Don’t trust those polls – Bernie Sanders and the general election

(Erikson and Wlezien, The Timeline of Presidential Elections)

(Erikson and Wlezien, The Timeline of Presidential Elections)

In poll after poll, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders come out strongly ahead of Donald Trump. But Sanders is almost always further ahead.  And while this is interesting, it tells us essentially nothing about how Sanders would actually fare in a general election.

I’ll start by noting that there’s a decent amount of research on the question of general election polling, which mostly tells us that polls this far out are at best weakly indicative of future results. The reality is that, outside of highly mobilized partisans, most people simply haven’t thought that much about the campaign.

Generally, the historical record tells us that polls begin to stabilize a bit around 200 days out (right about where we are now). That’s likely because this is the time where the primaries are finished, and people start to focus on the upcoming race.  That’s important not just because it intensifies attention and focus.  The next big inflection point is late summer, after the conventions. Once you get that far, polls tend to get become quite trustworthy.

It’s plausible that 2016 will end up being a lot more stable, since the candidates are already exceptionally well known and people have likely reached settled opinions about both of them. But still, the general rule remains true: the vast majority of Americans simply haven’t put any meaningful time into deciding who they want to vote for.

None of this is to say that these polls contain zero information. They do tell us things. It’s just that the things they tell us have to be understood in context.  And that context tells us that there are two big reasons to think that Sanders’ numbers are soft.

First, he hasn’t been attacked. Sure, Clinton has been running against him, and I’m sure many Sanders supporters have felt under attack. But her campaign has been notable for being almost fanatically defensive. Her technique has been to agree with his premises, hit back a little on guns and on lack of attention to detail, and then talk about her strengths. That looks nothing like the barrage of attacks a general election would bring on.

To be clear, Sanders has won a lot of support for good reasons. He is a smart guy, passionate, and clearly very genuine. People appreciate all those things, and rightly so. He’s also pushing for a lot of things that people care a lot about. Improving the condition of the poor and middle class, limiting the influence of money and special interests, etc. These things are also very popular.

But let’s not kid ourselves. The abstract popularity of an idea is very different from popularity in the trenches. You don’t have to look very hard to find evidence of exceptionally popular things going up in flames as soon as they get scrutinized. 90% of Americans wanted ‘background checks,’ but once an actual proposal was on the table (and was being attacked), that support quickly dissipated. Many people may like your principle, but will turn quickly away as soon as the rubber meets the road. And even specific to Sanders supporters, polling indicates that lots of people would be far less willing to support his agenda once they find out the details.

It’s certainly possible (albeit improbable) that Sanders would continue to poll as well once he’s been subjected to a fusillade of Republican attacks. But those attacks haven’t happened yet (and never will), so current polling simply can’t tell us how things would look in that hypothetical world.


What’s more, the problem actually runs deeper. Even if the Sanders agenda and persona could withstand the content of these attacks, it would still run into the second fundamental problem: politicians grow more unpopular the closer they get to becoming president.

Right now, one of Sanders’ key polling advantages is the fact that he’s never been especially close to winning the nomination. This may sound paradoxical, but it’s a very real effect. The American public is significantly biased against those who are perceived as internal to the partisan political bickerfest.  And, correspondingly, it valorizes those who appear tangential to those fights, who represent our ‘better’ politics. Sanders is currently drafting on that effect.

But there is one surefire way to lose this mantle: become the nominee. This is because the lauding of ‘apolitical’ figures is only tangentially about those figures as such. It’s far more to do with drawing comparisons against those who are currently trained in your sights. The result is that insurgent politicians get all the credit and very little of the flak. They stand for an alternative to the stuff people hate, rather than being a representative of it. But once the politician is in the midst of the political slog, every theoretical negative (which would be easily brushed aside before) is accentuated.

Want evidence? Check out Hillary Clinton’s approval ratings from 2010-2012.


This is a period when she was lauded for being above the fray, competent, capable. And above all: for not being Barack Obama. But once she began running for president again, her support plummeted. Not because of any change in her; because of a change in her circumstance.

More evidence: George W. Bush. His approval ratings were in the 70s in the fall of 1999. A year later, in the midst of a general election campaign, they had fallen 20 points. George HW Bush, during a bruising fight to retain the presidency, saw approval ratings fell into the 30s in October of 1992. Two months later, they had jumped into the high 60s. Mitt Romney was +13 in February of 2012, unfavorable on election day.

John McCain is maybe the closest analog to Sanders. He managed to remain quite popular, even with the partisan filter. Still, his support dropped from +20 in the early summer of 2008 to +6 by the election.  For a lot of people, he stopped being ‘John McCain, war hero and great guy’ and became ‘John McCain, politician.’

The point of all this is not that Sanders is terrible, or that he’d have been a disaster, or anything like that. Facing Trump, I think he’d have been a perfectly solid candidate. While the effects I’m describing are real, they aren’t 100% dispositive. The underlying strengths of Sanders wouldn’t disappear. He would likely have much higher personal favorability ratings than (for example) Hillary Clinton currently has. And while his agenda would suffer quite a few sustained attacks, having that debate might well be worth it.

But at the end of the day, whether Sanders would be a strong general election candidate is almost exclusively a question for punditry, not analytics. The polls just do not produce useful information about this question, no matter how much we might want them to. They simply can’t tell us how people would have thought about Sanders as a general election candidate, because they are snapshots from a world where he isn’t one.

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Did Sanders really drag Clinton to the left?

Democratic presidential candidates  Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton talk before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

The Democratic primary is drawing to a close. While Bernie Sanders will (and should) remain in the campaign through the final contests, he’s now acknowledged that his presence has more to do with setting agendas than with winning the nomination. So, as the gears start to shift a little bit, I think it’s worth pausing to reflect on the campaign and what it might mean going forward.

