Are Liberal Pundits Any Better as Political Strategists than Coulter and Limbaugh?
As the shutdown of the Federal government played out from last December into January of this year, Democrats justifiably chortled at the spectacularly poor political advice President Trump took from Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh to shut down the government over the lack of funding for his wall. Coulter and Limbaugh goaded Trump into rejecting the agreed spending resolution with Congress, which led to the shutdown.
Today, the shoe may be on the other foot. Are we certain that liberal pundits are better political strategists for the Democrats, than Limbaugh and Coulter were for Trump’s Republicans? To answer that question let’s parse the pronouncements coming from the liberal pundits and match that up against hard political realities. I won’t personalize this critique by targeting the pundits, instead I will spotlight three avenues of their punditry.
First, the most consistent chorus uniting liberal punditry has been the conviction that the path to the presidential nomination for the Democrats was a hard left turn. The pundits fell in love with the progressive narrative which put all their eggs in the Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez upset basket. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez’ 4100 vote victory in a low turnout congressional primary last June led the pundits to ignore the larger story.
In 2017, the most progressive candidates were not winning in New Jersey or Virginia’s Democratic gubernatorial primaries. Then in 2018, traditional liberals beat pure progressives by landslide margins in high turnout Democratic primaries (Senator Diane Feinstein over Kevin DeLeon in California and Governor Andrew Cuomo over Cynthia Nixon in New York), while centrists also beat progressives by landslides (Senator Tom Carper over Kerri Harris in Delaware and Governor Gina Raimondo over Matt Brown in Rhode Island). In Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer won in a landslide majority against two more progressive candidates in her march to the governorship.
In truth, Democratic primaries are dominated by an iron triangle: suburban women, minority and white Catholic as well as Jewish voters. In state after state this iron triangle still dominates Democratic primaries and it is heavily weighted on turnout to those over 40 in age.
Those self-identifying as liberal have grown over the last two decades to form a majority of Democrats and millennial voters bring great energy to the Democratic base which is essential to winning general elections, but millennial progressives do not dominate the turnout in Democratic primaries. Furthermore, white progressive candidates have not been able to connect with minority voters, particularly black women and the bottom line is that you can’t be nominated for President and Governor or Senator (in the major states) as a Democrat without strong minority support.
When you drill down in most states (and these percentages will vary state by state) the pure progressives average a 30-35% share of the Democrats’ primary electorate, traditional liberals are about a 25% share, 30-35% are self-described moderates and 10% consider themselves conservative. A full quarter of Democrats nationally are Black (higher percentages in the South) and Hispanics together with Asians are heading towards a 20% share of the Democratic primary electorate in the large states (especially along both coasts).
The higher the overall primary turnout the lower the pure progressive share measures, precisely because high turnout primaries bring out more moderate white Catholics in the suburbs and minority voters in the metropolitan clusters. Meanwhile in Presidential Caucus states the pure progressive share rises sharply towards a majority share. In terms of gender, 57-59% of Democratic primary voters tend to be women.
Democratic primaries have therefore been dominated by a defacto middle aged and older coalition of minority women, traditional liberals and moderate Democrats (especially suburban women). These voters do not dislike progressive ideals, but they have had a decided hesitancy to trust pure progressive messengers, when a better known alternative exists. This can change, but until it does, pundits would be wise not to drink the progressive ascendency Kool Aid, in the face of hard empirical examples (i.e., AOC’s victory last year was more than outweighed by last two years of primary results from California, New York, Michigan, Delaware, Rhode Island, Virginia and New Jersey as a predictive model for the 2018 presidential primaries).
Consequently, no one should have been surprised at the recent Biden surge in the primary polls, after watching a Steve Kornacki report on MSNBC the week before Biden announced. Kornacki presented polling data which showed Sanders being drained by Warren, Buttigieg, Harris and O’Rourke among liberal and millennial voters, while Biden was getting far less competition from the rest of the field among moderate, older and minority Democrats and holding his own among traditional liberals.
This does not mean Biden has the Democratic nomination locked up, for it is early and much can change. But the liberal pundits were flat out wrong to discount the role of that over 40 iron triangle of Democratic primary voters, if predictive accuracy is to be the measuring stick.
Second, the liberal pundits regularly chastise as naïve any and all Democrats who attempt to work with Republicans or woo Republican voters. But this punditry flunks the political arithmetic that won back the House last year, not to mention ignoring the essential political tactic of “shaving” away an adversaries’ strength with key voting blocs. In 2018, the winning political equation in the House races was that Democratic candidates carried Democratic voters by 90% plus margins, while Republican candidates swept Republican voters by 85% plus margins and the Democrats carried Independents by a 13% margin (unlike 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 when Republicans carried Independents).
Consequently, if Democratic candidates extend an open hand to Never Trump Republicans that is not a naïve, but a shrewd move, which can also help lock Independents who value bi-partisanship. That doesn’t mean that those open Democratic hands expect a kumbaya moment with Mitch McConnell, but even cracking double digits among Republicans for Democratic candidates would be of great electoral significance. As an example, in NY’s 22nd CD last year, Anthony Brindisi would not have beaten beat Claudia Tenney in central Upstate, if he did not snag a quarter of the Republican vote as shown in the polls. What is naïve, is assuming that Democrats can carry general elections only by cultivating the Democratic base (i.e., when in terms of ideology only a quarter of general election voters self-identify as liberals).
