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Branding in Runs for President

With the race now down to two candidates, it’s worth looking back. Why didn’t the other candidates get traction?

The main thing a candidate needs is a brand. But that brand has to be anchored in who they are, in their story. They aren’t starting from scratch.

You don’t get to pick who you are, but you do get to brand it. You get to emphasize the things that matter. And you also get to create your message, your style of campaign. You can have an angry campaign, a friendly campaign, whatever kind. That’s something that doesn’t have to be who you have been for years. The campaign part of it is new. It can be what you need.

There’s policy. It matters, but mostly as a sample for how you will approach issues. There are lanes—moderate, progressive, trade, populist, whatever. But you can build your own lane, if you approach it the right way. That’s the main goal of the brand: to stake out a path that runs by as many voters’ houses as you can.


None of that is to say the also-rans did not have good points. But they often failed to get that basic branding down. Which is also not to say that Biden and Sanders did.

You go to the grocery store, looking for some new breakfast cereal. You check the options, try some free samples, and walk out with the same old box of cereal. That doesn’t mean you love that cereal, or that its brand won you over again. It just means you didn’t find what you wanted, so you continued on with what you’re used to until something better comes along.

The biggest problem with running for president is that you have to make a lot of noise. Bloomberg dumped hundreds of millions of dollars in noisemaking. But his noise did not carry very much. For Sanders, his followers make a lot of noise, but they often piss off the neighbors.

That’s particularly true in a crowded field. The most recognizable members of a crowd are those on the ends or edges. Surprise: Sanders and Biden were, at least in some measure, at the edges of the crowd.

The goal of the brand for a campaign, particularly a crowded one where making lots of noise isn’t really a sound strategy (unless you can really crank the decibels up to massive levels) is to find a new edge of the crowd to be at. Something that makes people say “Okay, all those are the same, but this one is over here doing something different.”

So for now it looks like the party is going with the leading brand: Biden. Sanders still has a shot. As does a no-majority outcome. It’s up to the voters to decide if Sanders’ brand is stronger, if they find them about equal, or if the leading brand it is.


One issue is, in the South, the Democrats are largely anchored toward the moderate side of things by the Republicans’ strength. They don’t see the field from the same viewpoint, and so the brands are distorted from where they stand. At least part of the remedy is for national Democrats to look to strengthen state Democrats in the South, so that they can better see the field and vote for more progressive options.

The election comes in 34 weeks.

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society

Whom to Vote for on Super Tuesday 2020

I’ll be voting this Tuesday. If you have primaries in your state, I hope you will, too.

Let’s start with a brief evaluation of each candidate.

Joe Biden

Lots of experience, most good, some bad. So far he remains the candidate that seems to have the broadest support, although it has taken a hit following the early contests.

Michael Bloomberg

Lots of business experience, with some political experience as mayor of NYC. A businessman first. Barely a democrat. Lots of baggage and lots of money. Not much of a debater.

Pete Buttigieg

A healthy mixture of experience for such a young candidate. But still light on experience for someone seeking the most essential executive position in the nation. Limited demographic support so far.

Amy Klobuchar

She’s experienced and Midwestern and has receipts to prove it. A moderate, to be sure. Unclear if there’s broader support.

Bernie Sanders

Also has experience. Also, a democratic socialist. Has a solid base of support, but so far not too broad (though promising returns in Nevada).

Elizabeth Warren

Experience, and a solid progressive. Trouble getting broad support.


If I went with the candidate I like the best, it’d be Warren. I don’t like the call to eliminate the filibuster—there are better ways of dealing with the obstruction in the Senate than that. But overall she’s well-rounded and the closest candidate still running who is a third way between the moderate branch and the left branch of the party. The only reservation with Warren is her relative lack of support in the polls.