And one thing that seems ineluctably true is that it’s been fought almost exclusively on Sanders’ terms. While no one would deny that there are differences between these candidates, the actual positions they’ve staked out in the campaign have been pretty similar. Sanders has regularly gone further, of course, but Clinton has gone out of her way to narrow the gap as much as possible.

It certainly didn’t have to go that way.

  • When Sanders said ‘single payer’ she could have said ‘the American people like their freedom, and they aren’t interested in the government taking away the health care that they like.’
  • When Sanders said ‘$15 minimum wage’ she could have said ‘that’s arrant nonsense, and would be a disaster in parts of the country where the median wage is barely $15 an hour.’
  • When Sanders said ‘an end to fracking’ she could have said ‘there are a whole lot of jobs in fracking, and Senator Sanders is trying to take them away.’
  • When Sanders said ‘end the death penalty’ she could have stoked fears of terrorists and rapists, to evoke the our worst impulses.

I could go on pretty much endlessly here. On virtually every issue you can imagine, Clinton sought to minimize the gap between her and Sanders, emphasizing her agreement with the principles, focusing her disagreement exclusively on the details.

This is generally regarded as a sign of the left’s strength, and understood as Sanders dragging Clinton to the left. His campaign, the argument goes, showed in vivid detail just how much passion there is on the left, and demonstrated that it’s no longer possible to win a Democratic nomination by tacking to the center. In general, I’m mostly on board with this idea. There certainly are notable places where Sanders seemed to have boxed Clinton into making promises that really will guide her should she win the presidency.

But I also hesitate to draw that conclusion too forcefully. Because there’s another reading of this situation, which is that Clinton never really took the threat of Sanders seriously. In this account, she saw him as essentially a factional candidate, and therefore adopted a deflection strategy, with the goal of simply coasting to victory and avoiding doing too much to antagonize the left.  Basically: play defense, take a few hits here and there, but roll with them and keep racking up delegates. No point in fighting Sanders directly when he doesn’t really pose that big of a threat.

If this account is right, then the campaign didn’t really make much difference. If Clinton didn’t see herself as being in danger, she might not feel much obligation to keep that front occupied. Sure, she won’t want to make people too angry, but she also won’t see any obligation to govern to the left.

I want to be clear that I don’t think this is an either/or situation. The truth likely lies somewhere in between. But I want to parse out a couple potential implications of this.

First, the ‘Clinton was holding back’ theory is part of why I remain doubtful about the argument that Elizabeth Warren would have won this race handily if she had entered it. Maybe she would have, but that counterfactual would likely involve a very different sort of race. Clinton kept a lot of her potential big guns holstered, and we just don’t know what might have happened if she’d been forced to go on the offensive.

Second, I think this actually might tell us something about Clinton’s political skill. It’s a hallmark of successful political campaigns that they avoid overreactions. They identify the best strategy and then follow it with discipline, regardless of the flurries that erupt within a 24 hour news cycle. This is often regarded as a big part of the 2008 primary campaign; Clinton jumped around too much, while Obama played slow and steady. But this time around, it looks like Clinton remained incredibly disciplined. They presumably decided a year ago to run in this way, and it’s remarkable how little they seem to have panicked, even as the media began to doubt her, even as Bernie started drawing incredible attention and excitement. Rather than giving into the pressure and punching back aggressively, she stayed disciplined and just let the pressure dissipate.

Third, this characterization will certainly speak to some of the Clinton doubters out there, who see the left-leaning aspects of her campaign as inauthentic, and who regard her as buying too much into the narrative of her own inevitability. And while I don’t want to fully endorse that position, I do think it’s worth acknowledging that possibility.

I anticipate that I’ll experience some frustration over the next six months, as folks overreact to her inevitable tacking back to the center. But I’ll also do my best to remember that the power of ‘the democratic wing of the Democratic Party’ is still somewhat unclear and at risk. So it will be important to play close attention to the way she tacks. Adopting more ‘moderate’ language is relatively harmless. But if she starts walking back explicit promises, that’s a big red flag.

One thing we know for sure: Clinton is closely attuned to the shape of political power. So it’s very much in the interests of the left to make clear that they are ready to be her allies, and to lend the significant energy and excitement that characterized the Sanders campaign, but only insofar as she is willing to be their allies, too.

On both sides, I hope people find their way back from the ledges of “Bernie or Bust” for the Sanders folks and “There Is No Alternative” for the Clinton supporters.  By which I mean: Sanders supporters should vote for Clinton, and work for Clinton, as the best remaining chance to achieve some of their objectives. But at the same time Clinton will do very well to remember that there’s a lot of potential and possibility on the left, but she’s going to have to work to keep it going.


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The (not so) brief (not so) wondrous life of Kasich

John Kasich, governor of Ohio and 2016 Republican presidential candidate, pauses as he speaks during a campaign event at the Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, U.S., on Friday, Feb. 19, 2016. The six remaining Republicans face off Saturday in South Carolina's primary where Trump holds a commanding lead in the polls. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In a year of increasingly implausible events, when Donald Trump (!) is the frontrunner, and Ted Cruz (!!) is the last savior of the Republican establishment, I still insist that John Kasich’s persistent presence is, in some ways, the single weirdest thing about the whole race.

He should have dropped out literally months ago. And yet, here he stands, undaunted by simple things like math, or reality, or the existence of states that aren’t Ohio.

Let’s review a couple fun tidbits about his increasingly futile position.

