In this edition: The movements that aren't winning (right now), the black voter question, and the alternate plans of the debate castaways.
We are living through year four of the campaign tailgate party, and this is The Trailer.
By the time President Trump speaks at tonight's reelection launch event in Orlando, thousands of supporters will have been fed and entertained at a MAGA party outside. Supporters farther from the Magic City will be on their way to at least 700 "MAGA meet-ups," organized by the Republican National Committee. The goal, according to RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel: proving that the Trump movement is unbeatable.
“He's done this for three years, and 100,000 people have RSVP'd,” McDaniel said Monday on Fox News. “Not one candidate on the Democratic side could get this.”
But the Trump launch may be the second-biggest grass-roots political happening of the year so far — a distant second. In April, supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held more than 5,000 house parties to kick off their grass-roots campaign. That was three months after People for Bernie, an unofficial group whose founders later joined the campaign, organized 400 events for supporters of a campaign that hadn't started.
And at the moment both candidates — Sanders and Trump — trail Joe Biden in swing state and national polls.
Sanders and Trump, who have almost nothing in common, are both predicating their 2020 campaigns on the theory of permanent political mobilization, staying close to their supporters and constantly giving them something to do. For Trump right now, that mobilization is the answer to every question about polls that show him losing reelection; for Sanders right now, it's core to his argument that no other candidate for the Democratic nomination is as strongly positioned to win, then govern.
“For 45 years, you've heard a lot of talk and a lot of speeches,” Sanders said Monday, near the end of the Poor People's Campaign's candidate forum in Washington, billed as the first that focused presidential candidates on poverty. “There will never be any real change in this country unless there is a political revolution. That means that millions of people have got to stand up and fight.”
Sanders and Trump are not talking about the same “people.” Trump, who frequently tweets about polling showing his support among Republicans in the 80s, is building a campaign to identify and turn out that base; to register supporters who are not politically active; and to disqualify the Democratic nominee. The need to pull in swing voters, who will probably never stand in line for political rallies, is known but infrequently discussed. There is no real intraparty argument about electability, because that argument took place and Trump's 46 percent of the 2016 general-election popular vote was enough to win him the presidency.
“The Fake News doesn’t report it, but Republican enthusiasm is at an all time high,” Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “Look what is going on in Orlando, Florida, right now!”
The Sanders pitch is different, less focused on his own base than on proving that a supermajority of Americans, millions of them with no previous interest in politics, can be mobilized if he's the Democratic nominee.
Over the past week, since Sanders's speech about “democratic socialism,” the senator and key surrogates have emphasized national polls that show him leading Trump.
The between-the-lines message is that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — while she has also begun to lead Trump in many state polls — does not run so strongly against the president. Last week, after the latest Des Moines Register poll showed Sanders losing support to Warren and the two effectively tied for second place, Sanders Iowa strategist Pete D'Alessandro argued that the campaign was far ahead in identifying supporters — 20,000 so far — and reaching out to young people who were not excited by, or spoken to by, another campaign.
“We're in a position to grow to the point where we can win,” D'Alessandro said. “Those numbers show what would happen in June 2019, but it's going to be a totally different group of people we're talking to.”
Sanders's “revolution” pitch has started the first real argument between Biden and any other Democratic candidate since he entered the race. At the Poor People's Campaign forum Monday in Washington, where every candidate received versions of the same questions, Biden flatly rejected the idea that his style of politics could not get an agenda through Congress. Pacing the stage, he told a crowd of hundreds of antipoverty activists that their own fight mattered but that delivering for them meant working with Congress to pass bills.
“If you start off with the notion that there’s nothing you can do, then why don’t you all go home then, man?” Biden asked rhetorically. “Or let’s start a real physical revolution, if you’re talking about it. Because we need to change what we’re doing within our system.”
Biden's dismissal of the “revolution” pitch emerged again Tuesday, when he told donors at a New York fundraiser that economic inequality was breaking society apart but that it needed to be tackled through constitutional means.
“This wealth gap that exists in the United States of America is so profound now, it is the stuff of which — not revolutions, but political disillusionment — occurs,” he said. “Disillusion occurs.”
