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Candidates, Campaigns, and Fundamentals in 2020

Joe Biden (photo by Michael Stokes)

Julia Azari and Seth Masket spent an hour chatting about what 2020 has taught us about the importance of candidates, campaigns, and fundamentals in a presidential election. If you squint, you might catch a glimpse of where they disagree.

Seth Masket: How much do you think the candidates have mattered in this race? Would [generic Democratic challenger] be doing about as well against [generic Republican incumbent]?

Julia Azari: Honestly, I sort of think so. I think about Herbert Hoover a lot (ok, that's weird, but it makes sense in this case) and here you had someone who had a lot of issues, including being pretty regressive on race issues, but who was also a pretty accomplished public servant who believed in science-based governance, and he was still trounced (but also got almost 40% of the vote). 

SM: That seems fair, and a good comparison. I don't see 1932 as a rejection of Hoover's policies so much as a rejection of just whomever was in charge at an awful time.

JA: So those are my big picture thoughts, but the real question is how would this look if Warren or Harris or Sanders were at the top of the ticket?

SM: I struggle somewhat on this question. In the interviews I did with activists for my book, quite a few of them believed that Biden was simply more electable than most of the other Democratic candidates, and they were willing to give up their first choice for someone they thought more likely to give them a win.

JA: Right. I've had to admit that Biden has been a better candidate than I expected, and a better fit for the moment than I would have imagined, even as Sanders or Warren might be better at talking about restructuring society around what are now some pretty glaring problems. And Warren, of course, has a plan for everything.

SM: I'm pretty sure that Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, and maybe even Sanders would still be leading Trump by considerable margins right now. Of course I can't prove that. And there's this tendency to treat whatever a winning candidate is doing as the thing that's causing them to be winning, which is problematic.

JA: Right. I agree with all of that, which makes for a boring chat.

SM: To me, one of Biden's strengths has been in some ways the opposite of many of his earlier Democratic competitors: He's not trying to win every moment of every cycle. He's willing to keep quiet when Trump is self-immolating. I think this is helping him. But again, a more assertive campaigner might be doing just as well.

JA: Right. I also think this is partly an accident on Biden's part, or at least the product of circumstances. He's very widely known, he has a lot of dedicated surrogates, and he's been committed to limiting traditional in-person campaign activity.

SM: So maybe I'll ask this another way -- how much does Trump matter? My impression is that, say, Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio running for reelection under similar circumstances would be in better shape simply due to a less alienating campaign style. But maybe I'm wrong?

JA: I think it's actually possible they would be doing worse. I'm not sure how to say this politely, but they're not as well-versed at the art of bullshit. I don't see them making a convincing case that covid-19 is about to turn a corner, etc. They would be stuck trying to square the circle with more typical conservative talking points. They would probably have a better idea themselves about what to do. But would they be better at selling it? Hard to say. What do you think?

SM: So I honestly have some trouble with the counterfactual I set you up with, which is unfair on my part. I think they would have actually managed the virus somewhat better, and I continue to believe that product is more important than salesmanship. But that aside, if it had been this bad, I think a non-Trump Republican would be in better shape. (Hey we're disagreeing!) He continues to speak only to a narrow sector of the electorate, and to alienate others with daily speeches and Twitter fusillades. I don't know that it would be a lot better, but maybe a few points?

JA: So is the difference in your opinion about Trump vs. whoever (it matters) and Biden vs. whoever (it doesn't matter) a difference that's about incumbency or about asymmetry in the parties? Or about Trump as a distinct phenomenon?

SM: Trump’s problem is that he has absolutely no credibility outside his hard core right now, and I think a different president with a different campaign style might have a bit of goodwill banked.

JA: Yeah. The goodwill part is linked to the impeachment, I think. (Stay tuned for more from me about that.) 

SM: So I generally buy the idea that an election with an incumbent will largely turn on the incumbent, regardless of who the challenger is. And I also believe that assessments of the incumbent will turn on fundamentals and other issues, assuming that incumbent acts within a fairly broad band of permissible behavior. And I believe that Trump regularly operates outside that band.

Trump is playing a bad hand poorly, and Biden is playing a good hand well.

JA: So what does that mean for the fundamentals? Wanna discuss fundamentals and then campaigns?

SM: Sure. So a quick thing on the fundamentals: I'm not sure there's a consensus view on what the fundamentals are. I tend to regard them as the aspects of the political environment that campaigns can react to but not control, so that usually consists of the economy, partisanship, war/peace, etc. But they're also usually enduring, so it's up for grabs whether we want to consider Covid a part of that.