  • Kasich is currently in 4th place in a three-man race. Marco Rubio, who dropped out over a month ago, still has a 30-delegate lead on him.
  • That is in part because, during that month since Rubio left, Kasich has won exactly the same number of delegates as Charles Barkley, Giada DeLaurentiis, and me.  Which is to say: zero.
  • Kasich would need to win 130% of the remaining vote to win the nomination.

But here’s my favorite one of all. Kasich has, of course, only won one contest–in his home state of Ohio. And while Ohio is reasonably big, it’s 66 delegates aren’t quite enough to really do the trick. In fact, in order to put Kasich on track for the nomination, Ohio would need to be roughly 16 times bigger. That is: if Ohio had a population of about 190 million people, it would have just enough delegates to get him 50.1% of the currently-assigned number.

So what I’m saying is: one tiny change to the system and Kasich could be the frontrunner.

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Ted Cruz is a Rawlsian. Wait, what?


From Erica Grieder at TexasMonthly, comes this interesting tidbit on Ted Cruz, Republican presidential aspirant:

Cruz, then, is calling for what he calls “opportunity conservatism.” What does that mean? “It means that conservatives should conceptualize and should articulate every domestic policy with a laser focus on easing the means of ascent,” he said. “That we should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens.” … Rawls asks readers to imagine themselves behind “a veil of ignorance”: If you didn’t know what kind of situation you would be born into—your gender, your race, your family background, your physical health, and so on—what kind of political system would you consider most fair for everyone? That experiment, Rawls says, should point us to the broad principles of a just society. … It’s also an experiment that implicitly acknowledges the fact that things like race and class are, in reality (as opposed to in thought experiments), often correlated with economic outcomes. And so Rawls, as you might expect, has more commonly been associated with the American left than the right. But that was, of course, one of Cruz’s points. He said that when Democrats try to help people directly, as through an expanded safety net, they usually mean well, but “the problem is, it never, ever, ever works.”

This seems absurd on its face. After all, Rawls is the grand philosopher of the welfare state, the benchmark of liberalism. But Cruz’s reappropriation of Rawls is actually far less surprising than it might initially seem, and tells us genuinely interesting things about the importance of Rawls in the realm of political deliberation.

In short: Cruz is endorsing the Rawlsian imaginative move, while discarding the conclusions that Rawls derived from that move. The ease with which he’s able to perform this maneuver demonstrates a terminal weakness in Rawls’s overall project: to construct an enduring philosophical infrastructure capable of resolving the tensions within the value structures of liberal democracy.

The problem is embedded in the very idea of rationality. For Rawls, the veil of ignorance erases all conception of self. Not just race, class, or other identity markers, but also our concept of the good. It’s not just that we don’t know what we have; we don’t even know what we value. All that we have left is our bare capacity for reason, which will guide us toward conclusions that could be supported by anyone.

The problem, of course, is that reason is necessarily situated. Reason is not conducted abstractly; it is necessarily embodied. And this goes beyond the simple fact that, as a simple matter of fact, we are incapable of ever truly forgetting our place in the world. More deeply, the very structure of reason itself depends on territorializing the knowable world. As Hans-Georg Gadamer tells us, our capacity for judgment emerges out of our prejudices. There is no reason without differentiation.

As a practical matter, the effect of this is clear. The Rawlsian imaginative technique (the hypothetical original position) is always already infiltrated by theories of the good, which masquerade as the pure operations of reason. This makes it almost infinitely portable. And makes it a simple thing for Cruz to assert the value of massive tax cuts for the wealthy, a collapse of the welfare state, racial targeting, and all the rest. These, he believes, are what any right-thinking person would endorse if only they could be set free from the whispering corruptions of the left.

All of which is to say: turning to Rawls for an ironclad defense of the progressive agenda is a dead-letter. But surely we have known this for decades. A Theory of Justice is one of the most influential and important books of the last century, philosophical or otherwise. And yet its release coincided almost perfectly with the dissipation of the very political structures it sought to buttress.

But this by no means is a call for simply forgetting Rawls. It’s a call for rethinking the significance of his work.  As we forge into the 21st century, many turn to Rawls for philosophical refuge. They find comfort in the hermeneutic elaboration of his architecture. But to me, Rawls is far more interesting for his insights into the limits of that project.

His late-life ‘political turn’ is widely misunderstood as a defanging of Theory. But in my mind it reflects a growing awareness that ‘justice as fairness’ is far more important as a framework for channeling structures of thought than as a philosophical construct.

That Ted Cruz finds something of value in this work is, in a peculiar way, an important point in Rawls’s favor. It demonstrates the capacity for enduring frames of reference, capable of organizing meaningful political disputation. If Ted Cruz (bomb thrower, destroyer of norms, assassin of institutional restraints) remains even somewhat in thrall of these conceptual framework, it suggests that there may still be hope for politics.

Rawls can’t be used to defeat Cruz. Then again, no philosophical theory could. But the Rawlsian imaginative move nevertheless offers hope. It exposes a lingering theme of unity, a horizon that may yet be fused (again, borrowing from Gadamer), across which genuine political disagreement may still be engaged.

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The Democratic primary and the meaning of faith

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event at Music Man Square in Mason City, Iowa January 27, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria - RTX24BL7

Reason to Believe – Aimee Mann and Michael Penn

“It’s too utopian. It’s a policy of rainbows and unicorns. It’s not enough to just have faith; you need a way to get things done.”  These accusations will sound familiar to the supporters of Bernie Sanders. They’ve been leveled with regularity over the campaign. Some might say with monotony.

