Vice President Joe Biden points at President Barack Obama during the State of the Union.

How to Lose an Election in 580 Days

Well, the campaign season has finally entered the oh-shit-this-is-terrifying season of the election. We’re just over 100 days from Election Day, and Donald Trump, who—just reminding everyone—is the Republican nominee for President, gave an acceptance speech that sounded like something out of a fascist horror movie. Of course, this wouldn’t be so scary if the rest of America was rejecting his lies and vitriol. But they’re not. As it stands, Trump is just 2-3 points behind Clinton in the polls, and according to the 538 election model, he has a 46% chance of winning.[1] How the hell did we get here?

Everyone, it seems, has their own explanation for what’s been going on, involving some combination of voter anger, dissatisfaction with Washington, trade, stagnant wages, and cultural grievance. Those explanations all have grains of truth to them, of course. But here’s the thing: Americans aren’t actually dissatisfied with Washington, or at least the most visible part of it. President Obama has held a positive approval rating for most of this election season. If Obama were running, you have to wonder whether Trump would be anywhere close to him in the polls. The 22nd Amendment is tough to get around, of course, but thinking about this hypothetical Obama-Trump matchup sheds light on our perplexing (and terrifying) question of why this election isn’t a blowout.

The hopeful reality of the situation is that most Americans hate Trump. He’s the most unpopular presidential candidate since the KKK’s David Duke (who’s now running for Senate again), and the least popular ever to be a major party nominee since the polls began looking at these things. The problem is: Hillary Clinton’s not too far behind him. Americans are seeing the election not as a referendum on Trump’s craziness, but as a choice between two equally-bad options in Clinton and Trump. Now, I personally happen to think that characterization is bad and dangerous: Trump’s indiscretions of racism, misogyny, vindictiveness, and inexperience are several orders of magnitude worse than Clinton’s history of secrecy, cronyism, and neoliberalism. But when so many Americans are turning to third-party candidates, this “both are bad options” reality is what much a whole lot of Americans are perceiving.

Given that Clinton is polling so badly, you have to ask: why is Hillary Clinton the Democratic candidate? Or, more tellingly: why did the Democratic Party establishment pick Hillary Clinton as its preferred candidate? Was the Democratic field so weak that the Democrats had to endorse a candidate with underwater favorability ratings because there was no one better? If you look at who actually ran for the Democratic nomination, it might seem that way: three of the five other candidates (Sanders, Webb, and Chafee) weren’t even Democrats ten years ago, and another (Lessig) had never even held elected office before. The only remaining candidate, Martin O’Malley, had just been embarrassed by the defeat of his hand-picked successor for Maryland Governor and the unrest in Baltimore. Plus, everyone else was a man. It’s no surprise that the Democratic establishment rallied around Clinton.

But of course, elections are as much about who chooses not to run as who does. So the real question is this: why couldn’t the Democratic Party get anyone else to run other than the motley crew of Clinton opponents that showed up to the first debate? I used to intern for the pollster Public Policy Polling in the winter of 2014; during my time there, I got to work on a few way-too-early Presidential preference polls. On the Democratic side, we asked respondents to choose between Clinton, O’Malley, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Mark Warner, Brian Schweitzer, Andrew Cuomo, and Elizabeth Warren. What happened to all of them?

Going from least interesting to most interesting, I remember having to ask my boss at PPP who the hell Brian Schweitzer was while I was making that poll.[2] Wikipedia says that he’s anti-Obamacare (from the left), anti-free trade, and he has an “A” rating from the NRA, so I’m pretty sure he’d be even less preferable to the Democratic establishment than Bernie Sanders. Apparently he endorsed Martin O’Malley, which is kind of embarrassing in and of itself.[3]

Mark Warner was counted out after he narrowly avoided defeat in his 2014 Senate reelection campaign. He was probably too centrist to be nominated anyway.

Andrew Cuomo endorsed Clinton right after she entered the race, and his close relationship with Republicans in the NY legislature probably wouldn’t have endeared him to many people on the left.

Cory Booker is always compared to Obama, and probably would’ve been a fine, if unexciting candidate. He’s been super-close to Wall Street, though, and on a personal note, his boundless optimism has always kind of annoyed me. He endorsed Clinton soon after she announced.

Elizabeth Warren would’ve been a great candidate, as she’s had both executive and legislative experience, and deftly walks the line between the burn-it-down approach of Sanders and the incrementalist approach of most other Democratic lawmakers. She’s never been super well-liked by the rest of America, though.

Kirsten Gillibrand would’ve been another great candidate—she unseated an incumbent Member of Congress in a Republican-leaning upstate New York Congressional district. After she took over for Clinton’s Senate seat, she’s won praise from a lot of liberals for her work on sexual assault prevention and abortion rights. However, she endorsed Clinton right after Clinton announced her candidacy.

