Frank Bruni, a contributing Opinion writer, hosted a written online conversation with Katherine Mangu-Ward, the editor in chief of Reason magazine, and Nate Silver, the founder and former editor of FiveThirtyEight and author of the newsletter Silver Bulletin, to discuss their expectations for the third Republican debate on Wednesday night. They also dug into and sorted through a blizzard of political news — particularly the new New York Times/Siena battleground-state polling with dreadful news for President Biden that has Democrats freaked out (again).
Frank Bruni: Thank you both for joining me. While we’ll pivot in short order to the debate, I can’t shake that poll, whose scariness ranks somewhere between “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “The Exorcist.” I know my own head is spinning. I mean: Donald Trump ahead of President Biden in five of six crucial battleground states?
How loud an alarm is this? Should Biden at this late stage consider not pursuing re-election? Would that likely help or hurt the Democrats in winning the White House? And if not Biden, who would give the party the best chance? Nate, let’s start with you.
Nate Silver: Thanks for having me, Frank! It’s nice to be back in the (digital) pages of The Times! I think whether Democrats would be better off if Biden dropped out is very much an open question — which is kind of a remarkable thing to be saying at this late stage. There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to trying to figure out why Biden doesn’t get more credit on the economy, for instance. And the answer might just be that he’s 80 years old, and that colors every impression voters have of him.
Katherine Mangu-Ward: The voters in these polls just seem to be screaming, ‘He’s too old, and I feel poor!’ The most shocking finding was that only 2 percent of voters said the economy was excellent. Two percent! Less than 1 percent of voters under 30 said the economy was excellent. In Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin, exactly zero polled respondents under 30 said the economy was excellent.
Bruni: Nate, I take your point about “open question” — I have no crystal ball, and my God, I’ve never so badly wanted one, because the Democrats getting this right and blocking Trump is, well, incalculably vital to this democracy’s future. But if you were the party’s chief adviser and you had to make the call: Yes to Biden or no to Biden and an invitation to someone else?
Silver: Well, I’m the probabilities guy — so I’ll usually avoid answering a question definitively unless you force me to. Really, the best option would have been if Biden decided in March he wouldn’t run, and then you could have a vigorous primary. If you actually invested me with all this power, I’d want access to private information. I’d like to do some polling. I’d want to canvas people like Gretchen Whitmer and Raphael Warnock about how prepared they are. I’d like to know how energetic Biden is from day to day.
Bruni: And you, Katherine? Biden thumbs-up or thumbs-down? And if thumbs-down, tell me your favorite alternative.
Mangu-Ward: If we’re picking up magical artifacts, a time machine would be more useful than a crystal ball. And you’d need to go back before the selection of Kamala Harris as vice president. A viable vice president would have been a moderate threat to Biden, but a weak one is a major threat to the party. If we’re scrounging around for an alternative, I don’t completely hate Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Bruni: I’d settle at this point for a Magic 8 Ball. And Katherine, “don’t completely hate” in 2023 politics equals “want to marry and live with forever” in the politics of decades past. We’re a cynical lot!
In any case, Nate mentioned age. How do you two explain that the same poll we’ve been talking about revealed that while 62 percent of Americans feel that Biden, 80, doesn’t have the mental sharpness to be effective, only 44 percent feel that way about Trump, 77. Only 39 percent said that Trump is too old to be president, while 71 percent said that Biden is. Do those numbers make any sense at all to you?
Silver: There are at least three things going on here. First, the three-and-a-half-year difference between Trump and Biden is not nothing. It’s certainly something you start to notice if you have older friends, parents, relatives entering their late 70s or early 80s. Second, Biden’s manner of speaking and presentation just reads as being more old-fashioned than Trump’s, and that perception is reinforced by media coverage. Third, I wonder if younger voters feel like Biden’s a bit of a forced choice — there wasn’t really a competitive primary — so “old” serves as a euphemism for “stale.”
Mangu-Ward: Because this election cycle has been largely bereft of serious policy debate, I also think age is one thing people can grab on to to justify their unease about a Biden second term.
Bruni: I wrote a few months back about this: Trump is so deliberately and flamboyantly outrageous — such a purposeful cyclone of noise and distraction — that the normal metrics don’t apply to him. He transcends mundane realities like age. He’s Trump! He’s a horror-movie villain, a Saturday-morning cartoon, a parade float. Those things don’t have ages (or four indictments encompassing 91 counts).
Silver: I like that theory. There’s a sense in which some voters feel like they’re in on the joke with Trump. Although I also don’t think that voters have quite shifted into general-election mode, and maybe the media hasn’t, either. Trump as candidate is a very different ball of wax than Trump as president, and that’s what Democrats will spend the next year reminding voters about.