If I went with the safest choice, it’d be Biden or Klobuchar or Buttigieg (in that order). Sanders is a bit of a risk, and moderate candidates are good bets for Democrats. Biden, despite some slips, had a decent debate this week—particularly for a mess of a debate. He still appears to have good, broad support. Klobuchar and Buttigieg are good options too, but with the need to consolidate the moderate vote, Biden is still the safe-ish choice. Klobuchar hasn’t moved up like she needed to, despite some momentum a few weeks back. Buttigieg might make a good candidate some day, but he still doesn’t have as much experience as one would like.

On the whole, if any of those three looked to be consolidating the moderate vote, it’d be the way to go. As it is, the best choice to do that is Biden. The main issue with the moderate lane is that it hasn’t consolidated, and none of the candidates have set themselves apart as the obvious choice. Biden is so only from inertia, not because he’s earned it in the campaign.

And finally, if the models hold, to avoid a messy convention, I’d go with Sanders. I don’t like a lot about his history toward socialist countries around the world (for the same reason I think the pro-Pinochet economist-types on the right are batshit: authoritarianism is poison to the human spirit whatever cloth it wears). I think there are more palatable versions of Medicare-for-All than his proposals. But I don’t think his presidency would be a leftist-version of the loser we have now.

The main thing that gives me pause is Sanders’ inability to show any kind of political awareness of where he sits compared to the party. He has shown no capacity to wield an olive branch. For all of Donald John Trump’s flaws, that is easily the biggest of all—that he doesn’t even try to be understanding or collegial. That’s a stark difference to the basic Democratic Party big-tent mores: that the various sides of an argument matter.

Republicans show no real care about their loser’s incapacity to try to understand others, but most Democrats would remain skeptical of a Sanders administration. That’s true even while they would still vote to elect him if he became the nominee. And maybe having both parties united in skepticism would be healthy. Dunno. But I do know it would take a lot of negotiating to get any domestic agenda passed—something that’s true regardless of the nominee, but especially so for Sanders.

The other thing with Sanders, one guesses, is that he still believes there’s some socialist revolution around the corner. I’ve said before I think the capitalist–socialist debate is antiquated, but especially is the notion that there’s some big swing waiting to happen where people come out of the woodwork to embrace socialism. That’s likely why Sanders keeps repeating support for even shreds of regimes like Castro’s—he doesn’t want to alienate these revolutionaries. But they don’t exist. It isn’t going to happen. The home for socialism in America is through the same meat-and-potatoes policies it has embraced since the Great Depression, not some alternate universe story where there’s a socialist NATO and a socialist Federalist society and so on.


That’s my dilemma. Three choices. I won’t spoil it by saying which way I went until next week. Mostly because I’m not entirely sure, myself (and want to see how South Carolina turns out).


One other matter worth addressing here is the notion that you should vote for a candidate simply out of excitement or love. The love in voting is for the nation, for democracy, not for the candidate. To the extent a candidate excites or enamors a voter, it is the candidate’s embrace of the common cause of humanity and self-governance, not some mystic quality. So, yes, vote out of love, but vote out of love for the USA.

There are 35 more weeks until the election.

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society

The Convention Candidate

Okay, that debate deserves at least a few words. Warren gave a very strong performance. While a lot of the coverage focuses on her attacking everyone, the fact is that other than the newcomer and maybe Biden, everyone else was attacking everyone, so Warren isn’t alone there. But she is alone in her performance, followed by another strong showing by Klobuchar, whom Buttigieg tried to hit, mostly without success.

Anyway, we’ll see how this sets the polls moving for the Nevada caucuses. This post isn’t really about the debate, but what happens going forward. I had written the rest before and then watched the debate, it was easily the most important debate of this cycle (so far?), so I wanted to point at it here.


The trajectory of the Democratic nomination is such that no one may have enough votes to win the nomination on the first ballot at the convention. The question is, what should happen next?

While the candidate with the most delegates at that point will likely call for their own nomination, is that right? Depends.

It depends, first, on how many delegates they actually have. If they are a hair short, then the claim is stronger. If they aren’t, it’s weaker. Second, do they have broad support among the various constituencies of Democrats? Did they get broad African-American support, Latino support, Asian support? If so, stronger, if not, weaker.