And each time, the Sanders supporters have responded with a straightforward query: that his ideas sound impossible is precisely the problem. After all, what’s actually preventing us from ensuring that every American gets basic health care, a chance at a good job capable of putting food on their table and a roof over their head? Why can’t the richest country in the history of the world provide free college for anyone who wants it? These aren’t technical or material problems, but simply down to a lack of political will. And if that’s the case, isn’t that fact itself a searing indictment of our current political order? What further reason do you need to support change?

However, for those less inclined toward the Sanders revolution, this rhetorical move is exceptionally aggravating, to the extent that it willfully conflates means and ends. To them, it’s a naïve move grounded in the faith that pure intentions are sufficient, that ultimately heroes will triumph and villains receive their just deserts. But for these folks, often self-styled as ‘realists,’ the right beliefs aren’t enough. The world is a harsh and complex place, filled with intractable problems that can’t be resolved by broad strokes. And out here in the real world “women never really faint, and villains always blink their eyes.”

The politics of faith vs. the politics of realism

So here we have a spectrum: those who have faith vs. those who insist on being ‘realistic.’ Obviously, many people will see elements of both in themselves. But this simple difference in attitude explains quite a bit of the vitriol that characterizes this debate. Passions run high here not just because people disagree about policy questions or ideological goals, but because the entire frame of the conversation is structured by these underlying attitudes.

This is why some of the most antagonistic conversations revolve around questions that are ostensibly neutral. For example: ‘who is going to win the nomination’ is an empirical question, not a normative one. Even if Sanders is the ‘best’ candidate, that tells us nothing about whether he’ll accumulate enough delegates (except insofar as his ‘superior’ candidacy can be expected to win him votes). So why does it inspire such vituperative dispute?

The simple answer is: people don’t like bad news, and will do anything they can to avoid acknowledging it. Conversely, people don’t like stubbornness, and will do anything they can to punish it. But I think it’s actually more complicated than that. We don’t need to assume the worst of people to explain these fights. Because ultimately what’s going on here is much deeper than just accuracy in prediction.

What faith tells us about ‘facts’

At a fundamental level, this is an epistemological problem. At stake is the filter through which we encounter ‘facts.’ For those who believe, Sanders doesn’t look like a longshot, because that claim presumes the inevitability of knowledge-frameworks, which they see the entire Sanders campaign challenging. And they find succor for this faith, because, well, haven’t the pundits missed on all kinds of assertions already?

On the other side of the conversation, indeterminacy is sharply distinguished from meaningless. For the realists, the limits of punditry over the past 12 months obviously inspire some reassessment. But to treat this as the death of prediction risks throwing a whole bunch of babies out with the bathwater. After all, this is how science works. You start with what you (think you) know, and evaluate new information. Evidence of past errors inspires self-reflection, reassessment of models, and so forth. Not a retreat into the irrefutability of faith.

And there’s something to this. After all, we can see all too clearly what happens when ‘what we want to be true’ is permitted to intrude into ‘what actually is true.’ Global warming denialists, anti-vaxxers, anti-evolutionists, those who shut down medical research or research into gun violence or any other issue simply because they don’t want facts to intrude on their desires. I’ve read my Thomas Kuhn, of course, and I’m all too familiar with the biases and prejudices built into all scientific arguments, but that doesn’t disprove that some degree of objective analysis is the lifeblood of progressivism. When we allow faith to replace reason, we ourselves no favors.

And with all that, you can look at the facts as they now stand. You find:

  1. Sanders still faces a huge gap in delegates
  2. For all the fluctuations on the calendar, the underlying demographics have held pretty stable throughout the race.
  3. For all that Michigan was a huge polling failure, on the whole the polls have been reasonably accurate
  4. Sanders has done very well in caucuses, less well in primaries
  5. Sanders has done well in open primaries, less well in closed primaries

And then you look at the remaining contests and see: they are almost exclusively primaries, many closed primaries, in states that are on the whole far more racially diverse than those Sanders has been winning, and in which Sanders is tends to trail in the polls by significant margins.

Taking in all this information, it is quite clear to me that it would take a massive change—well beyond even the ones we’ve already seen—to erase this deficit. That’s just a reality, not a value judgment.

But, of course, many people disagree with that assessment. They will say ‘those are assertions, not facts.’ And that’s the rub of things, isn’t it? Because what’s really going on here is a dispute not just about which facts truly hold, but more importantly about how such debates inflect the sort of world that we believe in.

And that realization needs to be a bigger part of these conversations, because it helps us all understand what we’re talking about when we talk about predictions. And it helps remind us of the limits of argument here.

The role of atheists in conversations about faith

To clarify things, let me propose an analogy. I think that, at a certain level, the debate over the facts of the race (Sanders can’t win, #feelthemath, etc.) scans quite a bit like the Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens going after religious people. They may or may not be ‘right,’ but they are definitely jerks.

So I have a lot of sympathy for people who see the positive side of things, who believe in the potential for a big change. And I empathize with the frustration it must cause to constantly encounter aggressive demands to ‘look at the facts!’ Because in some sense, it just kind of misses the point.

That said, I think that characterizing this as partly a conversation about what to believe also helps illustrate dangers in the other direction. Here I’m thinking about the accusations that fly from the Sanders supporters, which characterize all descriptive efforts as nothing but ideological shade. Which portray ‘the media’ as a stalking horse for the Clinton campaign, who is actively trying to help her win by painting a narrative of inevitability.

I see these arguments as, in an important sense, mirror images of the attacks from the other side. They are seriously overdetermined, and grounded in assumptions that are thoroughly ungenerous

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that there is no valid space for critiques of this sort. It is certainly true that media frames inject bias into political coverage, just as it is true that derisive attitudes toward leftist claims (seen as sophomoric, utopian, infeasible) informs the way general society understands those issues. The superdelegate system raises legitimate concerns. It’s not clear that the Party ought be in charge of scheduling debates. And so forth. These are real problems, and one of the wonderful things about the Sanders campaign has been the broader mobilization that has emerged around it, which has sought to break the stranglehold of those old characterizations.

