In our series finale at the height of the 2020 election, Lars and Michael dive into a year wracked by a presidential impeachment, the coronavirus, and national protests, and explore Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate as they challenge Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in the upcoming fall.
Category: State & Science
Can you believe general election season is just getting started? Yes, with the conclusion of the Democratic and Republican national conventions in August, we’re officially off to the races! Call this election whatever you want: the “most important election in the history of our country”? Why not. A “battle for the soul of this nation”? It sure seems that way! The coronavirus election, a referendum on the president, the “George Floyd election”, or a skirmish in the incessant culture war; let’s just go with all of the above. No matter how you see it or how you come down, we hope you’re as excited as we are, because 2020 is the first year The Postrider will have the privilege to unveil our own ratings for a presidential election, providing background as we keep an unwavering eye on an election that may go long past Election Day.
You may recall our 2018 Senate race ratings and analysis, which served as a predecessor and dry run for the big showdown this year. We are planning to unveil our 2020 Senate ratings in the coming weeks as well, which will come later because some states hold late Senate primaries (Delaware’s primary isn’t until September 15, less than 50 days from Election Day!), but our presidency ratings will be different from those as well: broader, bigger, and less personal. So, here are some key things to keep in mind about our process this cycle:
In our 2018 Senate ratings, we focused on telling the individual stories behind the candidates — because candidates matter more in localized races, and less so on the presidential level — and every state’s Senate race is different, with different personalities and dynamics. The presidential election is, by definition, nationalized and consistent. It’s the same two candidates across every state, so that kind of candidate-focused narrative is less useful. That’s why we’re choosing to focus on ratings instead of that individual analysis.
Each state will be rated on a scale as follows:
|The candidate has over a 99% likelihood of winning the state. This is an all but assured state for that candidate, but be mindful that if you were to run the election hundreds of times, thus with hundreds of “Safe” states, you’d expect less than one out of 100 to flip; that’s very low and very rare, but it does happen. Nonetheless, “Safe” means we are confident in a candidate’s odds in a given safe state.|
|The candidate has at least an 85% certainty of winning the state, so the other candidate has at least an outside chance of winning the state in 1% to 15% of cases. In our map, we have around ten “Likely” states, so if one of them flips; that would not be surprising. It would also not be totally crazy if none of them flip, though the more there are, the more you should expect one to flip.|
|The candidate is slightly favored but is by no means safe; the other candidate has somewhere between a 15% and 40% chance of winning the state too. In our map, we have just under ten of these states, so it should actually be surprising if at least one of these states does not flip.|
|The race in this state does not clearly favor either candidate over the other. Each candidate has between a 40% and 60% chance of winning the state.|
We determine ratings based on polling data, demographic data, news events, historical trends, the electoral environment in similar states,1Some states are highly correlated, like the midwestern states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Minnesota. If things take a dramatic turn in Wisconsin, you’d expect similar movements across these states based on their similar demographics, political histories, urbanization, population size, economic similarities, etc. Note that geography is not always the best determinator for these variables; for instance, Washington state and Colorado are also similar; as are Maine and Montana. how states are responding to COVID-19 and planning their election procedures, and all sorts of other smaller variables. It’s slightly more scientific than a “gut instinct” but less so than an explicit statistical model. We’re aiming for something closer to the Cook Political Report, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, or Inside Elections,2Inside Elections’ publisher is also employed by this author’s employer and The Postrider is completely independent. I mention this for full disclosure, Washington is a small town. with the intent to handicap the race, more so than our idols at FiveThirtyEight, though our various ratings are generally similar other than at the margins. All of our ratings are approved and determined by both the Editor-in-Chief, Michael Lovito, and yours truly, the State & Science Editor.
If we decide a state rating merits adjustment, we will publish that under the hover-over for a given state, and write a larger article if necessary. For example, at the time of publication, we have Colorado rated as “Likely Biden”, but if a few weeks from now Trump has improved his numbers dramatically amongst white college-educated voters and Latinos, we’d be inclined to revise our rating in Colorado (which has large shares of both kinds voters) down to “Lean Biden”. We will provide a ratings’ history when you hover over any given state which will include the date of the ratings revision(s) and an explanatory note or link to a larger piece justifying the change. This will make interacting with our ratings map a little more interesting, involved, and useful to watch as the race goes on and provide more context where necessary.3And give us a better starting point when we work on our 2024 ratings for the next cycle!
All ratings revisions will be approved by both of the editors on this project, and based on the same criterion noted above in terms of changes in polling, how the candidates are doing amongst certain demographics, state-by-state correlations, etc. We won’t change ratings if we believe they are likely to change by Election Day, since that would defeat the purpose of forward-rating these races, but we will change as often as we need to if compelling evidence points to better or worse prospects for the candidates in a given state.
The Overall Projection
Our projection of the total electoral votes per candidate is not a prediction, it is a mathematical allocation based on the candidate’s odds for given electoral votes. For example, we have Tennessee as “Safe Trump” , and with 11 electoral votes, we multiply 11 by 0.99 (as “Safe” we’ve determined means it’s at least better than 99/100 odds that Trump wins that state), or 10.89 votes and 0.11 for Biden. Meanwhile we’ve rated Virginia as “Likely Biden”, so we multiply its 13 electoral votes by 0.85 giving us 11.05 votes for Biden and 1.95 for Trump. “Lean” is multiplied by 0.6 and “Toss-Up” by 0.5. Once all states’ electoral votes have been split in this way, we round down to the nearest electoral vote.
