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James Carville on the US Election – “All hands on deck. We’re going for the big one here!”

James Carville, the Democratic Party’s most outspoken political strategist, provides his take on the party’s prospects in November’s presidential election: an upbeat outlook supported by the polling data.

Since successfully strategising Bill Clinton’s outlandish path to the presidency in 1992, James Carville has sustained a reputation as perhaps the world’s most famous political consultant. A self-described political junkie, he has since supplemented work on high-profile Western campaigns – such as Tony Blair’s 2001 re-election – with contests as far afield as Bolivia and Afghanistan.

But it is his native country’s politics that remains Carville’s passion. Plain talking at all times, he has consistently advocated for the same centre-left brand of politics that brought Clinton to power. He is just as happy to do battle with the left-wing of his own party (“a cult” led by Bernie Sanders) as its Republican opponents (specifically “beating the shit out of ‘em” in November).

When I sat down with him back in May, he was bullish about the Democratic party’s prospects across the board this year.

The Oxford Blue’s full interview with James Carville

Biden’s Vice-Presidential Pick

As Joe Biden gears up for the presidential campaign, speculation is rife as to who he’ll select as his running mate in the quest to unseat Donald Trump. The search – co-chaired by Carville’s “close friend”, former senator Chris Dodd – is expected to conclude in the coming days, precipitating an announcement later this week. In fact, my guest suggests going further and naming a full, British-style shadow cabinet to reflect the fact that “these are extraordinary times”. Given the dominant position the campaign finds itself in, such an unconventional move from a seemingly risk-averse candidate seems unlikely; still, the very fact that a figure as high-profile as Carville is giving public voice to such an idea highlights just how atypical an election season 2020 is shaping up to be.

As one of the few points in the electoral cycle when a candidate can dominate news coverage for an extended period on their own terms, vice presidential selections are seen as vitally important in shaping how a candidate is perceived. Chosen running mates represent an indication of their prospective administration’s priorities, enabling a candidate to signal to the electorate how they intend to govern. In 2016, the selection of Mike Pence was seen by observers as a signal that Trump – his history of extramarital affairs notwithstanding – would place the priorities of the Republican Party’s socially conservative, evangelical Christian base at the heart of his administration. Perhaps more importantly, they must be seen as a capable leader in their own right, ready to assume the office of the presidency themselves if the sitting president is incapacitated.

Narrowing the field somewhat, Biden has pledged to nominate only the third female vice presidential candidate in American history; neither Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 nor Sarah Palin in 2008 achieved office. By Carville’s reckoning – he professes to be a “big fan” – the selection of Governor Gretchen Whitmer would indicate a strong focus on “get[ting] the job done that matters to people”. Among those still known to be in the running for the role, Senator Kamala Harris – widely perceived as the frontrunner – and Stacy Abrams are namedropped as serious contenders. Another high-profile option, Senator Elizabeth Warren, at one stage viewed as a frontrunner in the Democratic primary, could “do ten times as much good as Attorney General”, but remains a viable candidate.

Update: Since publication, Senator Kamala Harris has been confirmed as Joe Biden’s vice presidential candidate. She becomes the first Asian American and the first Black woman to appear on the presidential ticket of either of the major political parties.

The Presidential Race as it Stands

With under a hundred days to go until the election, Joe Biden enters campaign season from a position of strength; as Carville sees it, “If Biden just runs an ok campaign, he will probably win. If he runs a good campaign, he will win by more.” A slim majority of Americans consistently say that they intend to vote for him come November, giving him an 8-point lead over Trump according to FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average. For context, no other presidential candidate has polled at more than 50% this early in the electoral cycle since Ronald Reagan’s blowout of Walter Mondale in 1984.

Such strong support can largely be seen as a by-product of his opponent’s unpopularity: befitting of an “incompetent, career criminal” in Carville’s estimation. Since assuming office, Trump’s approval rating has been remarkable in its stability, hovering precariously in the low-40s for virtually his entire term. Already an unpopular president, it is his high-profile mismanagement of a number of recent crises that has served to further imperil his campaign.

