrat who's worried about Trump using the media powers of his office to move public opinion anymore, especially on immigration.

“I expect the president to lie to the American people,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, at that same news conference in New Mexico. “Why do I expect this? Because he has been lying to the American people.”

The questions about Trump's trustworthiness are rote by now, and that can obscure just how unusual it is for a president to give an Oval Office address with most of the country already disinclined to trust him. That is not the position Democrats were in when confronting George W. Bush's initial push to invade Iraq; it was not where Republicans were, in 2011, when they were rebutting Barack Obama's case against using the debt limit to cut spending. It's possible that, for the first time, the president is able to use his office and the president's ability to change political dialogue to make his position popular. But Democrats enter this stage of the shutdown expecting him to fail. So do the Democrats who want to take his job.

“I have been in conversations with half a dozen 2020 hopefuls, and no one I talk to is talking about this as a border security issue,” said Cristobal Alex, the president of the Latino Victory Fund. “I am not hearing it anywhere. It’s an indication that the country is turning away from Trump and xenophobia.”

How much of this Democratic thinking could endure another week of the shutdown, or another month? That's not clear yet. But it's very clear that Democrats are comfortable fighting against the idea of a “border crisis.” The White House and Democrats are working in different political realities, and they're not growing any closer.

TURNOUT WATCH

It's Election Day in Virginia, again, as voters in the Commonwealth's 33rd state Senate district head to the polls to replace Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D). There has been little attention paid to this election outside the suburban district itself, and for a reason: It was drawn to be Democratic and has grown bluer with every election. Now-Attorney General Mark Herring won here by 8.2 points in 2011; Wexton won the three-way special election to replace him with 52.7 percent of the vote. In 2015, the last election for a full term, Wexton won by 13.4 points.

Anything less than a landslide today for Democratic nominee Jennifer Boysko would be a surprise, but also watch the turnout. In the last special election, just 21,681 people turned out here. What does the electorate look like in a shutdown environment that's as bad as you could set up for Republicans in Northern Virginia?

POLL WATCH

Democratic nomination (Daily Kos, 35,000 or so bloggers)

Elizabeth Warren — 22%
Beto O’Rourke — 15%
Kamala Harris — 14%
Joe Biden — 14%
Bernie Sanders — 11%
Cory Booker — 3%
Julián Castro — 1%
Kirsten Gillibrand — 1%

We’re in the season of the straw poll right now and will be for some time; this survey of Daily Kos members comes after MoveOn and Democracy for America conducted straw polls of their own members. They are, as Daily Kos editors point out, not scientific studies. But they are useful as barometers of grass-roots enthusiasm; if you told Democrats to ignore the early 2015 straw polls that showed Sanders doing well with activists, you missed a trend.

This is the first look at grass-roots Democrats that has put Warren in the lead. The same survey of Daily Kos readers 12 years ago put John Edwards (remember him?) atop the Democratic field with 35 percent; Barack Obama was at 28 percent, Wesley Clark at 17 percent, and Hillary Clinton at just 4 percent. That said a lot about who the blog’s readers were in 2007, fresh off a good election for the party but extremely skeptical of the party “establishment.” In 2015, the straw poll didn’t begin until June, when every major candidate had entered the race; Sanders led the first survey with 69 percent and Clinton trailed with 24 percent.

The upshot from all that: Daily Kos has changed and grown since the last primary, and the current, #resistance-era online left has no obvious front-runner.

2020

Bernie Sanders. His prospective candidacy is already endorsed by the 60-chapter Young Democratic Socialists of America, which will meet in Berkeley in mid-February “to mobilize student organizers” and “start the Bernie Wave.” There's no real contest for the Democratic Socialist vote — the main DSA endorsed Sanders in 2015 and is expected to do so again ahead of 2020, no matter who else runs (and so long as Sanders does, too). Oh, and Our Revolution, the group he founded after his primary bid, is mounting a “Run Bernie Run” campaign.

Tom Steyer. The “Need to Impeach” founder announced his Wednesday trip to Iowa several weeks ago; on Tuesday, his office said that his Des Moines visit will include a news conference “to answer questions regarding his plans for the future and his vision for the country.”

Kamala Harris. She closed down a gubernatorial fundraising committee, essentially a place to park money, days before her book tour.