Maine and Nebraska split their electoral votes by congressional district, so we’ve accordingly rated the state at large (two electoral votes) and each of their congressional districts and applied those ratings to their individual and statewide votes. These states are shaded to reflect the diaspora of ratings at large and for the individual districts.
At the time of publication, our projection has Biden at 315 electoral votes, 45 more than the 270th vote he needs to win, and a slightly more conservative estimate than FiveThirtyEight’s or The Economist’s forecast models.
Remember that we’re not making predictions, we’re just providing an educated assessment on the state of the race in every state.4And the District of Columbia! So don’t write us a mean note after Election Day saying “you had Wisconsin as ‘Lean Biden’ but then Trump won it by one percent, idiot!” No, we didn’t predict that Wisconsin will “only” go for Biden by a little, we’re merely stating it’s more likely than not to go for Biden, but Trump still absolutely has a shot there.
With all of this in mind, The Postrider is proud to present its ratings for the 2020 presidential election.
In the part two of our 2016 election episode, Lars and Michael unpack their running mate choices for Hillary Clinton, argue about whether keeping Senate seats should be a priority, and end with the big conclusions about the vice presidential candidates this year.
The 2020 presidential election has found former Ohio Governor John Kasich at a crossroads. No, literally; on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, the lifelong Republican delivered a speech while standing at a physical fork in the road, urging Republicans and independents to cross the aisle and vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in November. “I know Joe as a good man, a man of faith, a unifier,” Kasich said about the vice president of an administration whose policies he lobbied against in his old role. “[Biden] knows that the path for a rejuvenated America lies in respect, and unity, and a common purpose for everyone… We can do better than what we’ve been seeing for sure,” Kasich went on, not so subtly registering his disapproval with the current administration of President Donald Trump, “And I know that Joe Biden, with his experience and his wisdom and his decency, can bring us together to help us find that better way.”
In the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Kasich emerged as the “moderate” alternative to Tea Party favorites like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio and the increasingly nationalistic and populist Trump, but a quick look at his record shows that he was anything but moderate during his time as both a governor and a congressman. During his first gubernatorial campaign in 2009, Kasich spoke of the need to “break the back of organized labor in the schools” in reference to Ohio’s teachers’ union, a threat he made good on once he was elected by signing a bill that severely restricted collective bargaining rights of Ohio state employees.1 This law would eventually be repealed via referendum. He took similarly harsh action against abortion rights, singing a ban on abortions after 20 weeks and calling for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, and while running for president said he would establish a Voice of America-style government agency that would promote “core, Judeo-Christian, Western values” in “the Middle East, China, Iran, and Russia.” 2 I added that last bit in quotes A) because I wanted to make it clear that these were Kasich’s exact words and B) I wanted to be clear that I, unlike him, am aware that Iran is in the Middle East and that at least 74% of Russians are in fact Christian. He framed the creation of this hypothetical agency as a departure for him, bragging, as only a true bureaucracy-hating Reaganite could, that “there’s nobody who’s spent more time shrinking government and cutting budgets than I have.”
I bring up Kasich’s record as a way of saying that, yes, even though he’s been a frequent critic of Trump, a dyed in the wool conservative such as himself going out of the way to endorse Joe Biden, one of the forces behind the Affordable Care Act and a proponent of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, is still kind of a big deal. And it’s worth noting, of course, that he wasn’t alone in his endorsement. Kasich was joined on the first night of the DNC by former New York congresswoman Susan Molinari, former New Jersey Governor and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman, and Quibi CEO3 I found it quite humorous that the DNC insisted on referring to Meg Whitman as the “former CEO of Hewlett-Packard” in an effort not to highlight the tumultuous Quibi, whose foibles you can read about in this excellent piece by Benjamin Wallace. and former California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman in endorsing Biden; on the following night, these Republican dissenters were joined by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said that Joe Biden would be a president “we will all be proud to salute.”
This chorus of Republican endorsees marks a sharp contrast to 2016, when most high profile Republicans either fell in line with their party’s nominee or displayed their disapproval by merely abstaining from the Republican National Convention or opting to vote for third party candidates. If Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton did receive any support from the right, it was typically from commentators or lower level GOP operatives. Sure, Republican Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush were said to have had private misgivings about Trump and may have voted for Clinton, former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney made a speech condemning Trump and wrote in his wife Ann, and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan gave the green light to Republicans to separate themselves from Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, but none of these people made a public statement explicitly endorsing the Democratic candidate the way Kasich and company (a faction that grew after the convention to include a number of former senators and members of Congress such as former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake) di this year.4It’s worth noting, however, that Powell has voted for the Democratic candidate in every Presidential election since 2008 and that Meg Whitman endorsed Clinton in 2016. In a way, the Republican speeches at the DNC represented a culmination of sorts for the “Never Trump” Republicans, a small and once disparate faction of the GOP that has started to organize in groups like Republican Voters Against Trump and the Lincoln Project, the latter of which was founded by George Conway, husband to White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway.5George and Kellyanne’s daughter, Claudia, has also gotten involved in politics — she’s a leftist TikToker, who’s accused her parents of abuse and is pursuing emancipation. Both Conways are planning to step down from their respective roles, citing family reasons.
Despite the enthusiasm of the Kasichs and the Powells of the world, there is some debate within the Democratic Party over whether or not courting independents and Republicans in such a heavy-handed way is an effective electoral strategy. Those concerns are valid — some analyses suggest that those moderate, suburban Republicans most likely to vote Democrat have already switched parties, while pockets of the progressive movement have argued that giving more airtime to the likes of Kasich and Powell than left-wing champions like New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will alienate voters in the party’s growing progressive wing. The presidential primary seemed to have vindicated the moderate establishment and made this debate moot — when given the choice between democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and mainstream liberal Joe Biden, the voters chose Biden. But a string of recent primary victories from progressive challengers against entrenched Democratic members of Congress has shown that there is an appetite within the party’s base for more radical policies, and the debate about whose votes exactly the Democratic party should be pursuing — ideologically squishy, middle-of-the-road voters or committed progressives — has begun anew.