At any rate, the fundamentals are weird this year! Even if we ignore Covid for the moment, the economy is in weird shape. GDP is down a lot, but has recovered somewhat, and disposable income shot up with the initial stimulus in the spring, but that has dropped back down.

I honestly don't know of an election year where GDP and disposable income have diverged so much, and they usually move together and are both good predictors of the vote.

JA: Right. But some use war casualties? Measures of national mood? I've been thinking about this a lot, especially since it seems like the electorate's turn against Trump is rooted in the covid-19 response and not the economy

SM: I think that's right, and consistent with polling.

JA: Also, fwiw, I think if the pandemic hadn't happened, this would be a fairly close election, which gets to your point earlier about Trump behaving outside a band of normal behavior.  I think all the available evidence suggests that the effects of that are limited and inelastic. I’ve written in this very space about how the Trump era has been characterized by normal political forces even as circumstances have spun out of control and the administration has broken norms.

SM: Yes, this is key. Back in January/February, Trump was trailing to Biden, with no pandemic and a good economy. That should not be happening to an incumbent.

So the effect of going from strong economy + no pandemic to damaged economy + massive pandemic is proving to be... what... 3-4 points? Not to get all normative, but shouldn't it be more?

JA: I think it's likely he would have lost given the accidental nature of his first victory. But not as badly as I anticipate might happen. To put it crudely, the 2020 election would've been one of the other 7 coin flips in the 538 scenario.

This is where I think Trump matters. He really mobilizes Republican identity for a core of loyal voters and has managed to turn basic covid response things into an "us against them" issue. It's not enough to win. But it's enough not to plunge into Bush in 2008 territory (as someone, I can't remember who, pointed out on Twitter a few days ago).

SM: My suspicion is that in a less polarized environment, these fundamentals (if I may) would have been far more damaging to an incumbent, and that we might see a Hoover 1932 style 18-point loss instead of a GHW Bush 1992 style 6-point loss, which is where this seems to be trending.

But that's an interesting point you make about Bush in 2008. That wasn't that long ago! And the country was plenty polarized then! But Republicans were willing to give up on him in a way they're not willing to do with Trump.

JA: I mean, term limits came to the Republicans' rescue that year - Republicans could give up on Bush because he wasn't on the ticket. But also I think partisan identities have somehow gotten that much stronger in 12 years.

SM: True. And as you note, Trump may be unusually able to capitalize on Republican identity in a way Bush couldn't (or wouldn't).

JA: Yeah. Well, there we also see what I think might have been the case for Rubio or Jeb Bush - W. agreed to some bailout actions that were unpopular with Republicans.

So if you'll concede I'm right on this point we can move to the campaigns area where I know we disagree.

SM: Wait, I'm not sure what point you're asking me to concede.

JA: That Trump is doing better than a more traditional Republican would be under the circumstances.

I don't actually feel that strongly about this, I just like winning.

SM: I figured.

I'm not prepared to concede that. I think Trump's behavior keeps his approval rating out of the 20s but also keeps it below 45%. And importantly, it keeps his disapproval very high, even in good times.

JA: That's fair. I guess I just think this is really specific to Republican limitations when it comes to this kind of crisis. It even goes back to Hoover, but it definitely made things harder for Bush. Under Jeb or Rubio I think you'd be looking at even skinnier stimulus.

But I feel like we should move on. I guess we are agreeing to disagree about an unprovable counterfactual. And I don't disagree with you that Trump has an approval ceiling. How bad he is at this keeps him from capitalizing on an advantage, which is is his ideological ambiguity and potential to embrace more economically liberal positions - which are popular - at key times, and instead, he's deeply reliant on his party.

SM: I'll buy this.

JA: So I guess I'm saying Trump won in 2016 at the intersection of being Trump and being a Republican and he seems poised to lose in 2020 - though I guess who knows! - for the same reasons.

Let's talk campaigns.

Trump really mobilizes Republican identity for a core of loyal voters and has managed to turn basic covid response things into an "us against them" issue. It's not enough to win. But it's enough not to plunge into Bush 2008 territory.

SM: Okay. My read on this year is that we haven't seen a whole lot of things we might call campaign effects. Support for the candidates has been incredibly stable, which we might expect for an incumbent vs. a 50-year veteran pol, both with essentially universal name recognition.

JA: It has been stable. But that doesn't mean there aren't campaign effects, because we have to think more carefully about the counterfactuals. But you go first.

SM: Biden's numbers rose by a few points early this month, I think most directly following his Covid diagnosis and hospitalization, which really undermined a lot of his messaging about the pandemic. But otherwise, we saw almost no polling shift from the conventions or from the debates, I don't think we've seen much from particular ad strategies.

