Saturday, February 19, 2022

BTRTN: It’s Time to Ask… Should the United States Be Divided Into “Blue” and “Red” America?

It is the elephant -- and donkey -- in the room. After years of ever-increasing political polarization, internecine aggression, endless legislative obstructionism, all resulting in a government that no longer functions, Steve thinks it may be time to at least ask the question. And simply asking the question might be a very good thing for this country.


First, there was “legitimate political discourse.” Then, the “gazpacho police.” 

It was just another week of madness in the Donald Trump Party -- why even bother to call it “Republican?” It is increasingly difficult to accept that this grossly mutated political organization actually resides in the same country I live in. It feels as distant and alien as an alternate reality accessible only through a worm hole in the space time continuum.

Marjorie Taylor Greene accused Nancy Pelosi of leading the “gazpacho police,” which we infer must be a ruthless band of vegetarians who muzzle our choice of soup or salad. What will Marjorie scream about next? That Nancy Pelosi serves Luftwaffles for breakfast? Mein Kampfert food on a cold winter night? Sure, laugh at her ignorance, but Greene has been raising millions and millions of dollars with her deeply offensive conspiracy trash, her trivialization of the horrors of Nazi Germany, and her open-carry endorsement of the insurrection.

That same week we heard the incendiary and ominous assertion from GOP National Chairperson Ronna McDaniel that the band of murderous thugs who attacked the U.S. Capital on January 6, 2020, were “ordinary citizens” engaging in “legitimate political discourse.”

Yes, the official national organ of the Republican Party formally took that position that the killing, the mayhem, the mace, and the violent breach of our Capital Building was perfectly fair ball… a model of decorum fit for a civics seminar.  McDaniel apparently believes the violent mob had every right to maim Capital police officers, hang Mike Pence, and storm Nancy Pelosi’s office in a crusade to kill the Gazpacho police. It is just “legitimate political discourse.”

Let us not be so naïve as to dismiss Greene or McDaniel as loopy wing-nuts on the “fringe” of the GOP. No, the Donald Trump Party is out to censure, primary, ostracize, or exorcise every member who isn’t signed up for the Big Lie and now the Even Bigger Lie… that the January 6 that we watched on television never happened. Fringe? These days Greene’s endorsement is more coveted than that of Mitt Romney, who now must be viewed as the irrelevant outlier in the Donald Trump Party.

For a very long time, the centrifugal force of political polarization ripping the United States into two very distinct tribes, each relatively homogenous within its bubble, each diametrically opposed to the other on just about every conceivable issue facing our nation: global warming, guns, the existence of endemic racism, immigration, public health, taxation, the role of news programming, the definition of democracy, the meaning of freedom, and – most important – the concept of objective reality itself.

Polarization of this intensity is new in America. It was not that long ago that we had socially progressive Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats. You’d have Republicans arguing ferociously for separation of Church and State. You’d have Democrats who were hawks on war, and you’d have Democrats who were peaceniks. The norm used to be Rumsfeld Republicans who argued for aggressive military presence and interventionism overseas. There was no precise alignment up and down the checklist of issues. Political affiliations were loose, conflicting, morphing, and messy.

Now? Political and social polarization is binary, it is a zero-sum game.  Sign up to be on Team Red, and you are signing on for the complete checklist embracing every grievance in the Trump playbook, no exceptions allowed. You’ve signed up for AR-15s, you dismiss global warming, you believe in trickle-down economics, and you are dead-set against immigration, Roe v. Wade, social spending programs, or science. To be a Republican is to believe whatever Donald Trump and Tucker Carlson repeat over and over again.

Of course, lefty, don’t kid yourself: Republicans make the same accusations about progressives being aligned lockstep behind a fixed litany of beliefs. It’s pretty easy to imagine the corollary rant: “All those Democrats swallow all the fake news they get from CNN and The New York Times… it’s all global warming and crazy Fauci. They all want socialism, entitlement programs that shower our tax dollars on minorities, open borders, and they insist that the Federal government spend money it doesn’t have on things that don’t work. And they are so frickin’ naïve -- the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

Every time we hear some politician chanting that tired old saw that “what unites us is bigger than what divides us,” we wonder what delusional drug is triggering such an epic inaccuracy. What, exactly,  is that “bigger” thing that unites us more than we are divided on gun rights, abortion rights, voting rights, Fox News, immigration policy, belief in science, and vaccines?

Please don’t say it is our vision of America’s role on the global stage. Trump would bow before Putin and tried to pressure Ukraine to provide dirt on Biden -- while Biden stares down Putin to defend Ukraine. Can you imagine how Trump would be handling today's Ukraine crisis? He'd let Putin stroll into Kiev. Don't believe me? Tucker Carlson openly mused whether the United States should not be supporting Russia rather than Ukraine.

And please don’t say that it is “democracy,” or “freedom,” because those happen to be the exact things that the Big Lie and January 6 were intended to undermine. 

Please don’t try to say that it is the Constitution that Trump bludgeoned and attempted to destroy. 

Please don't even try to say that Red and Blue America have a common understanding of objective reality. The Party of Trump lives in a world of "alternative facts," where violent insurrection is now "legitimate political discourse."

Centripetal force is winning over centrifugal force. Fragmentation and polarization are winning over unity. Think the center cannot hold? It no longer exists.

Is there anything that can reverse the calcification of polarization? Not when each tribe retreats nightly into its own bubble and only hears news and opinion that reinforces and exacerbates existing beliefs. 

This calcification has profound consequences for our government, our standing in the world, and our elections.