The question, in my mind, is one of risk. Do the Democrats, who strive to be a big tent party, think there is more to be gained by giving anti-union, anti-abortion conservatives like Kasich a platform even if it leaves progressives feeling as if they’ve been left in the lurch? In other words, will the gains that Democrats make among registered Republicans and independents (and it’s still an assumption that they will make gains among this dmeographic) offset the number of votes they may lose from disaffected progressives?
We won’t find out the answer to that question until November 3rd at the earliest, but there is a bit of history we can draw on to see if the Democratic strategy of embracing Never Trump Republicans will pay off. 2020 is far from the first year a politician of one party has spoken at the convention of the other, so I thought I’d look at three relatively recent examples of this phenomenon to see if such speeches have any effect on the election. Specifically, I’ll be looking to see if:
- The national percentage of members of one party voting for the presidential candidate from the opposite party increased from the election before (the most obvious goal of Kasich’s speech)
- If the candidate of the party the speaker supported performed better in the speaker’s home state than in the prior election (I’m sure that Kasich being from the swing state of Ohio helped net him a spot at the convention, and that the Democrats would be much less inclined to let him speak if he were from a electorally solid state like, say, Wyoming or Rhode Island).
- If the candidate of the party the speaker supported performed better among any demographic groups the speaker is tied too (white women voted for Trump by a margin of 53% to 43% in 2016, but in the 2018 House elections that gap in party support shrunk, with both Republican and Democratic candidates receiving 49% of this group’s vote. The inclusion of Molinari and the two Whitmans on the virtual DNC stage is a clear attempt by the Democrats to keep nudging this group in a blueward direction).
Make sense? All right, let’s take a look at some speeches:
2004 Republican National Convention, New York, New York
The Speaker: Georgia Senator Zell Miller
The Speech: Zell Miller became the first person in American history to deliver the keynote address at both a Democratic and Republican National Convention. In 1992, while still a governor, he made the argument that the Democratic Party existed because “we can’t all be born rich and handsome and lucky,” and attacked the incumbent presidential team of George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle as out of touch, while crediting his and his family’s success to every Democratic president between Roosevelt and Carter. In 2004, he disowned that same party in front of a fired up Republican crowd, decrying the Democratic Party as being “motivated more by partisan politics than by national security,” and compared his defection to that of one-time Roosevelt opponent Wendell Willkie. The speech he gave in New York is striking in its hawkishness, accusing the Democrats, and especially presidential nominee John Kerry, as unfit to lead America in the War on Terror. He illustrates his point by invoking Kerry’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his votes against funding for a litany of military weapons and vehicles. “George Bush wants to grab terrorists by the throat and not let them go to get a better grip. From John Kerry, they get a ‘yes-no-maybe’ bowl of mush that can only encourage our enemies and confuse our friends.”
Change in Democratic Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +0% (2000: 11%, 2004: 11%)
Change in Georgia’s Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +3.3% (2000: 54.67%, 2004: 57.97%)
Change in White Male Support for Republican Candidate, 2000-2004: +3% (2000: 55%, 2004: 58%)
2008 Republican National Convention, St. Paul, Minnesota
The Speaker: Connecticut Senator (and former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate) Joe Lieberman
The Speech: Lieberman, who ran for and eventually won his Senate seat as an independent candidate in 2006 after losing his party’s primary but continued to caucus with the Democrats, struck a relatively conciliatory chord when he endorsed John McCain for president, especially when compared with fellow Democratic defector Miller’s rallying cry from only four years earlier. He praised Bill Clinton as a Democrat who crossed party lines for the good of the country (which was met with, in the words of Mark Halperin,”grumbling and uncertain applause“) and said that then-Senator Barack Obama was a “gifted and eloquent young man who I think can do great things for our country in the years ahead,” but ultimately endorsed McCain because of his record of “independence and bipartisanship.” He tried to boost vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as well, saying of the Republican ticket “the Washington bureaucrats and the power-brokers are not going to be able to build a pen that will hold in these two mavericks. It’s just not possible.” He also, like Miller, emphasized the Republican nominee’s foreign policy strengths, highlighting McCain’s support for the Iraq War troop surge and declaring that McCain would be a president that “our allies will trust and our enemies will fear.”
Change in Democratic Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2004 :-1% (2004: 11%, 20008: 10%)
Change in Connecticut’s Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2008: -6.28 (2004: 54.31%, 2008: 60.59%)
Change in Jewish Support for Republican Candidate, 2004-2008: -3% (2004: 25%, 2008: 21%)
2016 Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
The Speaker: Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
The Speech: Having won three terms as mayor of the largest city on the country, twice as a Republican, once as a Republican-endorsed independent,8Hooray for electoral fusionism! Bloomberg set out to persuade Trump-skeptical Republicans and independents to pull the lever for Hillary Clinton instead of staying home. He emphasized how she “worked with Republicans in Washington to ensure that New York got the help it needed to recover and rebuild” in the wake of 9/11 and conceded that while the two of them didn’t always agree, she “always listened.” He also acknowledged the outsider appeal that made him a viable candidate for the mayoralty, but said that voters shouldn’t be fooled by Trump’s alleged business acumen, arguing that his proposed policies would damage the economy, reduce America’s standing in the world, and “make our communities less safe.” “The bottom line is: Trump is a risky, radical choice,” he summed up. “Hillary Clinton understands that this is not reality television; this is reality. She understands the job of president. It involves finding solutions, not pointing fingers, and offering hope, not stoking fear.”