And this is probably not a fair comparison, but the Democratic primaries were kind of fascinating on this front. Biden cleaned up on Super Tuesday in many states where he didn't campaign at all. Bloomberg spent a billion dollars and has a handful of delegates from American Samoa to show for it. For those who like to argue for minimal campaign effects, this has been kind of a banner year.

JA: I am normally a big minimal campaign effect person and I agree with you that we should expect that in a general election with 2 well-known candidates. And I'm not sure how to respond to the primary point right now except that I think Biden's Democratic cache came from association with Obama, maybe. You can't buy that kind of credibility.

But I think there's some evidence to suggest that Biden got a small favorability bump after the convention.

And that the nature of the RNC fed a narrative about Trump's lack of concern about public problems, which might have hit differently without covid.

The first debate seemed to maybe perform the same function.

Like I'm sorta thinking about the now-classic Gelman and King work on how campaigns remind voters of the fundamentals.

On the one hand, who needs a campaign to tell you that everything sucks right now? On the other hand, the campaigns have effectively told two stories: 1. Biden is a Democrat. After a weird primary where a person who's been at the center of his party somehow got branded as "practically a Republican," I think this was really important. 2. Things suck because of Trump (I'm not saying this is literally true).

SM: So I've been largely dwelling on polling matchups, but your point about favorability is an interesting one. Biden's favorables have gone up over the course of this campaign, which I did not expect. That didn't happen with Trump, or HRC, or Kerry, etc. Again, maybe that's just a function of going up against an unpopular incumbent, but it's also possible Biden has a strength there that another candidate might not have. I'm not sure how great favorability is at predicting the vote (or predicting his approval ratings should he become president), but I assume it's not nothing.

JA: Yeah, that's part of my point. This sort of quiet campaign has done a good job altering and restoring Biden's image IMO. Finally, I wonder about the Lincoln Project and other high profile Republican efforts to disentangle Trump from Republicanism. I remain consistently fascinated that this is the tack they took instead of running against him for the nomination. But their efforts provide some partisan identity cover, I think.

SM: And you have a good summary, I think, of the Democrats' campaign message. I'm less sure of what the Republicans' campaign message is other than: 1) Biden will enable socialism, 2) Things are great okay they could be better but they'd be so much worse with Democrats so let us make them better again because we did that really well earlier.

JA: The second one has the grammar of a California ballot measure, which seems fitting.

SM: Heh.

Messaging for an incumbent in bad times is never easy. I think GHWB responded to Clinton's call for hope and change with something like, "Clinton's not patriotic."

JA: Yes. I mean, which landed with a certain crowd for sure.

SM: Oh sure.

JA: That's a fair point. But I think weirdly, at this time when the fundamentals are so glaring and the candidates are so well known, the campaign may have actually mattered for defining the Democratic candidate, consolidating the party, and providing cover to reluctant Trumpers.

SM: So I can buy your framing that the campaigns have been good at effectively reminding voters what the fundamentals are and why they should vote accordingly. And I think Biden has probably been more effective at focusing the campaign on issues favorable to him (notably Covid). But also, like you, I'm not sure the electorate really needed much priming along those lines.

JA: Right. He'd still be leading, I think. But possibly by less.

I can't prove this, but this is my read of the available evidence. Trump tightened the race in 2016, and I thought at the time that Clinton wasn't running a particularly great campaign. But it might also be the case that the threat of what Trump would be like as president was a lot less effective than the reality.

Also sexism, which closed off Clinton's choices. Biden is running on emotion and empathy in a way that Clinton likely could not have.

We've relitigated an impressive number of elections.

SM: Do you think there's something the Trump campaign could have been doing differently that would have them in a better position at this point? My impression is that if he tweeted less and had signed a relief bill last month, he'd be in better shape. But in terms of actual campaign messaging, could he have framed this race differently? Been more effective in raising concerns about Biden?

JA: That's a good question. I have definitely seen a few moments of trying to get Biden to denounce Sanders and the left, and that might have been a strategy to crack the coalition. He's also tried to refocus around culture and law and order issues and maybe that would've been more effective at a different point in time (say, 1988, which we haven't relitigated yet.)

SM: [Puts on his Dukakis hat]

Maybe. I think these are pretty overwhelming conditions for any incumbent, but that might have given him a window to at least get within striking range of an Electoral College - popular vote mismatch.

JA: Let's wrap up.

SM: In conclusion, I would say Trump is playing a bad hand poorly, and Biden is playing a good hand well.

JA: In terms of what matters, you have 10 points to allocate. How much do you allocate to fundamentals, campaigns, and candidates in 2020?

I think I give fundamentals a 6, campaigns a 3, and candidates a 1.

SM: I'm giving 7 to fundamentals, 2 to candidates, 1 to campaigns.





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