Our national elections are now “winner take all” sweepstakes. If your party wins the White House, you have reason to believe that all the policies on your party’s checklist will be implemented. To the party out of power, this comes off not simply as being disenfranchised… it feels like subjugation.

The result: government no longer works. Bipartisan compromise has been replaced by systemic obstructionism. Mitch McConnell publicly stated in 2010 that his goal was to make Barack Obama a “one term President.” Yes, McConnell’s top priority was not that America would succeed, but that Obama would fail.

Every four years, we present a wholly different face to the world. In 2012, we believed in global warming. In 2016, we didn’t. Wait for it – yup, in 2020 we believed in it again! Xi Jinping tells nervous world leaders that China is a more predictable, reliable partner than the United States. He’s right.

We find that the age old battle of “States’ Rights” vs. Federal authority has taken a wicked new turn, in which Southern politicians score political points by finding as many ways as possible to openly defy a Democratic President, filing endless lawsuits, comforted in the knowledge that a skewed Supreme Court stands at the ready… a Supreme Court packed by a Republican Senate Majority leader who cheated the American people in order to implement political bias in the court.

It all might be interesting if United States were literally divided with a static and unchanging 50% of people in each tribe, with each side playing by strict rules of conduct to try to convince each other of the superiority of their policies.

But that is not the situation.

Democrats are already the bigger party, and would prevail if the majority indeed ruled. But the very intent of the U.S. Constitution was to ensure that smaller (and most often red) states were given disproportionately more representation in government than larger states. This is why our Senate is divided 50/50 – but the Democratic Senators represent 41,600,000 more people than the Republican Senators. That’s why Joe Biden had a robust majority of the popular voted – seven million people – but had to sweat whether that would translate to a win in the arcane, vestigial, and politically skewed Electoral College.

That is why Republicans -- who have won the popular vote in only one Presidential election since 2000 -- have been President for 12 of the 21 years this century. Want to eliminate the Electoral College? Passing amendments to the U.S. Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress or 75% of State legislatures. Small wonder we haven't had an amendment to the Constitution in fifty years, and given our calcified polarization, it's unlikely we'll ever see any new amendments in our lifetimes. We literally cannot change the Constitution, even as its structural equities grow more glaring.

More glaring, that is, because the demographics are moving relentlessly in favor of the Democrats. By 2045, whites will be a minority. So the Republicans have a very narrow window to recapture the White House and try to finish the job Donald Trump started… crippling our democracy and installing a permanent Republican authoritarian regime. (And, Marjorie Taylor Greene, that is when we have to worry about the gazpacho police).

No, this is not a case of two separate and equally sized camps, fighting fair and square to advocate for their vision of the best future for all Americans. It is a shrinking minority realizing that its only hope to retain power is to undermine our democracy.

This is open and direct antipathy, fast becoming a death struggle to see “who controls America.” The “enemy” of Red State America is not global warming, poverty, inequality, or China.  It is Blue State America.

Anyone who doubts this need only read up on Republican legislative efforts to suppress minority votes, the litany of anti-Democracy schemes explored by the Trump White House to retain power after the 2020 election, and the new quote that clearly states one party's belief that violence in pursuit of power is “legitimate political discourse.”

Do we really want to live in a country where we have to spend every waking moment simply on guard for democracy?

Or should we finally admit that polarization is real, calcifying, and is our new and permanent state… and begin to rethink whether a single government can ever succeed in a permanently polarized nation?

When do we admit that we are, in fact, two separate countries that have tried for a long time to pretend to exist as one… and now are no longer even bothering with the façade? 

Well, here is the good news about our political polarization: it actually would make it easier to create two separate entities.

The policy and belief differences are night and day, black and white, red and blue. Why not give every American the chance to live in the version of America that is aligned with their beliefs?

Please don’t give me that “he just said ‘Voldemort’ out loud” look. Grow up. I’m not saying anything Thomas Jefferson didn’t say 240 years ago. “When in the course of human events” a government no longer works, and is no longer responsive to the will of the people, the governed have every right to question whether or not that government should be retooled, redesigned, or replaced.

We don’t need to dissolve the United States of America. Rather, we could create largely autonomous regions (think “Scotland” and “Wales”) that are free to pursue different social agendas, taxation policies, and judicial oversight that conforms with clear political leanings of their populations.

Why not a “United States of America” divided into “Blue States of America” and a “Red States of America?” Those entities really would have meaningful, powerful, and important societal belief systems to bind them closely. The federations of states in those separate entities could work together rigorously implement their policy objectives… without filibusters, cheating Senate Majority Leaders, and rigged Supreme Courts to get in the way. Those brands would actually mean something.

The “Red States of America” would be the brand that stands for fossil fuels, restrictive voting measures, outlawing abortion, open carry of guns, allowing Christian doctrine to influence government policy, limiting the influence of science, making Fox News essentially the official state communications organ, and implementing tax policies designed to protect the wealthy.

Blue State America would be shaped aggressively toward progressive policies: fighting global warming, creating greater income and wealth equality, fostering minority opportunity, vastly reducing gun ownership, preserving and expanding women’s rights, and increasing investment in education.

The mechanisms of how such a division of the United States would be a long, complicated, and challenging set of issues, but it could be done.

What if the United States planned a national referendum – a “Brexit,” if you will – in which we spend a year in vigorous debate, culminating with a vote on a simple question: should the United States remain a single entity, or be divided into two regions: “The Red States of America” and “The Blue States of America.”