Third, the overriding importance of how independent voters break next year must be a top priority for Democratic strategists. Yet, in terms of the impeachment question, the liberal pundits act as if only craven political motives prevent an immediate march to impeachment by the House Democrats. Meanwhile, if you distill down the polling data, the independent voters Democrats need to win next year, respect the good economy under Trump, but they neither like nor trust Trump on Russia as well as his governing style, and in the end are loathe to either impeach or re-elect Trump.
That reaction among Independents suggests a strategy for Democrats, which the liberal pundits reject. That strategy is neither to leap towards impeachment nor an argument for ignoring Trump’s stonewalling. Instead, the House Democrats should focus upon three objectives.
One, get Mueller to testify. Once Mueller testifies, then Trump will likely be on the defensive both in the oversight court cases and in the court of public opinion. Collusion with Russia as opposed to conspiracy is likely to be re-established and obstruction might be put back in play in the wake of Mueller delineating the findings of his report for all to see and hear on television. After Mueller testifies Trump’s “No Collusion, No Obstruction” refrain might sound quite hollow (especially to Independent voters).
Two, Democrats would be wise to shift the legislative hearings away from a public focus upon impeachment, toward crafting a bill which makes collusion with a foreign entity a per se violation of the law (i.e., protecting America’s democracy from foreign meddling). Passing that bill in the House will force Republicans in Congress to choose: to do as Trump will no doubt demand and cast a no vote, or to stand up for America? That is a no-win choice for congressional Republicans. Thus Mueller’s testimony and the congressional votes outlawing collusion with foreign adversaries might just move the needle several fronts (i.e., among independent voters and on impeachment).
Three, let the court process work its way out on all the congressional subpoenas. That delay does not inevitably hurt Democrats, but it could hurt Trump, especially if the courts rule in favor of disclosure, when the economy is on shakier footing. What is clear from all the polling data is that the only factor currently sustaining Trump is continued economic growth. If investigative disclosures are ordered by the courts later this year or even into next year, that will not help Trump, if the oversight hearings heat up just when that economic growth is either in doubt or in a tail spin.
Like Coulter and Limbaugh the liberal pundits are not patient and their instincts play to mining their share of the viewing and listening audience, rather than being focused upon forging a winning electoral coalition. Not to mention as creatures of the media, pundits are preoccupied with driving the current news cycle. Whereas, successful political strategists need to be focused not upon winning every news cycle (for that is unattainable), but winning the important news cycles which shape the political narrative.
Yet, the real issue goes even deeper than bowing to news cycles. Pundits, whether on the left or the right, are always in the outtake mode of projecting opinions. Political strategists, to do their job correctly, must balance intake from what is motivating voters with their campaign’s outtake messaging to voters. Pundits can afford to live in an echo chamber of their fellow pundits, whereas winning political strategists must constantly be listening to track the concerns and priorities of voters. Listening to voters is not a weakness in crafting political strategy, it is the fundamental ingredient for locking in the consent of the governed.
My argument is not to stifle the first amendment rights of pundits, but I am arguing that House Democrats and the Democrats’ presidential campaign strategists should ignore their advice to rush prematurely into impeachment when there is no realistic path to removing Trump from office via impeachment. Effective political strategy should focus upon persuasion rather than preaching to the choir.
This is not an argument for giving Trump’s a free pass on obstruction, instead it is an argument for maximizing the potential for Trump actually being held accountable. If I thought that the Republican Senate would seriously take up a post impeachment trial, I might join the pundits in recommending a march to impeachment. But the far higher probability is that Trump could successfully use a premature impeachment in the House as the great deflection from ultimate accountability and a boost to his re-election prospects.
I do not dispute the importance of pundits from either the left or the right to be provocative in asking hard questions of those in power. My point is simply this, Democrats should remember the bad political advice Trump followed so slavishly, from the Limbaugh’s, the Hannity’s and Coulter’s on the wall and not fall prey to the mirror image of that mistaken strategy when it comes to impeachment.
Given the stakes that would attend a second Trump term in terms of the economy, war and peace, climate change, nominees to the courts including the Supreme Court (e.g., Roe v. Wade and voting rights), health care, immigration, criminal justice, and constitutional norms, let us hope that the path taken by Democrats in the House and their ultimate presidential nominee will be sure and purposeful. The historical legacy point the pundits lean upon so heavily, (i.e., the overriding necessity to stand up for constitutional norms), will be lost if Trump is re-elected to a second term.
President Kennedy once observed that “advisers can always move on to new advice” but the awesome responsibility of decision-making lies elsewhere. May those elected officials ultimately bearing the responsibility for securing first political victory and then success in governance, keep the pundits on tap but not on top, as JFK also wryly observed of the so-called experts.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an Adjunct Professor of political science at the University of Albany.