Sunday, September 25, 2016

My Final Call on the 2016 Senate Races

Long-time readers will recall that I think it's cheating to predict election outcomes in the days preceding election day, so I make a point of making my final calls several weeks in advance.  I usually begin with Presidential predictions but not this year.  I'm waiting at least one week because of the uncommonly wide range of possible outcomes, and I'm holding off to see at least one Presidential debate before even pretending to believe I have this year's Presidential race electorate figured out.  Typically, the downballot races are carried along by the respective headwinds and tailwinds on the Presidential ticket, but this year I don't believe they will be, at least not as much, and that's why I'm proceeding with these Senate race predictions first.

As is often the case, I will dissent from the conventional wisdom that Donald Trump is or ever was "hurting" Republicans down the ballot.  In most cases, I think Trump is actually helping downballot Republicans.  There may be a couple of states where he is, but the Trump phenomenon has changed the Democratic Party's conversation in a way that has normalized conventional Republicans and conventional Republicanism.  Wave elections occur when the voting public has high unfavorables with one party and not the other.  In that respect, the Democrats have failed in making this election a referendum against the Republican Party at large and their method of governing which should be disqualifying, instead making this election a referendum against Trumpism, with an unspoken acceptance that the conventional Republicanism of a pre-Trump world wasn't so bad by comparison.  Centrist and center-right voters are thus walking away thinking that perhaps Rob Portman, Kelly Ayotte, and Marco Rubio aren't so bad by comparison.  Worse yet, these voters do not like Hillary Clinton and even if they plan to support her they want as many checks on her power as possible.  The result is likely to be a relatively status quo Congressional election where any Democratic gains will come primarily because the GOP is overexposed, holding Senate seats in blue states that they won in the very Republican year of 2010 and poised to forfeit some driftwood in the House that snuck in during the next GOP midterm wave of 2014.

So let's start with the seats that are not being contested by either party at this point in the race, not even remotely part of the battleground.

The Democrats will hold these seats:
Connecticut--Richard Blumenthal
Hawaii--Brian Schatz
New York--Chuck Schumer
Oregon--Ron Wyden
Vermont--Pat Leahy
Washington--Patty Murray

The Republicans will hold these seats:
Alabama--Richard Shelby
Alaska--Lisa Murkowski
Georgia--Johnny Isakson
Idaho--Michael Crapo
Kansas--Jerry Moran
North Dakota--John Hoeven
South Carolina--Tim Scott
South Dakota--John Thune
Utah--Mike Lee
Oklahoma--Jim Lankford

Many of the races I'm profiling are also very close to foregone conclusions but I'll cover any open seats or any races that are now or ever have been part of the battleground....

Arizona--I was unusually bullish on Democrats' chances of making a competitive race against 30-year Republican incumbent John McCain up until the last month when he won his primary and the Democratic Party money stopped flowing in the direction of the state, indicating McCain must be hanging on to a decisive lead.  It was the most promising dark horse race, with McCain having to fend off a primary challenge from his right that would theoretically weaken him, and then have to take on the strongest Democrat in Arizona, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who holds a right-tilting seat in northern Arizona and was looked at as one of the party's top recruits this cycle.  McCain seems as out of touch as anyone in Washington, going on Sunday morning shows weekly to aggressively call for getting America into more and more unpopular military entanglements.  He should be an easy target in a change political environment where voters are sensitive to out-of-touch career politicians.  But the complete lack of polling or party money going into this race tells a different story.  It'd be nice to see a couple of serious polls to confirm my hunch, but it looks like McCain is poised to be re-elected to his sixth term, and probably by a double-digit margin.  GOP hold.

Arkansas--I include this race in the battleground only because young Democratic U.S. Attorney Conner Eldridge was touted early on as a potential superstar, and who made waves out of the starting gate with his campaign's first ad attempting to nationalize the race in an anti-Trump direction.  Couple that with the lukewarm feelings on one-term Republican incumbent John Boozman and the speculation that the Clinton name might yield some residual goodwill in a red-trending state and this race was viewed on the outer periphery of the battleground.  The 2014 midterms confirmed without a glimmer of ambiguity that Arkansas realigned, at breakneck speed since 2008 when they had Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature and a 5-1 Democratic Congressional delegation, into one of the nation's most Republican states and was not going to be turning back.  Both Trump and Boozman will win the state by more than 20 points.  GOP hold.

California--There's no question at all that another Democrat will hold the seat vacated by long-term Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, it's just a matter of which one.  California now has a (frustrating) new law where the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, face off against each other in the general election.  The state's intense Democratic lean in recent years created a situation this year where two Democrats got more votes in the primary than any Republican.  The frontrunner is Attorney General Kamala Harris and polling indicates she has a double-digit lead, but not majority support in the polls.  Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, the less liberal of the two candidates, has a wild card in that she might get a fair amount of crossover support from Republicans, as she already has from GOP Congressman Darrell Issa.  It's likely most Republicans will simply skip over the Senate race on the ballot entirely, but Sanchez still has a path to victory if there's movement by conservative voters, coupled with Latino Democrats who favor Sanchez, to elect the least liberal of the two candidates.  Either way, the balance of power in the Senate won't be changing.  Dem hold.

Colorado--Even after running one of the worst campaigns in recent memory, Democratic Senator Mark Udall lost by only two points to a very strong GOP challenger in a very Republican year in 2014.  That pretty much describes the demographic shift that has occurred in Colorado in recent cycles, which portends a pretty safe re-election bid for Democratic Senator Michael Bennet, up for re-election this year and having narrowly holding his seat in the tough 2010 cycle. This year, Bennet seems poised to have an easier go of it against Darryl Glenn, a Republican challenger who was not his party's first choice in the primary.  Colorado polling has been erratic this cycle but even the more bearish polls show Bennet with a comfortable lead.  The majority of the polls show him leading by double digits, which is where I suspect the race will end. Dem hold.

