When it comes to politicizing masks, I plead guilty — proudly. I wear my heart and soul on a white cotton mask emblazoned with “Save America. Vote Blue.” In a sea of anonymous Saniflush blue face coverings, mine stands out and frequently draws a thumbs up or a furtively whispered, “I like your mask.”
But yesterday I spotted one that trumped mine because it neatly captured the immoral absurdity of the brouhaha ginned up by Trumpers. "I wear a mask because I want to live until Nov. 3rd,” it read.
Do we ever. As Stephen Colbert recently joked, “Scientists have declared 2020 the longest year on record.”
It does feel like we’re inching in slow mo toward Election Day 2020. Not only has Trump managed to bungle three crises evocative of their historic forerunners — the 1918 pandemic, the 1938 Great Depression and the 1968 civil rights riots — he’s done it all at the same time. No wonder the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 72% of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. (The real surprise is that 19% think we’re doing fine.) And, in another bellwether of the country’s mood, Gallup found that pride in America has fallen to an all-time low.
With the country's stature in the world at its lowest ebb in modern history, Teflon Don’s giant con appears to be unraveling. While the United States is widely pitied for its Third World response to the pandemic, Trump is finally being held to account for epic incompetence that has caused incalculable suffering as well as 40,000 and counting needless deaths. As the coronavirus statistics soar, Trump’s poll numbers sink. Even the vaunted Trump base apparently is not immune, WaPo columnist George Will notes in “The nation is in a downward spiral. Worse is yet to come.” Trump faithful among independents, women without college degrees and Evangelicals are starting to peel off. Granted, some 84% of those who identify as Republicans say they support the president but that number is down from a high of 97%.
“Those who are moving away from Trump appear to be doing so due to dissatisfaction over his mismanagement of the pandemic...if you're running for office, killing your voters via incompetence is a bad strategy.”
So tweeted feisty election forecaster Dr. Rachel Bitecofer who burst onto the national scene when she nailed the outcome of the 2018 Congressional mid-terms five months before Election Day. Bitecofer, a political scientist and Senior Fellow at the Niskanan Center, up-ended conventional prognostication with an innovative forecasting model that hinges on a simple premise: turnout explains everything. She argues that American elections have become highly predictable because they’ve become increasingly nationalized (think high profile congressional races like Democratic candidate Sara Gideon running against Senator Susan Collins.) She feels that partisanship translates into an identity-based vote determinant for all but a small slice of the electorate. Modern American elections, she says, no longer are shaped by the relatively small number of coveted "swing voters” who might change their minds. Instead, victory turns on shifts in who decides to vote in the first place.
I spoke with Dr. Bitecofer as part of my research to moderate a virtual town hall she’ll be headlining (along with political legend David Axelrod and MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki) next Sunday, July 26th. Also known as the “Election Whisperer,” she’ll share her predictions about who will win in November during that program. She’ll also talk about the need for Democrats to ratchet up their ability to message as concisely and effectively as Republicans, who excel at bumper sticker branding. “Democrats need to make their case to voters more of an emotional appeal. Instead of giving out 18 bullet points about a policy, say one thing that touches the heart,” she advises. And, she’ll talk about the best strategy to stoke Democratic turnout. It’s the same game plan Congresswoman Katie Porter extolled during a recent Zoom event. “Don’t waste your time on voters who aren’t persuadable” said the representative from California’s 45th District. "Someone who gets up in the morning and puts on a MAGA hat is not persuadable by November. Those folks are immovable. Instead, use your time trying to convince those not inclined to vote that they should…that may mean trying to restore their belief in democracy.”
Between the time I started to write this piece and now - a space of three hours - analyst Nate Silver reported that Joe Biden has widened his lead over Donald Trump in one poll by another 2 points. Yet even as the data is piling up and pointing to a blue tsunami in November, Democrats — including me — ping pong emotionally between euphoria and despondence. As WaPo columnist Michael Gerson noted, "Whenever President Trump’s likely loss of the 2020 election is mentioned, many respond, in hope or in fear: 'But 2016 . . .' The effect is to impute almost magical populist powers to the president. Anyone who pulled off such a political miracle can presumably perform one again.”