In what seems the most likely scenario at the moment, Sanders comes away with a healthy lead over individual candidates, but at a deficit to the moderates collectively. He doesn’t get strong minority support. He doesn’t get that close to an outright majority.

In such a case, he hasn’t earned the nomination. He might still get it, through the politics of a convention, but it wouldn’t be his for the taking. It would be down to horse trading. Who will be the VP candidate? What concessions to rules and policies for the platform? And so on.

Which is where we’re likely headed.

Sanders would have leverage in that scenario, but only so much. His main threat would be to blow up the party, which isn’t as much of a threat as a description if he doesn’t have control over his own voters. Which, he hasn’t shown much control.

Anyway, that’s where we’re heading if the current state of things stays as it is. It’s not as likely to, though. Chances are a lot of folks see Nevada and South Carolina and take a cue and the four-way moderate contest becomes two at best. The moderates that fall back likely drop out and pick their horse and things firm up considerably.

Assuming that does happen, Sanders loses some support in the offing, as some of his current support is from people who just like front-runners.

But the way the math works out, even then the convention may go past the first ballot with all that entails. Oh well. Politics is messy.

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society

Thoughts on the State of the 2020 Race as of mid-February.

Happy ♥ belated Valentine’s ♥ Day.

Lots of doom and gloom splash the websites of late, about this thing or that thing and fret and worry and hairpull and dread! Oh my! How dramatic the press can be over Democrats, but over Republicans derilict and all but androidified by a monstrous idiot, barely a titter! Barely a noise at all.

So what is there? Iowa, for one.

If you go back down the history of nominations, of conventions, you will find a thing to remember, friend. You will find that it is almost a rule that delegations were not seated, were contested, were bickered over, had problems. You will find, in that long history of putting peoples’ names up to be the candidate for president, that things have always gone oddly and badly.

And there are reasons. There’s the dynamic between state law and private political parties which have their own desires for how those laws should change. There’s the fact that lots of people who go into politics aren’t that competent (they’re human, after all). There’s a ton of moving parts and fractures and needs all pulling against each other, shoving and worrying their own ways around in the chaos.

So, don’t be too worried over Iowa. Don’t be too worried if the whole nomination process goes quite badly. That’s the way of things.

What’s next? The state of the field, right? Right—we have an odd selection of candidates. A Democratic Socialist, a young mayor from Indiana, a billionaire trying to swoop in, a former veep with his dwindling polling, a progressive warrior with her own electoral woes, and a suddenly rising moderate with her chance here and the wonder if she can make anything of it.

All of them better than the president. Indeed, I believe practically anyone, even you, would do better.

But can they beat him? Can this idiot no longer be president as of January of 2021?

Don’t worry about it. As long as people go vote, it will be fine. Go register. Go vote in your state primary, as a practice run. Come November, you cast your ballot and it’ll be fine.

How do I know it will be fine? Because that’s how our system works, of course. We choose our leaders. If we do our jobs, then the outcome is already determined. If we go and vote, we get better leaders. If people stay home or can’t be bothered to choose a good candidate over a bad one, we get bad leaders. And if things get worse, they have only themselves to blame.

I always vote, because I want good government. If you do, you should always vote. It’s like looking both ways before crossing the street, or washing your hands before meals.

Anyway, the election is in 37 weeks.

  • You want good government.
  • Good government requires that you vote.
  • Therefore ⇒ You want to vote.
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society

2020 Democratic Debate 8.0

Ah, the Friday-evening debate we’ve all been waiting for.

For this debate we have seven candidates like last time, but we also have the Iowa caucuses under our belts, which have given a little bit of clarity on where things stand. Buttigieg and Sanders neck-and-neck on that one puts the whole thing in a different light, doesn’t it?


Going into the debate, some expectations:

Sanders

Having done well in Iowa, and expected to do well in New Hampshire as it borders Vermont, Sanders will probably be looking to cement his position. His main threat, per latest polls, is Buttigieg, but he may not take the expected bait of moderators to get into a direct confrontation.