Biden, who tends to draw crowds in the mid-hundreds at his rallies, has not engaged in any other way with Trump or Sanders and their talk of movement-building. But Sanders's “revolution” pitch is all about Biden; it's an argument that the Obama-Biden administration de-mobilized what had been the largest political operation in American history, allowing the conservative movement to build grass-roots campaigns and win.
When the RNC mocks other Democrats for not drawing Trump-sized crowds, it's also referring to President Barack Obama, who rarely reached the scale of his 2008 campaign rallies when he won reelection and never did when he campaigned for other Democrats.
Trump's rallies, filling arenas and airline hangers, have suggested that mass politics has its limits. The president and the RNC have been able to mobilize supporters much more effectively than Obama did in midterm elections, something that mitigated Republican losses in 2018. They have been less effective at mobilizing behind the president's agenda, with no grass-roots energy emerging to pressure Democrats (or moderate Republicans) on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or the president's immigration strategy. The president has adapted, acting unilaterally and through the courts, but he has not shaped public opinion on some of his key reelection issues. Support for decreasing immigration levels or building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is down since 2016; support for the ACA is up.
Sanders has another problem, which is that his movement theory depends on something his campaign can control — its own organizing — and something it can't — support from grass-roots and labor movements.
The Poor People's Campaign forum demonstrated just how much other Democrats are trying to show solidarity with those movements, with speaker after speaker describing how they had rallied with the same activists as Sanders.
“I was actually marching with folks in Vegas a couple days ago, picketing McDonald's, about what we need to do to lift up the minimum wage,” said Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
Trump's control over his own party and movement is obvious, uncontested, and short of a majority. Sanders's potential movement may be larger than Trump's, but it's not clear whether he'll get to lead it.
Four years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the Trump campaign must be some kind of stunt. (It wasn't.)
“The nonwhite working class,” by Henry Grabar
A profile of the real Youngstown, Ohio, a mostly nonwhite city where politics have been “crushing people’s will to participate in the political process.”
The #NeverTrump movement will be hunkered down tonight at a small fundraiser in Washington, on behalf of a witty and quixotic candidate.
What does a congregation that suffered tragedy do when people running for president want to use their place of worship to make a point?
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Tuesday's Trump campaign rollout is all about the president's base — the 50 million voters who it believes are locked into backing him for reelection. But the reelection tactics that most worry Democrats have nothing to do with MAGA rallies. In the past few weeks, they've begun to worry about the Trump campaign's early persuasion campaign, in both digital advertising and in-person canvasses, designed to win over black voters who didn't back the president in 2016.
The centerpiece of that campaign so far is criminal justice reform and the modest First Step Act passed at the end of 2018. (Trump initially opposed a version of the bill.) Republican-backed criminal justice restructuring bills have been a sort of “Nixon goes to China” factor in politics for years; libertarian-leaning Republicans teamed up with Democrats over the past decade to overhaul prison in red states.
But the White House has repeatedly brought freed prisoners to high-profile events, where they thank the president; one digital ad portrays the president smiling as a freed prisoner says he is “continuing to make America great again.” And Republicans have tested some of this messaging at doorsteps. They've found that black voters, when told that the president signed First Step, become less likely to oppose him, with a bit more than 30 percent of black voters viewing him positively.
That's less than the "90 percent” of black voters Trump once speculated he could win in 2020, but the key Midwest states (and Florida) would become unwinnable for Democrats without sky-high black support for their nominee; Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin with single-digit support from African American voters.
At the moment, the Democrats' long-term plan to fight back is two parts strategy and one part laughter. In 2018, they found that linking any Republican to Trump was devastating to that Republican's numbers with black voters. In Michigan, 2018 exit polling found that John James, the GOP's candidate for U.S. Senate who is African American, won just 8 percent of the black vote, up from 6 percent for Trump; Democrats' own numbers found James running behind Trump in some parts of Detroit. Asked how Trump could use First Step to win over black voters, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) laughed, pointing out the work he and other Democrats did to pass it.
“If I'm the nominee, I'll be the only person in this race who has spent the majority of his career representing majority black populations,” Booker said. “If I'm the nominee, we'll have the African American vote be solidly behind us, but we will get a bigger African American turnout than we have seen in many years."