Sure, sure, sure… there a zillion implications, and you’d need some big deal major blue ribbon commission to develop a functioning model for what “American Brexit” would look like. But the basics are simple… if the majority of the people in the country voted for a two-nation option, the next step would be state-wide elections in which each state would opt to be in either “Blue” or “Red” America. Individual citizens would be free to move if their state opted for an affiliation they did not embrace. Each entity would convene a Constitutional Convention, elect leaders, appoint their own Supreme Courts. The two Americas would be free to peaceably pursue their wildly different visions of America. 

Would Americans vote for this National “Brexit?”

If you simply listen to the macho rhetoric of Texas Republicans like Greg Abbott and his predecessor Rick Perry, you’d think the Red States would be the ones eager to divide the country.  The preference for a “States’ Rights” model is long standing in the south, as is an antipathy for superseding law from the Federal government. Abbott and Ron DeSantis of Florida are just the latest in a long line of defiant Southern politicians who spit in the eye of Federal authorities.

But thinking more shrewdly, the Red States should actually be the ones that most want to preserve the Union. They know that existing tax policy has resulted in the Blue States subsidizing the Red States for decades. Right now, the United States is a sweet deal for Red States. The structure of the government gives the Red States a huge disproportionate advantage in the Electoral College, quantitatively obvious over-representation in Congress, and a gravy train of Federal tax money coming in from wealthier Blue States.

The Red States would have to think hard about leave a Union in which they hold such outsized leverage. Much better to use its disproportionate representational advantage to exert control over the entire entity.

No, the interesting question would be whether the citizens of the Blue States would be enticed by the vision of being able to implement their progressive vision unfettered by the constant opposition and de facto veto of the Red States. It is the Red States that are perpetuating the myth of the Big Lie. It is the Red States that want to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is the Red States that lag in vaccinations. It is the Red States that refuse any restriction on gun ownership. It is the Red States that are passing voter suppression laws, dragging the country backward to Jim Crow. It is the Red States that are stripping away hard-won women’s rights, and leading the assault on science. It is the Red States that want to return a corrupt authoritarian egomaniacal bigot to the Presidency.

Who knows? It could well be the Blue States that conclude that it would be terrific to be free from the tyranny of the Electoral College, unequal representation in Federal government, a rigged Supreme Court, and an endless need to subsidize Red States.

Who knows how such a vote would go?

A smart guy once said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. A strong house can certainly hold differences of opinion and fervently held beliefs about differing ways to achieve the same goal.

But a house that is built upon two entirely different versions of objective reality? That is playing by two different sets of rules and straining to reconcile competing visions, one bent on democracy and the other on authoritarian rule?

If we took one year to debate the issue, aimed at a “Brexit” type vote at the end, it actually could be a very good thing for the United States.

It would be a year to access in open forums whether the marriage is worth saving, or if both parties would actually lead happier, more constructive lives apart.

It would be a year to ask the question, once and for all – what exactly is that "greater thing" that supposedly unites us and is bigger than what divides us? What are the advantages of a single, fully “United” 50 states of America that are too valuable to lose? Why did Lincoln so passionately believe that the Union was worth fighting for, and are those same arguments still valid today?

It would be a year for the Red States to finally understand that the Blue States might be very happy to no longer be burdened with the inequity of representation that exists in our current government. And for Red States to think hard about whether preserving that inequity is worth risking losing all the money that flows in from the economic powerhouses on the coasts.

Perhaps it would be a year to fix some fundamental flaws in our government that make us feel it is no longer working. Perhaps the Red States could be convinced that in order to preserve the Union, they must accept abolishing the Electoral College, and changing the very way the Constitution itself can be amended, all to remove the disproportionate power smaller states have in shaping our government.

It would be a year to debate what democracy means. Is it “one person, one vote?” Or is it a world in which one citizen’s vote counts more than another, and one citizen is able to curtail another citizen’s access to the ballot?

It would be a year to debate what freedom means.

Is “freedom” the version defined by Red States – freedom from government; freedom from any societal constraint, limitation, or requirement imposed by government?

Or is “freedom” the Blue State definition: freedom to enjoy equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal voice in society and in government?

Americans are desperately in need of a civics lesson, and the one they are getting from Ronna McDaniel, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Donald Trump is dead wrong. Right now, the intolerance, anger, and hate are boiling over, and government is an exercise in trading the levers of power so that every four years we can undo everything implemented by the prior administration. Our government is a waste of time and a waste of money. No one is happy.

Let’s spend twelve months figuring out whether we can agree on what things like freedom, democracy, and the “common good” really mean.  

Then let’s vote.

In this essay, I am not advocating that the United States be divided into two countries.

I am advocating examining what such a world would look like toward the purpose of changing the self-defeating and self-destructive trajectory toward violent confrontation that we are on now.

I do not want to live in a country in which there are two competing views of reality… one, actual, objective, quantifiable reality, and the other, the projectile rantings, imaginings, and falsehoods of Donald Trump and Fox News.

I do not want to live in a country in which a minority of the population is able to manipulate and undermine the structures of government to impose its will on the majority of citizens.

I do not want to live in a country where one political party cheats to achieve its goals, brazenly undermines the Constitution, and publicly announces that it advocates resorting to violence to achieve its political ends.

I do not want to live in a country where one side understands and respects the Constitution, believes in democracy, equal rights, and the rule of the majority – and the other side does not.

I think that a growing number of progressives, liberals, and Democrats share this view, and are quietly terrified that the forces of white supremacist and anti-Democratic authoritarians are seeking to seize control of our government and turn our democracy into a dictatorship. And these people are worried that Donald Trump’s right wing nut cases won’t stop until they have achieved this goal.

Does anyone really think that answer is to persuade, teach, cajole, and convince Donald Trump’s America that his version of reality is false? That Fox News is lying? That global warming is actually real? That violent insurrection is not “legitimate political discourse?”

