Liberal Base's own Gianni Sarra answers your questions about next month's US presidential election. Gianni Tweets @GianniRSarra.
1. Gianni, please tell us a little about what you're working on and your research interests.
So my research focus is on ethical dilemmas that confront democratic politicians working in unjust systems. I focus on ‘dirty hands’ problems, where we must do something wrong in order to do what we perceive as morally or politically necessary, and focus on cases where this arises in issues of institutional corruption. Campaign finance systems that amount to legalised bribery, legislating in a world of obstructionism and dirty tricks, winning elections in a political climate defined by gerrymandering - these are all real-world cases that interest me. They’re all very relevant to US politics, too, which is my big fascination and has been for years.
2. At his rallies, President Trump has suggested the 2020 polls are inaccurate in the same way they were in 2016. Is there a case for this? How has polling improved?
So a first thing to say is that the polls were not as wrong as people usually think. The national polling picture showed, for the most part, a narrow Clinton lead in the popular vote, and that was the result. Polls, especially district level polls, picked up on the Clinton campaign's weakness with the white working class and struggles with turnout. The high preponderance of third-party voters and undecided voters who hated both candidates - both phenomena that ultimately hurt Clinton - were predictable. There was a big question mark about how these people would vote in the final days of the election, and that question mark isn’t here this time.
On the state level - which is ultimately what matters - there were some big polling failures in 2016. Even then, though, this deserves a caveat. Most of the states that were seen as part of the Blue Wall - most notably the trio of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania - showed modest Clinton leads. Most of these leads were not outside the margin of error, plus there were a lot of undecided voters, and that uncertainty was rarely accounted for in the discussion. There were some bigger failures - Minnesota was closer and Iowa and Ohio were even more lop-sided than people expected.
The big issue with polls in 2016 is that they barely weighted for education. Pollsters try to get representative samples in terms of race, gender, income, age, and so on. Many were caught sleeping on the big impact education levels had on the 2016 election. That error has largely been acknowledged and attempts to rectify it have been made.
Ultimately, thinking polls are useless is the wrong lesson to take away from 2016. What is a better lesson is we should pay attention to how polls are used. The Clinton campaign seemed to have internalised a rosier interpretation of the polls, as did the media, and so this created a narrative that, despite how close the polls were, Clinton was a shoo-in. In reality, she had a smaller advantage that fell apart.
So Biden has many things going for him. His nationwide polling is undeniably dominant, and district-level polls seem to point towards a highly positive picture for him. Statewide polls seem a bit more competitive, but still favouring Biden, and the playing field has expanded undeniably into erstwhile Republican states such as Arizona, Georgia, and Texas. Right now, Biden is closer in Alaska - a state that’s only once voted Democrat for President - than Trump is in Michigan. The third-party and undecided vote is far lower at this point too, and reassuringly the “I hate both candidates” voters seem to be breaking for Biden. From what I can tell, the greatest likely source of a polling error this year stems from the prospect turnout models are wrong, and pollsters are at least cognizant of that.
In short - yes, there might be a polling failure that hands the election to Trump. We can't rule that out. But to save Trump, it needs to be a polling failure far bigger than what we saw in 2016, and polling errors cut both ways: it is just as likely there is a polling failure in the other direction and Biden wins by even more than we expect.
There is, of course, the prospect of voter suppression and of Trump casting aspersions on the ballot’s integrity and stopping a peaceful transition of power. I’m personally inclined to think the scale of Democratic enthusiasm and civil society preparedness will probably overcome the risk of voter suppression, and that while Trump can cause trouble for an ugly and brutal couple of months, he can’t stop a victorious Biden being sworn in. I could be wrong on both counts, and I hope I’m not.
3. What is Donald Trump's path to victory?
The Trump campaign is talking about expanding the playing field to states such as Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nevada, but realistically they’re playing defence. States like North Carolina and Florida are, as usual, highly competitive; states like Texas and Georgia that Republicans could once count on are now tossups; swing states like Iowa and Ohio that came out strong for Trump in 2016 are now back on the board.
Trump could win all those states, however, and he still hasn’t guaranteed his reelection. Four states Trump won in 2016 - Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona - seem highly favoured to flip to Biden, and even if Trump sweeps the board with all the remaining tossups, he’ll fall short if those states do so.
Trump needs to hold onto at least two of these states to have a plausible path to victory, and even then it’ll be close enough that there might be an electoral college tie or it might come down to a single electoral vote in Nebraska or Maine. And this is all assuming he sweeps the board in the other tossup states. If Trump loses Florida or Ohio or, in an apocalyptic scenario for Republicans, Texas, then a feasible path all but disappears. There would need to be some unprecedented and unexpected divergence between the national picture and his performance in certain regions.
With the Trump campaign low on money and falling behind in the polls as people are already voting, this path is very narrow and at this point is almost dependent on there being a big polling error. It’s not unfair to say that counting on voter suppression and intimidation and shenanigans in the courts are among his best options.
