Less happy and more stressed, U.S. enters a tense election year

(Los Angeles Times)

For more than 70 years, the Gallup organization has asked Americans a simple question: How happy would you say you are? This past year, the numbers hit a seven-decade low.

The country’s not in a slough of despond: A large majority of Americans remain chipper. But the downward trend is nonetheless clear, fitting with another Gallup survey from last spring that found that the share of Americans who said they felt stress or worry had hit new heights.

The economy continues to perk along — unemployment remains at 3.5%, according to the monthly jobs numbers released Friday morning — but the country enters the 2020 election in a fractious, unsettled and dissatisfied mood.

The central issue dividing the Democratic field of presidential hopefuls remains how to connect with that mood and offer voters the hope of something better.


Unhappiness and politics

Partisanship affects almost everything these days, so it should come as no surprise that Gallup’s measures of happiness show a division by party: Among Republicans, the share who say they are very or fairly happy has remained steady; among Democrats and independents, the level has dropped.

How much of the drop is due to President Trump is uncertain. Happiness among Democrats started to decline at the outset of the recession and fell further in the past year.

Because Gallup didn’t ask the question every year, we don’t know what happened during the years of President Obama’s tenure. We do know, however, that nonwhite Americans and those with less education are significantly less likely to report being happy than their white and more educated counterparts.

Democrats have offered two competing theories on how to connect with voters’ anxieties.

On the party’s left wing, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and their backers have argued that much of the dissatisfaction in the country predates Trump’s election and was, in fact, part of the reason for his victory.

The underlying problem, they say, are policies that tilt too heavily toward the interests of the wealthy. If you offer voters a radical shift to redistribute money and power down the income ladder, they’ll respond, the left argues.

The more centrist part of the party — especially former Vice President Joe Biden — offers a more Trump-centric critique. It’s the current occupant of the White House who makes people so uneasy, Biden says.

Biden is running on a set of policies significantly to the left of those pushed by either of the last two Democratic presidents, but he seldom goes a day without repeating a nostrum about bipartisanship and talking about his ability to cut deals with Republicans.

He gets a lot of flak from the left for that. Critics accuse him of naivete or willful blindness to what they see as the obstructionist behavior of top Republicans, especially Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader.

Whether Biden actually believes he can make deals with McConnell is hard to know. But for political purposes, the message he’s sending is clear: If the constant chaos of the Trump years leaves you jangled and upset, a Biden presidency offers the hope of turning down the volume.

That’s the pattern followed by several of the successful Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterm elections — people like Govs. Tony Evers in Wisconsin and Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, who both won major swing states by positioning themselves as pragmatic, less ideological choices to replace divisive Republican incumbents.

Biden’s supporters say that is the path most likely to win back those states — and the presidency — for the Democrats.

Chaos and foreign policy

As Janet Hook and Evan Halper wrote, Trump’s order to kill Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani set off a foreign policy debate among the Democrats. The differences among the candidates largely tracked their preexisting disagreement on how to respond to Trump.

Biden’s comments constantly referred to the “chaos” Trump was causing and emphasized the president’s pattern of placing risky bets based on incomplete information. In a set-piece foreign policy speech on Thursday, he emphasized bipartisanship, saying it was “not a naive or outdated way of thinking. That’s the genius and timelessness of our democratic system.”

The candidates on the left, particularly Sanders, offered a more ideologically pointed critique, emphasizing a “need to firmly commit to ending the U.S. military presence in the Middle East.”

The other leading Democratic candidates positioned themselves between those two poles. Warren managed to draw attacks from both directions, first by condemning Suleimani in language that some on the left objected to, and then by veering too close to Sanders’ position, drawing criticism from the center.

Pete Buttigieg pointed out his credentials as a veteran, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar largely echoed Biden’s critique, noting her Senate experience in foreign affairs and saying that Trump needed to consult with Congress.

Foreign policy only sometimes plays a major role in U.S. elections, and the killing of Suleimani probably won’t sway a huge number of votes by itself.

As Noah Bierman and Eli Stokols wrote, Trump has tried to reconcile two competing goals in his approach to Iran: He wants to look tough, and many of his advisors, including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, advocate a hard line against the cleric-controlled government in Tehran.

But there’s also a strong isolationist strain among Trump’s support and he’s repeatedly played to that, pledging to get U.S. forces out of the Mideast.

As Doyle McManus wrote, Trump “wants to withdraw U.S. troops from the Middle East — but only if he can portray the exit as a victory march.”

