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3 political handicapping mistakes to avoid

Beware of focusing too much on messaging, general ballot tests and new election models

ANALYSIS — A few days ago, I heard a reporter who isn’t an authority on elections or voting behavior say that former Vice President Joe Biden’s problem is that his “message” hasn’t worked. Behold the first of three common political handicapping mistakes: putting too much weight into the message and not the messenger.

Yes, Biden’s message may be part of his problem, but it’s only a small part. He is a 77-year-old man who has been in politics forever and who looks and sounds less agile than what we expect from our political leaders. His age, experience and style all limit his message options.

Most importantly, Biden oozes moderation, the past and the “establishment” when many Democrats are looking for something different (dramatic change offered by Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) or something new (former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, businessman Andrew Yang, Sen. Amy Klobuchar or possibly even former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg).

Sanders (born Sept. 8, 1941) is a little more than a year older than Biden (born Nov. 20, 1942), but he speaks with such energy and passion that he appears younger, even after a heart attack.

Bloomberg (born Feb. 14, 1942) is five months younger than Sanders and nine months older than Biden, but the media mogul and former mayor is running a stealth media campaign, with a record of success running an ungovernable city. Let’s see what happens when Bloomberg starts doing interviews and participates in debates, when voters can see him and hear him, not just learn about him in scripted 30-second TV ads.

So, sure, Biden’s message hasn’t carried him as far as it might have if he were 20 years younger and voters were satisfied with the status quo. But while it might sound like thoughtful political analysis to criticize Biden’s “message,” the former vice president has more fundamental problems that have limited his appeal, no matter how truly decent a person he is. At least so far. We’ll see whether Nevada and South Carolina remake the Democratic contest, resurrecting Biden’s campaign.

Gloves come off

The second mistake involves general election ballot tests. Beware of accepting them on face value now that the Democratic fisticuffs have begun.

We are at the point in the Democratic race when candidates will take more and more direct shots at each other to solidify their positions or shake up the standings. We saw that during the ABC News debate Friday, but we heard it even earlier last week when Biden started to be more explicit in his criticism of Sanders and Buttigieg.

These kinds of attacks, while inevitable and even necessary, can skew general election ballot tests. Supporters of individual candidates may become angry at other campaigns and other hopefuls.

Because of the bitterness, Biden voters may refuse to say they’ll support Sanders, and Sanders supporters may say they are undecided in a Biden-Trump matchup or a Buttigieg-Trump contest.  

You’ll hear a lot of that on CNN and MSNBC as anchors regurgitate the same copy about the Democrats being divided and how this helps President Donald Trump’s reelection effort.

A divided Democratic Party certainly is a problem for their nominee and surely would improve Trump’s prospects, so in that respect the talking heads and TV anchors are correct. But one of the objectives during the post-convention period for the party not in the White House is to get unified.

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Sometimes that unity comes quickly, and sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes it never happens, which inevitably dooms the party. But it rarely occurs during the primaries if the party has had an extended battle for the presidential nomination. Give the supporters of the losing candidates time to grieve — and time to come to terms with the new shape of the general election.

The best way to deal with this phenomenon is to watch Trump’s numbers in the ballot tests and only Trump’s numbers — while giving Democrats some time to unite before dissecting general election ballot tests. Watch Trump’s numbers nationally but also in the eight or 10 key states that are likely to decide the November election.

No good predictions

The third and final mistake made by reporters and campaign-watchers is repeated every election cycle. Even today, you can find people who have models that will allegedly tell you who is going to win in November. They may say there are no swing voters or two or three economic numbers foretell the future. They may tell you they have isolated the “keys” to the next presidential election. Be skeptical, very skeptical.

I remember years ago helping to discredit an academic who promised in a Washington Post op-ed piece that Twitter could predict elections. He got plenty of airtime on CNN and MSNBC, because we all want to predict the future. But, of course, his research eventually was refuted by veteran pollsters and analysts. There is no magic elixir for predicting an election a year out.

Ignore claims by these kinds of soothsayers. Candidates matter. Campaigns matter. And events that we cannot now anticipate sure as heck matter. Do they matter less right now than they did 30 or 40 years ago? Probably, because of polarization. But they still matter a great deal. They can still separate winners from losers, as a total of 77,000 voters did in three key states in 2016. There is no magic elixir for predicting an election a year out.

Moreover, some election cycles are fairly predictable. This one is not, as anyone who has watched Trump and the daily news chaos knows.

Don’t worry about not being able to predict the future. It will come anyway. Instead, relish the unpredictability. It’s one of the things that makes politics fun.

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