Change in Republican Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: +1% (2012: 6%, 2016: 7%)
Change in New York Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: -4.34% (2012: 63.35%, 2016: 59.01%)
Change in Jewish Support for Democratic Presidential Candidate, 2012-2016: +2% (2012: 69%, 2016: 71%)
So what does this (statistically insignificant) data seem to show us? Well, it seems like these kinds of speeches are really only so effective. Of our three speakers, none of them saw an improvement in their preferred candidate’s performance in our three chosen categories. Miller’s Bush endorsement comes the closest, with both white male and Georgia voters going for Bush in slightly larger numbers than they did four years earlier, but Democratic support stood pat. Bloomberg’s endorsement of Clinton saw her do marginally better than Obama among both Republican and Jewish voters, but she actually did worse in her home state of New York (and worse in New York City as well, winning 79% of the vote to Obama’s 81%) by a larger margin than both of those percentage gains combined (it likely didn’t help that Donald Trump was also from New York). And Lieberman’s endorsement of McCain seems to have done the Republican absolutely no favors — he underperformed Bush among both Democratic and Jewish voters by a bit, but took a relative nosedive in Connecticut where he posted a 6.28% decrease in support, our largest swing in either direction for all the categories and candidates we looked at.
So it looks like, from our quick and dirty “study,” that having a member of the opposite party speak at your convention doesn’t really put you over the edge with a specific set of voters. It should be noted, of course, that Miller, Lieberman, and Bloomberg hardly represented typical members of their party. Miller wrote a book about how disillusioned he felt as a conservative in a rapidly liberalizing party back in 2003, and would end up co-chairing Newt Gingrich’s campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Lieberman lost his Senate primary in 2006 before winning his seat as an independent, and, despite holding liberal positions on abortion, gay rights, and climate change, he was notorious for being a hawk among Democratic doves and for conservative stances on criminal justice, education, and the entertainment industry. And Bloomberg voluntarily left the Republican Party for his 2009 run for a third term, and took liberal positions on issues like gay rights, abortion, climate change, gun control, and, of course, the size of sodas. In fact, Bloomberg wound up as a Democrat again, running for the party’s presidential nomination in 2020, an exercise that saw him spend a lot of money all for the honor of being humiliated in his first debate by Elizabeth Warren.
What to make of these kinds of speeches then? Was the air time the Democratic Party gave to its old adversaries, as some progressives alleged, a waste of time, or did they serve a purpose? A generous assessment might say that it’s a good way to grab headlines — a Republican speaking at the Democratic convention is more newsworthy than a Democratic speaking at the Democratic convention, and the party might get some viewers (and, by extension, potential converts) who tune in for the sheer novelty of it all. But a more likely explanation seems to be that these speeches are less about the voters that the party is looking to win over, and more about voters they’ve already won over. Think about Miller’s home state of Georgia: when Roy Barnes won the state’s governorship in 2002, he was the first Republican to do so since 1868. When Saxby Chambliss was elected to the Senate from Georgia in that same year, he was only the third Republican to do so since Reconstruction. But few of those Democratic governors and senators were liberals in the vein of today’s, or even 2004’s, Democratic Party — at times they were staunch segregationists explicitly advocating for the interests of white, conservative Southerners.
The success of state Democrats in Georgia runs counter to the success of Democratic presidential candidates in that same state, however. The Democratic candidate won Georgia in only three of the eight presidential elections held between 1964 and 1992 — and in two of those elections, the winner was Jimmy Carter, a born and raised Georgian (the other was another Southern moderate — Bill Clinton in 1992). Perhaps it’s more helpful to think of cross-party endorsements like Miller’s as lagging indicators of where the electorate has shifted as opposed to efforts by the party to win over voters. This line of thinking could be applied to the trio of Republican women who endorsed Joe Biden, as well. White suburban women were already starting to break Democratic, and they aren’t doing it because Christine Todd Whitman and Meg Whitman told them too — Christine Todd Whitman and Meg Whitman are endorsing Biden because they’re also white, suburban women. Such speeches are less an act of persuasion than an act of affirmation. “You’re right”, Miller may as well have said, “the Democrats have abandoned the white working man. That’s why I, like you, am voting for George W. Bush.” Alternatively, Susan Molinari may as well have said, “It’s true, the Republican Party has become a den of misogyny more focused on limiting abortion rights than fostering a working economy. That’s why I, like millions of other white women, have embraced the Democratic Party.” Lieberman could say something similar for pro-Israel hawks, and Bloomberg something similar for socially liberal white collar workers.
What about someone like Kasich, though? As a white male Republican from Ohio, he represents a demographic that, if anything, has been consistently Republican-leaning over the last few decades. One could argue that he stands in for white collar workers or college educated voters, both of whom seem to be shifting into the Democratic tent. But, perhaps more compellingly, he represents a faction that was once synonymous with the Republican Party: movement conservatives.
A coalition of libertarians, anti-communists, foreign policy hawks, traditionalists, and the religious right, movement conservatism reached its apex with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and have dominated the GOP for most of recent history. In a nutshell, movement conservatism was a reaction to New Deal liberalism that sought to cut taxes, slash government spending, promote traditional Judeo-Christian values and flex American military strength, all in the name of preserving individual liberty and bringing an end to the “big government” of the post-war American consensus. Shortsighted and paradoxical though this philosophy can sometimes be (control of government spending never seemed to extend to the military budget), it has more or less dictated the arc of American politics in the last forty years, and acted as the unofficial platform of the Republican Party in that time span.