So far, the killing of Suleimani and the relatively restrained Iranian response have allowed Trump to sound bellicose without committing to real consequences, the approach he followed in a speech Wednesday. And Democrats in Congress, although they were able to muster the votes for a nonbinding resolution to limit his war-making power, don’t have much ability to change his path.

Only time will tell if Trump’s balancing act can continue successfully through November.

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State of the Democratic race

A holiday-season shortage of polls has left analysts — and many of the campaigns — uncertain of how the candidates are faring in the states with early primaries. One major, new puzzle piece will be unveiled later today when the Des Moines Register and CNN release their latest Iowa Poll.

The survey, by pollster J. Ann Selzer, has a longstanding reputation for accuracy in forecasting the results of the state’s caucuses, which are scheduled for Feb. 3. With Iowa playing an outsize role in this year’s race, the poll likely will set the tone for much of what will happen over the next 3½ weeks.

Meanwhile, a new Monmouth University poll found a four-way pileup in New Hampshire, with Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg all within the poll’s five-point margin of error of one another.

Fox News polls of two other states with early primaries, Nevada and South Carolina, showed clear leads for Biden.

In South Carolina, the poll showed Biden with 36% of the vote, followed by Tom Steyer at 15%, Sanders at 14% and Warren at 10%, with no one else getting more than 4%. About six in 10 Biden supporters said they were definite about their vote. Backing for the others was less firm.

In Nevada, the Fox poll showed Biden ahead with 23%, followed by Sanders at 17% and Steyer and Warren at 12%. Buttigieg trailed the others at 6%.

Speaking of Buttigieg, Matt Pearce took this look at his legacy as mayor of South Bend, Ind., where his tenure ended with the start of the new year.

Steyer’s surge was enough to qualify him for next week’s candidate debate at Drake University in Iowa. That surprised a lot of people, but probably shouldn’t: Steyer got that support the old-fashioned way, he bought it. Steyer has spent more money on TV ads than all the other candidates combined, with the exception of Mike Bloomberg, who is also buying heavily.

Bloomberg is not competing in the four early-state primaries, instead putting most of his money in states like California that hold primaries in March.

Steyer, by contrast, is focusing most of his money in the four early states. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states, where other candidates have also been active, he hasn’t made much headway. But in South Carolina and Nevada, which vote later in February, he’s had the airwaves mostly to himself.

His strategy is perfectly crafted to get onto the debate stage, since doing well in polls of early states is one path to qualify. But his relative lack of success in the states where other candidates are competing actively suggest that his boost could be short-lived.

Another arena for competition among the candidates is the contest for endorsements from elected officials and other prominent Democrats. As Janet Hook wrote, Biden has a significant lead in that part of the race. The former vice president picked up another significant endorsement Thursday as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti officially announced his support.

In his endorsement statement, Garcetti hit the main themes of Biden’s campaign, saying “he will heal our nation, repair our relationships abroad and get things done.”

In the meantime, Noah Bierman, Ben Oreskes and Dakota Smith reported that aides to Garcetti and Trump have quietly been negotiating a deal on homelessness under which the administration could provide help to Los Angeles.

Sanders’ Latino backing

A major reason that Sanders enjoys second place in Nevada is strong support among Latino voters. Fox News shows him tied with Biden among Latinos in the state, and he’s consistently led among Latinos in California, our Berkeley Institute for Governmental Studies polls of California show.

The Vermont senator is also banking on Latino support to boost him in Iowa, as Evan Halper reported. The state’s Latino population isn’t large, but it is growing fast, and many are citizens eligible to vote.

That’s a largely untapped resource for candidates, with very few Latinos having participated in the state’s caucuses in the past. Sanders’ campaign is working hard to organize Latino potential voters, but they’re not alone, Halper reported. Biden’s campaign has also developed a significant presence in Latino communities in the state.

Impeachment trial coming

Since mid-December, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has held on to the impeachment resolution passed by the House, saying she wouldn’t forward it to the Senate until she had a better sense of the rules that McConnell planned to follow for Trump’s trial. The delay has been a central part of the Democratic strategy — so far unsuccessful — to pressure McConnell into allowing fresh witness testimony in the Senate.

As Jennifer Haberkorn reported, Pelosi has come under increasing pressure to end the delay, and on Friday she said the House will be prepared to move the articles of impeachment to the Senate next week.

That means a Senate trial could start next week. When it does, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who will preside over the trial, could face some difficult decisions, as David Savage wrote.

Roberts is likely to try to stay out of any substantive decisions, deferring to the Senate. But with senators closely divided, staying above the fray could prove difficult.

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