And, for that matter, that Hitler’s Secret Police were the Gestapo. Not the “Gazpacho.”

Dream on.

All I am proposing is this article today is that we, as a nation, finally take the step of measuring how many Americans would rather divide the country in two rather than take the risk of the entire country being subjugated by Donald Trump and his band of right wing authoritarian white supremacists.

And – for that matter -- how many Americans in Trump Country would rather divide the country in two than risk having to live in a country that actually believes in Democracy, freedom, and equal rights for all.

You might be surprised to find out how many people want to have a government that is able to accomplish things, offer a consistent face to the world, and live by principles.

Why can’t we, the people, choose the government that works for us?


If you would like to be on the Born To Run The Numbers email list notifying you of each new post, please write us at

Sunday, February 13, 2022

BTRTN: The Midterms, Part I...The Path to a Dem Victory...Yes, That's Right, Victory

Tom takes BTRTN’s first in-depth look at the midterms, with a call to action for Democrats who fear the worst.  He’ll be back with Part II within a few weeks.

How many conversations have you had with morose Democrats recently, bemoaning the “near certain” debacle in the upcoming midterms?  The mainstream media has bludgeoned the airwaves and digital highways with the bleak history of presidents in their first midterms, as well as the misfortunes of the stumbling, tumbling Biden Administration.  Beyond that, there are the twin threats posed by redistricting and state voter suppression legislation, all supposedly controlled by the GOP, who are said to be unfairly tilting the field ever more strongly in their favor.  And our last hope to counter all that, the despondent thinking goes, was just killed by the two-headed Manchima monster, when the duo refused to vote for a filibuster carve-out that would have allowed unipartisan passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Amendment Act. 

You hear the anguished cries time and again:  “We’re doomed...we're going to lose the Senate and get crushed in the House, and there goes our hopes and dreams for progressive legislation and liberal Supreme Court justices -- maybe for decades.”

We have another theory.  It goes something like this.  The Democrats should fight away in the courts, and embrace whatever electoral reform can pass the Senate, for sure.  But they should also consider another strategy with respect to the midterms:


Wait, what?  You don’t mean “win the midterms,” do you?  As in, keeping control of both the Senate and the House?  You can't possibly mean that!

Precisely.  As cranky old James Carville put it just a few days ago:  “Just win some goddamn elections.”  He is echoing a theme we have been articulating for over a month now.  Stop whining, start winning!

The midterms are not as hopeless as you think, not by a long shot.  Now keep in mind, this is not a prediction.  It’s still possible, of course, that the Democrats could get crushed.  Much can and will happen in the next nine months.  But there is a path to victory if events break right.  It will take some skill by the Biden Administration, and some luck.  And the factors that Democrats think are drastically tilting the electoral environment way toward the GOP are actually not so bad after all; the actual facts betray the headlines.  

Let’s take you through our logic and guide you along the pathway that could lead to the Dems keeping their trifecta in November.

First, for sure, Biden has to perform…and he needs a little luck

Sure, Biden’s first year has been a bit mixed, but you have to remember, he inherited a COVID vaccine distribution nightmare, a weakened economy with rampant unemployment, and a divided democracy fueled by the biggest lie of them all by his predecessor, that Biden did not even win the election.  Biden took office just 14 days after the January 6 insurrection, the first president who succeeded to the presidency without the benefits of a peaceful transition, left to pick up the pieces with little support from the remnants of the pathetically-governed predecessor’s administration.

Biden has already put some solid points on the board, far more than he is given full credit for:  scoring the impressive $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and the bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (a.k.a., the “hard” infrastructure bill); jumpstarting the vaccination effort and putting science back into COVID management; adding the most new federal judges by a new president since Reagan;  restoring relationships with global allies scorned by Trump; and reintroducing dignity, empathy and professional decision processes to the White House.  He has also presided over a strong economic recovery – to the tune of 6.6 million new jobs in his first year, unemployment under 4% and 5.9% annual GDP growth. 

He has struggled at times, as well, with the messy Afghanistan exit, the premature COVID victory lap that preceded the Delta and Omicron surges, chronic miscommunication by his CDC, an inability to corral his beloved Senate to support the “soft” infrastructure bill, and, worst of all, soaring inflation brought on by a supply chain and labor market overwhelmed by stunningly strong consumer demand.   His approval rating has tumbled, accordingly, to Trump territory, the low 40’s, from the 55% he enjoyed at the outset.  That is an important number...what goes down can come back up.

But there is a clear path back for the Biden Administration, a comeback story to bookend the strong start with a strong pre-midterm finish.  It is comprised of the following elements, all attainable – some have already occurred or are well on the way -- and if most or all of them happen by Labor Day or even October, the Democrats will have quite a story to run on.  Biden can only manage so much of this; most depends on others or on a bit of luck.

·        COVID on the decline.  The Omicron surge will likely be over in a month; the mask wars will be over; life, with prudent precautions, will come roaring back in a summer of fun.  All Biden needs here is good luck:  no new deadly variants. 

·        Continued robust economic growth.  With the infrastructure bill beginning to find its way to local projects, the Biden Administration can take credit for the 4% GDP growth expected in 2022, well above that of the pre-pandemic Trump years, and the Obama years as well. 

·        Taming of inflation.  With a new report showing inflation up to 7.5%, and gas prices at a peak, this may be the toughest at all, a classic “kitchen table” issue difficult for presidents to influence.  But the Fed is expected to use fiscal instruments, in the form of interest rate hikes, to begin to put the brakes on the boom…that and the easing of the supply chain issues could at least show progress on managing inflation by November. 