At least it did until Donald Trump came along. By promoting immigration restrictions, trade tariffs, isolationism, and white identity politics, Trump broke with the Republican mainstream in more than just his bombastic, oftentimes offensive rhetoric. He fundamentally shifted the agenda of the Republican Party, taking the focus off of tax policy and the deficit and embracing an ideology more similar to the Old Right of the 1930s or Pat Buchanan’s paleoconservatism than the policies of Reagan or George H.W. Bush. And it’s proved contagious — conservative commentators have found new audiences railing against what they call ”zombie Reaganism“ or, in the words of Peter Spiliakos, “The application of 1980s Republican politics to a very different time.” A few of these commentators even drafted a manifesto opposing “zombie Reaganism” and what they argued as its “fetishiz[ation] of [individual] autonomy.” Rather than advocate for “free trade on every front, free movement through every boundary, small government as an end of itself, [and] technology as a cure all,” the authors of the manifesto called on conservatives to instead support policies opposing the spread of pornography, limiting immigration, and adopting policies that favor workers instead of business owners — in other words, “big government” with a right wing twist.
The manifesto also declares that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016.” In other words, the GOP is Trump’s party now, and the president’s 90% approval rating among his own party shows little hope of that changing anytime soon. So what’s a Reagan Republican like John Kasich, an elite by any measure, a man who sat on corporate boards as a private citizen, fought for welfare reform as a congressman, and signed aggressively anti-labor legislation as a governor, supposed to do? With decidedly Trump like figures such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson rising to prominence in the GOP and even pondering runs for the presidency, could it be that the path of least resistance may in fact be to join the Democratic Party? There, he could form an uneasy alliance with a party establishment that’s thus far held back its own populist revolt and has, in recent history, been willing to compromise with “moderate” Republicans such as himself, all in the name of protecting individual autonomy from a more socially and economically interventionist Republican Party. It’s a crazy thought, and not where I thought this article would end up, but hey, if the Never Trump Republicans in the electorate have already become Democrats, the Never Trump Republicans in office may be smart to do the same. America is a democracy after all — it only makes sense that the voters would pull politicians with them across party lines, and not the other way around.
In the part one of our 2016 election episode, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton taps Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate, while reality television star and businessman Donald Trump is nominated by the Republican Party and picks Indiana Governor Mike Pence in order to win over conservative and religious voters.
With America still recovering from the Great Recession, Republican nominee Mitt Romney chooses “mini-Mitt” Wisconsin Congressman and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan to hit incumbent President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on the big issue of the day: the economy.
We’re finally at the precipice of the moment we’ve spent the entire year talking about: presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick.
It’s been a wild year, beginning with a competitive Democratic primary, where we talked about our thoughts on whether the Democratic vice presidential candidate was already running and then unveiled our Vice Presidential Tracker to keep track of the strongest vice presidential candidates for each given nominee. We checked in with how the potential vice presidential picks stood after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, and then compared the similar picks for the last two standing candidates after Super Tuesday, Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Finally, when Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee, we evaluated his ten strongest candidates, added some big names to the tracker, and lamented the decision by one of the strongest candidates to step out of the running. Never mind the litany of world-shaking news events that have transpired in the last eight months, the world and the 2020 election is now very different looking compared to where we were back then.
But now, in early August, we’re in the prime season to find out who Biden will choose. So it’s time to check in one last time at where things stand in our tracker and what we can expect from Biden’s looming announcement.
At the time of publication, the generic ballot has moved further in Democrats’ direction, corresponding to a general widening of Biden’s lead over Trump nationally over the summer. This has shifted the margins of some of the potential running mates in some of the closer states like Arizona, Michigan, and New Hampshire. We also know that several of our higher ranked individuals will not be under consideration after opting out on their own accord, such as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto. Several are excluded by Biden’s own promise to pick a woman, but remember that what our metric tracks is simply the strongest picks mathematically; names are not removed simply because they won’t be considered or chosen, as this is not a model for statistical probability, but rather one that determines the combined presidential ticket’s strength. That’s why Cortez Masto, Klobuchar, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro remain highly ranked. Fundamentally, they’re all from competitive states, are not up for reelection, and complement Biden’s experience well, making them strong candidates regardless of whether or not they’re actually being considered by his campaign.
Rounding out the top tier of the list are names that are probably familiar to anyone who has been keeping an eye on the veepstakes: California Senator Kamala Harris (i.e. the most obvious choice), New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and former Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano. There are a couple of names that score well mathematically but aren’t receiving a lot of press attention, like Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono and New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan, but they’re not exactly the non-starters they seem. Then there are names like Cortez Masto and Klobuchar, who we have been consistently touting as top choices for many of the last few months, but who have bowed out.
Finally, there’s another big name that, once again, we were ahead of the curve on identifying and who is now starting to make headlines as a strong contender: Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth. Duckworth would be notable in that she would defy the expectations for Biden’s running mate. Unlike most of Biden’s top picks, Duckworth has military experience, can speak with authority on military and veterans issues, as well as on issues related to Americans with disabilities (Duckworth lost both of her legs in the Iraq War after the helicopter she was piloting was hit with a rocket propelled grenade) and women’s issues. The Illinois-Delaware mix would be reminiscent of the Obama-Biden campaign, and of course, while not a swing state, Illinois is in the all-important Midwest, and the region of a vice presidential pick does matter to a degree.
