Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Some thoughts on the US Presidential Race

The first thing that needs to be said about the US system of choosing presidents is that it is absolutely insane. Apart from the unfairness of advantaging some states and not others in the sequential series of primaries and caucuses over time, from the perspective of the parties it makes no sense. To take the case of the Democrats, instead of initial contests in small unrepresentative states like Iowa and New Hampshire, it would make more sense to stage these races in consequential swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

It also advantages candidates who are well known. One simple reason Bernie Sanders has had an advantage over Elizabeth Warren despite similar policy positioning is that he is better known having run before. Joe Biden did well in many early polls for no better reason than that as Obama's VP he was well known. Campaigning changes this as a candidate's weaknesses become known but it does matter.

Because there are no effective spending limits the American political system also advantages money as we are seeing now with two billionaires (Bloomberg and Steyer) achieving some polling success simply because they have spent so much on ads.

A curious aspect of this campaign partly produced by the features described above is that we have three candidates who are realistically too old for the office - Bernie Sanders (will turn 79 this year in September), Michael Bloomberg (just turned 78) and Joe Biden (recently turned 78).

State of the race

Previous Democratic presidential nominating contests have tended to be rapid winnowing processes,  based previously on first past the post principles, but continuing even after more proportional rules for awarding delegates were adopted. However, the potential for a convention where no candidate captures a majority of delegates pre-convention is stronger this year than before. Currently the website Five Thirty Eight ranks Bernie Sanders with the best prospects of winning more than 50% of the delegates but has 'No One getting a majority' ranked second.

This is partly because the pre-race favourite of "centrist" Democrats, Joe Biden, performed poorly in the first two contests. He could well be displaced in his role by another very senior citizen, Michael Bloomberg, who has all the money in the world to finance his campaign. As well, Bernie Sanders who is leading did not perform particularly strongly in Iowa and New Hampshire so he is not dominating.

Media bias 

Major institutions of the U.S. media have had in the past a highly influential, sometimes negative impact on U.S. politics. In 2016 the major U.S. media overall were less negative towards Donald Trump than they were towards Hillary Clinton. A major study of this by the Shorenstein Center said: "...over the full course of the election, it was Clinton, not Trump, who was more often the target of negative coverage... Overall, the coverage of her candidacy was 62 percent negative to 38 percent positive, while his coverage was 56 percent negative to 44 percent positive."

One disadvantage for current candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is that the major U.S. media institutions have tended to frame their proposals for comprehensive medicare known popularly as 'medicare for all' negatively. Here is an example from New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.  I said 'framing' and I meant it. His column of February 11 says of Sanders that he, "wants to take away the private health care coverage of some 150 million Americans and replace it with a gigantic, untested Medicare-for-All program..." Notice the word 'gigantic'. Would it not be more appropriate to describe the American heavily private health care system relative to all others as 'gigantic'?  In 2018 16.7 percent of the US GDP went to health care, the largest by several percentage points in the world. And untested? Other western countries including Canada and others have medicare-for-all type systems. Hardly untested. This is a very solipsistic world view.

What will determine the outcome?

In trying to determine the outcome various theories have been offered: the state of the economy, the dedication of Trump's base, the views of suburban Republican women who switched to the Democrats in 2018, etc. One new figure in this debate gaining attention is political scientist Rachel Bitcofer (see this profile in Politico and this statement of her views in the New York Times).

The reason her views matter is that they are at odds with traditional ways of looking at the race of how it all comes down to a few swing voters, ideologically situated between the two alternatives.

Here is a summary as she outlined them in the Times:
The high levels of hyperpartisanship and polarization in the electorate have profoundly affected the political behavior of Americans and, by extension, made the outcome of our elections highly predictable. 
Always powerful, partisanship has become the be-all and end-all for American voters. ... 
Yet a key aspect of polarization has been somewhat overlooked: negative partisanship. Voters with this attitude are mobilized not by love of their own party so much as by hatred of the opposition party. Negative partisanship especially benefits the party that doesn’t hold the presidency, because out-party voters find themselves living in a world where their political preferences are under constant assault, or at least appear to be so....
...I predicted — in July 2018 — that negative partisanship would allow Democrats to pick up 42 House seats and sweep “Reagan country” in Orange County, Calif. At first, my model was an outlier, but by Election Day, the FiveThirtyEight “classic” forecast, Sabato’s Crystal Ball and the Cook Political Report all agreed with my forecast. [My note: The Democrats actually gained 41 seats]
Motivated by the threat posed by the Trump administration, casual Democratic voters, especially college-educated women, have been activated since Mr. Trump’s election and will remain activated so long as the threat he presents to them remains. And the complacent Democratic electorate of the 2010 and 2014 congressional midterms as well as the 2016 presidential election is gone (for now). It has been replaced by a galvanized Democratic electorate that will produce the same structural advantage for Democrats that manifested in the 2018 midterms.
Her forecast for the 2020 race made last year can be found here.

Economics do matter to any political race and the advantage on this so far favours Trump. However, a new wild card in all of this is the coronovirus - Covid-19. Canada's Minister of Finance Bill Morneau has already suggested it will have a negative economic effect. It may only be mild as is apparently the case for many who have contracted the illness but conceivably it could be profoundly negative. For example, Nouriel Roubini comments:
The COVID-19 outbreak likely to be more severe than currently expected, and the  disruption to the Chinese economy will have spillover effects on global supply chains – including pharma inputs, of which China is a critical supplier – and business confidence, all of which will likely be more severe than financial markets’ current complacency suggests.
TC's Choice

If I had a vote it would go to Elizabeth Warren who is the best qualified of the candidates by far to be the next president. Whether she will be seems unlikely at the moment but a week in politics is still a long time.  I would argue that a must read on this is the item by Ezra Klein on Warren in Vox. He summarizes his argument thus:
The case for Warren over her competitors is threefold. She understands America’s problems better than anyone else in the field, in part because it’s her research and analysis that now forms the base for much of the policy debate. She understands how to focus and wield the powers of the regulatory state better than anyone else, because she’s actually done it, and because it’s core to her political project. And she is, far and away, the candidate with the clearest plan for making ambitious governance possible again.
Apart from the summary, I was struck by this section about her experience running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Obama:
I reported on Warren’s construction of the bureau, and what impressed me most in those years was something that is rarely discussed in politics but is of deep importance to the presidency: her skills as an organizational leader. 
I have never covered an agency where the morale was as high, the sense of mission as clear, and the collection of talent as impressive, as the CFPB under Warren. During those years, I spoke with CFPB employees ranging from senior leadership to midlevel lawyers to junior communications staffers, and you couldn’t make it three minutes into those conversations without getting some aphorism from Warren, or anecdote about Warren, quoted back to you. Her ability to inspire not just loyalty but a sense of mission in her staff was unique.... 
Warren’s work on the CFPB gave her something rare among political candidates. One is interest in, and experience with, the federal bureaucracy itself. She understands the regulatory process, how it works, who has access to it. She knows which meetings matter, where power sits, which explanations for why something isn’t possible or isn’t happening are merely stalling tactics. She has seen, firsthand, the entry points that lobbyists and special interests use to hijack the process, the difficulties of collaboration among agencies.
This tells you Warren knows government better than any of the others. She ought to be the Democratic candidate. Whether she will be is another matter.

UPDATES:  Warren performed well during last night's TV Debate in Nevada, which had a large audience of 19.7 million, a new record high for a Democratic debate. Warren's fundraising jumped during the debate.