With a quarter of the world’s confirmed cases and a death toll in excess of 160,000, the US is home to more victims of Covid-19 than any other country on Earth.  It is against this backdrop that Carville suggests Biden, in offering “a return to decency and competence”, represents such a formidable adversary. As infection enveloped the country, Trump spent months downplaying the threat posed by the virus; he repeatedly compared it to the flu and insisted publicly that “It’s going to fade away”. High profile opposition to mask wearing and other measures to mitigate the virus’ spread was accompanied by a bizarre series of freewheeling news conferences, where he repeatedly promoted an unproven drug as a wonder-cure and once mused about the potential health benefits of injecting disinfectant.

Beyond being actively harmful, such a response has – as Carville suggests – been broadly unpopular. A joint Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 60% of Americans disapproved of Trump’s handling of Covid-19, which continues to dominate news coverage and appears set to be the primary issue at play during the forthcoming election. Similarly prominent in the American psyche, particularly following the tragic death of George Floyd, is the issue of race relations. Having initially condemned the killing, his subsequent support for heavy-handed police tactics in dealing with protestors has not been received well by the American public, despite his recent claim that he has “done more for black Americans than anybody, with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln”. Little surprise then, that just 32% of respondents to a recent ABC News-Ipsos poll viewed his handling of the topic favourably.

Nevertheless, as perhaps most famously articulated by my guest – “The economy, stupid.” came to define public perceptions of Clinton’s 1992 campaign – the state of the economy remains a major factor in dictating an incumbent’s electoral fortunes. Economic output shrank in size at an annualised rate of 33% in the second quarter, as the Federal Reserve acknowledged that the pandemic “is causing tremendous human and economic hardship”; yet, 49% of Americans continue to approve of Trump’s handling of the economy as compared to the 47% who disapprove, according to a CNN study of recent polling. The gap between the two has contracted in recent months, but it remains the only major issue on which he has a net positive approval rating, providing perhaps a glimmer of hope against an otherwise bleak polling backdrop for the president. Even then, the same study finds that on this metric too he is outperformed by Biden, highlighting the magnitude of the challenge he faces to defeat his adversary for a second term.

Of course, American elections aren’t decided by the popular vote, but rather by the electoral college. Still, as Carville articulates, “There’s not a poll that I see…that doesn’t have Biden ahead, Biden winning, in so-called ‘swing states’”; in fact, he’s racked up a number of significant leads. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages, Biden  leads in Michigan and Wisconsin by 8 points, Pennsylvania by 6, Florida by 5, Arizona by 4 and North Carolina by 2. Meanwhile, in Texas and Georgia, traditional Republican strongholds, Trump leads by less than a single point. Barring an electoral earthquake elsewhere in the country, the incumbent can afford to lose a maximum of two of these states if he is to retain the presidency. Given his approval ratings on the major issues of the day, he certainly faces an uphill struggle to catch his Democratic opponent. Indeed, as Carville concludes, “There’s no evidence, that I see, that tells me that Trump is gonna be re-elected.”

The Battle for Congress

Yet, my guest is keen to stress that perhaps equally important as winning the presidency is the concurrent fight for the Senate taking place in November; “[if] we don’t have the Senate; Mitch McConnell is still the Majority Leader…You know what will change? Not very much.” The body holds veto power over any government spending and the sole right to confirm federal appointees, giving it enormous sway over both the size and direction of the federal government. Carville makes an important point: for all the multi-billion-dollar pledges that Biden has made during the presidential campaign, limited change is possible in practice without a Senate majority, regardless of who occupies the White House.

However, Trump’s electoral vulnerability has presented the Democrats with a rare opportunity to seize control of the entire American government, leaving Carville optimistic that they are “on the precipice of…majoritarian dominance”. According to Gallup, as of July, 50% of Americans identified as either Democrats or leaning towards the party, as compared to 39% who were that way inclined towards their Republican opponents. Such has been the swing away from the Republican Party – catalysed by Trump’s performance as its figurehead – that as recently as January the same poll found a greater proportion of the population identified as Republican than Democratic.

On a national level, Carville suggests that 2020 represents an opportunity to retake total control of Congress that his party must “seize”. Democrats already control the House of Representatives and appear poised to maintain a comfortable majority; by contrast, Republicans have held a majority in the Senate since 2014.  Around a third of its seats are up for election this term, including 23 held by Republican incumbents and 12 currently occupied by Democrats.