Biden’s reported shortlist includes some other names that are lower on our tracker, and I believe there’s merit in justifying why our model (which operates entirely on objective mathematical metrics, as opposed to punditic analysis) has these names lower. For example, Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who might make sense because of the importance of winning Wisconsin, but is being kept down by her high level of federal experience, which combined with Biden’s equals 65 total years in the federal government). Baldwin is also liable to slip further if the election narrows, as she is technically just outside the cusp for counting as a competitive seat thanks to a very wide Democratic lead in the generic ballot margin and the fact that Wisconsin’s margin is only one point more Republican leaning than the nation as a whole.
Florida Representative Val Demings and former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams both score low on our tracker because they do not meet the minimum viable office qualification, which significantly handicaps their scores. Sorry, but a vice presidential candidate with less than 8 years experience in the House or without any service as a Senator, cabinet member, or military commander is just incredibly rare. It has only happened once in the last 19 open vice presidential picks, and that was Geraldine Ferraro, who still has six years more minimum required experience than Abrams, and two years more than Demings.1Don’t worry, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg falls to the bottom for the same reasons and scores far worse than each of them, because Demings and Abrams are both still mathematically more qualified than he is.
Lastly, the two hotter names that don’t make it very high on our list: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice. I’ve faced flak for the relatively low ratings for a Biden-Warren ticket that the tracker has been generating, but the truth is that there is little numerically there for Biden. Warren brings no outsider experience, which is a problem when you’re running with someone who has 44 years of federal experience, her home state of Massachusetts is almost comically noncompetitive,2Donald Trump won about 33% of the vote in Massachusetts in 2016, which was only five points worse than the state’s former governor Mitt Romney got in 2012. and to top that off (though the tracker is not explicitly docking her for this thanks to how incredibly uncompetitive Massachusetts is), the governor is a Republican — meaning Democrats would temporarily lose a Senate seat were Warren to win the vice presidency. Our tracker is also not counting for ideological differences, of which large ones are also quite rare when it comes to Democratic presidential tickets, but that is also a reason to be bearish on Warren. Rice is docked in the ratings for similar reasons: she has plenty of federal experience, but very little outsider experience to complement Biden; her home “state” of DC is even less competitive than Massachusetts.3Rice does, however, have Maine connections and could credibly claim to “run” from Maine, as she considered doing so in this year’s Senate race there.
So, with only a couple of weeks, or maybe just a couple of days, remaining before we find out who Biden’s running mate will be, keep in mind the disparate strengths of the field. Just because a choice feels good, doesn’t mean the fundamentals are there. It’s often said that the first rule of vice presidential picks is “do no harm”, and that is more a matter of fundamentals and what we’ve expected historically from running mates than a flashy name. That’s why this model strips it down to numerical data, and it’s also why we’ve been bullish on some choices that it took a lot of other media sources time to come around on, like Tammy Duckworth, Janet Napolitano, and Catherine Cortez Masto. The combination of both solid fundamentals and consistent attention paid to Kamala Harris is a good sign for her prospects. Just don’t be surprised if Duckworth, Whitmer, or Lujan Grisham end up getting the nod; they’re all fundamentally strong candidates to run alongside Joe Biden.
As unpopular wars rage on, the economy collapses and Lars and Michael delve into Republican nominee John McCain’s miscalculation as he seeks a game changing vice presidential pick in Sarah Palin to counter the historic nomination of Barack Obama, who seeks a more traditional running mate with Joe Biden.
Amidst the War on Terror, President George W. Bush and his VP, Dick Cheney, are up for reelection against Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. In what turns into a presidential contest over their respective military records, patriotism, and foreign policy credentials, Kerry chooses, and later would regret having done so, North Carolina Senator John Edwards as his running mate.
This week, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will resolve into the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), ending a 26-year-old pact that was once the largest free trade agreement of its time. In these 26 years — and in the many years leading up to its formation — it has found few friends willing to defend it by name. Instead, its quarter century has been suffused with vitriol from those who seek to blame it for every adverse economic condition and stuffy academic assertions of its espoused benefits and shortcomings. But as we say farewell to NAFTA this week, we owe it the time to look back and reflect on its origins, and what it has really meant for both the United States and North America at large.
A North American Common Market
The foundation for the NAFTA we know today was best articulated by a presidential candidate in 1979. In the very speech where he announced that he would seek the presidency, Ronald Reagan declared, “A developing closeness among Canada, Mexico and the United States–a North American accord–would permit achievement of that potential in each country beyond that which I believe any of them–strong as they are–could accomplish in the absence of such cooperation. In fact, the key to our own future security may lie in both Mexico and Canada becoming much stronger countries than they are today.” What started as an agreement between the United States and Canada in the late eighties quickly accelerated to include Mexico shortly thereafter when Reagan’s successor, President George H.W. Bush, began negotiations to use the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement as a template for the more inclusive pact. The impetus to include Mexico was driven by American urgency to counterbalance the rising economic heft across the Atlantic. In the early nineties, the European Union’s Maastricht Treaty would be negotiated and then signed, integrating the economies of Europe, establishing a single market with free movement of goods and people, and ultimately resulting in the creation of a single currency: the euro. Having mercilessly competed with Japan economically in the 80s, the prospect of facing a new economic superpower gave the United States newfound interest in expanding its economic opportunities. By providing companies access to new markets, especially in Mexico where the cost of labor was lower than it was in the United States or Canada, American businesses would be more competitive globally. This would create jobs in Mexico, thus improving the economic situation and discouraging migration to the United States, and in turn bring down prices for consumers in the United States, allowing a specialization in more services and higher-paying labor.