The point is just: arguments of this sort run a real risk becoming so firmly grounded within one faith community that they utterly deny the possibility that others might also be acting in good faith to truly held beliefs of their own. Many reporters, for example, are well-aware that all reporting carries tinges of ideology. But they believe (truly and wholeheartedly) that to strive for descriptive clarity is a good in itself. They are neither the willing shock troops of ‘the establishment,’ nor are they unwitting stooges. They are well-meaning people doing work with real value.

Does that excuse them of all social responsibility? Certainly not. Just as those who made the bomb cannot claim moral purity simply because they were conducting ‘pure science.’ But I worry that this aspect of responsibility risks overriding everything else. That those who seek descriptive meaning are all painted with the same brush.

Understanding the faithless

So this invites a question: for those who live in faith, how will they regard those who reject the good word? Will they regard them skeptically? Will they see the refusal to accept the truth in their hearts as evidence of deep-lying sin? I see two risky possibilities. They might be categorized either as infidels (non-believers who must be shunned, or even destroyed) or as apostates (corrupters of the true faith). Broadly speaking, conservatives might be understood as the former, liberal as the latter.

Such responses worry me, for all the reasons that I worry about the problems of secular politics in a world defined by faith. Because the fact is: we don’t all share the same faith. The things that animate us are not identical, nor should they be. And I worry about political movements which refuse to accept this underlying reality. Which presume that there is only one true faith, and which therefore regard antagonism to its precepts as in some sense forsaken.

You see that kind of thing on display in assertions that the ‘system is rigged,’ which deny agency to the millions of living, breathing humans who show up to polls to cast ballots for other candidates. You see it in criticism which regards media efforts at neutrality and objectivity as evidence of crass opportunism or crony politics. You see it in all the arguments stacked together, which assert that Sanders would have won, if not for the efforts to rob the people of their chance. And so forth.

These ‘stab in the back’ narratives are potentially extremely corrosive, because they regard all obstacles to the ushering in of truth as illegitimate on face. And they tend to fixate on relatively insignificant issues, rather than addressing the larger reality of a world in which people simply do not the same truths. ‘They system is rigged’ becomes an excuse to regard only one’s own form of political participation as genuine. Everyone else is either complicit or a dupe.

In limited doses, that’s fine. But as it grows, that sort of thinking becomes dangerous. Because it regards one type of faith as the only correct form, and therefore poses a real threat to pluralistic democracy.

Progressivism and faith

All of which brings me to my deeper point. I’ve been speaking so far within the framework of ‘faith vs. realism.’ But, it should already be clear, this is flawed in its very formulation. Because the ‘realistic’ approach isn’t antagonistic to faith—and it does neither side of this debate any favors to treat it as if it were. The realistic approach isn’t about ‘truth over belief;’ it just reflects a different sort of faith.

And, in an important way, what I’m talking about here unifies these conversations. Those who believe in the possibility of the Sanders campaign often finding themselves at war with two theoretically distinct groups. The first is the numbers-crunchers, who make ‘value-neutral’ claims about who will win. The second is the centrist liberals, who like ‘what Bernie stands for’ but ultimately prefer to go with the mainstream, wonky, ‘progressive who gets things done.’

But what should now be clear is that both of those groups are singing off the same songsheet. They both ground their perspective on the campaign in a deep-seated faith in the progressive perfectibility of our systems.

Writ large: they believe in the narrative of progress. And they see progress emerging through the slow, but linear accumulation of knowledge—tweaking things here, adjusting things there, and eventually making real improvements. The underlying sense is that to fix a thing, you must first understand it. And, as a result, change very rarely comes in big sweeps. Instead, it arises via painstaking accretions, through the “strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

All of which is to say: these days ‘progressivism’ has become a bit of a floating signifier, and both Clinton and Sanders really want to assert a claim to that label for themselves. But what I’m describing here is one specific way in which Clinton really does fit into the historical narrative of progressivism in a way that Sanders (and especially his supporters) really don’t. Progressivism in its 19th century roots was very much based on faith in the perfectibility of systems through the application of human reason and ingenuity. It believed in capitalism, but wanted to harness it. It believed in regulation but had no interest in system change.

The theology of pluralism

And, most importantly for my purposes, it reflected a deep-lying faith that ‘what unites us is far greater than what divides us.’ Or, as (then Senatorial candidate) Obama once said: “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”

Put simply: this kind of faith is grounded in a fundamental belief that difference can be exceeded, that horizons can be fused (Horizontverschmelzung). But, and this is crucial, this is only possible if we see each other for what we really are. It’s not enough to know what’s right; you have to understand. Which means grasping why other think differently. It means accepting the validity of those with whom you disagree. It means taking them for what they are, not insisting that they must be something else.

And it means holding onto the possibility that politics (dirty, grimy, everyday politics) possesses an intrinsic value. More broadly, that the back and forth in which we attempt to convert others to our point of view, and genuinely accept that they might convert us, is the apotheosis of democracy.

Which is not to say that politics is pure, or uncorrupted. Of course it’s not. And of course it rarely matches up to this ideal. But in spite of those failures, there’s something inextinguishable at the heart of the process. A sort of fundamental dignity evoked by the principle of pluralistic politics—in which people disagree with one another about the appropriate policies, goals, ideologies, etc. but everyone agrees with the baseline premise that political systems.