Of course, for everyone who endorsed Clinton early on, there was a logic to it: Clinton was far and away the leader in polls among Democrats for years, and coming off her tenure as Secretary of State, she was incredibly well-liked by pretty much everyone. One of the polls for PPP I helped to put together was a 2016 preference poll taken in March 2014; we ran the headline “Clinton far more electable than other Democrats” because she polled ahead of her likely Republican rivals, while other Democrats like Biden and Warren trailed. Back then, Clinton looked not only inevitable to win the Democratic nomination, but also a good bet to win the Presidency—most of the strong Democrats probably figured they might as well get in line than try to fight the inevitable.

Brian Schweitzer speaks at CAP.
Brian Schweitzer, everyone. Come to think of it, I have a vague memory of seeing him speaking at the 2008 DNC. He was wearing a bolo-tie then, too–the first one I’d ever seen.

Which leaves us with Joe Biden, who, as Vice President, held off from endorsing anyone until the very end. He’s pretty much the only human who can claim to have more experience for the Presidency than Clinton, and other than being a bit more dovish than Clinton, his policy positions are about the same as hers. He has the baggage of orchestrating the Clinton-era crime bill that has wreaked havoc on so many communities of color, but he’s also earned a lot of credit for his work on sexual assault prevention and gun safety as Vice President. Given his age, most (including me) didn’t see him as a viable candidate for President, and his underwater favorability ratings throughout much of Obama’s second term probably didn’t make a Presidential run seem like an extremely attractive proposition.

But then a funny thing happened. In the wake of Beau Biden’s sickness and terrible death, America seemed to remember how authentic and caring his father was, and how much we missed that in American politics. His favorability ratings skyrocketed over the next few months, going from -4 in March 2015 to +8 that September. Meanwhile, Clinton’s favorability ratings fell off a cliff: she went from being +24 when she finished as Secretary of State, to +2 when the email scandal first broke, to -11 by September. Ouch. Of course, it was unrealistic to think that, in this polarized atmosphere, someone would have +24 favorability rating as the campaign season dragged on, but then again, it was pretty unprecedented to have a candidate that’s so disliked so early on in the campaign season.

So that was the situation in September 2015, when Joe Biden was deciding whether or not to throw his hat in the ring. All the mainstream candidates, except one, had already declined to enter the race, and the one that was left was in the midst of a PR freefall. But then, here was this guy who was extremely qualified, well-liked by Democrats, and popular among independents. I remember watching the Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert in September. Biden came on during the first week of the show, and the crowd was electric at the possibility of Old Joe giving it one more try. I’ve never been a huge Biden fan, but even I was struck that night by the vulnerability and authenticity of the conversation he had with Colbert. It was as if we’d forgotten a) that politicians could show that vulnerability, b) America could have such a real conversation on network TV, and c) Stephen Colbert was more than just his character; he was a smart, caring person that could actually guide us through this political moment. You could almost see President Biden sitting down with Colbert at the Tonight Show in 2018 or 2020 and think, “Yeah, I like this future.”

Joe Biden and Stephen Colbert.
Biden on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Biden, of course, chose not to run, citing personal reasons. He also probably knew that he was getting an incredibly late start, he was trailing Clinton by double digits in basically every primary poll, and most of the party big-wigs had endorsed Clinton. But I have to think that, if President Obama and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz sat him down and said, “The Democratic Party needs you to run,” he would’ve ran. It’s that simple. So why the hell didn’t they do that?

Now, I’m not naïve. Clinton still would’ve been a heavy favorite to win the nomination, and we’d still be in the same position we’re in now. It’s also likely that, if Biden ran, his favorability numbers would’ve been a good deal lower than they are now (a sky-high +16)—that’s just how politics works. Moreover, it’s likely that part of the reason Clinton is so disliked is because of sexism—something my friend Jacob Plitman so beautifully wrote about—and the prospect of the Democratic Party jumping ship on a female candidate because men don’t want to vote for her is, well, not a good look.

But what if Biden did win? What if he was able to pick off some of the less enthusiastic Clinton voters, attract some of the more moderate Sanders supporters who were turned off by Clinton’s hawkishness or her scandals, and cobble together a winning coalition? If he were the nominee, there’s a pretty big chance that he’d be lapping Trump in the polls, because that’s what usually happens when you’re fairly popular and your opponent has a -26 favorability rating. We (speaking as a Democrat myself) could go back to laughing at Trump and laughing at the Republican Party for nominating him, and turn our attention to trying to make the huge gains in the House and Senate that can come with a Presidential blowout. Instead, the Democratic Party let the Clinton campaign scare off nearly all the decent candidates from the race with the promise that our one candidate was uniquely qualified to keep the White House blue. Then when that candidate hit a scandal and her numbers fell off a cliff, the Party let the one experienced, well-liked person with a good shot at beating her go into retirement.