But Booker is trailing in polls of early states; former vice president Joe Biden leads, but Democrats who oppose him have begun to ask whether he will be vulnerable to attacks similar to the ones that worked to separate some black voters from Hillary Clinton. In 2016, the Trump campaign bought social media ads, directed at black voters, that played back a 1996 clip of her warning that some young black men had become “super predators.” It was a bit of law enforcement scaremongering that was controversial at the time and toxic in the politics of 2016.
In a conversation with The Washington Post on Monday, rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render, who campaigned for Sanders in 2016 and planned to do so again, recalled that the “super predators” controversy had been traumatizing to people he knew as a young organizer in Atlanta; one woman he knew at the time wept when she heard what Clinton had said. And he expected Biden to face similar problems if he became the nominee, with criticism focused on the 1994 crime bill he moved through Congress.
“It's not going to work,” Render said. “People will stay home. Black men will be quiet and angry and not go out to the polls.”
But the Biden campaign has dismissed the idea that Republicans, much less Trump, could make an issue out of the crime bill. In an interview with NPR, Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who will host nearly every Democrat this weekend in his city, said that the idea of Democratic anger over the legislation was being overhyped.
“That is not real,” Clyburn said. “Not with black people.”
Is it very important to hear candidates discuss this issue in the debates? (Kaiser Family Foundation, 346 Democrats)
Health care — 86%
Women's issues — 76%
The economy — 69%
Climate change — 69%
Gun policy — 67%
Income inequality — 66%
Immigration — 61%
Foreign policy — 60%
Criminal justice reform — 56%
Taxes — 53%
Trade — 49%
Some polls tell us information we may not have known before or thought about before. This is not one of those polls. Democrats are, were and will remain obsessed with the varied candidate proposals on health insurance reform; the number of Democrats interested in hearing about trade and tariffs is smaller, not least because voters in labor unions make up a smaller-than-previous share of the base (and some unions favor free-trade deals). The "women's" question and "climate" question both get to a simmering Democratic frustration: Voters and activists point out that abortion rights and climate largely went undiscussed in the 2016 election and the four presidential and vice presidential debates.
2020 Democratic primary in Florida (Quinnipiac, 417 registered Democrats)
Joe Biden — 41%
Bernie Sanders — 14%
Elizabeth Warren — 12%
Pete Buttigieg — 8%
Kamala Harris — 6%
Beto O’Rourke — 1%
Amy Klobuchar — 1%
Florida stands apart from most of the states being polled right now for a simple reason: Candidates have not really campaigned there, focusing instead on the four states that vote first, and California, which votes right after. Seventeen of the Democrats running for the Democratic nomination did not have enough support to register here at all. In that vacuum, Biden leads, though by less than Hillary Clinton ever did in her primary vs. Sanders. And most of Biden’s strength comes from voters over 50; a whopping 52 percent of them back him right now, to 11 percent for Warren and just 5 percent for Sanders.
Maine. For a long time, Democrats struggled to find anyone willing to challenge Sen. Susan Collins, who had dispatched serious (and less serious) challengers by landslides. They may soon have a crowded primary; lobbyist and activist Betsy Sweet has jumped into the race, backed by the liberal group Democracy for America; Sara Gideon, the state House speaker, is increasingly expected to jump into the race after the end of the legislative session this summer.
North Carolina. After lots of lobbying and a few false starts, Democrats recruited one of their preferred candidates to challenge Sen. Thom Tillis — Cal Cunningham, a former state senator who ran and lost a primary for the state's other U.S. Senate seat in 2010.
But until September, the marquee race in the state is for the 9th Congressional District, where Republicans have centered on their argument: that Democratic nominee Dan McCready has been “sending jobs to China” because his investment firm worked with a solar company that bought panels from a Chinese company. It's not uncommon for American solar companies to do so; it is nonetheless the main Republican line against McCready at the moment, portraying him as dishonest when he says he fights for American jobs.
Republicans deployed the same strategy last year, in Indiana, where they highlighted then-Sen. Joe Donnelly's investment in a family company that had outsourced some jobs; Donnelly pushed back by pointing out that now-Sen. Mike Braun's company bought some foreign parts, which sounds similar to the attack being launched in North Carolina.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has taken the lead in 2020's strangest primary supper club: the Democrats who didn't make the first debate.
