The Briefing, Vol. VIII, Issue 42

This week:

  • Trump’s final debate performance a vast improvement
  • Barrett nomination keeps Democrats from disavowing court-packing 
  • A surprisingly tight race in Minnesota

President 2020

Debate: President Trump’s performance in the final presidential debate was vastly superior to his performance in the first. That doesn’t mean it was enough for him to make up the gap he faces against Joe Biden. But it certainly helps his cause.

Biden’s debate was not fatal. There was no decapitation. However, his performance was deficient in a few noticeable ways:

  1. In an era of newfound U.S. energy independence and exportation, Biden’s promise to “transition from the oil industry” is certainly an unforced error. A return to foreign energy dependency is not attractive to anyone. Such comments will be damaging at the margins especially in Texas, which Democrats hoped Biden could put into play (he will not), and in Pennsylvania, which remains uncomfortably close. 
  2. It was also embarrassing that Biden claimed not to have promised to end fracking, even though he is on video doing so multiple times just during this year’s campaign. He may not have been sincere, but he said it repeatedly. Yet U.S. energy exports are changing not only the economic game, but also the foreign policy game. Russia would not be building the Nordstream 2 pipeline, banking on its energy-blackmail strategy in Europe, if it did not correctly anticipate that natural gas is here for several decades to come.
  3. Biden’s claim that he and Obama did so little for immigrants during Obama’s term because Republicans supposedly controlled Congress is just an outright fabrication. Democrats controlled Congress until 2011, and they controlled the Senate until 2014.

Again, however, there was no knock-out blow. And Trump may have needed one. 

The school of thought that favors a Biden victory at this point — the conventional school — points to the fact that he only needs to do slightly better than Hillary Clinton did four years ago, and he is doing so by many measures. He also is not loathed the way she was by so many people.

Yet Biden is not a mentally strong candidate, and his running mate is far outise the political mainstream. The possibility of a sudden Trump surge and surprise victory has Democrats losing sleep. With Biden on the trail railing against President Bush, one cannot discount the possibility that he will blow what at least seemed like a won game.

The X factor: Then again, given this year’s necessarily irregular voting situation, it is very hard to say who needs what. We keep bringing this up like a broken record, but it bears mentioning again and again if necessary. 

Recent polls are close enough in Florida, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin that any or all of them could go either way. Normally, that would be bad for Trump, since he needs to win all of those except maybe Pennsylvania. Yet all of those states could well go to Trump, given the tightness in the polls and his historical propensity to underperform in opinion surveys, which always implies that there are a few hidden points waiting for him to pick up on Election Day. That would astonishingly result in his winning re-election, despite having never really led in the polls at any point or for any significant period throughout 2020. 

Mail balloting will have a completely unpredictable effect on outcomes in many states where it is not already a normal thing. This is just one of many reasons to be wary of polls this year. Another is that Trump won in 2016 without carrying the national popular vote, and that fact just on its own had many pollsters fooled in the run-up to the election. An even more extreme skew of that sort could result this time, by which Trump loses the national vote by a wider margin but wins more decisively in the states he needs for a second Electoral College victory. 

Barrett nomination: On Sunday, the full Senate advanced response to Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination, and she will be confirmed as soon as today. Democrats’ failure to put up any effective resistance evinces the nature of their broader bluff on social and cultural issues. 

Their failure (Mazie Hirono aside) to take the fight over Barrett to its extreme conclusion serves as an indication that they understand their social-issue radicalism is less popular than they let on in public. With an election coming up so close, they recognized it would be unwise to attack Barrett as the religious fanatic they think believers generally to be. Democrats on the judiciary committee used her hearings to discuss health care, then boycotted the committee vote after a few unguarded words about how wonderful the hearings had been.

Their strongest course of action, from the perspective of advancing their ideological agenda, would be to wait until after the election, win the presidency and the Senate, abolish the filibuster, and pass a law that lets them pack the Supreme Court. But that, too, is unpopular. It is a mistake to telegraph such an abuse of power in advance, but the failure to do anything about Barrett would demoralize their base. Think of it as a threat more easily carried out than made.

So for now, Democrats merely hint for their base that this is a possibility if Barrett is confirmed. When asked, they refuse to disown it — as Biden has done — but they also avoid running around talking about it. It remains a retaliatory possibility that not all Democratic senators will back. Yet court-packing is a very unpopular proposition as well, and one that will surely drive many soft Republicans to back Trump in spite of negative feelings about him. 

And so in short, Democrats tried hard not to play with fire here, and to some degree they succeeded. But there are inevitable risks.  

Senate 2020

In the run-up to 2016, based on traditional bellwethers and basing expectations on past performance, we expected a miserable race not only for Trump but also for down-ticket Republicans. None of this came to pass. Aside from the very narrow defeat of Sen. Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire, Republican Senate candidates had a surprisingly strong performance all over, and of course Trump built majorities that no one saw coming in a wide variety of places.

Alaska: Democratic hopes of knocking off Sen. Dan Sullivan were surely sanguine all along. They seem likely to come to naught. But rumor and an effective Democratic fundraising pitch really built up this race for a bit, to the point that but the lack of competitive polling is knocking it down. 

Colorado: This is one of the few contests that seems relatively easy to call. Colorado already had universal mail voting before coronavirus, so it is highly unlikely that some massive anomaly is disguising a coming upset by Sen. Cory Gardner, R. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, for all his flaws and in spite of a presidential bid that took place against all good judgment, remains a popular figure in the state and will likely cruise to victory. Gardner didn’t really do anything wrong, but he came up against the strongest possible opponent in a formerly Red state that is increasingly left-leaning.

Iowa: A series of late polls suggests that Sen. Joni Ernst, R, is still very much in the hunt to keep her seat in the righward-trending Hawkeye State. To lose her would be a huge blow to Republicans after GOP triumphs there in the last three consecutive elections — electing Ernst in 2014, Trump in 2016, and Gov. Kim Reynolds in 2018 against a Democratic wave. Win or lose, the state is clearly trending in Republicans’ direction. Given their losses elsewhere as other states turn blue, Republicans risk a catastrophic loss of policy influence if they lose Senate seats in states that are Republican or trending their way.

Minnesota: Aside from Michigan, if you’re looking for a Senate race where Republicans might produce a surprise, this one has been flying way under the radar. The race between former Rep. Jason Lewis, R, and Sen. Tina Smith, D, has tightened significantly in recent weeks, going from a double-digit margin to a statistical tie. Smith’s low profile as a late-in-life politician and the appointed replacement for former Sen. Al Franken, combined with a sagging performance in her state’s suburbs and a probable over-performance by Trump, are giving hope to Lewis’ longshot campaign. Although there isn’t any polling suggesting that Trump will actually win the state, he nearly did so in 2016 under similar conditions. 

North Carolina: Sen. Thom Tillis, R, is still fighting from behind in spite of his opponent Cal Cunningham’s explosive and late-breaking sex scandal. Tillis is not out of the woods yet, and Trump has not yet secured the victory he needs in the Tar Heel State either. 

This is not a seat Republicans can afford to lose if they want to protect the judiciary from Democrats’ threat of court-packing.