All I can say is that this strategy was so, so unbelievably dumb. It’s not like this is a race for county commissioner, where the party only has resources to support one candidate and has to ride their chances with the person who’s seemingly most qualified. This is the freaking Presidency of the United States, the one election where donors will hand out money like candy and where your party has the luxury of choosing from several experienced Senators, governors, and Cabinet secretaries to see who will do best. Who in their right mind thought it would be a good idea, a year before the election, to have no backup plan if your one candidate flames out? It’s not like Obamacare, the Supreme Court, DACA and DAPA, the Iran Deal, and now with the advent of Trump, the nature of our democracy itself and the risk of nuclear holocaust are on the line or anything. We wrote the 900 pages of the Affordable Care Act and got it passed despite a recalcitrant GOP and a botched Senate election, and yet we can’t think of a Plan B for if the Democratic primary goes awry. Kafka must be smiling somewhere.

Of course, there’s a better explanation than gross incompetence at the DNC; namely, that the DNC had their finger on the scale all along. I don’t believe any of these vote-rigging conspiracies, but it’s pretty clear that the unprecedented flood of Clinton endorsements so early on and the decision to take the Democratic debates out of primetime made it a lot harder for other candidates like Biden or Warren or Gillibrand to test the waters. When that strategy works out, like it did for the Republicans with Bush II in 2000, it’s great. But there’s always a big danger in counting your chickens before they hatch. And when the stakes are so high, it’s just plain stupid to let yourself become more concerned with electing a candidate rather than doing what’s best for the party and progressive politics writ large.

I bought into that Clinton inevitability argument, too, and during last September I wasn’t exactly beating the war drums for Biden to step into the race. I had my own finger on little scale that I have, and as a Sanders supporter, I thought it would be easiest for Sanders to make a splash if Biden didn’t pick off a lot of his votes and make the nomination a contested election. It turns out I was right on that point, but I scored a bit of a pyrrhic victory. Truth be told, if Biden had entered the race I even might’ve voted for him over Sanders.

It’s worth pointing out that Clinton still has a lead over Trump, and it’s more likely than not she’ll win the Presidency. If she does, I think she’ll be a great President, and aside from her hawkish foreign policy tendencies, she’ll do as good a job as Biden would if he became #45. And it would be so great to have a female President! But you gotta win first. And call me sexist, but I just don’t think that having a female President is enough compensation for turning an electoral blowout, with a possible united Democratic government that can push for transformative change, into a close race that we might lose. To a fascist.

One of my favorite TV scenes of all time is the opening to Sorkin’s most recent show, The Newsroom. In it, he sets up the show’s premise by having the protagonist, Will McAvoy, go off the rails when he’s asked why America is the greatest country in the world. The more memorable parts of that scene are when Will goes on a statistics-heavy rant about why America isn’t #1, and when he gives a stirring “we used to be” speech that nowadays reads like a liberal-centrist version of Make America Great Again. It’s great; you should check it out. But before then, he takes liberals and conservatives to task. His attack on conservatives is a punchy rant against talking about freedom all the time, which is fun to watch, if a bit hollow. But, Will’s attack on liberals really stuck with me. He criticizes the progressive panelist’s defense of the National Endowment for the Arts, saying,

“The NEA is a loser. Yeah, it accounts for a penny out of our paychecks, but he gets to hit you with it anytime he wants. It doesn’t cost money; it costs votes. It costs airtime and column inches. You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they lose. If liberals are so fucking smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?”

NEA bashing aside, I think I’ve found an answer to Will’s question. Playing the short game instead of the long game, making bets that are high-risk and low-reward, tolerating blind loyalty, disregarding voters’ preferences, being unwilling to update assumptions, and generally being incompetent. This is how we lose so goddamn always. Even, maybe, to an unpopular fascist.

[1] At time of writing, election models from the Times and the Princeton Election Consortium are more favorable to Clinton, giving her a 68% and 80% chance of victory, respectively.

[2] He was the Democratic governor of Montana.

[3] Though, a Schweitzer-Trump race would be super entertaining from a guns perspective. Would the NRA endorse the pro-gun Montana governor, or the New Yorker who endorsed Obama’s gun violence prevention approach after Sandy Hook? They probably still would’ve gone with Trump, but I would’ve loved to see the verbal gymnastics involved in that decision.

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