Bruni: Katherine, let’s say Biden stays in the race. Certainly looks that way. Can you envision a scenario in which Democrats grow so doubtful, so uncomfortable, that he’s seriously challenged for the nomination and maybe doesn’t get it? If so, sketch that for me.
Mangu-Ward: As a libertarian (but not a Libertarian), I’m always cautiously interested in third-party challenges, and that seems more likely to me than a direct challenge for the Democratic nomination. After each election cycle, there’s a moment when pundits decide whether to blame a Green or a Libertarian or an independent for the fact that their pick lost, but an appealing outsider peeling off support from Biden or Trump seems more likely to be a real consideration this time around. We have a lot of noisy characters who don’t fit neatly into partisan boxes on the loose at the moment.
Bruni: Veterans of Obama’s 2012 campaign are arguing that Obama was in a similar position to Biden a year out from the election in 2011. Nate, do they have a point? Or do their assurances ring hollow because Biden is not Obama, isn’t as beloved by the base, is indeed old, has been stuck in a low-approval rut for months now going back to 2021, or some combination of those?
Silver: Certainly, it’s generally true that polling a year in advance of the election is not very predictive. But Biden’s situation is worse than Obama’s. His approval ratings are notably worse. The Electoral College has shifted against Democrats since 2012 (although it’s now not a given). And there’s the age thing. Remember, a majority of Democrats did not even want Biden to run again. I think the Democratic communications and strategy people have been shrugging off that data more than they maybe should.
Mangu-Ward: Biden is definitely not Obama, and it’s definitely not 2012. The concerns about Biden’s age are valid. Though they would apply to Trump just as much in a sane world.
Bruni: You’re both so admirably — or is that eerily? — calm. I need to get your diet, exercise or pharmaceutical regimen. Am I nuts to worry/believe that Trump’s return to the presidency isn’t just an unideal election outcome but a historically cataclysmic one? How much does that prospect scare you two?
Mangu-Ward: That’s my secret, Frank. I’m always angry. Like the Hulk. I think the current offerings for president are deeply unappealing, to say the least. But that’s nothing new for someone who prefers to maximize freedom and minimize the role of the state in Americans’ personal and economic lives. I am concerned about the peaceful transfer of power, and Trump has shown that he and his supporters are more of a threat to that.
Silver: On that, one thing I feel better about is that the reforms that Congress made to the Electoral Count Act made a repeat of Jan. 6 less likely. There’s also perhaps less chance of another Electoral College-popular vote split. If Trump wins the popular vote by three points and there’s no other funny business, I’m not sure what to say exactly other than that in a democracy, you often have to live with outcomes that you yourself would not have chosen.
Bruni: Biden, theoretically, isn’t the only bar to Trump’s long red tie dangling over the Resolute Desk anew. I mean — again, theoretically — one of the candidates in this third Republican debate could be the nominee. Yes? Or is it time to admit that, barring a truly extraordinary development, the Republican primary is over?
Silver: Prediction markets say there’s a roughly 75 percent chance that Trump is the nominee. That frankly seems too low — no candidate has been this dominant at this stage of the race before. I suppose there’s a path where Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley does relatively well in Iowa, the other drops out, and then — actually, I’m still not sure there’s a path. Maybe Trump’s legal trouble begins to catch up to him? As much as the early states tend to produce surprises, I think if you put all the numbers into a model, it would put the chances at closer to 90 percent than 75.
Mangu-Ward: The Times/Siena poll is bad news for Biden, but it’s even worse news for the folks on the G.O.P. debate stage, because it suggests that they simply needn’t bother. Trump is doing just fine holding his own against Biden, so there’s no need to change horses midrace. Unless your horse goes to jail, I guess.
The debate will be a primo demonstration of Sayre’s Law: “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.”
Bruni: If one of the five people on the debate stage were somehow to overtake Trump, who would that be? Has Nikki Haley supplanted Ron DeSantis as the fallback?
Silver: The one thing DeSantis originally had going for him was a perception of being more electable. But he’s pretty much squandered that by being an unappealing candidate along many dimensions. And Haley largely performed better than Trump in that new Times/Siena poll. Still, I’m not sure how many Republicans are going to be willing to oust Trump on the basis of a New York Times poll. And it’s not an easy argument to make to Republican voters when Biden looks vulnerable against anyone right now.
Mangu-Ward: I appreciated Haley’s early debate appearances, where she put a lot of emphasis on the shared responsibility for budgetary malfeasance between the Democrats and Trump. But now she’s giving me 2012 Mitt Romney flashbacks. She’s a sane and competent Republican who has realized the best way to keep her primary campaign viable is to go hard on immigration restrictionism. She was never an open borders gal, but she did usually offer some warm fuzzies about our nation of immigrants followed by a “get in line.”