On the flip side, lifted by good news stories of GOP demise, some Democrats are yearning to “go big” and run the table in November. NYT reporter Jonathan Martin details how Democratic Party officials say this election "offers the provocative possibility of a new path to the presidency through fast-changing states like Georgia and Texas, and a chance to install a generation of lawmakers who can cement Democratic control of Congress and help redraw legislative maps following this year’s census.” So they’re lobbying presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden to expand his campaign map.
Not so fast, say those who remember how Hillary Clinton's overconfidence about pulling long shot prizes like Georgia and Arizona into her column backfired in 2016. They insist Clinton would be running for her second term today if she had stuck with the more traditional path and had spent more time stumping in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Increasingly, the Senate is on track to flip from red to blue and oust its leader Mitch McConnell. Meanwhile, new numbers show the U.S. House of Representatives isalso poised to ride the crest of a blue wave that could expand the Democratic majority. According to a Monmouth University poll released July 2, Democrats maintain an eight-point advantage in the generic congressional ballot, with 50 percent of voters saying they would back a Democrat for Congress over 42 percent preferring a Republican. That’s marginally better than the seven-point margin Democrats held in the same poll in June 2018 before they went on to flip 40 House seats.
“Today, we would pick up seats,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) predicted, noting that the environment has shifted considerably in recent weeks and that it could shift again. “We didn’t have a pandemic six months ago. We didn’t have beautiful George Floyd losing his life before our very eyes two months ago. And we didn’t have Russian threats to our troops in Afghanistan one month ago. So who knows what comes next?”
Indeed. And, therein lies uncertainty that only exacerbates our angst.
When I asked Dr. Bitecofer for a campaign mantra Democrats should heed going forward, she didn’t miss a beat. “Tie it to Trump,” she said. But first term electeds, who won in districts or states that Trump carried handily, say they could lose if they make their race a referendum on this president. Some, like Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, who called for Trump’s impeachment early on, are gingerly tip-toeing a tightrope to re-election. Slotkin, considered one of the most endangered Democrats in the country, represents a Michigan district Trump won by 7 points, which means she can only prevail if she persuades a significant number of her constituents to split their ticket - four more years for Trump, two more years for her.
“You know, late last year, I was asked every single day for three months—especially on TV, MSNBC, CNN, Fox— ‘Do you think you’re going to lose your job over this?’” Slotkin said in recalling her reluctant starring role in the impeachment of Trump. “And I said, ‘I might. I might.’ But I believe that voters in my state and in my district still care about having elected officials with integrity, even if they don’t agree with them. But we’re gonna find out.”
Conversely, Senator Gary Peters, also from Michigan, has seen his re-election prospects bounce back as Trump’s have declined. Once considered the nation's second most vulnerable senator, after Alabama’s Doug Jones, he’s now running nearly 8 points ahead of his Republican opponent, charismatic combat veteran John James. During a recent phone call with Senator Peters, he told me he hews to the moderate lane and tries to strike a balance on the environment, health care and other top issues in his state. Clearly, it’s working. The non-partisan Lugar Center recognized him as one of the most bipartisan and effective lawmakers in the Senate.
Nearly four months out from November 3rd, striking a balance seems like a smart strategy all around — politically and personally. Revel in the rising Democratic fortunes. But be vigilant about forces which could derail sweeping victory — most notably efforts by Trump and the GOP to suppress the Democratic vote. In other words, turn up the pressure on Democrats to stoke turnout. Or, as Speaker Pelosi says, "Own the ground; don’t give one grain of sand; get everybody out. . . . No wasted time, no underutilized resources and no regrets the day after election.”
Senator Peters, evokes the wisdom of his high school track coach and puts it another way: “Run as hard as you can and don’t stop until you run through the tape.”
Finally, to understand how the pros analyze the state of the race, tune in to our virtual town hall conversation next Sunday. Find out who Dr. Bitecofer, David Axelrod and Steve Kornacki predict will be running through the tape to victory on November 3rd. You can register for the event, which benefits the American Nurses Foundation Coronavirus Fund, by clicking the link below.