Florida--What a difference a couple of months make!  The Democrats were in the catbird seat to hold this seat two months ago with their promising young moderate candidate Patrick Murphy the frontrunner for the primary and a fairly weak selection of Republican challengers that didn't seem likely to be up to the job of taking Murphy on.  But then the open seat quit being an open seat as Republican Marco Rubio was talked out of retiring and cynically decided to run for re-election to the Senate seat he said had no interest in only weeks earlier.  Suddenly, Florida voters seem likely to re-elect the guy who very recently refused to show up for work because he said the Senate was such a worthless wasteland.  Interesting choice.  Rubio's secret weapon here is the Miami Cuban vote.  In the past this voting bloc was a monolithic wall of Republicanism, but younger voters who don't care about Castro have been pushing the Cuban vote dramatically leftward in recent cycles, and are poised to move it even more leftward against Donald Trump at the top of the ticket.  At this point, Cubans could be described as the swing vote in Florida, an unthinkable scenario a generation ago, and identity politics seem poised to lead the Cuban vote to rally towards fellow Cuban Rubio.  Most polls show Murphy is still within striking distance, but at this point the national Democratic Party has been starting to pull money out of this race, which is not a good sign at all.  Rubio is likely poised to win by mid-to-high single digits.  GOP hold.

Illinois--Republican Senator Mark Kirk slipped into office in 2010 by less than two percentage points in a very blue state against an unappealing Democratic challenger.  He had a stroke during his term and was away for more than a year, returning to ill health and making some controversial comments that hurt his popularity further.  He was considered a dead man walking going into re-election and still is as he's losing in most polls.  Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth is a Chicago-area Congresswoman who is also a paraplegic veteran injured in a helicopter crash during the Iraq War with a great candidate profile but a history of underperforming in her elections.  While I still think Illinois is too high of a mountain for the Republicans to climb in a Presidential year, I think Kirk may stand to benefit from the phenomenon I mentioned above of non-Trump Republicans being normalized, and Kirk has been taking every step imaginable to make himself look moderate in the last year.  I'm not at all ruling out the prospect of Kirk winning.  He should be losing by double digits given his inherent disadvantages, but I think his worst-case scenario is losing by about five points, and if Duckworth wins, she'll win no more than five of the state's 102 counties, her strength limited almost entirely to Chicago.  The fact that Duckworth still hasn't put this race away underscores how bleak the Democrats' fortunes are this year compared to expectations.  Dem gain +1

Indiana--While the Republicans turned around their bleak fortunes at holding their seat in Florida, the Democrats did the same by parachuting popular former Democratic Senator Evan Bayh into the race at the last minute and instantly changing the odds from a likely Republican hold (Senator Dan Coats is retiring for the second time) to a likely Democratic gain.  I was a little skeptical of the certitude with which prognosticators suggested Bayh would skate back into the Senate as Indiana has really hardened into a Republican stronghold these last few cycles and his challenger, Republican Congressman Todd Young, seemed like a promising emissary for his party.  Worst of all, Bayh cashed in as a lobbyist after leaving the Senate in 2010 and has gone Washington to the point that he couldn't recall the address of his Indiana residence when pressed.  Most polling still shows Bayh with a lead, but I still see him as very vulnerable.  This is one of four races I qualify as pure tossups and one of the hardest for me to predict at this time.  Gun to my head, I'll predict Young narrowly wins and holds the seat for Republicans.  GOP hold.

Iowa--I submit that if Chuck Grassley had run for re-election in the Iowa of 2006 or 2008 with his current age and profile of accelerating partisanship, he'd have been defeated.  But the Iowa of 2016 is a much different place than 2006 or 2008.  This is Joni Ernst and Donald Trump's Iowa, resembling Kansas more than its own recent past, and Grassley is poised to hang on yet again.  His margin seems likely to be less than the 2-1 blowouts he usually gets with former Democratic Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge running, but even that's no sure thing as Judge is mostly off the airwaves with empty campaign coffers and a national party that has written her off while Grassley continues to saturate. Polling currently shows Grassley with a 10-15 point lead, and I'd say Judge would be lucky if she was able to hold him to that come November 8th.  GOP hold.

Kentucky--Like Arkansas, few ever considered Kentucky to be genuinely competitive this year, but incumbent GOP Senator Rand Paul looked weak enough at the end of his failed Presidential bid that it put the race on the very outer periphery of the Senate battleground.  The Democrats ran Lexington Mayor Jim Gray who is openly gay.  I think we're at the point where sexual orientation wouldn't matter that much in most places, but I think it would still be a tough sell to the electorate in Kentucky even in the best of circumstances, and with Trump poised to dominate at the top of the ticket and Rand Paul looking far more like a moderate than was expected six years ago, these will definitely not be the best of circumstances for Kentucky Democrats.  I expected Paul will win by about 30 points.  GOP hold.

Louisiana--It seems likely that a Republican will win the seat being vacated by two-term incumbent David Vitter, but we probably won't know on November 8th because of the state's jungle primary.  It's very possible that the top two to come out of the primary will be Republicans, with John Kennedy and John Fleming being the most likely to face off in the typical December runoff in Louisiana.  After last year's amazing Democratic victory in the Louisiana Governor's race following a perfect storm of events, one has to conceded anything is possible in this environment, but the only way a Democrat could realistically prevail here is if the top-polling Democratic challenger manages to face off against disgraced Republican David Duke, who is running but with little support.  Seems wildly unlikely.  GOP hold.

Maryland--I include this race only because it's an open seat, vacated by long-time Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski.  Maryland has become one of the bluest states in the country and its demographics portend a particularly bad night for Donald Trump, meaning Democratic Congressman Chris Van Hollen should have no problem whatsoever scoring his promotion to the Senate up against anonymous GOP challenger Kathy Szeliga and should win by more than 20 points.  Dem hold.