·        Breyer and Roe:  Biden will benefit greatly from being able to deliver on his promise to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and there will be a huge spotlight on the announcement and confirmation hearings.  On top of what is clearly going to be some kind of adverse ruling by the Roberts Court on Roe v. Wade, and Biden’s strong federal judge appointment track record, these issues will energize Democrats to a voting frenzy in the midterms. 

·        Russia/Ukraine.  Biden has been lauded – on a bipartisan basis by politicians, and, in surveys, by Americans of both parties as well – for his management of the Ukraine crisis thus far.  He seems to have positioned himself into an unlikely “win/win” position.  If the Russians invade Ukraine, he will be seen as leading a unified NATO in exacting demanding economic sanctions while supplying the Ukrainians with sophisticated weaponry and aid.  And if Putin blinks, all the better.  Either way, U.S. leadership has already been acknowledged, prestige restored, and Biden is benefitting greatly. 

·        ISIS.  Knocking off the ISIS leader did not hurt on that front, either. 

·       Trump, January 6 and “reasonable political discourse.”  The self-inflicted wound the RNC just dealt the GOP can hardly be underestimated, putting January 6 right smack back on the table, deflecting attention from Biden just when he was at this lowest.  And that term – “reasonable political discourse” – when repeated over and over by Dem candidates atop insurrection footage, will be the gift that keeps on giving, defining today’s GOP much the way Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” defined the Trump White House.  The January 6 Commission’s hearings and findings, plus the Trump court cases in Georgia and New York, will continue to keep Trump front and center for the GOP, and effectively once again “on the ballot” in November. 

·        Bonus #1: Inoculate the vulnerabilities:  All that would go a long way toward setting the tables for success in the midterms, but it would sure help if Biden and the Democrats could find a way to talk about three issues that the GOP will try to force into all campaign conversations:  crime, immigration and education (that is, Critical Race Theory).  Biden has already disavowed “Defund the Police” and embraced new New York City Mayor (and former cop) Eric Adams, so he is making progress on crime.  He needs reassuring talking points on the others as well. 

·        Bonus #2:  Soft Infrastructure Bill.   The soft bill may be too toxic, at this point, to take on in the middle of an election year.  But if a scaled down bill – say $750 million – could be cobbled together with the most popular elements of the old bill that Manchin could support – say, the climate change provisions and the Childcare Tax Credit with some needs-based test (assuming they could be passed within reconciliation rules) – the passage of such a bill would be a winner. 

This is a powerful set of conditions, and most, if not all, could easily happen.  The key word that you will hear over and over again is “normal.”  Biden essentially ran on the promise that he would end the daily onslaught, the crazed pitch and surreal-ness of the Trump years, that he would return America to normalcy.  He would tame COVID, reignite our economy and manage foreign affairs with strength through diplomacy.  It may have taken him two years – how could it have been otherwise, given what Trump handed him? – but “normalcy” on all fronts may very well be achieved by November. 

The Midterm History for First Term Presidents

The chart below outlines the unforgiving history of first-term presidents’ parties in the House in the midterms.  The facts are clear:  Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Trump all got crushed in the midterms. 


But what the chart also demonstrates is that this is not preordained.  There are not stone tablets in Washington that decree that disastrous midterms are meant to be for new presidents, some rite of passage to be endured.

The fact is – new presidents typically earn the distressing verdict of the midterms.  Reagan struggled with a recession.  Clinton’s unsuccessful effort in health care and the unintended flap over gays in the military (among other issues) resulted in the backlash and smashing victory by Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America.”  Obama’s Affordable Care Act made it into law, and has since become popular, but it was immediately demonized by the GOP and spawned the Tea Party movement.  And Trump, well, he outraged Democrats from the start and never let up, losing not only the midterms but, unlike the others, his reelection effort as well.

You can see this in the numbers.  Each of those four presidents has approval ratings in the low-to-mid 40’s at the time of the midterms, and each’s party trailed in the all-important “generic ballot” by 7-10 points.

The exception here is George W. Bush.  Bush’s GOP actually picked up eight seats in the House in the first midterms, rewarding him for his successful rallying of America in the early post-9/11 era.  Americans backed Bush, giving him a 63% approval rating, and favored the GOP in the generic ballot by six points.  Bush proved that if you earn the support of the American people, you can prevail at the polls, midterms jinx notwithstanding.  And his father did not do terribly either, losing only eight seats, helped by his own 58% approval rating (though a poor generic ballot doomed his chances for a pick-up).

Joe Biden currently has a 42-43% approval rating, in line with the presidents who lost massive House seats.  But the generic ballot is much closer than you may have thought -–for the month of January, on average the GOP led by only a 44/43 margin, and in February thus far, with only five polls, the Dems have flipped that to their own 43/42 lead. 

Biden and the Democrats need to lift both of those – and if they can execute the agenda outlined above, they will get there.  Biden needs to get to the high 40’s at least, and probably the Democrats need to get to +4 on the generic ballot to have a chance to win.  The good news is those numbers are achievable – Biden’s high mark was 55%, and the Dems were +5 as of last September.  If you’ve been there once, there are persuadable voters out there who will come back.

The Voting Environment

You can’t blame the Democrats for thinking that the voting environment has been stacked against them by the GOP.  It seems you can’t go a day without reading about restrictive GOP voter suppression laws, GOP redistricting wins, and off-year elections (see: Virginia and New Jersey’s governor races) that seem to indicate a seismic electoral shift to the right.  But when you get beneath the headlines, nothing could be further from the truth.  Let’s look at five “macro” electoral environment issues in enough detail to get at that truth.