Richard Vague. Yes, him. The politically obscure businessman has begun telling Democrats that he wants to run for president.

Cory Booker. He'll be in South Carolina, the first early primary state dominated by black voters, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

EVERYBODY IS WRONG

Four years ago, dozens of elected Democrats convinced themselves that the safest way to hold on to the presidency was to rally around Hillary Clinton.

The reasons were straightforward. One: Clinton had relationships and clout that would allow her to convince voters that she could break the partisan fever in Washington. Two: In the 2008 primaries, Clinton had performed dramatically better with white voters who lacked college degrees than Barack Obama and was in a good position to reintroduce herself to voters who’d left the Democratic Party behind.

“I think if anyone has a chance, Hillary Clinton is it,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told me in 2015. “They’re comfortable with her. They’ve voted for her overwhelmingly in 2008. She would be the best hope in the state of West Virginia to return [to Democratic] on a national level.”

Both of those arguments melted in the heat of 2016; now, however, both have also resurfaced with Democrats who argue that Joe Biden is their best possible challenger to the president, or that another candidate would struggle to win back truant Democrats. In a CNN interview today, Manchin suggested that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would “have a hard time in West Virginia” unless she “can change her positions,” though he didn't say which positions.

And in a New York Times rundown of Biden’s thinking, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), a close friend of Biden’s, argued that the former vice president would be able to cut deals with the other party, a contrast with the rest of the field. “This is a guy who actually gets along with Mitch McConnell and a number of other Republicans,” he said.

Clinton had weaknesses that Biden does not have, and enemies he did not make. He has a reservoir of goodwill that Clinton, even at the height of her post-secretary of state popularity, never really did. But these arguments sound eerily familiar to ones made by Democrats four years ago. 

Biden hasn't made them himself, but if they become part of his opening argument, there could be problems. Just three years ago, Biden was trying unsuccessfully to get the Senate Republicans he's known for years to allow a vote on Barack Obama's final Supreme Court nominee.

Telling Democratic voters in 2019 that you will be able to work with Mitch McConnell — or would even want to — could sound as out-of-touch as walking into the Parthenon and commenting on the colorful paint job. And predicting which voter will and won't come back to the party, with the right nominee, is a game that Democrats played and lost, very recently.

WHAT I'M WATCHING

Will judges defend gerrymandering from the voters? The Supreme Court is set to take up two legal challenges to partisan gerrymandering in this term, and there’s mounting worry among advocates for nonpartisan redistricting that a conservative majority will strike down one of the most popular ideas in politics — independent commissions that draw district lines.

In the Atlantic, liberal-leaning election law guru Rick Hasen warned that the court has been one vote away from striking down commissions that take redistricting away from legislators. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was on the losing side of a 5-to-4 decision that upheld Arizona’s commission, and there’s not much clarity on whether Brett M. Kavanaugh would vote like former Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, or whether he’d intervene to blow up nonpartisan maps.

“The Court would be ruling, in effect, that legislators may choose their voters, not the other way around, and that there’s nothing voters can do about it,” Hasen wrote.

The context: Nonpartisan redistricting is more popular than either party. In November, when Missouri voters were handing a single-digit win to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), 62 percent of them backed Amendment 1, which would replace legislative map-drawing — which Republicans would be likely to control in 2021 — with a commission. The result? As Jason Rosenbaum reports, Republicans are already discussing how to dismantle the proposal legislatively, with some black Democrats supportive of that effort.

READING LIST

"In California, a change of power as a liberal state pushes further to the left,” by Scott Wilson

The most populous state is the going to be the one to watch, and not just because of the presidential primary; governors of other liberal states say they are watching to see how fast California can move on big proposals such as universal health care.

“Florida ex-felons reclaim their voting rights, ready to become ‘like every other American citizen,’" by Lori Rozsa

More than 1.4 million Floridians who were blocked from the polls before can now register to vote, with massive implications for 2020.

“Your fact-checking cheat sheet for Trump’s immigration address,” by Salvador Rizzo, Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly

Out: Debunking. In: Pre-bunking.

COUNTDOWN

. . . one day until Tom Steyer makes some kind of announcement about his future
. . . four days until Julián Castro makes another, potentially similar, announcement about his future
. . . 20 days until the State of the Union