The Resource Trap

Right now, things could hardly be looking brighter for Democrats. At the top of the ticket, the presidential race is looking as good as they could ever have hoped. Downballot, their majority in the House is looking sturdy and their chances of winning control of the Senate are very good, well north of 50 percent.

In Kamala Harris, Joe Biden went with a safe, solid choice, one highly unlikely to be problematic. Biden opted for Harris’s elective and statewide experience over his previous working relationship with Susan Rice. My guess is that it was a close call.

Biden’s pick was important for its potential effect on governing, should Democrats win, and for the direction of the party. It just was not terribly consequential in electoral terms. As this column has argued many times, people vote for president, not for vice president. Races with incumbents are referenda on their record, not on a running mate. And if a running mate were to have any real impact, it would more likely be negative than positive. (As I’ve also noted before, Lyndon Johnson in 1960 securing Texas for John Kennedy is the only modern example in which a running mate actually mattered.)

In terms of the presidential-race outcome, the numbers are fairly unambiguous. Incumbents typically receive relatively few undecided votes, hence the acronym, WYSIWYG—“what you see is what you get.” That’s why Trump’s levels of support in this week’s batch of presidential polls are so troubling: He received 40 percent in a Georgetown University Institute of Politics poll conducted by Lake Research (Democratic) and the Tarrance Group (Republican), 41 percent in a Monmouth University poll, 42 percent in a Fox News poll (identical to his average share according to RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight’s calculations), and 45 percent in a Pew Research Center poll (the best of the online polls). Biden’s lowest share was 49 percent, reflected in the Fox poll and RCP's average. He received 51 percent in the Monmouth poll and FiveThirtyEight’s average, and 53 percent in both the Pew Research and Georgetown surveys.

Job approvals are the best indicator of how an incumbent president will fare, and they point to the very same place: 42 percent according to FiveThirtyEight, Georgetown, and Monmouth, and 43 percent according to RCP. (Fox and Pew have not yet released job-approval figures.)

The Electoral College math isn’t any more promising. Trump is well behind in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the three states that effectively determined the outcome of the 2016 election. Those alone would get Biden to 270 electoral votes. Plus, Biden’s lead in Florida has widened to match that of the Frost Belt, while Trump is more or less even in Arizona and North Carolina. Trump is even struggling in Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas, which alone underscores the difficulty of his situation.

One big change since Trump’s 2016 win is that Biden does not bring into this race the baggage that Hillary Clinton had accumulated. In the Fox News poll, for example, 53 percent rated Biden favorably and 43 percent unfavorably. Trump was almost the mirror opposite: 55 percent unfavorable and 43 percent favorable.

The Pew poll underscored how temperament was working in Biden’s favor. In the words of one senior adviser, “He’s not a scary guy.” And it may be hard to put Biden in the same ideological camp as the party’s progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

But even when political parties appear to be enjoying a favorable election year, they can be forced to make tough decisions. Do Democrats allocate resources to tougher states like Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and, or, as Erin Covey wrote in National Journal this week, in the Lone Star State?

Democrats have a chance to make historic inroads in the last election before the next decade’s congressional and state legislative maps are drawn. Roughly 80 percent of state legislative seats are on the ballot this year. The Democratic establishment, which never liked Howard Dean, are loath to admit that the 50-state strategy he formulated when he chaired the Democratic National Committee did help.

But—and there is always a “but”—the Biden campaign is intent on not repeating a mistake the party made four years ago, going for the big win and overlooking must-win states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The Clinton campaign waged all-out war in suburbs surrounding Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but little was done to get out the urban vote in Detroit and Milwaukee, or the student vote in Ann Arbor and Lansing, Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin.

The Biden campaign's singular mission is getting 270 electoral votes, and that means winning Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Nothing else matters.

But the Democratic Party is also trying to rebuild for the future, so reach states like Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas are awfully enticing. But Georgia, Ohio, and Texas are big, expensive states. Texas alone has 20 Nielsen media markets, and Des Moines, Iowa, with its almost-statewide reach, isn't cheap either.

But the cold-blooded, reality-based decision about resources that the Biden campaign has to make applies to the Senate as well. Democrats have a surprising number of paths to a majority and beyond, but do they focus on what will get them to 51 or 52 seats, focusing on Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana, and North Carolina? Or do they go big, dropping resources into Georgia’s two Senate races, Kansas’s open-seat race, and long-shot opportunities in Texas, or even Alaska, Louisiana, and Mississippi? Notably left off of that list are challenges to Sens. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, since Democrats’ massive fundraising base will cover those two efforts, sparing the party tough decisions there.

As tough as they are, they aren’t the triage decisions that their GOP counterparts are about to begin in their allocation choices.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on August 14, 2020