Missouri--One race that shouldn't be competitive but is is in the red-trending state of Missouri, where quintessential Republican insider Roy Blunt is running for a second term and found himself in a surprisingly close race with Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander, whose proven himself a fantastic candidate and recently got a windfall of cash from the DSCC to take on Blunt.  Given that Missouri is racing to the Republicans and will undoubtedly go for Donald Trump by double digits, a victory by Kander here is an exceptionally tall order, but it's a dark horse race that has defied gravity thus far and Blunt has shown no signs of pulling away yet.  Unfortunately, I suspect he will in another month.  GOP hold.

Nevada--Going from a Republican-held seat that shouldn't be competitive to a Democrat-held seat that shouldn't be competitive, Senate leader Harry Reid is retiring and attempting to bequeath his seat to his hand-picked successor, Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.  The Republicans have a strong candidate of their own in Congressman Joe Heck, who has represented an Obama-voting swing-ish seat in the Las Vegas suburbs for several cycles now, but Nevada's rapidly diversifying electorate made this seat seem like a heavy lift for the GOP.  Polling suggests otherwise, both in the Presidential race and in this Senate race, showing the race either tied or with Heck holding a small lead.  Polling in Nevada almost always undercounts Democrats though, largely thanks to the stealth "Reid machine" of SEIU nonwhite voters that come out en masse for Democrats on election day and dramatically overperform what Democrats ultimately do in the polls.  This has been true for most recent election cycles and while there's no guarantee it will this time, this year's particular dynamic pitting the Reid machine versus a completely disorganized Donald Trump candidacy at the top of the ticket leads me to believe Cortez Masto pulls this out, but it's still likely to be far closer than it should have been given that Nevada's electorate will probably be 38% or more nonwhite in 2016.  Dem hold.

New Hampshire--One of the battleground states where Hillary has been holding up okay even as her numbers crater nationally is New Hampshire, which is historically libertarian and has been trending Democratic for a generation now.  This is theoretically a bad combination for Republicans, but incumbent Senator Kelly Ayotte was elected in a landslide in the GOP-friendly year of 2010 and still has some residual political capital that might be enough to help her weather the Trump storm at the top of the ticket.  Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan is challenging Ayotte and it's been a tight race in most polls, but operating under the premise that the party of the challenger is better positioned to pick up the late-breaking voters, especially when there are liable to be some coattails in the Presidential race, I'm giving Hassan a small edge here.  It wouldn't surprise me if Ayotte found a way to hold on though.  Dems +2

North Carolina--Two-term Republican Senator Richard Burr is a milquetoast backbencher in the Senate who hasn't made much of a name for himself and faces the prospect of a backlash in a Democrat-trending state.  DSCC funds are now flowing into the state to help otherwise unimpressive Democratic challenger Deborah Ross, so the potential exists for an upset here.  There's always a ton of polling out of North Carolina and this year is no different, with most polls showing the race a toss-up.  Ultimately I think the Republicans still have a bit of an edge here and I suspect will be helped at the margins by voter response to the ongoing Charlotte protests.  Ross could get very close but I'm not yet convinced she can get more votes than Burr.  GOP hold.

Ohio--There were warning signs a year ago that former Democratic Governor Ted Strickland wasn't doing what he needed to do to effectively take on the savvy GOP incumbent Rob Portman, with soft fund-raising numbers quarter after quarter, but Strickland's residual love from Ohio's conservative Appalachian counties coupled with Democratic Party resources expected to fill the holes where Strickland fell short still led most to believe this would be one of the marquee Senate races of 2016.  Unfortunately for the Democrats, Portman built up a massive warchest and effectively fired an arsenal of missiles at Strickland, who responded with a few verbal blunders that really put his back against the wall in this race.  I was still skeptical that Strickland would be triaged by the national party that's exactly what happened a few weeks ago as he fell further and further behind.  Polls now show Strickland, one of my favorite Democrats around, losing by 10 points or more and too broke to make up any ground, limiting his campaign ad buys to only two Ohio media markets.  It's an epic fail of the highest order and Portman appears poised to be gifted this seat.  It would have been hard to imagine six months ago that Missouri and North Carolina would stay competitive longer for the Democrats than Ohio but that's where we are.  GOP hold.

Pennsylvania--I was very much on Team Sestak in the Democratic primaries, but the national party made a top priority out of crushing Joe Sestak, the 2010 Senate nominee who came within two points of victory in an extremely tough year for Democrats.  Their Manchurian candidate of choice was Katie McGinty, Chief of Staff to the Democratic Governor, who has always struck me as about as generic of a candidate as the party could find.  The national party got their way though and McGinty won the primary.  I was at first skeptical she'd be able to topple incumbent Republican Pat Toomey, given that Toomey has been moderately successful in selling himself as a moderate to the key voters in suburban Philadelphia who pretty much decide every election in Pennsylvania these days.  Polling indicates that McGinty built a small lead though, most likely buoyed by Hillary's strength in those socially liberal Philly suburbs.  I definitely don't count Toomey out though and could imagine a scenario where a mismatch in the debates helps Toomey regain his footing, but I'm calling this as a narrow McGinty win for now.  Dems +3

Wisconsin--There's only one race at this point in the campaign where I am supremely confident that the Democrats will gain a seat, and that's in Wisconsin, where popular former Democratic Senator Russ Feingold seems to have learned his lesson from six years ago and is taking this race seriously.  Every poll I've seen has shown him decisively leading accidental Republican Senator Ron Johnson who beat Feingold six years ago in the GOP wave that crashed upon Wisconsin particularly hard.  I've seen no indication that Johnson has a path for a comeback here.  Something big would have to come up to change the trajectory of this race.  As it stands, I'll call this one for Feingold by 7 points.   Dems +4

So there it is.  I have the Democrats picking up four Senate seats on November 8, which would get them to 50 total seats.  If Hillary wins the Presidential election that will be enough for a majority, but if Trump wins they'll be one short.  Considering what Democrats were anticipating a few months ago based on their delusional "Trumpocalypse" forecast, it must be humbling for them to be at the end of September in a position where there are only four races that are pure tossups (IN, NH, NV, PA) and that they need to win three of those four to have a chance at winning back the Senate.  They do still have the semi-promising dark horse races in MO and NC to hang their hopes on, but both of those are long shots.  I'll get more into the impact the Presidential race is having on the shape of the 2016 electorate when I make my state-by-state predictions for that race in the next week or two, but for the time being suffice it to say that the unthinkable weakness of Hillary Clinton's candidacy has needlessly turned a golden opportunity for Democrats into a nailbiter, and one that is likely to have devastating consequences for Congressional Democrats in the years to come if Hillary ekes out a win.