Does this all sound fanciful and utopian? Well, sure. It is fanciful and utopian! Just as Sanders supporters believe in an ideal of America, in spite of evidence that suggests it’s miles away, those who believe in politics of this sort hold onto their own brand of faith. It motivates them to seek out marginal gains where possible. To embrace the value of making ten or a hundred lives better, in the hopes that thousands or millions will someday follow.

I don’t ask or require that you share this belief with me. But I do think it’s important that you respect it. Because if faith in Sanders and what he represents comes packaged with such deep cynicism that it can’t even acknowledge the possibility that politics itself might bring good into the world, I have a hard time seeing how it’s ever supposed to work.

And, by the same token, it’s incumbent on the ‘realists’ to get off their high horse, to recognize their own deep utopianism, and to regard the beliefs of those who see a different trajectory as noble rather than objects of mockery.

If we can’t even do that much, it strikes me that neither perspective really has much to offer the world. Because without even that basic level of shared understanding, I don’t see how democracy of any sort can ever succeed.

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Trump and the White Queen

white queen

The White Queen, from Through the Looking-Glass:

Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

Donald Trump:

In his first 100 days, Trump said he would cut taxes, “renegotiate trade deals and renegotiate military deals,” including altering the U.S. role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
He insisted that he would be able to get rid of the nation’s more than $19 trillion national debt “over a period of eight years.”
Most economists would consider this impossible because it could require taking more than $2 trillion a year out of the annual $4 trillion budget to pay off holders of the debt.

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The case for superdelegates

It’s hard to find a defender of superdelegates these days. They’re undemocratic, elitist, and stacked up against against a candidate who is running on themes of participation and populism. And I sympathize with the frustration people feel. In fact, for all that I’m making ‘the case for superdelegates’ here, at the end of the day, I’d be fine with scrapping the system.  If only because the appearance of impropriety that they create is a problem.

But I do think it’s worth making clear why I find the attacks on the system to be significantly overstated. Put simply: I don’t think that superdelegates are particularly problematic, and I especially don’t think they pose any meaningful practical threat to democracy.

That’s true for the obvious reason that is already much-discussed: at the end of the day, even if one candidate (Sanders in ’16, Obama in ’08) trails badly on the superdelegate front early, that tells us almost nothing about how those delegates will actually align themselves once the convention rolls around. It’s difficult to envision a scenario where a Sanders-like candidate won the majority of pledged delegates only to have the result overturned by the superdelegates. Which means the gnashing of teeth about stolen results is almost certainly unnecessary.

“But,” you might reasonably respond, “if the superdelegates will invariably side with the eventual pledged delegate winner, then they serve no purpose at all and should still be scrapped.”

But this is where things get more complicated. Because I said it’s ‘difficult’ to envision a world where the superdelegates tipped an election. But difficult is not impossible. Those cases where this might take place are exceptional, and those exceptions are very much the issue. To explain:

The temporal rescue

Consider the following scenario: Candidate A wins 55% of the delegates, but accumulates that lead entirely in the first half of the campaign. In early April a scandal emerges that causes her popular support to drop like a stone. A previously weak challenger (Candidate B) suddenly starts winning huge margins, but doesn’t have enough time to make up the gap.

The superdelegates could tip the balance and nominate Candidate B, if they so choose. And it seems to me that they absolutely should do so. The primary calendar is long, and there’s a reason for that. But the temporal gap does matter in some cases. In this scenario, it’s almost certainly the case that many of the people who voted for Candidate A now wish they hadn’t. And they will likely appreciate the superdelegates rescuing them from the choice they made in the fog of uncertainty.

The Trump problem

Another exceptional case doesn’t require any fanciful imagination. You only have to look at the current Republican race, where Trump is wrecking havoc with a system that lacks any strong mechanisms for reasserting control.

If the Republicans had superdelegates, blocking Trump’s nomination would be far easier. And that would be a much better world. Both for the country, who escapes the danger of his election, and for the party, who escapes the shattering of their internal mechanisms for stability.

Primaries are about parties, not ‘democracy’ as such

This brings me to another point, one which I’m sure will be more contentious, but which I think people really ought to take a little more seriously. And that is: the purpose of the primary system is for the party to select its nominee. It’s very likely that they will want to do so using democratic mechanisms, but this isn’t an absolute requirement. Parties aren’t governmental institutions themselves; they are private organizations with motives, goals, ideological commitments, and institutional relationships. And they need all of those things to preserve their internal coherence and therefore achieve the objectives they’re promising to pursue.

It is of course true that a party might grow so corrupt that shattering its hold on its institutions becomes necessary. But this is definitely a case where people should be careful what they wish for. Unless we undertake massive constitutional reform, parties are an inevitable feature of our electoral structure. You might shatter one, but a new one will quickly emerge to fill the void. And it will employ almost all the same mechanisms to establish internal control on its agenda and power apparatuses. I completely understand why these things make people angry, but blaming the parties themselves misses the origin of the problem. These incentives are part of our constitutional order.

The point here is: parties use devices like superdelegates to maintain some degree of control on potentially unruly actors (the Trumps of the world), and this is both natural and (often) necessary.

It’s also important to remember that parties aren’t simply the elites. Parties are broad coalitions that involve millions of people, the actual rank and file. Which means they can be given new marching orders and new motivations. And it is often the case that this sort of internal reform works better than a Trumpian coup, where a bare majority, in the heat of the moment, blows apart all of the restraining structures that held things together.

I want to be clear here. I’m not arguing that primaries shouldn’t be democratic. I think they should! I’m just arguing that ‘democracy’ shouldn’t serve as an absolute decision rule. There will come circumstances where the decisions of millions of independent actors will be less optimal than the decision of a unified party apparatus. This is true for precisely the same reason that unregulated free markets can produce horrible inequalities. Markets are efficient in many respects, but sometimes centralized control is a good thing.