4. Tell us a little about some of the other races taking place in the US this year. What should we look out for?
The big one is the US Senate. Democrats need to win the Senate, preferably with a few seats to spare, or else Joe Biden will have a tremendously difficult first-term. I’ve been writing a series for Liberal Base, which I will wrap up in the final weeks before the election, looking at some of these races. Right now, though, I’d rather be the Democrats than the Republicans. Republicans have a likely gain in Alabama and a plausible yet uphill shot in Michigan. In contrast, Democrats are likely to gain Arizona and Colorado, are in strong positions in North Carolina, Iowa, and Maine, and are running strong races in Republican territory such as South Carolina and Montana. Realistically Democrats just have to worry about two seats, maybe three or four at a push: Republicans have to worry about a dozen.
The House, in contrast, seems all but sure to stay in Democratic hands, but there are a few races worth watching. Democrats will be defending both their suburban gains and their upset victories in red territory from 2018, such as in Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina. They’ll be looking to expand their stronghold in suburban seats - especially in Texas - and try and gain some more footholds in rural Republican-leaning states such as Montana and Alaska.
If I had to pick one House race I’d be watching, it’d be New Jersey’s 2nd. This swing seat, in southern New Jersey, was flipped by Democrat Jeff Van Drew in 2018. He then, amidst the Trump impeachment trial, switched parties and is now running as a Republican. It was pretty naked opportunism. A Democrat, Amy Kennedy, is running against him, and has a good shot at booting him out.
State-level races matter a lot too. There are all kinds of referenda, local and state offices, and legislative elections at play. Control over state legislatures is at stake here. Democrats could take control of legislative chambers and important regulatory offices in states such as Arizona and Texas. This would break Republican governing “trifectas” and make sure states such as Texas are not gerrymandered for the next decade. A good Twitter thread on the stakes in each state is here.
5. Let's talk about 2024. Leading Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio will be under pressure to declare whether they will run for re-election to the United States Senate in 2022. If Senator Rubio stands down, there is speculation he will prepare for a 2024 presidential bid. Which Republican politicians should we keep an eye on for 2024 and what hurdles do they face?
You mention Marco Rubio - I don’t see it. Marco Rubio, to me, was one of the most overhyped politicians of the last decade, and he has not distinguished himself at all during the Trump era. Perhaps he’ll run, and he’ll likely be competing for the Trump-sceptic wing of the GOP if he does do so, but I think if he’s smart he’ll stay in the Senate. His Senate colleague, Rick Scott, the former Governor who beat a Democratic incumbent two years ago, probably has a more viable path: he’s used his personal wealth to put out ads building name recognition in early voting states presenting himself as some great defender of the President.
I’d group the candidates into a few camps. One is those who will present themselves as unambiguously Trumpian - they delight in causing offence, have nasty authoritarian streaks, seem very comfortable with the racism and divisiveness Trumpism is built on. Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton; Representative Matt Gaetz; one of Trump’s sons; Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson; the former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who became one of Trump’s most ardent allies after leaving office with an abysmal approval rating. If Trumpism gets rejected and, as I suspect, most of its Republican enablers quickly pretend they were never on board with it, this wing would likely face some difficult barriers from the establishment. If the Trump base can stay united and motivated, though, then they probably will be the decisive voter bloc.
The next camp is those who can have a foot in both camps. These are the Republicans who had records as mainstream conservatives before the Trump era, have successfully stayed on Trump’s arbitrary good side over the past four years, and if Trump loses will probably continue their balancing act of pretending to represent both civility and MAGA at the same time. This group includes some of the few administration officials who’ve actually left office on good terms with the President - such as former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley - and current administration officials that are well-liked by the old GOP bases of evangelicals and war hawks such as VP Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. There are a few figures in Congress who fall into this camp, too, such as Senator Tim Scott.
The next group is those who, despite being complicit enablers of a vast majority of what Trump’s said and done, seem to have a shot at presenting themselves as a clean break from the Trump era. It’s hard to say for certain who would fit into this category. I think by definition it will most likely take the form of someone we’re not talking about now. It could be a new politician elected in 2020 or 2022 who has the luxury of not having had to actually go on the record in the Trump era itself and instead just abide by the historical consensus. A figure from the above group - most plausibly Haley or Scott - might try reinventing themselves in this category.
Finally there are those who can represent different factions of the group. Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan, the popular Governor of a blue state who cast a write-in vote for Ronald Reagan as President, is a clear choice for “moderate” Republicans, but they will almost definitely not make up the critical voting bloc. Senator Ted Cruz, though almost universally reviled by his colleagues, could try and recreate the Tea Party spirit that kept him competitive in the 2016 primaries, while Senator Rand Paul might rediscover his libertarianism.
And if Trump loses, he could try again. This campaign, after all, has been a tremendous gift for him.
6. Should Trump lose in November, is Vice-President Pence automatically the next leader of 'The Base'?
Probably not, no. Pence has always been the favourite of the religious right - the homophobes, the anti-choice voters, the evangelists. His style of politics has never been a perfectly comfortable fit with the bombastic Trump, and he’s never inspired the slavish and cultish loyalty from the MAGA base that other political figures do.