Friday, September 23, 2016

"MacGyver" Reboots

All summer I've bounced back and forth between skepticism and restrained excitement that my favorite boyhood show, "MacGyver", was being rebooted by CBS.  On one hand, my youthful attachment to the original series will be nearly impossible to duplicate now that I'm a crusty, middle-aged cynic, so part of me wished they'd leave well enough alone.  On the other hand, what's the harm in giving another creative team a chance to pay homage to a series that meant so much to me and my peers at the time.

Early indicators were not good.  A pilot was made and despite disastrous reviews by fans of the original and CBS executives, the series was still picked up and put on the fall schedule, with the series passed off to a new showrunner, Peter Lenkov, who successfully commandeered the long-running and well-received remake of "Hawaii Five-O".  This was encouraging as "Hawaii Five-O" is one of the few remakes worthy of the original product, suggesting more effort would go into authenticating the original franchise. Throughout the summer, updates about the remake gave me equal measures of relief and concern about the treatment that my beloved "MacGyver" would get.  And tonight was the night I'd see how it measured up.

My thoughts on tonight's premiere were about what I expected, which is neither a firm compliment nor a snarky putdown.  It was a decently entertaining hour of television that set a foundation for some characters I might be able to get into with further development.  The plot was serviceable and the pacing and suspense were on point.  It was the definition of a Friday night popcorn show.  Did it in any way measure up to the good name of "MacGyver"?  Certainly not tonight's pilot.

My biggest problem from the get-go with the new "MacGyver" is that he's simply the member of a team, and not the lone wolf tour de force who needed no other man or woman's help to get shit done back in the 1980s.  The result is that the "MacGyver" reboot feels more uninspired than a conventional reboot, and instead comes across more like an assembly line procedural indistinguishable from any number of other current crimefighter series, particularly on CBS.  In what way is the new "MacGyver" different from "Scorpion", a series that was a MacGyver-by-committee clone itself when it premiered two years ago?   There was little to this hour that didn't feel entirely conventional.  Even the majority of the MacGyverisms were recycled to some degree from the original.

Given a chance to ease into their respective roles, perhaps the cast can fit their respective characters like a glove and carve out a distinctive identity that raises this reboot to another level.  There was nothing disqualifying about what I saw tonight, unlike the ridiculously awful WB "Young MacGyver" pilot that thankfully never made it to the air back in 2003, so I will continue watching it with my fingers crossed.  Thus far, though, they have a very long way to go to be worthy of the "MacGyver" legacy.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Hillary Does Her Best Romney Impression

Four years ago, nobody's blood boiled more than mine when Mitt Romney was caught on hidden camera telling a fund-raiser full of oligarchs that "47% of Americans" were freeloading parasites who he had no interest in appealing to.  With that in mind, I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't also object to Hillary Clinton's shockingly offensive reference to fully "half" of Donald Trump's voters as a "basket of deplorables", ascribing the most pernicious possible motives to scores of millions of Americans she's never met.  There are an endless number of ways Hillary could condemn bigotry and racism, and call out Donald Trump and individual supporters personally for appealing to that bigotry and racism, but to name-call scores of millions of people not voting for you is way over the line to the point of being borderline disqualifying for the constitutional duties of the office of Presidency.

Now to put this in context, Trump makes comments almost daily that are as offensive as Hillary's, but I'm not interested in grading Hillary on a curve here as she is supposed to be the statesman alternative to Trump's vile loose cannon but last night sunk to Trump's level.  Just like Romney's comment four years ago, Hillary's comment concedes--to the highest level of public service--a trench-warfare tribalism where those who don't support you are viewed as cartoon villains, and it's absolutely toxic to the prospects of good-faith government.  If Hillary becomes President, how can she be seen as a good-faith arbiter of the basic functions of her job if she viewed somewhere close to 25% of the country in the prism of a "deplorable"?  It's a word that feels like it's straight out of the archaic Indian caste system, and here we have the frontrunner for President using it refer to more than 30 million Americans she expects to be governing in four months!  Do you suppose after hearing this, Hillary's many critics may further question her interest in serving their needs, desires, and aspirations?

Most depressing, the Democratic partisans are circling the wagons to defend her and the comment just as Romney's partisans defended the 47% comment four years ago.  "It's true!" each group said then and now.  "What does he/she have to apologize for?", reinforcing the instincts of politicians to speak in such monstrously denigrating terms about not only their political opponents, but their political opponents' supporters.  Another victory for trench warfare least on the surface.  Just yesterday, I speculated that Hillary may be in an electoral danger zone where all Trump has to do to win over enough undecideds and soft Johnson supporters to win is to exceed abysmally low expectations.  This unforced error by Hillary could well be the trigger to do just that.  Most polls indicate that somewhere in the neighborhood of 55% of Americans intend to vote for someone other than Hillary on November 8th.  They may take personal offense to her designation of them as "deplorables" and consolidate around the challenger best positioned to beat her, and that of course is Trump.  I suppose it's possible that the opposite could happen and she may have successfully shamed the undecideds to her side so they wouldn't be among those "deplorables", but that seems an unlikely response to such elitist grandstanding.