As with all things, balance is the watchword. It may well be that the superdelegate system errs by moving too far in the direction of centralization. And perhaps less coercive means can be found to permit the will of the people to find its best expression in selecting a nominee. But for the reasons I stated at the top of this piece, I don’t think that’s the case. Superdelegates are party actors and elected officials. They are enormously sensitive to the people, and accountable in quite a few other ways. If they ever did choose to put their finger on the scale of an election, it seems likely that it would be for very good reasons.

The actual convention matters, in ways that have nothing to do with the identity of the nominee

On a related note, it’s worth remembering that superdelegates exist for reasons that have nothing to do with picking the nominee.

Their ‘super’ status means that they’re unconnected to specific electoral results. And that’s the case partly because this system is simply a way to ensure that key actors in the party have a role to play at the convention. That is: the key thing is just to make sure that they’re delegates. Because the delegates at the convention have lots of other tasks beyond signing off on the nominee. They help write the platform. They shape the agenda of the party. And it seems quite reasonable to me that governors, members of the National Committee (who spend their whole lives working to promote the interests of the party), prominent mayors, leaders of important party interest groups, etc. have a reasonable role to play in that process.

Final point: the problem of pluralities

I’ve saved the simples argument for last. This one involves much less convoluted discussion about the nature of democracy and political parties, and doesn’t require that you buy into any premises about the proper function of elite mediators.

The simplest case for superdelegates is that they provide a device for producing a majority candidate in a system that might otherwise only give us a plurality winner.

To illustrate:

  • Candidate A wins 45% of the pledged delegates (while coming in first in most of the states)
  • Candidate B wins 20%
  • Candidate C wins 20%
  • Candidate D wins 10%
  • Candidates E-G combine to take the final 5%

In this hypothetical, we started with a very divided field. The normal process of winnowing took longer than usual to exert itself, and quite a few candidates stuck around through Super Tuesday. In a proportional system (the right way to run a primary, I think), they can easily gather quite a few delegates without necessarily winning many (or any) contests.

I think it’s quite clear that Candidate A is the ‘winner’ of this contest. But absent superdelegates, they have no way to guarantee the nomination. Which means you might end up with a series of arguments over the summer and a contested convention, in which a bunch of factional candidates squabble amongst themselves, and do serious damage to the party in the process.


I started out by saying that I’d probably support efforts to eliminate the superdelegate system. I completely understand the reasons why it bothers people, and I’m not insensitive to the concern that it threatens the spirit of democratic selection.I’d also add that there are other ways to achieve most of the benefits I’ve talked about here. I’m not positive those workarounds would ultimately be any more ‘democratic’ in nature, but there are probably ways to manage the system with a little bit more sensitivity to the frustration of those who on the outside of the ‘room where it happens.’

But in a world filled with things deserving our genuine outrage, this ought to be on the extreme low end of our priorities.  I understand why this system feels aggravating, but I implore my Sanders-supporting friends out there to find more significant targets for their opprobrium. There is a lot that’s genuinely wrong with our system, and which is far more worthy of the polemic that’s currently being wasted on this subject.

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Clinton is the nominee, but it’s Bernie’s party

The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, but tonight we received final confirmation: Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee. But the Democratic Party that she’s going to represent is a very different entity from the one that existed when she started this campaign.

Put simply: Clinton is the nominee, but it’s Bernie’s party that she’ll be leading.

I’m sure that will taste bittersweet to Sanders and his supporters, who have found an extraordinary fight over the last nine months. But it’s a real and important victory.

First things first: the bad news. It was already exceedingly unlikely that he could make up the delegate deficit, but if there was any chance of it happening, he needed to at least hold serve tonight. And that, most definitely, didn’t happen. As I’m writing this, only about half of the 800 delegates at stake tonight have been allocated. But if my back of the envelope calculations are reasonable, it looks like Clinton will finish the night having expanded her lead by another 150 delegates. With half the delegates already allocated, that means Sanders would likely need to win the remaining votes by something close to an 18 point margin. And there’s just no plausible way that can happen. He already only had a couple outs left, and those are officially gone now.

That said, this is only the end of one part of the campaign. And it’s worth noting that the next month or so is very favorable to Sanders. So not only do I think he can reasonably continue on, I absolutely think he should. This campaign has been all about giving voice to those who aren’t being heard, and that absolutely can continue – and will get a boost from the range of ‘Sanders back on the upswing’ stories that will inevitably emerge. That’s a real opportunity. But it’s one that needs to be seized for a broader effect than simply pursuing a nomination. So I hope that Sanders and his team are putting some real thought into what their going to do with all this support.

For one thing, there are lot of downticket races that could really use some excitement and mobilization by the left. But beyond that, there’s the simple fact that although Clinton is now the presumptive nominee, she remains vulnerable to the concerns that Sanders has raised this whole cycle. While she will have to (and should) tack back somewhat for the general election, it’s worth noting just how far to the left she’s been dragged by this primary campaign. And it’s very much within the power of Sanders and his supporters to hold the line on all those promises.

As of right now, there are three leaders of the Democratic Party: Clinton, Obama, and Sanders. And while the other two are far closer to the office of the presidency, in some ways he’s just as powerful as they. Put simply: they’re in charge of running the party, holding the constituencies together, wrangling the votes, managing the operations. But Sanders has staked out a genuine claim as the conscience of the party. And as the fire that keeps the whole engine running. That’s an important power, and one that I hope is used well.

