The Democratic Taboo – The New York Times - The World News

The Democratic Taboo – The New York Times

The Democratic Party has had no shortage of argument and dissent over the years. Internal battles and backbiting are part of what it means to be a modern-day Democrat.

But over the past few months, Democrats have been distinctly inhospitable to the public airing of concerns about President Biden — particularly the question of whether, at age 81, he is too old to run for president again, but also criticisms of the day-to-day strategic decisions by his campaign.

This has played out on platforms large and small, most recently after Jon Stewart, on his return to his former Comedy Central show after a nine-year hiatus, mocked the “objectively old” President Biden. “Please make it another nine years,” Keith Olbermann, the former MSNBC host, said on X.

Prominent Democratic strategists like David Axelrod and James Carville who criticize Biden are facing a barrage of pushback on social media and from the White House — and sometimes, reportedly, from Biden himself. They are accused of lifting the prospects of Donald Trump, and of being disloyal alarmists (or, in a phrase from the 2008 campaign that has come back in vogue this year, bed-wetters).

There are critics of Trump on the Republican side, too, but they have been relegated to the sidelines, more likely to be ignored than seriously engaged, reflecting the party’s devotion to Trump and to the increasing conviction among his supporters that he will win.

What is happening among Democrats should not be a surprise. The political environment has changed starkly. Politics is more of a team sport — you are with me or against me. Olbermann assailed Stewart as a “bothsidesist fraud.” Mary Trump, the former president’s niece and one of his biggest critics, called Stewart “a potential disaster for democracy.” And platforms like X have grown into organizational tools, halls for rallying attacks on anyone who might be viewed as a heretic.

But it also goes to the particular dynamics of this election. Biden is almost certain to be his party’s nominee, despite concerns that have been raised by Democrats. But he is viewed unfavorably by much of the electorate, and is struggling against Trump in swing states like Michigan. “Democrats Have a Better Option Than Biden,” my colleague Ezra Klein in Times Opinion said in a 4,000-word audio essay, devoted to why Biden should step aside. (“No. Ezra Klein Is Completely Wrong. Here’s Why,” read the response from Talking Points Memo.)

Biden supporters argue that Democrats should not do anything that might be perceived as contributing to a second Trump term. That includes raising questions about any Biden shortcomings or the decisions of the Biden campaign command. The memories of 2016, when some Democrats piled onto Hillary Clinton in the weeks leading up to her loss, remain raw.

“Privately, there are a tremendous amount of misgivings about Biden running again,” said Douglas Sosnik, who was a senior White House adviser to Bill Clinton. “But there are some reservations, at least for some people, about publicly voicing the concerns about Biden.”

Axelrod, who was the chief strategist for Barack Obama, has been dragged by the White House and on X for questioning the way the campaign has been run, particularly how it has addressed Biden’s age.

“There’s this sense that this is a hugely consequential election and Biden is the guy and everybody should march unquestioningly behind him and don’t mention the things that they see,” Axelrod said. “I don’t think that’s helpful to him.”

“Everybody knows the score,” he said. “This is not a challenge you can wish away. I’d rather tell the truth and take my chance.”

Carville, who was a lead strategist to Bill Clinton when he was elected to the White House in 1992, has also come under fire for his critiques of Biden’s re-election team.

“Look, if I were in the White House, I wouldn’t like me right now either,” he said. “But that’s just part of the territory.”

And for what it’s worth, the pushback against critics like Stewart, Axelrod and Carville doesn’t seem likely to keep them quiet. Stewart used his second television appearance to eye-roll his critics. “I have sinned against you, I’m sorry,” Stewart said. “It was never my intention to say out loud what I saw with my eyes and then brain.”

Carville said it was important for Democrats to acknowledge the reality of Biden’s age as he seeks re-election.

“I haven’t said anything that is wrong,” Carville said. “I think some people think if you don’t mention it, it will solve itself on its own. I don’t think that is viable.”

It’s still early in the primary season, but a whiff of a possible polling error is already in the air: Donald Trump underperformed the polls in each of the first three competitive contests.

  • In Iowa, the final FiveThirtyEight polling average showed Trump leading Nikki Haley by 34 points with a 53 percent share. He ultimately beat her by 32 points with 51 percent. (Ron DeSantis took second.)

  • In New Hampshire, he led by 18 points with 54 percent. In the end, he won by 11 points with 54 percent.

  • In South Carolina, Trump led by 28 points with 62 percent. He ultimately won by 20 points with 60 percent.

In the scheme of primary polls, these aren’t especially large misses. In fact, they’re more accurate than average.

But with Trump faring well in early general election polls against President Biden, even a modest Trump underperformance in the polls is worth some attention.

So what’s going on? We can’t say anything definitive based on the data at our disposal, but three theories are worth considering.

One simple explanation is that undecided voters ultimately backed Haley, the former South Carolina governor.

This is plausible. Trump is a well-known candidate — even a de facto incumbent for his party. If you’re a Republican who at this point doesn’t know if you support Trump, you’re probably just not especially inclined toward the former president. It’s easy to see how you might end up supporting his challenger.

Another possibility is that the polls simply got the makeup of the electorate wrong. In this theory, pollsters did a good job of measuring the people they intended to measure, but they were measuring the wrong electorate. In particular, they did not include enough of the Democratic-leaning voters who turned out to support Haley.

For many pollsters, the problem is baked in from the start: They don’t even interview prior Democratic primary voters.

The decision to survey prior Republican primary voters is understandable — it makes the poll much cheaper and homes in on the respondents likeliest to vote — but it will obviously miss any previous Democratic voters who hadn’t voted in a Republican primary and now choose to do so.

If you’re a Democrat hoping that the polls are underestimating Biden in the general election, your best-case scenario is the polls are wrong because there’s a Hidden Biden vote, or at least a Hidden Anti-Trump vote.

In this theory, the polls did well in modeling the electorate while undecided voters split between the candidates, but anti-Trump voters simply weren’t as likely to take surveys as pro-Trump voters. If this theory were true, then the general election polls might be underestimating Biden by just as much as they’ve underestimated Haley.

There is one reason the anti-Trump turnout might have relevance for general election polling: It’s consistent with other data showing Biden with the edge among the most highly engaged voters. This could yield a slight turnout advantage, even in a general election. It may also mean that the current polls of all registered voters slightly underestimate Biden compared with the narrower group of actual voters.

This wouldn’t mean the polls today are vastly underestimating Biden, but it could make the difference in a close election.

Nate Cohn

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