The ramifications of a Trump Presidency will almost certainly compel me to proceed with my plan to hold my nose and vote for Hillary.  But she's making it harder.  Not only do I find it repugnant and beneath the dignity of the office she seeks to issue a blanket condemnation of that many millions of Americans in such crude, dehumanizing terms, I think it portends the law of physics will take hold and this action will produce an equal and opposite reaction, rendering the country more polarized, more distrusting, and more ungovernable in the years to come. Hillary deserves every bit of criticism that comes from this comment, but whether she wins or loses, the bulk of the penalty will be imposed on the republic and its people.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Is This Election The Second Coming of 1980?

In the past two days, in the aftermath of the "Commander in Chief Forum" broadcast on NBC, two impressions of the state of the race have stuck with me for conflicting reasons.  A coworker today said today that he thinks most people have made up their mind who they're gonna vote for.  I didn't respond to him, but more than most election cycles of the past generation, I don't believe that's true.  Both candidates are so disliked and so distrusted that I suspect that the final chapter of this campaign is likely to bring about pretty significant polling swings.  The other impression of the race that stuck with me came from liberal New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait, who watched Wednesday night's forum where the thumb was put on the scale by moderator Matt Lauer to keep Hillary Clinton in a permanent defensive posture while allowing Donald Trump to basically hold court, and for the first time concluded that Trump could actually win this thing.  When it comes to politics, the soft bigotry of low expectations has tremendous kingmaking power, and since Trump's expectations bar couldn't possibly be lower, he has nowhere to go in the eyes of the public but up.

We saw this to a degree in 2000, where George W. Bush was considered such a frat boy dunderhead that he couldn't possibly compete with the alleged debating wizard Al Gore heading into the first Presidential debate.  Bush put forth a competent performance and was suddenly elevated to equal intellectual footing with Gore.  But perhaps even more relevant to the current cycle was the similar situation in 1980, where voters were itching for a reason to fire Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter but were not yet convinced that GOP challenger Ronald Reagan was Presidential timber.  When Reagan showed up and not only stood his ground with Carter but alpha-dogged him twice, Reagan was finally positioned to take full advantage of Carter's vulnerabilities and went on to crush Carter by 10 points in a race that was tied before the debate.

It really feels like we're in the same place in 2016, albeit without an incumbent.  Hillary Clinton is incredibly unpopular and voters won't need too much provocation to cast a ballot against her.  Trump is not looked at as Presidential but something about him is subliminally attractive to a large number of voters who don't yet support him but can be won over.  And also just like 1980, a third-party candidate is hovering in the shadows with a significant share of soft support that could very easily break towards one of the two major party candidates in the end.

Donald Trump's standing is not quite as strong as Reagan's was at this point in 1980, given that pretty much all 50 states were "swing states" that cycle, but the fact that he's even within striking distance given his endless litany of seemingly disqualifying conduct speaks volumes of Hillary's vulnerability and how hollow her current polling leads are.  Couple that with how low the bar has been set for Trump's performance, the media treating him with kid gloves in the interest of making a race out of it, and the public's inability to be shocked by just about anything he says or does at this point and it becomes more clear just how dangerous he could be for Hillary in the next 60 days.  Jon Chait first saw the template by which Trump could win Wednesday night on NBC and I can see it too, with the additional context of recent history adding even more clarity to Trump's path.

The high rate of undecideds in just about every race fully contradicts my co-worker's observation that most people are dug in to their pre-selected choice.  I guess technically that may be true since "most people" on requires 51% of voters, but there are easily enough undecided voters out there to give Trump not just a victory, but a relatively easy one.  For all the talk of Hillary's Electoral College advantage, there are more than enough undecideds in just about every poll of every swing state to get Trump not only to 270 electoral votes, but to more than 300 if he can consolidate support in the ninth inning as Reagan did in 1980.  It's still probably odds-against, but Hillary has shown no indication she's getting better at this, particularly commensurate with how little Trump has to do to show he is getting slightly better at this than he was a month ago.

I was fully invested in the idea that Hillary was probably going to win for the past several months.  She still may win decisively, but I'm no longer sticking my neck out to predict it.  Perhaps in the weeks to come, after at least one debate, I'll make my usual state-level predictions, but right now I don't feel like this race is settled enough to waste my time.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Don't Expect A Downballot Wave For Democrats On November 8th

The anecdotal evidence is piling up that Donald Trump is more likely than not to take a pounding at the polls in less than three months.  The usual caveats apply here as Trump has been left for dead many times in the past before landing on his feet again a couple of weeks later, but there are an endless litany of conventional campaign metrics that point to Trump having dug himself a massive hole by which no candidate can be reasonably expected to climb out of this close to the election.  Naturally, Democrats' response has been a sky's-the-limit cockiness about their chances of swamping not only Trump at the top of the ticket, but sweeping in Democrats downballot in Congressional and legislative races throughout the country.  I'm skeptical.

Let's start with the Senate.  The Democrats have a favorable map this cycle and if Hillary wins, they'll only need to pick up four seats for control.  That's always been odds-on to happen even in a 50-50 Presidential contest.  Three Republican-held Senate seats already seem heavily tilted in the Democratic direction, and if they go the Democrats' way they'll only need one more victory in a handful of competitive races.  If the Democrats emerge with only 50 or 51 Senate seats on November 8, they'll have a barely functional majority but will have fallen short of what they should have given the Senate race map and Trump's countercoattails.  Only if the Democrats have 53 or 54 seats come November 9th will there a sign that Trump was a serious anchor downballot in these Senate races.  It's certainly possible, but thus far the stars don't seem to be aligning the way they did in 2012 where Democrats swept virtually every competitive Senate race on the table....and a couple that weren't really expected to be competitive.  If you see Republican incumbents felled in Ohio, North Carolina, and Missouri in three months, then you'll know I was wrong and Trump really did burn the Republican Party down.