Buttigieg

In a similar position to Sanders for very different reasons, in New Hampshire he’s not a neighbor. The main question will be how much time he spends going after Sanders versus trying to tamp down his main moderate rivals (Biden and Klobuchar). It’s likely that he’s not making any dire push for New Hampshire, but isn’t writing it off, either.

Warren

She didn’t make any surprise in Iowa, and she’s not that high in New Hampshire polling (though she is a neighbor), so it seems like she will try to make some moves to help her in the medium-term. She could try to stake out the in-between ground that has been vacant since Booker and Harris have left the race. If she can make the case for the middle-way, that’s probably her best bet to siphon away from both moderates and progressives.

Biden

Having come up short in Iowa, Biden is almost locked-in to depending on the south to make his case for him, so like Warren will probably be less focused on New Hampshire retail and more on setting up for the next act (particularly with Bloomberg increasing his push). With Buttigieg having taken the lead in the moderate lane, he’s got some heat off him and can benefit from lowered expectations by beating them.

Klobuchar

Still pushing along in third in the moderate lane, it’s not clear what strategy she can muster here. The middle-way that someone like Warren might take is too off-brand for Klobuchar to attempt. Her best bet is more of a elder stateswoman play, but (for whatever reason) none of the female candidates have much attempted that kind of strategy.

Steyer and Yang

They’re still there. They have some good ideas, but at least in Yang’s case some weird ones, too. No idea if any of it amounts to anything other than a kind of data-gathering strategy that could be useful to candidates down the road. With Steyer, it’s not clear what he’s doing, so it’s hard to say if he can do it well.


OK. Klobuchar definitely stepped up. We’ll have to wait to see how much it helped, but it was definitely above her normal debate performance. She was the first to invoke gratitude to her fellow senators who did their duty and voted to convict Donald John Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors, along with praising Lieutenant Colonel Vindman for his service to the nation (Biden subsequently prompted the crowd to give Vindman a standing ovation).

Steyer elbowed his way into the fray at least a couple of times, mostly to remind everyone how important it is to defeat the president in November.

Yang did his best to underscore the basic sensibilities of a universal basic income: that it would empower all people to make choices that would benefit their lives in ways that government is either unwilling or unable to do. It would cut through all sorts of red tape to let people make positive changes. It’s a good pitch, but it’s damned hard to sell a panacea as a presidential strategy, whatever its virtues.

Warren didn’t have a bad night, but it didn’t feel like she had a great one either. Seemed to mostly play to her base and reminded me of Sanders in some of the early debates where she stuck to her message without really adding. With more debates coming this month and her current position, she may have felt it was best to play it safe.

Speaking of Sanders, he also had more of an average night, which is at least partly because he’s usually (a little too) good at staying to his message. But it seems to be working for him, at least in Iowa and in New Hampshire.

Biden was steady, though weaker than his best. Which, like Warren (and Sanders?) may have been strategy. Again, with two more debates and contests this month alone, and the thick of the campaign nearly upon us, and it being a Friday night debate, playing it easy makes a lot of sense. (On the other hand, not attempting minor differences, just to see if it helps, is usually a wasted opportunity.)

And finally, Buttigieg. He took some flak, as expected as the biggest beneficiary of the Iowa caucuses. His main contribution to the debate was the repetition of his phrase: “Turn the page.” One naturally assumes that, should he receive the nomination, it would be one of his slogans to wield against the president. He had a decent night for all the criticism of his inexperience. It’s important to note that it’s not merely the lack of government experience, but also life experience that’s rolled into that. He has experienced a decent amount for his age, but compared to the older candidates it’s still significantly less.


On the whole a decent debate if only for seeing how the candidates react with the busy week and Iowa behind them. The upcoming contest in New Hampshire and the other debates and primaries this month will really get us down to the big day coming on 3 March.

In terms of strategy, playing it safe was probably safe, but stepping up like Klobuchar did, especially with others sitting back a bit, should help her. We’ll see how much.


The election occurs in 38 weeks.