President Bush reached an agreement to create the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992 and signed the presumptive agreement with Mexico and Canada as a lame duck president in December of that year. When President Bill Clinton came into office a month later, he requested two side agreements to allay two prominent concerns: labor rights and environmental standards. The first provided a right to strike, ensured child labor protections, and maintained worker health and safety measures while the second created the first ever trade sanctions based on environmental laws, which earned the pact the endorsement of groups like the Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
In an optimistic moment of solidarity, Clinton signed the side agreements in September of 1993 flanked by former presidents Bush, Carter, and Ford, as they all advocated Congress’ passage of the final implementation act in the months to come. Clinton spoke of a middle class increasingly working harder for less, of the challenges of global competition, and the need to adapt and change ahead of the new century. “In a fundamental sense, this debate about NAFTA is a debate about whether we will embrace these changes and create the jobs of tomorrow, or try to resist these changes, hoping we can preserve the economic structures of yesterday,” Clinton conceded. But his challenge to America was bold and admirable. “Are we going to compete and win, or are we going to withdraw? Are we going to face the future with confidence that we can create tomorrow’s jobs, or are we going to try against all the evidence of the last 20 years to hold on to yesterday’s?”
After signing the side agreements, the former presidents spoke in turn. Bush expressed his gratitude to the team who negotiated the original agreement and a deep appreciation for having had the opportunity to lay the groundwork for what he felt was a bipartisan accomplishment. “Now I understand why he’s inside looking out and I’m outside looking in,” he humored at Clinton in a way no president who had lost reelection to another would ever be expected to do. Carter spoke of NAFTA as a step towards securing democracy in Latin America and against those who were attempting to stoke the public’s trepidations regarding the agreement. He spoke of “a demagogue who has unlimited financial resources and who is extremely careless with the truth, who is preying on the fears and the uncertainties of the American public,” evoking, in all but name, ardent NAFTA critic Ross Perot. Ford cautioned his former colleagues in the Congress against voting against the agreement, equating it to, in effect, a vote for illegal immigration and admiring that “world trade has been the real engine that has given the free Western industrial nations the capacity to have prosperity and growth” and that there is now “opportunity for future prosperity and good living for people in this entire hemisphere.”
The comradery of presidents from every party, who had defeated or been defeated by one another, envisioning a better world, not just for themselves or their nation, but for all mankind, tugs at the heart a little here in 2020. And it worked. Congress — with bipartisan majorities in each chamber, fervently opposed by bipartisan minorities all the while — passed the North American Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act in November of 1993, and it was signed by President Clinton on December 8. “There is no turning back from the world of today and tomorrow, we must face the challenges, embrace them with confidence, deal with the problems honestly and openly, and make this world work for all of us,” observed Clinton. Ending his remarks in palpable contrast with the modern day, conjuring American exceptionalism as an ideal to aspire to and a force for good rather than a nationalistic cry for the past, Clinton affirmed, “America is where it should be, in the lead, setting the pace, showing the confidence that all of us need to face tomorrow. We are ready to compete, and we can win.”
NAFTA went into effect January 1 of 1994, and over the course of the next 25 years, trade between the US and Mexico more than doubled, from 1.3% to 2.7% of combined GDP. Trilateral trade between the three nations increased three-fold. Mexico’s GDP per capita at purchasing power parity also more than doubled; as did the United States’. Net migration from Mexico to the United States fell below zero, Canada and Mexico now buy more American exports than the United States buys Chinese imports, and the world’s largest land border between two countries remained open up until COVID-19 resulted in its closure for the first time since Canada became a nation.
“A Giant Sucking Sound”?
The trade pact was never for want of controversy. On the day of NAFTA’s enactment in 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a Mexican guerilla group, staged the Zapatista uprising, seizing towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas in response to the pact. In 1999, domestic opposition to free trade climaxed with the Battle of Seattle, which led to violent conflict between police and protestors and the deployment of troops in Seattle. In 2014, the AFL-CIO critiqued “the legacy of NAFTA and the flawed U.S. trade policy it both shaped and reflects has been stagnant wages, declining social standards and increased inequality.” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders spent years thereafter condemning the deal and, of course, Donald Trump spent the height of the 2016 presidential campaign calling NAFTA “the worst trade deal maybe ever.”
Ross Perot argued in 1992 that NAFTA would result in a “giant sucking sound” as jobs moved from the United States to Mexico. Thousands of US jobs did disappear, especially in manufacturing — estimates vary, but tend to put the number at around 600,000 jobs. Any fair economic analysis would concede some jobs shifted and were lost in this period following the enactment of the pact, though whether NAFTA is to blame for the loss, or whether it simply accelerated this trend, is up for debate. 87% of the decline in manufacturing jobs is accounted for by automation, not trade, and manufacturing jobs have been in decline as a proportion of overall employment since the 1950s even though American manufacturing output has actually increased overall.
The often overlooked reality is that NAFTA supports 4.9 million jobs in the United States and 34 million private sector jobs were gained over the 25 years since its enactment, at a rate of about 1.3 million jobs per year, well surpassing the 600,000 that may have been lost. The Peterson Institute’s Gary Fubauer and Cathleen Cimino-Isaacs found that, in fact, “Since NAFTA’s enactment, fewer than 5 percent of US workers who have lost jobs from sizable layoffs (such as when large plants close down) can be attributed to rising imports from Mexico” and that “for every net job lost in this definition, the gains to the US economy were about $450,000, owing to enhanced productivity of the workforce, a broader range of goods and services, and lower prices at the checkout counter for households.” NAFTA contributed to lower food, oil, and other import prices and may have been the prevailing factor saving the American automobile industry from tenacious Asian and European competition. As of 2014, it was estimated that the United States is $127 billion richer every year because of the additional trade courtesy of NAFTA, equivalent to $400 per American. Canada has also benefited from the deal, seeing a decline in unemployment and an increase in productivity. Its government’s factsheet on NAFTA paints a positive picture of “economic growth and middle class job creation… unprecedented economic integration between partners, creating a platform where companies from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico make things together rather than simply sell to each other.”