Redistricting.  With the 2020 census complete, many feared that, since the GOP controls so many state house and legislatures, further rampant gerrymandering would result in the de facto losses of Democratic seats.  But according to analysis by both the Cook Report and, that has simply not come to pass.  With most states having completed their redistricting processes, the GOP has picked up at most a handful of seats – and with challenges underway in some states, that advantage itself may disappear.  The whole redistricting effort will likely end up being a wash.

GOP Voter Suppression Laws.  Those same GOP legislators have indeed been passing restrictive laws; 19 states have passed laws that limit, for example, early voting and the use of absentee ballots.  But did you know that 25 states have passed laws that expand access to voting?  Many of these laws codify the changes that were made in 2020 to respond to COVID, institutionalizing the drive to make mail-in voting easier and expand early voting.  Some GOP states – Michigan and Pennsylvania, to name two – had restrictive measures passed by GOP legislatures only to be vetoed by Democratic governors.  The net effect of all this is that the voting environment for Democrats is likely no worse, and possibly better than in 2018, when the Democrats picked up 42 seats in the midterms.

Apart from all this, there is a body of academic research that indicates that voter suppression laws do not actually work – that is, when enacted, they do not actually suppress votes.  Perhaps the best example of this is from Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, who runs the election firm Crystal Ball.  Sabato analyzed the Biden victory in 2020 in detail and concluded that all those expansive laws did not really help Biden much at all – neither enabling his win nor affecting his margin.  Turnout would have been overwhelming for both parties even under normal circumstances, and Biden would have won by roughly the same margin.  If those ease-of-voting rules did not help Biden, then how can unwinding some of them hurt the Dems?

2021 Elections.  The pundits went wild on the apparent sharp rightward shift of the electorate when Glenn Youngkin took the gubernatorial race in Virginia and incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy barely survived a GOP challenge in New Jersey.  Both Democratic candidates ran well behind Biden’s winning margins in 2020, by 12 points in Virginia and 16 in New Jersey.  The received wisdom was that every Democratic seat that was won by 10 points in 2020 – maybe even 15 points -- or less was thus going to be in play in 2022.

Of course, the pundits ignored two House special elections on that same election day, two districts in Ohio (the 11th and 15th) where the Democrats ran just about the same as Biden, and the same as the November 2020 election for the same seats.  A special election in Florida (the 20th) just a month ago had the same outcome.  But all you heard about was Virginia and New Jersey.

The lesson is not necessarily that the Democrats are in trouble – it could be simply that Glenn Youngkin was an exceptionally good candidate, a non-politician who was deft enough to distance himself from Trump without defying him.  And perhaps Phil Murphy’s COVID policies and deeply progressive agenda  policies enegized the right.  The GOP is having trouble finding A-List candidates like Youngkin in 2022 (more on this in Part 2), and the COVID dynamics, and electoral issues, will likely be quite different a year later.

Demographics.  One macro factor that is unmistakably moving in favor of the Democrats, and that is the demographic make-up of the electorate.  The simple math is as follows:  every two years, persons of color pick up another percentage point of the population (now at 39%, while whites comprise 61%).  And persons of color tend to vote Democratic (they went 63/39 for Biden).  Run those numbers and it means that every two years, the Democrats will pick-up roughly 0.5% percentage points overall – and this factor is far more likely to make a difference than voter suppression laws.  In fact, the reason the GOP has engaged in voter suppression was, essentially, to dampen minority voting and offset the impact of demographic shifts in our country. 

The Trump Factor.  And, of course, Trump himself is an enormous factor in 2022 midterms, and not in a helpful way for the GOP.  Trump’s personal priority – which means his only priority – is wreaking vengeance on those who have turned on him, the Liz Cheney’s and Pete Meijer’s who voted for impeachment.  This makes both Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy absolutely livid, as they would much rather have him focus on swing states and swing districts where control of their respective houses is won or lost.  But even more importantly than that, Trump has steadily turned The Big Lie into the dominant issue for GOP candidates – a litmus test.  That means two things – he will endorse candidates that support The Big Lie, which will push the race further to the far right, and he will force every candidate to take a position on The Big Lie.  This works fine in deep red districts, but is hardly the best strategy to win purple districts that are generally anti-insurrection.  This is why the GOP is loath to talk about January 6 in general, and why the “legitimate political discourse” censure language has been such a disaster.

So, in general, the political landscape, while looking poor for Democratic midterm prospects now, can easily change if Biden executes and has a little luck.  And the macro political environment is far more hospitable to Democrats than is generally being reported.  It could very well be that the factors that typically decided races – the quality of the candidates, the resonance of their messages, the money they raise and, most importantly, their ability to get out their vote – will drive the 2022 midterms as well.

Part II:  Soon To Come

We will be back shortly with Part II of our first look at the midterms, when we drill down on the Senate, House and Governor races.  But there are a few headlines we can offer to whet your appetites: 

·        In the Senate, the GOP has four incumbents retiring in potential battleground states.  In those races, and in the Democrat-held swing states races, the GOP is not putting forward many “A-List” candidates, several popular sitting Governors have declined to run for the Senate. 

·        In the House, the GOP leads the all-important “generic ballot” by only a single point.  In the years when Reagan, Clinton, Obama and Trump got crushed in their first midterms, their party was down 7-10 points in the generic ballot. 

·        And in the governor races, the GOP is losing two popular governors in blue states to term limits, representing excellent flipping opportunities for the Democrats. 