The House of Representatives is where I really doubt the effects of a wave at the top of the ticket to be felt.  The district lines are drawn and geographically sorted in a way that makes a Democratic takeover next to impossible except in a once-in-a-generation partisan wave.  Obama's 2008 election was one such wave.  Obama beat McCain by a decisive 7 points that year, but the Democrats won the generic Congressional ballot by an astounding 11 points that year.  There was a mandate for the Democratic Party that year at the peak of Bush fatigue among the electorate, with the Democrats expanding their Congressional coalition into previously Republican portions of suburbia while hanging on to their tenuous Yellow Dog Democrat seats in the South for one more cycle.  Fast forward to 2016 where a couple dozen of those seats previously held by Southern and Appalachian Democrats have realigned hopelessly to the Republican column and will not in any situation return to the Democratic fold this year.  Republicans controlled redistricting in just about every battleground state after the 2010 census and further isolated Democrats.  It would take at least an 8-point generic Congressional vote advantage for Democrats to regain a House majority this year.  The most recent poll showed Democrats with a mere four-point generic House advantage.  And keep in mind the Democrats held a four-point generic House advantage in the polls right before the 2014 midterms as well....when they lost 13 seats to plunge to the smallest Democratic House minority since the 1920s.  The difference between 2008 and 2016 is that this year is not a referendum against one party's governing agenda as 2008 was.  Even if it's a referendum against Trump, nobody should expect voters to punish other members of his party in numbers meaningful enough to alter the balance of power to significantly in a polarized legislative body of 435 members.

The story might be slightly more favorable to Democrats in at least some of the 50 state legislatures where elections will be held, simply because 2014 was such a disaster for Democrats that they'll likely win back many seats they lost simply because of rotten midterm turnout rising back to Presidential year levels and reinstalling some Democrats previously unseated.  Again though, there's a limit to Democrats' prospects for picking up seats because the same 2010-2011 redistricting that boxed them in for Congressional races has boxed them in for legislative races too.  It's not out of the question that the legislative chambers in a few states could flip, but key swing state bodies like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, or even blue states like Michigan and Wisconsin, are likely out of reach because of the redistricting hand the Democrats were dealt after their 2010 midterm wipeout.

Ultimately though, redistricting will only be part of the problem keeping Democrats from fully taking advantage of hypothetical weakness by Trump at the top of the GOP ticket.  The biggest problem is that most voters don't see a problem with the Republican Party beyond Trump.  Perhaps if the Democrats were running a more broadly popular nominee, the party would be better positioned to take advantage of Trump's troubles.  Instead it seems as though millions of voters may be willing to hold their nose and vote for Hillary Clinton to stop Trump, but they don't trust her and want a check on her power.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Philadelphia's New Soda Tax: Everything That's Wrong With Modern "Liberalism"

For the last two decades, we've been seeing one of the most dramatic resortings of political coalitions that the republic has ever experienced.  It couldn't have been more clear in the World War II era until the dawn of the Clinton era.....young professionals voted Republican and steelworkers and coal miners voted Democrat.  The flipping of these coalitions has been playing out at a healthy clip over the last quarter century but is really accelerating in the Trump era, with many of the arguments that used to be made by Republicans now being made by Democrats and vice versa.   We've seen it play out a great deal this weekend in response to a majority of British voters who cast a ballot in favor of leaving the European Union.  Conservatives at home and abroad are cheering on the kind of populist peasant uprising based on the principles that used to be attributed to liberals....while liberals are looking down their noses at the disproportionately working-class demographics who chose to rebel against the "too big to fail" elites who have wired the global economic spider web in a way that is working for fewer and fewer people.  It would be harder to know who the good guys are right now if one side wasn't being led by a puerile, demagogic huckster of the highest order like Donald Trump, but moving forward beyond 2016 I really see self-identified "liberalism" continuing to move away from people like myself who are interested in public policy that lifts up the working class rather than sees their life choices and priorities as a pox on society that has to be civilized and neutered by the "enlightened".

But there's been one sphere of public policy where liberals have made great strides in recent years, and that's recognizing the ruinous effects of growing income inequality.  There have been a number of proposals put out there to help ameliorate this growing chasm--most prominently higher minimum wages that force profitable companies to spread their own wealth to their workers rather than pass on the costs to taxpayers vis a vis public assistance--but the same subset of policymakers are also staining these efforts with regressive proposals that are as contradictory to the goal of reducing income inequality as they are monstrously cynical.  And the best encapsulation of this trend so far this year occurred in the city of Philadelphia earlier this month, where the city council voted 13-4 to separate disproportionately low-income residents from the City of Brotherly Love from $91 million a year of their money.

That's right....the same policymakers who have made income inequality the centerpiece of their policy platform have decided that the poorest residents of one of America's largest city who have limited access to supermarkets with healthy food alternatives should pay $1.02 more for a two-liter of root beer and $2.16 more for a 12-pack of ginger ale.  The proceeds from this scheme were originally intended to pay for education in general and more specifically universal pre-K, creating a perverse incentive curve where adequate funding for worthy education goals is dependent on robust sales of the very sugary beverages we're told are such a scourge on society.  But lo and behold, at the last minute before the vote, the cynical assholes of the Philadelphia City Council decided they could raid this new pinata full of blood money for general fund purposes if they so desire as well.  Charming.

There are so many things wrong with this brand of policymaking it's hard to know where to begin, but my most fundamental takeaway is the degree to which society's elites deem their own constituents' lifestyle choices are censure-worthy, something to be preyed upon for their own ends.  It wasn't so long ago that the political left was aghast at the "religious right" for attempting to commingle public policy with social engineering to cleanse the unwashed masses of their sins, but when it comes down to it, the consensus opinion of the left is little different, albeit on a different subset of issues, weaponizing public policy in the most regressive possible way to keep the misbehaving proletariat on a short leash.  Yet for all for their embarrassment at the lifestyles of these peasants, they are desperately hoping the embarrassing lifestyles continue so their universal pre-K is fully funded.

