During the past week, Kamala Harris held the first big rally of her Presidential campaign, #Cory Booker announced his candidacy, Howard Schultz floated a run as an Independent, and Republicans fretted about President Trump’s weak poll numbers. In short, it felt like the first week of the 2020 campaign, and thus a good time to discuss the state of politics with David Axelrod, the former top adviser to Barack Obama, and now the director of the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, a senior commentator for CNN, and the host of “The Axe Files.” During our phone conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Trump’s political standing is more robust than people think, whether Democrats should worry about moving too far to the left, and how Joe Biden might change the Democratic field.
What do you make of a potential Howard Schultz candidacy, and do you think Democrats are correct to be freaking about the possibility?
I think it’s a gift for #Donald Trump. I agree with that analysis. All you have to do is look at the last election and how Independent candidates took just enough from Hillary Clinton in Michigan and perhaps Wisconsin to tip those states. I think Schultz has the ability to do much more damage to the Democratic nominee, primarily because he’ll put his personal wealth behind it.
But the chances of him actually prevailing are virtually nil, which is the conclusion, of course, that Mike Bloomberg came to when he was assessing what he wanted to do in 2020, and he’s been very vocal about urging Schultz to reconsider. Bloomberg, I know, did a boatload of research on this very subject. So the history of this is very clear. The numbers are very clear. If he runs, he lowers the threshold for Trump, who probably tops out at about forty-five per cent and needs someone to lower the threshold so he can win.
Nate Silver has been arguing that Schultz could end up hurting the Democratic nominee, but that it’s not at all obvious that he would, and that Democrats are worrying too much without knowing what the campaign will look like in a year. Do you see any reason to think that he could end up hurting Trump or would end up having no effect?
I think that Trump’s baseline has been established. I don’t think that there are that many swing voters that are likely to go to Trump and expand his base. So I think, if I were Trump, I would do exactly what the Trump campaign did in 2016, and I would, in places where Trump’s support is weak and in places where there are swing voters who are not keen on the Democratic candidate, go hard negative and try and drive those voters to the Independent candidate. So, there’s no doubt Nate is right that we don’t know what the race is going to look like, but I think that there is not a lot of elasticity in the electorate when it comes to Trump.
Were you surprised that someone like Bill Burton, who worked with you in the Obama Administration, signed up for the Schultz campaign?
I wasn’t surprised. I was a little disappointed. Bill was vocal about third-party candidacies in 2016, so this is completely inconsistent with his position, and it makes me wonder whether he just saw this as a business opportunity. So I was a little disappointed in that.
Trump is at around thirty-nine per cent in the polls. That’s all adults. When you make that registered voters or likely voters, it’s probably forty-three per cent or so. We know he may only need to get forty-six, forty-seven per cent to win, thanks to the Electoral College. Given that he’s just had a horrific couple months, it doesn’t seem to me like he’s actually that far off from once again stitching together a winning coalition.
I think it’s hard for him. He drew an inside straight in the last [Presidential] election and squeaked through in the upper Midwest, which showed real resistance to him in the midterm elections. If he were to lose Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, all of which had strong Democratic showings in 2018, he would lose the Presidency, and there’s not one state I can think of that Trump could add.
That said, he should not be underestimated. He has a kind of feral genius for manipulating the media environment. We know there’s nothing that he wouldn’t do to win, so he will be working day and night to destroy whoever the nominee is, and he’s got a great talent for that. Trump did speak to a fundamental sense of jaundice out there about Washington politics as usual. And, to the degree that the nominee can be depicted as a representation of that, his chances improve. All that said, if you were betting today, you would not bet on Donald Trump.
What have been the most interesting things to you about the Democrats who’ve announced — Kamala Harris, #Elizabeth Warren — and the machinations of the Democrats who have not announced and maybe they will, maybe they won’t? [Axelrod and I spoke before Booker’s announcement, on Friday morning.]
I thought that Warren, below the surface, has done more in the last couple of years to prepare for this in very fundamental political ways, in that she had, I think, a staff of six or something staffing 2018 candidates. She called hundreds of them. She was doing the [work] that was necessary. She also did the policy work. I mean, whether you agree with them or not, she’s got a bunch of very thoughtful positions, her latest being on taxation, but also on inequality, government reform. So I think that she has been very smart.
I think Kamala Harris has had a very strong rollout. She has a theory of the case, and the theory of the case is that, if she can get through these early states and get to more diverse states, New Hampshire and Iowa not being terribly diverse—if she can get through there doing reasonably well, she goes to Nevada, where she would be a strong candidate, and then South Carolina, where fifty-five per cent of the vote will be African-American.
The other thing is that she understands the power of the African-American vote in the nominating process. Not only is it a big constituency in some of these major states and Southern states but it also is supersized, because, if you have congressional districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic in their performance, they get extra delegates. So this is why Hillary Clinton was able to shake off Bernie Sanders.