Look for us to go through these and all the races “in play” when we return for Part II.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

BTRTN: Bad News Comes in Threes, For Both Biden and Trump

Tom with the BTRTN January 2022 Month in Review.

If the Democrats are to have any chance at all of maintaining control of the Senate and House in the midterms – or even of achieving a respectable loss in either or both – then the month of January better have been rock bottom for Joe Biden.  Biden sustained perhaps the worst single week of his presidency, with a trio of terrible headlines that related to the economy (ever rising inflation), Congress (a flat out loss on voting rights) and COVID (a flat out loss in the Supreme Court).


And yet, even amidst the carnage, which drove his approval rating to a new low, there were some clear wins at the end of the month.  In fact, if Biden’s “reset,” whether he calls it that or not, is successful, one may point to late January as an inflection point for his administration.  But it is a long and obstacle-strewn path to that end.  For any success in the midterms, Biden and the Democrats not only have to win back the middle (comprised of uninterested independents and disaffected Democratic centrists) but also find a way to energize the base.  But Biden may just have the issues in hand to make both happen, with some proper management and some decent luck. 

The month started off in an unpromising manner and only got worse – fast.  Omicron surged like a firecracker to record levels as outside experts publicly called on Biden to revamp his COVID strategy.  The experts called him out for being reactive instead of proactive, and overly relying on a strategy of vaccination, with “get vaxxed” pleas largely falling not so much on “deaf ears” as “complete rejecters” of that path. There was a tepid unemployment report, with only 199,000 new jobs added.  And Russia continued its ominous build-up on the Ukraine border, once again testing Biden’s already-tarnished (by the messy Afghanistan exit and French submarine flap) foreign policy chops.


That grim threesome was bad enough, continuing the drumbeat of discontent on Biden’s management of the economy, COVID and foreign policy, clearly the defining areas of his presidency.


But then came another trio of gut punches in the second week of January that were, collectively, truly devastating.


First came the new inflation numbers, which have eclipsed the jobs report as the “must watch” economic variable, coming in at 7%, the highest rate in nearly 40 years.  Between that and the jobs report, Biden’s claims of a healthy economy sounded increasingly hollow.


Next came the demise of the voting rights push in the Senate.  The Democrats were once again confounded not only by Republicans (who refused to sign on to any reforms) but also (once again) by the two most recalcitrant members of their own caucus, the ever visible Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema.  The twist here was excruciating:  both Senators actually supported passage of the John Lewis Bill, but refused to create a voting-rights carve out to the Senate filibuster rule that would allow it to be passed with Democratic-only votes.  John Kerry was once excoriated for saying that he “actually voted for {an $87 billion military appropriations} bill until I voted was against it.”  Manchin and Sinema went Kerry one better, essentially simultaneously supporting the John Lewis Bill while voting against it. 


The bill, while not as expansive as the Dem-preferred Freedom to Vote Act, would have, essentially, restored the provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that had been neutered by the Supreme Court.  Sinema killed that dream in a particularly embarrassing way, by giving a floor speech announcing her opposition to any type of filibuster reform while Biden was on the way over to Congress to lobby for it.  This reminded everyone of how Manchin had killed the Build Back Better hard infrastructure bill in December, blindsiding the White House in a FOX News interview just days after telling Biden privately he would continue negotiating.  With friends like these...


Chuck Schumer plowed ahead with his losing hand – actually two hands, losing first the attempt for cloture on the John Lewis bill (the GOP killing that), and then the carve-out bill (with Manchin and Sinema opposing).  Schumer seemed intent to prove how different a leader he is than Nancy Pelosi, who famously never puts a bill on that floor that she knows will fail; Schumer apparently was simply trying to embarrass Manchin and Sinema.  This was an extremely dubious strategy – Manchin, you may have noticed, is a very touchy fellow and Schumer needs both of them to pass almost any bill – and it also put centrist Democrats in a bind, forced to take a tough vote for the carve out for no good reason.  Schumer was successful at one thing – generating mega-headlines on the Dems failing on voting rights.


Finally, the Supreme Court once again thwarted Biden by scotching his plan to mandate vaccinations for companies with more than 100 employees, a crucial pillar in his COVID management plan.  The other main pillar – Biden finally delivering on his long past-due promise to ensure ample supplies of at-home testing kits – also came under fire for the clumsy pay-for mechanism, which require insurance coverage by carriers who had no system in place to process such claims.


The net effect of these three crushing blows was to reinforce the impression of a man increasingly out of touch on economic matters, foiled even on his narrowly-focused COVID plans, and unable to impose his legislative will not just on his beloved Senate, but on his own party.


What followed was hardly unexpected, more or less textbook recriminations for any difficult time.  There were brutal attacks from the progressive wing of the party on Biden’s too-little-too-late embrace of voting rights and filibuster reform; slews of articles offering well-meaning advice on how to turn around the Biden Administration; and the inevitable discussion of a Biden “reset” – a term that has been applied to every administration since Reagan, with the exception of Trump, who started out disastrously from the outset, never changed his mode of operation, and certainly never admitted to failures, a prerequisite for any reset.


Biden himself, in his first press conference in months, came reasonably close to doing just that.  He certainly gave a full-throated defense of his administration’s big wins, rightfully earned:  the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, vaccination distribution, the bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure and Investment Act (the “hard” infrastructure bill), 6 million new jobs and unemployment below 4%, a bevy of new and diverse federal judges.  But he also admitted some mistakes, such as the delays in testing, and voiced some changes he would make going forward, including getting out more in America to get beyond the suffocating Beltway and inner-focused White House (that Bill Clinton once brilliantly characterized as the “crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system.”).