Which isn’t to say Pence won’t be a strong contender - there’s relatively few figures in the GOP who can possibly craft an electoral alliance between MAGA voters and an older part of the GOP base. But it's also possible Trump tries to cling to his leadership position, or one of his children step up in his place, or some other figure like Tucker Carlson tries becoming the new spokesperson for MAGA.
7. What is the 25th Amendment?
So there are a few features to the 25th Amendment. Some aren’t really that politically interesting in the modern age, fixing little legal gaps that caused some confusion decades ago. It clarifies how the Vice President becomes President if the President dies or leaves office before their term is up and how Vice Presidential vacancies are filled. The third section allows the President to temporarily make the VP acting President if, for whatever reason, they are unable to serve. Usually it’s used when a President goes under for an operation, but it of course has inspired a lot of fiction.
What is of interest is the fourth section - which allows the VP and the Cabinet to say that a President is unfit to serve, can’t or won’t step aside voluntarily, and to make the VP acting President. It’s never been used. A lot of people have said the Cabinet should invoke it against Trump. He’s clearly unfit to serve, after all, in temperament, ethics, and capability. There are rumours it’s been considered. They’ve never been confirmed, though, and such a move would incite the conspiracy theorists that make up a big part of Trump’s base.
It’s also been talked about as a potential outcome of the next term. Both Trump and Biden are old, after all. I don’t really see this as a discussion we need to have, at least not now. Biden is not in the grips of senility or dementia and though his age increases the risk of a shortened term, there’s nothing to suggest that’s an immediate worry or high possibility.
8. Is there consensus within the Republicans and Democrats for or against 'packing' the Supreme Court?
Increasingly it looks like Democrats will expand the number of Supreme Court justices as a retaliation against the GOP’s increasing politicisation of the appointments process and as a way to protect the rights and laws that are threatened by a 6-3 conservative majority. Republicans will of course cry foul.
But they have kept vacancies open under Obama just so Trump could fill them, rammed through controversial nominees such as Brett Kavanaugh and soon Amy Coney Barrett, and revealed their earlier objections to election-year appointments were blatant hypocrisies. In the past they have even floated the idea of reducing the size of courts to prevent then-President Obama from filling vacancies.
I’m not going to pretend the Democrats are either innocent or have done everything right, but the GOP have turned the courts into just another area of partisan battling. Court packing will be an escalation of this fight, but to pretend there isn’t a fight is, in my view, incredibly naive.
Potential sceptics - such as conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin and more institutionally-minded Democrats such as Chris Coons, a strong Biden ally - are accepting that court packing is a necessary evil. The Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, is likely to be an opponent. She seems to believe that the old norms around court appointments, such as deference to home-state senators and good faith attempts to fill vacancies, can be revived. She is increasingly in the minority on this front, and if Democrats take the Senate, it’s likely there’ll be pressure to deny her the position of chair.
9. If President Trump wins re-election, is a cabinet reshuffle likely? If so, who is vulnerable and who is due a promotion?
One of many things that defines the Trump Presidency is a high degree of turnover. Trump craves yes-men and sycophants and delights in making his administration a competitive and cutthroat battle for his approval. Add to that the constant flow of scandals and ethics controversies, and it's less likely there'll be a deliberate reshuffle, but the continued chaotic streak will likely intensify. Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, though, is certainly one figure in danger, having had the impossible task of handling public portrayal of Trump’s Covid diagnosis.
One thing worth saying is that reshuffles of the sort we have in the UK aren't quite the same in America. Our cabinet members are drawn from the legislative branch and often take on remits and responsibilities beyond their area of natural interest and expertise as a way to climb up the greasy pole. American Cabinet appointments need Senate approval and usually are dependent on each nominee being “qualified” for their post, so it’s rare for someone to switch a portfolio.
10. What is the likelihood of President Obama being the Democratic Party's pick for the US Supreme Court?
Unlikely. There was a time when Supreme Court nominees came from many backgrounds, and a century ago one Chief Justice - William Howard Taft - had also served as President. In this more charged and politicised area, though, it is unlikely Obama will be seriously considered. Obama’s qualified, certainly, and Biden has publicly floated the idea. Obama is unlikely to accept, though, having said that while he loves studying and debating the law, he does not think he’ll enjoy being a Supreme Court judge.
I also don't think it'll be a smart move. Not only will it likely provoke a furious Republican backlash, but it will be removing a very strong surrogate and campaigner from the Democrats' arsenal. Furthermore, judges are expected to recuse themselves when there might be a conflict of interest. Obama is involved in so many important pieces of legislation and regulation, and has given public endorsements and statements on many candidates and issues, and thus will at the very least face frequent calls to recuse himself.
11. What is your electoral college prediction for Donald Trump and Joe Biden?
I’m rather bearish on Ohio and Iowa, and think Democrats will probably come just short in Texas and Ohio, but am bullish on other states, as well as the two spare electoral votes up for grabs in urban Nebraska and rural Maine.