Bruni: Trump has said he doesn’t want a running mate from any of the people on the debate stage. Do you see anyone — like Haley in particular — who could force his or her way into at least serious consideration? And could possibly help him get elected?
Mangu-Ward: The Harris debacle certainly offers lessons for Trump, but I’m not sure whether he’s in the mood to learn them.
Silver: The conventional political science view is that V.P. choices do not matter very much unless they seem manifestly unqualified. But they probably ought to matter more for candidates as old as Biden and Trump. I do think Haley would represent some softening of Trump’s image and might appeal to Republicans who worry about a second term being a total clown show. Who would actually staff the cabinet in a second Trump administration, with Trump’s tendency to be disloyal and the legal jeopardy he puts everybody in his orbit in, is one of those things that keeps me up at night.
Bruni: Nate, your cabinet question haunts me, too. The quality of Trump’s aides deteriorated steadily across his four years in the White House. And anyone who came near him paid for it in legal fees and the contagion of madness to which they were exposed. So who does serve him if he’s back? Do Ivanka and Jared make peace with him — power again!
Silver: I don’t think I have anything reassuring to say on this front! I do think, I guess, that Trump has some incentive to assure voters that he wouldn’t go too crazy in a second term — in 2016, voters actually saw Trump as being more moderate than Clinton.
Mangu-Ward: A second-term president will always have a different kind of cabinet than a first-termer, and a Trump-Biden matchup would mean a second-termer no matter who wins. But either way the cabinet will likely be lower quality and more focused on risk mitigation, which isn’t ideal.
Bruni: So is there any reason to watch this debate other than, when the subjects of the Middle East in particular and foreign policy in general come up, to see Haley come at the yapping human jitterbug known as Vivek Ramaswamy like a can of Raid?
Silver: TV ratings for the second debate were quite low. But I suspect the main audience here isn’t rank-and-file voters so much as what remains of the anti-Trump Republican establishment. If Haley can convince that crowd that she’s more viable than DeSantis, and more electable than Trump, that could make some difference.
Mangu-Ward: Historically, debates have been my favorite part of the campaign season, because I’m in it for the policy. But G.O.P. primary voters have been pretty clear that policy is not a priority. I suppose I’ll also tune in to see Chris Christie scold the audience. This week’s spectacle of him telling a booing crowd “Your anger against the truth is reprehensible” was pretty wild.
Bruni: OK, lightning round — fast and dirty. Or clean. But definitely fast. Will Trump ever serve a day in prison?
Silver: I’d say no, although prediction markets put the odds at above 50 percent!
Bruni: You and your prediction markets, Nate! You could have given me your own hunch. Or wish. My wish is a 10-year sentence. At least. My hunch is zip. Hulk?
Mangu-Ward: He will probably serve time. He will certainly exhaust every avenue available to him before doing so. In general, the fact that there are many opportunities for appeal is a good thing about our justice system.
Bruni: Which 2024 Senate race do you find most interesting?
Silver: Undoubtedly Texas, just because it’s one of the only chances Democrats have to pick up a G.O.P. seat. Ted Cruz won fairly narrowly last time, and Colin Allred is probably a better candidate than Beto O’Rourke.
Mangu-Ward: Peter Meijer just joined the Senate Republican primary race in Michigan. I appreciated his performance in the House — he’s quite libertarian and was one of the few Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
Bruni: America’s medium-term future — are you bullish, bearish or, I don’t know, horse-ish?
Silver: Everyone is so bearish now, you can almost seem like a bull by default just by pointing out that liberal democracy usually gets its act together in the long run. But the younger generation of voters takes a different attitude on a lot of issues, such as free speech, which has begun to worry me a bit.
Mangu-Ward: Bullish, always. Politics ruins everything it touches, but not everything is politics.
Bruni: Finally, should Democrats be brutally victory-minded and just swap out Joe and Kamala for Taylor and Travis?
Mangu-Ward: I just said politics ruins everything it touches! Must you take Taylor from us, too?
Bruni: Fair point, Hulk. You have me there.
Silver: It would be a very popular ticket! Taylor Swift will turn 35 only a month before Inauguration Day in 2024, I’d note.
Bruni: You both have my thanks. Great chatting with you.
Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter.
Katherine Mangu-Ward (@kmanguward) is the editor in chief of Reason magazine.
Nate Silver, the founder and former editor of FiveThirtyEight and author of the forthcoming book “On the Edge: The Art of Risking Everything,” writes the newsletter Silver Bulletin.
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