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Hillary Clinton is winning because of the South – that’s a feature not a bug

‘Hillary Clinton is racking up delegates in states that will never vote for a Democrat in the general election.’ It’s a good talking point, and I understand the frustration from Sanders supporters who feel like their candidate is being written off based on the votes of a bunch of deep red states in the south. But I want to push back on the narrative here a little bit, and encourage those who care about democratic choice and liberal values to appreciate why this system is a good one.

One of the key things here: the Democratic primary (with all of its delegates being assigned proportionally) isn’t really about ‘states’ in any significant way. What state you live in determines when you get to vote, but broadly speaking (not 100% given caucuses and some small deviations in allocation rules, but broadly speaking) votes mostly count the same regardless of where you live.

And this is actually one of the best features of the primary system: that it allows all members of the Democratic Party to select their standard-bearer, regardless of where they live. The folks who live in the south, who have been voting in overwhelming numbers for Clinton, have been expressing their wishes for the future of the Democratic Party and for the person who might be president. And they aren’t just whistling in the wind; the system is actually responding to them.

That’s a good thing. And it’s good in precisely the sort of way that the Sanders campaign is good. His message is that we need to stand up for those who are disempowered, the people who are constrained by the institutions of their local political orders, who are denied real representative capacity by the circumstances that surround them. That their value as people with opinions and perspectives and wishes and desires should be respected and heeded. And that’s just as true for those who live in red states as it does for those who have been left behind economically.

The primary isn’t (and shouldn’t) be a purely tactical game about assembling a coalition of states. It should be about the people debating and considering with themselves: who do we want to represent us? That’s something that I hope most Sanders supporters would agree with.

I also want to slightly challenge one other aspect of this. While it is true, so far, that Clinton has picked up most of her delegate advantage in red states, she’s also won Virginia (a very purple state) by huge margins, and also won Nevada (purple), Iowa, Massachusetts, etc.

And all of this is partly a fluke of the calendar. Clinton is winning red states in the south because a ton of Democrats in those states aren’t white. It has little to do with how conservative they are (generally speaking, the Democratic electorate in the south is every bit as liberal as it is in blue states – which is different from the GOP, where Republicans in blue states really do tend to be quite a bit more liberal than those in red states). And there’s every reason to expect that the same demographic choices will produce more Clinton wins in big blue states like New York, California, etc.

In fact, we’ll get a good test of this in Michigan later today. If Sanders wins there, it will be worth revisiting this question. But for now, the key determining factor of the race is demographic, not geographic.

And I hope we can all agree that non-white voters are an important and valuable part of the Democratic coalition, whose opinions deserve every bit as much respect as anyone else, regardless of whether they’re surrounded by a sea of conservatives.

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For the sake of momentum


Momentum – Aimee Mann

Nate Silver has called momentum ‘the most overrated concept in elections analysis.’ Perhaps that’s a slight overbid, but only a slight one.

And yet, it’s so tempting!  Especially since there actually is some research to suggest that momentum is real and important, particularly in presidential primaries.  After all, the whole point of the drawn-out primary process is to allow small shifts in the early stages to guide and inform later events. You cull down the field through momentum effects, where a couple good results causes future undecideds to break in your direction. Or, perhaps more importantly, by encouraging tepid support for second and third tier candidates to melt away.

That said, I wanted to address the question of ‘momentum’ as it relates to Clinton and Sanders. My general bearishness on the Sanders candidacy has incited some pushback from Sanders supporters, with one key point being the trend of the election being in his favor.

The (perfectly fair) argument goes like this: Sanders remains behind by seven-ish points in the Pollster average, which is a big margin, but is a heck of a lot closer than it used to be (it’s worth noting that he’s down by a full 10 points in the 538 poll aggregate, which I think is slightly better than the strict Pollster one). And the trend is clear. Clinton is holding firm, but Sanders is gaining, steadily and emphatically.

Which all means that, to some extent, this is just a battle of expectations. Sanders needs a narrative of growing insurgency, which is building and ready to overwhelm the establishment. If his loss in Nevada is read as a genuine setback, it might risk quelling that spirit and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So I absolutely get why Sanders supporters want to push back on the narrative of Clinton inevitability.

But from the perspective of an analyst, there’s a big problem with all this: we just haven’t seen any real evidence of voters leaving Clinton. Sanders hasn’t cut into her support in any real way; he’s simply acquired the excess capacity. Yes, there have been ups and downs for her, but her support is right around where it was back in September. It’s possible that Sanders-excitement has inspired new people to join the voting pool, but if that’s happening, then Clinton is picking up additional support to weigh against them.

So, for all that Sanders is doing amazingly well, nothing we’ve seen yet actually suggests that Clinton lacks the voting base necessary to win her the nomination. That is: Sanders’ momentum is currently about hoovering up the half of the electorate that isn’t yet settled on Clinton, and there’s a clear ceiling on that. Of course it’s possible that he’ll change things even more, and really tip the race on its side. But we just haven’t seen anything like that yet.

This particular kind of momentum, where a candidate who appeals more directly to the base gathers up all the disaffected folks who would be willing to settle for the mainstream candidate but aren’t quite ready to get there yet, is pretty well understood. You only have to look back four years to see a perfect example.

Look at this chart and tell me that Candidate B isn’t in great shape. Look at all the momentum!

romney santorum through FebExcept if we go just a couple weeks further down the road, reality sets in quite firmly, and we get this picture:

romney santorum full

This is, of course, Romney vs. Santorum. And it’s not hard to see that scenario playing out again.

Is the race completely over? Absolutely not. And it’s a testament to the Sanders campaign and his supporters that it still remains in doubt. But it’s nevertheless true that Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite. The betting markets have her around an 85% chance, and I’d buy at that price. Absent a major shock in the next few weeks, the outcome is pretty settled.

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