The situation, contrary to American critics’ claims, is actually less clear in Mexico. Some studies have found “relatively large positive effects” but others have found effects that are — to say the least — underwhelming. Omitted from many of these depictions of depreciated wages in Mexico is the Tequila crisis, a currency crisis that pushed Mexico into a severe recession in 1994, causing a 20% decline in wages that took years to recover from, giving the appearance of economic failure in the early NAFTA years. In reality, Mexico’s new relationship with its northern neighbors, who were anxious “not to let [their] new partner go under”, encouraged an American-led bailout that made for a more expedient recovery than Mexico had seen in similar crises before NAFTA’s implementation.
The most accurate critique of NAFTA may be that it did not go far enough, and its benefits have had a comparatively small impact compared to what they could have been. Had Mexico’s economy grown more rapidly and seen a diversification in jobs, they’d be better positioned to buy more American goods and services. Plans to expand NAFTA, or at least the scope of cooperation between the nations, may have reached their peak in 2001, as then-president George W. Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox met to discuss immigration and Fox addressed a joint meeting of Congress. With border control on the mind, Bush remarked, “The best way to take pressure off our borders is for Mexico to grow a middle class, and the avenue for Mexico to grow a middle class is trade.” Of course, history got in the way, and only a few days later on September 11th, the Bush administration would be deviated from the pursuit of an expanded relationship with its southern neighbor.
Most studies have found a relatively modest but nonetheless positive impact on GDP thanks to NAFTA. Not the great boon to economic growth nor responsible for perceived economic stresses of the 21st century that various sides have hailed. But the aim of free trade between nations is not a zero sum game. It speaks to the virtues they espouse, whether they will work together or separately, and whether making a neighbor better off is worth it. It demonstrated how nations come together to forge a common future for all of their people and for the world, and how benevolent leaders can work with each other to try and make things better for the next generation. The real tragedy of the USMCA is that these high-minded ideals of progress and North American cooperation did not drive it as they did its predecessor, and it instead represents a retreat from those ideas entirely.
It’s unfair to really call this the death of NAFTA. The USMCA has been characterized as more of a revision, or a “NAFTA 2.0” than President Trump and his cries of “ending the NAFTA nightmare and signing into law the brand-new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement,“ seem to imply. The USMCA makes a series of tweaks like increasing intellectual property protections, slight opening up the Canadian dairy market, beefing up labor and environmental protections in Mexico, and an increase of the percentage of a car that must be made in North America from 62.5% to 75% for it to qualify for zero tariffs provided that at least 30% of work done on vehicles is by workers earning $16 per hour. If that seems fiddly and minute, that’s because it largely is. The Economist noted that “this victory of governmental micromanagement comes with costs,” emphasizing that the United States’ most-favored nation tariff on non-USMCA imports of passenger vehicles are a mere 2.5%, so “car manufacturers could [opt] to ignore the deal, pay the 2.5% tariff for non-USMCA imports and source parts wherever made business sense.” This means car prices would rise for American consumers and, if automakers find it more cost-efficient to produce cars outside of the now higher-cost North America, it would lead to a further decline in manufacturing and employment at home.
This comes after years of threats and insinuations by Trump that he would completely withdraw from NAFTA,1Withdrawal from NAFTA would have caused an economic crisis resulting in price spikes across the bloc, would have put exorbitant pressure on supply chains, and reduced competitiveness with major manufacturing powers in Europe and Asia. This makes the allegation that White House economic advisor Gary Cohn single-handedly stopped this by simply taking the piece of paper off of Trump’s desk somewhat concerning, to say the least. the assumption of negotiations without a common understanding for the need for an agreement at all, demands for a sunset clause and other non-starters, moving ahead with Canada out of it entirely if they didn’t get on board with Trump’s demands, a capitulation from Canada and Mexico so as to avoid a painful withdrawal, and a spate of domestic politics in which Trump again threatened to terminate NAFTA so that Congress would move on his new deal quickly. All of this resistance and uncertainty, spitefully manufactured by America, just to get perfunctory adjustments that add little to the grand aspirations for the region.
The Trump administration’s approach to the treaty was mercantilist, short-sighted, self-interested, and inconsistent with the ideals for North American partnership that began the march towards NAFTA. It is a far cry from Reagan’s — and his preceding and succeeding presidents — vision of “looking outward… confident of our future; that together we are going to create jobs, to generate new fortunes of wealth for many, and provide a legacy for the children of each of our countries.”
Trade deals have always been easy targets; their defenders are quiet technocrats and academics, and politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, both of whom came to govern as staunch free trade advocates, have railed against them for electoral reasons. Making a compelling case to spread prosperity outside one’s own borders and compete openly in the global economy at the expense of fading jobs at home is a cause few politicians are brave enough to champion. But the world should remember NAFTA fondly, and recall the enlightened aims it sought — not as an end, but as one step towards something even better.
NAFTA was never perfect. No agreement framed by governments with varying interests ever is. But it was characteristic of an era of American foreign and domestic policy where its leaders did not promise the bygone past at the expense of opportunity in the future. Instead, NAFTA was about three nations coming together because they knew they were stronger together rather than apart. That’s something worth celebrating, and something to mourn the loss of in 2020.