This press conference was hardly an unfettered success – seemingly desperate to prove Biden’s stamina, the press conference went on for nearly two hours, and he did seem to flag.  He committed a quintessential, old-style-Biden gaffe by implying that the Russians could engage in a kind of mini-war with Ukraine and get away without serious reprisals, which enraged Ukraine and resulted in an immediate walk back.  And some critiqued him for engaging too much defense and not enough reset.


But, seemingly no sooner than the press conference ended, the good news started coming, with near-Newtonian third law symmetry, in threes.


The first good news was the announcement by Justice Stephen Breyer that he would retire at the end of his term (or when his replacement was announced, if later).  Breyer was facing enormous public pressure to retire while the Democrats held control of the White House and the Senate.  Clearly, the Democrats were desperate to have Breyer avoid a repeat of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s legacy-tarnishing decision to stay beyond the Obama years, instead dying on Trump’s watch, and thus gallingly replaced by her ideological opposite, Amy Coney Barrett. 


Biden, who had presided over Breyer’s confirmation hearings as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1994, made a strategic decision to avoid personally pressuring Breyer to retire, and it paid off.  Biden then reiterated his campaign promise to name the first Black woman to the Court to replace Breyer.  Between the heavy media attention that will surely be placed on the new justice’s selection and confirmation, the Court’s likely adverse ruling (of some kind) on Roe v. Wade in June, and Biden’s strong record on judicial appointments, gives the Democrats a badly needed galvanizing and energizing issue for the midterms.


Next came the welcome economic news that GDP had grown by 6.9% in the fourth quarter on an annualized basis, and 5.7% for the entire year, the largest increase in 37 years.  This provided ample evidence supporting a key Biden talking point – that the economy was roaring, in part due to the American Rescue Plan, and in advance of the hard infrastructure bill infusion that would propel sustained growth in 2022 and beyond. 


And finally, days later, and just as the month ended, came the data that indicated that COVID cases in the US were finally on the decline, the Omicron variant’s trajectory more firecracker than wave, with the promise that the downturn would be as rapid in reverse as the December and early January surge.  This gave the Biden Administration – and America in general, at least the non-crazy part – evidence that some semblance of normal life could resume in the spring.  This is barring, of course, the absence of any new, dangerous variant.


Biden is hardly out of the woods. He still has enormous challenges, include the volatile Russia/Ukraine conflict, which could result in an “imminent” invasion.  (Biden, who seems to have more trouble with his friends than enemies, got into an argument with his Ukraine counterpart for using that word, which the Ukrainians felt was overstated and hurtful to the Ukraine economy).  He and Chuck Schumer need to find a way to get Joe Manchin talking again about some remnant of the soft infrastructure bill.  Certainly passing any version or aspect of the soft bill would be a badly needed 2022 talking point.  And he would greatly benefit from the luck of no new dangerous variant.


Biden has one other thing going for him – the travails of Donald Trump, and the Republican Party that is hopelessly lashed to him.  In the spirit of everything coming in three’s this month, Trump suffered three blows himself that put him in increasing legal peril.  The New York State Attorney General Letitia James filed papers in her civil suit that indicated significant fraudulent wrongdoing (in the misstatement of assets) by the Trump Organization.  The Fulton County prosecutor in Georgia received permission to convene a grand jury, which holds full subpoena power, to investigate Trump’s role in trying to overturn the valid Georgia presidential election count (most famously in a phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger that the latter recorded and released publicly).  And finally, the Supreme Court upheld, by an 8-1 margin that included all three of Trump’s appointees, the right of the January 6 Commission to obtain Trump White House records they had sought in connection with exploring the insurrection.


Trouble for Trump means trouble for the GOP, not a plus in the midterms.  Biden’s quest to hold Congress by winning the middle and securing the base will be helped as the GOP will be forced to either defend or deny Trump in districts and states that are mixed on Trump.  Trump overall is slowly losing support in the party – one poll finds that only 56% of the GOP want to see him nominated in 2024, down from previous levels.


The question for Biden is, of course, can he build on his modest late month turn of fortune?  The keys will be – continued economic growth, a decline in inflation, the normalization of COVID, managing the Russia/Ukraine conflict in an expert and successful manner, selling his successes, and building on them with a version of the soft bill and an error-free confirmation of a new SCOTUS judge.  It can happen – but it has to start now for the talking points to solidify in time for November.



Joe Biden’s approval rating dropped a point to 44% in January, after holding at 45% for four consecutive month, with a -8% “net.”  This is Biden’s low water mark for his presidency. 


Joe Biden’s positive ratings on his handling of five different issues – the economy, COVID, foreign policy, immigration and the catch-all “overall direction of the country” -- all declined in January, reflecting his sagging fortunes.



In January polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the Democrats on the generic ballot by a single point.  Using BTRTN’s proprietary models (which have been extremely accurate in midterm elections), if this lead was still in place on Election Day in 2022, the GOP would pick up about 20 seats and take over the House with some room to spare, though hardly in the magnitude of the losses experienced by Bill Clinton in his first midterms (-54 seats) or Barack Obama (-63), or even Donald Trump (-40). 



The “Bidenometer” jumped substantially from December to January, driven by the initial Q4 GDP report, which showed the economy growing at an annualized rate of 6.9%.  Substantial GDP growth more than offset a modest rise in gas prices and a drop in the Dow.  Consumer confidence remained high, and the unemployment rate fell below 4%.

As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +68 means that, on average, the five measures are 68% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +68, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward to +68 under Biden.


If you would like to be on the Born To Run The Numbers email list notifying you of each new post, please write us at

Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.