Going into the 2020 elections holding 47 Senate seats, the Democrats need a net 4-seat pickup to take control of the Senate majority outright (although in the event of a 50:50 tie, the vice-president is granted the deciding vote). Further hampering this electoral math, Democratic Senator Doug Jones faces an extremely difficult campaign to win re-election in Alabama, which Carville concedes to be a “very, very tough state” for a Democrat. He only narrowly won the seat in the first instance in a 2017 special election against the uniquely problematic Roy Moore, an arch-conservative who was accused of sexual assault by a series of women, including two aged 14 and 16 at the time of the alleged offences. Running against Trumpian former football coach Tommy Tuberville this time around, he seems destined for defeat.

Still, Carville maintains that a 5-seat pickup across the rest of the map remains a very realistic possibility for the Democrats. He suggests there are four races in which “we’re clearly the favourite”, listing Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine. He is certainly right in the context of the former two states; polling shows former governor John Hickenlooper in command of a double-digit lead in Colorado, whilst Mark Kelly – the former astronaut with no experience of elected office – is up by a figure in the high single-digits in Arizona.

Polls in Maine and North Carolina likewise suggest that the Democratic candidates hold slim leads over the Republican incumbents, but the picture is far less clear. Maine has traditionally voted Democratic in presidential contests, but its senate seat is held by four-term Republican senator Susan Collins, who has maintained a hard-fought reputation as an independent figure within the Senate. Still, in the polarised politics of 2020, Democrats hope that her divisive votes in favour of confirming accused sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and in support of Trump during his impeachment trial, will see the end of her 24-year Senate career. North Carolina, meanwhile, has traditionally leaned Republican, although first-term senator Thom Tillis only won his campaign by a single point in 2014 and the seat is firmly in play.

Even if Democrats were to succeed in pulling off these four pick-ups, assuming a loss in Alabama, this would only be sufficient to bring about a tie in the Senate. Yet, Carville suggests a favourable national environment has opened up a number of other possible battlegrounds in Republican-leaning states which leave them in with a good shout of retaking the Senate outright. In Montana, sitting Governor Bullock – whose candidacy is a “great get” for the Democrats – is running for the Senate in a small state where he enjoys extensive name recognition; as Carville indicates, he appears to be “tied” in a close contest. In Iowa, as polling on the two presidential candidates has narrowed, so too has the Senate race, creating a “huge opportunity” for another pickup.

Other Senate races, although perhaps long shots, remain within reach if Democrats can maintain their positive momentum through election season. Two Senate races are being run concurrently in Georgia. Whilst polling suggests that a victory in such a Republican-friendly state remains extremely challenging, Carville reckons it’s “very possible” that the Democrats will pickup at least one of the seats on offer. Texas, where Ted Cruz defeated Beto O’Rourke by less than three points in 2018, likewise remains “really, really in play”, although incumbent John Cornyn remains popular and maintains a sizeable lead over his Democratic opponent. Even South Carolina is within reach if the night proves “really good” for Democrats, who have made substantial inroads into Senator Lindsay Graham’s lead in recent months.

All of this of course comes with significant caveats. Historically, American presidential elections tend to narrow as election day approaches, with potentially decisive down-ballot implications given how tight many of the Senate races remain; three months is certainly not an insignificant period in the age of 24-hour cable television. Just as Democrats have the capacity to build on their national polling lead, Republicans may recover some of their lost ground. Come November, Carville reckons the Democrats are set to retake control of all branches of the American federal government and only under a worst-case scenario would the Republicans succeed in retaining the Senate; “I have some friends who are Republican strategists, they must be going out of their goddamn minds right now”.

The signs are certainly positive, but whether the Democrats succeed in truly “beating the shit” out of Republicans, remains to be seen.

This article was updated at 6.15pm on 12/08/2020 to reflect the announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee

Adam Thompson

Adam Thompson is the Managing Director at The Oxford Blue. He studies PPE at Oxford, and is currently in the process of writing his third book on Margaret Thatcher. When he's not feeling mildly guilty about the legacy of the private school system, you can find him trying too hard, speaking for too long in business meetings, or asleep if it's before 15:00. Anything to try to be strong and stable.