Tobacco users  have been on the receiving end of this treatment for generations, and particularly in the last 10 years or so.  My home state of Minnesota was arguably even more cynical than the city of Philadelphia, with its pseudo-"liberal" legislature and Governor of 2013 bankrolling a new welfare stadium for billionaire Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf through a massive cigarette tax paid for by the low-income workers, abuse victims, and mentally ill that make up the primary demographics of modern tobacco users.  It was only a matter of time until tobacco taxes yielded diminishing returns and cynical policymakers moved onto new "naughty" pastimes of the working-class to prey upon for path-of-least-resistance revenue streams, and the Philadelphia City Council marks the official transition to the public's dietary habits as a way for the state to impose financial punishment.

It's obviously hard to draw a straight line from the peasant uprising in Britain on Thursday and the City of Philadelphia's soda tax, but it's hard not to miss the tone-deafness of elitist policymakers facing their comeuppance at the hands of the people who they are not only failing to deliver a higher standard of living for, but are wagging a righteous finger at for being the cause of the problems.  Neither a soda tax or a cigarette tax--or whatever their next incarnation may be (fast food tax, cookie tax, ice cream tax, Mr. Freeze tax)--will individually elicit the kind of peasant uprising seen in Britain, but the success of Donald Trump in tapping into the frustrations of the downscale is indicative that there's a collective boiling point that at some point in the not too distant future will be reached.  If the left wants to get there more quickly, nickel-and-diming micromanagement on every minutia of the lifestyles of an already agitated voting public seems like a fantastic way of doing it.  Whether it be a peasant rebellion of the existing economic order in Britain or resistance to poor people paying double what they used to for a two-liter of Pepsi, the political left would be well advised to figure out that blaming downscale voters for everything that's wrong in society is not a wise course. 

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Quarter Century of Sioux Falls Trips: What's Changed And What Hasn't

Over this past weekend, I took my annual pilgrimage to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a rite of passage dating back to the very early 1990s when my dad covered much of this territory doing vinyl repair work at car lots throughout southern Minnesota.  I had a distressing revelation a few miles into South Dakota on I-90 when I discovered Lanti's Fireworks had closed.  I had been visiting Lanti's every summer since 1991 to pick up some fairly low-rent bottle rockets and other fireworks at discount prices to smuggle across state lines and set off in Minnesota at my folks' place over 4th of July weekend.  There's a fireworks store across the street that I don't like nearly as much yet was still open, so I had to my hold my nose and go over there to buy $28 worth of junk to shoot off.  But my heart still aches for the loss of Lanti's, a mainstay on my Sioux Falls pilgrimage for a quarter century.

Generally speaking I'm not someone who deals with change well, and I really circle the wagons when it comes to institutions I have a personal connection to, and anything related to those early 90s visits to southwest Minnesota and Sioux Falls are hallowed ground.  I want everything to be locked in place to preserve my memories from the early 90s, in defiance of the constantly changing world and the fact that most of these towns are losing population and can't sustain the same businesses they were able to 25 years ago.  With that in mind, I thought I'd evaluate each county seat and its neighboring rural areas over the course of my 25 years of journeys there and identify what has and has not changed during that time, heading westward on I-90 to Sioux Falls and then coming back on Highway 60.

Blue Earth

Changes have been plentiful and mostly for the worse.  The community was going strong through the 90s, adding a McDonald's and Subway to the already decent selection of eating places for a town of its size just south of the interstate, but things started falling apart in the early 2000s when my beloved Hardee's closed down, the one whose sign could be seen hovering high above the freeway from nearly two miles away when heading westward.  Just as bad, within the last few years, a series of God-forsaken roundabouts have replaced stoplights on Highway 169, turning the nice relaxing drive into town into a stressful navigation of roundabouts.  Another heartbreaking development over the last few years has been the demolition of a charming old barn that used to hover just off the freeway about five miles east of town.  The barn site has been completely plowed over now with no indication that it ever existed.

Thankfully, Blue Earth still has its share of charms despite its declining population and city fathers' efforts to derail it with the roundabouts.  The 55-foot Jolly Green Giant statue still towers over the community and the Dairy Queen next to it.  The Faribault County Courthouse still shines a bright red a few blocks north of downtown.  And even as Pizza Huts have been closing throughout the region, the Pizza Hut just off of I-90 in Blue Earth is still in business, and I let out a silent cheer every year when I drive by and it stays open.

I've always been impressed by how strong the business selection has been in this small city of 10,000, and while there's been a fair amount of turnover they still have a pretty good thing going.  Most prominently missing is the closing of Gunther Foods, the local grocery store run by the community's long-time state House representative.  Also gone is Reco Motors, an old Lincoln-Mercury dealership on the west side of town that my dad got a lot of business at during his time doing vinyl repair work, and the dealership's very friendly old manager who is almost assuredly either deceased on in elder care by this point.  The KFC next to that dealership has also closed, but the old-fashioned front-counter order only Dairy Queen on the other side of it remains.  Just off the freeway, I recall having my choice between Perkins and Happy Chef for the occasional breakfast back in 1990, but Happy Chef closed at some point around 2000, originally replaced by a Wendy's and recently reopening as a Hardee's.  Fairmont went without a Hardee's for several years during Hardee's leanest years when the old Hardee's on the southeast side of town became an Arby's.  The Perkins off the freeway is still there.

More remarkable than what's different is what's the same. Aside from the aforementioned Reco Motors, it's car dealership selection has remained the same.  The town still even has a mini-mall with an operational JCPenney's for crying out loud, along with an impressive selection of retail that only recently lost its K-mart.  Beyond that, most of the restaurants, fast food places, and other businesses in town have remained around and largely in the same location as they were 25 years ago.  Their small frozen foods business Fairmont Foods did close last year, and that's relevant because they were at one time producing a vegetarian product line from Linda McCartney, and actually had an oddball visit from Linda and Paul McCartney who held a press conference in the small, crummy conference room of this frozen foods plant in 1993.