The members of Democratic Party's least desirable club right now are Bullock, Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, former senator Mike Gravel of Alaska, and Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam. In that pack, Bullock and Moulton have built the most active campaigns in early states; Gravel is running a “patio campaign” from his home in California, and Messam has made infrequent visits to early states after much of his staff quit in a dispute over payment.
Bullock, who has criticized the DNC 's rules cutting the only red-state governor out of the debate, has opted to hold town halls in Iowa and New Hampshire — counterprogramming for local voters and watchable before the debates begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Next Wednesday, Iowa's WHO-TV will hold an afternoon town hall with Bullock; next Thursday, he'll be with New Hampshire's WMUR for an evening town hall.
“I’m excited to be on the ground in Iowa and New Hampshire next week, talking directly to voters about the issues that matter most to them,” Bullock said in a statement; less than 24 hours later, he sounded more excited to hit the qualifying mark for the second debates, in July.
Messam, whose city is a mere 30-minute commute from the debate site, has sought out more media attention; Moulton is planning to travel to Miami during the 48-hour debate circus, filling his schedule with media hits.
Gravel, whose public appearances have been limited to TV interviews, is considering a more direct kind of counterprogramming. His young campaign staff is exploring whether to rent theaters where Gravel will comment live on the debate; the question they're working through is whether this could happen near his home or whether the 89-year-old Gravel could travel to New York.
Bullock, by qualifying for the July debate, has set up a fight that Democrats avoided last week: a sort of “runoff” where the polling strength and total donation numbers of the on-the-bubble candidates determines who makes the stage. In the run-up to 2016, two Republicans made the main stage, then were kicked to an “undercard,” an indignity that neither Rand Paul nor Carly Fiorina ever recovered from; Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, who made this month's debate on the strength of polling, told The Trailer last week that he would reassess whether to continue campaigning if he was cut from debates.
Bernie Sanders. He's making a speech from his campaign office tonight to respond to the president's reelection rally; he's also staying in South Carolina after this weekend's fish fry for two more rallies.
Amy Klobuchar. She specified the 136 actions she'd want to take in the first 100 days of her presidency, many of them are executive actions that wouldn't rely on Congress to move.
Julián Castro. He introduced the latest in his series of policy plans; a “People First Housing Plan” that includes billions for new affordable housing starts and progressive tax cut for renters. (Bad luck and a flight delay stopped him from making this case at the Poor People's Campaign forum.)
John Hickenlooper. He has packed his public schedule around this weekend's Democratic events in South Carolina, attending several churches around Columbia.
Justice Democrats, founded after the 2016 elections to beat “corporate Democrats” in primaries, has endorsed its second 2020 candidate of the year: middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who will challenge Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“My opponent voted for an unjust war in Iraq, deregulating Wall Street, school privatization and building more prisons,” Bowman says in a launch video, intercut with images of Engel speaking in favor of the 1994 crime bill and of Bowman commuting on the subway. “It's time to build a new America, an America that taps into its unlimited potential.”
Bowman was nominated through Justice Democrats' traditional candidate vetting process, made famous by the documentary “Knock Down the House” — he was nominated by Billy Easton, a community organizer in the district, then vetted by a panel and interviewed. He's the first New York candidate to get the group's backing; as many as eight members of Congress, all in deep blue districts, have been eyed for potential challenges.
But the idea of challenging Engel jumped out to organizers because of a combination that clicked in last year's breakthrough races: a diverse electorate and an incumbent who had cast votes that angered activists. Engel, now 72, first won the 16th Congressional District in 1988, voting with the party on most issues but taking more hawkish stances on foreign policy; he voted to authorize both the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
None of that had hurt him at home. The 16th District, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County, has grown more Democratic with every election, giving Barack Obama 73 and 74 percent of the vote, then giving Hillary Clinton 75 percent. But no challenger has loosened Engel's grip on the district. In 2018, he faced three Democratic opponents, including businessman Jonathan Lewis, and spent $1.3 million to dispatch them by nearly 60 points. But Lewis was white, while a majority of the district's Democratic voters are not — and 31 percent of all residents are, like Bowman, African American.
. . . three days until Jim Clyburn's Famous Fish Fry
. . . eight days until the first Democratic debates
. . . 12 days until the end of the second fundraising quarter