My dad never got much vinyl repair business at either of the two car lots in Jackson so I don't have a lot of memories of the town compared to others on this list.  Only one of the two car lots have survived the past quarter century though, and beyond that the impressive Hardee's just north of I-90 back in 1990 morphed into a Burger King around 2000 and has remained such, losing some of its cache for me as I'm a Hardee's man.  The rest stop overlooking the Des Moines River valley remains but the cluster of highway signs in the valley itself have mostly come down.  Beyond that, not much to report that has changed or hasn't changed in Jackson other than there seems to be road construction every damn time I try to drive into town.

Few towns in the entire state have changed as much as Worthington has since 1990.  Back then it was in the early stages of a huge demographic shift as cheap labor was imported en masse to fully staff their Swift pork packing plant as well as the now-defunct Campbell's soup plant.  The town would have still been about 90% white back in 1990 but in the 2 1/2 decades since has transformed into one of only three towns in Minnesota with more than 5,000 people that is majority-minority.  The business landscape has thus changed considerably as well with a healthy spattering of new stores serving the Latino, Asian, and East African populations.  Until the last couple of years the town had a mall that was fading quickly and went completely when their JCPenney closed down.  As of yesterday the entire mall had been bulldozed and a new business of some sort seemed to be going up in the considerable lot.  Worthington has also been blighted by a couple of those absurd and confusing roundabouts in the last few years too.

With all of those changes, there are a few mainstays including the town's weird layout, one of the few Hardee's that never closed that I recall stopping for ice cream at back in 1990 on a blistering hot day, and two of the three car lots where my dad got vinyl repair work remain open.  The list of changes in Worthington nonetheless vastly exceeds the list of things that have stayed the same.

I was most fascinated back in the day with the fast food selection in these towns and Luverne had a good selection for the size of the town a quarter century ago.  Nowadays, things aren't going so well.  Hardee's...gone.  Country Kitchen....gone.  Pizza Hut....gone.  Dairy Queen....gone.  A McDonald's and Subway have come to town but beyond that all that remains is the franchise that seemed the most unlikely to be in small-town Luverne in the first place...Taco John's.  Beyond that, there's a new Pamida south of the freeway and a veterans home on the north side of town.  Luverne looks and feels the same outside of that.

Sioux Falls
The hardest change to deal with from Sioux Falls was the closing of Lanti's Fireworks this year as cited above, but beyond that, it's been generally good news for the city, which has grown by nearly two-thirds in the 25 years since I first visited there.  Back in the day, there was almost no development off of I-90 but at some point in the mid-90s an interstate exit emerged with a flurry of businesses that from the freeway looks like it goes on quite a distance.  But it was only when I got off the freeway to explore that I discovered this was a stand-alone development that is at least two miles from the northeastern fringe of the city itself.  A freeway shortcut linking I-29 to I-90 (229) has been added in the last 15 years, wrapping around the east side of the city.

Most of the city's development has been along I-29 running north and south, and I explore a pretty good chunk of the city every year.  The freeway itself keeps adding lanes and the busiest exits such as the 12th Street exit off of 29 that I usually take has been altered to accommodate higher traffic volume in the last 10 years.  Obviously businesses have come and gone along my typical route through town since 1991 but there are mainstays that always help me identify my location.  Best of all, the Arby's on 41st Street across the street from the Empire Mall, both of which I first visited in 1991, are still exactly the same, and the continuity there is even more important to me than Lanti's Fireworks.

Getting off the freeway at Worthington and heading northeast on Highway 60, the collection of "elevator towns" that run along the tracks have seen substantial change, most prominently due to Highway 60 upgrading from two lanes to four and diluting some of the rural charm the stretch of highway had.  Hurt the most was Heron Lake, the largest of this string of small towns which the old two-lane went right through but the current four-lane lurches west to avoid.  The gas station that used to be front and center in town on the old 60 has long ago closed.  The gigantic grain elevators on this stretch have remained though, and if anything have only increased in capacity.

The town of Windom itself looks remarkably close to what it did 25 years ago.  Even though it added a McDonald's, its original Hardee's co-existed along with it even as so many other Hardee's closed.  Godfather's Pizza has thrived there for years along with an old Dairy Queen near downtown.  Even the small Happy Chef that used to occupy a site on 60 held on until the last three years or so.  Windom also has the purest "town square" of any county seat in Minnesota, entirely unchanged in a quarter century.  Its car lot seen has changed some, and the Ford dealer with a block of new trucks encircling his store has scaled back considerably.

St. James
I have a much more comprehensive history with this town since I started my professional career here and lived in the town for three years (2002-2005) but going there every year since I left town 11 years ago I can safely say that the things that meant most to me about the town disappeared before I moved there since I moved away.  There was a Ford and a GM dealership in St. James in the summer of fact the very first two dealerships where my dad got vinyl repair business.  And there was a Hardee's on the west edge of downtown where we went to eat after finishing up our work and returned again a few times.  As the years went on, both dealerships managed to get snuffed out on weird technicalities, and the Hardee's closed in the months before I moved to town in 2001.

There's still plenty to like about St. James, including its scenic lake setting and still-vibrant business sector (as long as you're not in the market for a car!) which expanded to Highway 60 once 60 expanded to four lanes.  There aren't too many towns of 4,500 that still have two small-town grocery stores but St. James does.  The community also seems to have had better luck than most in assimilated a very large Hispanic population which was in its relative infancy back in 1990.

Even in the tiny towns along I-90 or on state highways coming back from St. James, there are still things I pick up on driving by....things that either changed considerably since 1991 or haven't really changed much at all.  And this particular route only constituted one stretch of what my dad did for his vinyl repair route, as towns such as Mankato, New Ulm, and St. Peter, among several others, constituted towns I navigated thoroughly that summer and still revisit annually, albeit on a different road trip.  Not sure if it's more therapeutic to see the things that have stayed the same or more depressing to see the things that have changed but since I keep going back I must get far more positive than negative vibes revisiting these communities.  Hopefully that will continue as I keep visiting even as things I held dear about that era continue to change.