They can’t report without our support

These are bad times for newspapers. That’s bad news for us.

It’s easy to gripe about newspapers – and especially big newspaper chains. Newspapers make mistakes every day. And the big chains have made plenty of mistakes in their day.

But we, the readers, have the most to lose when our local newspapers fail, falter and cut back coverage.

And we have to bear some blame.

That hit me when I recently shared on Facebook one of the most searing stories I’ve read in a long time: Andrew Carter’s account in The News & Observer of the grief and suffering that have tormented Riley Howell’s family and girlfriend since that heroic young man body-slammed a shooter at UNC-Charlotte last April, sacrificing his own life and saving many more.

Riley Howell and his girlfriend Lauren Westmoreland

A friend complained that he couldn’t read the story because he doesn’t have a subscription to the N&O (or Charlotte Observer or Durham Herald-Sun or any paper in the McClatchy chain.)

I had no sympathy. Pay up, I told him: You’re part of the problem. It costs money to pay good people to write good stories.

It’s not just about the occasional, exceptional long-form story like the one about Riley Howell. It’s also about the day-to-day, year-in and year-out coverage of what’s going on in your community, city, county, state, country and the world.

Subscribing to your local paper is something a good citizen should do, like voting. For your own good and for the common good.

I’m preaching to the choir here. You’re reading this, so you (I hope) subscribe to this newspaper. Maybe you get the print edition; maybe yours is a digital subscription.

Either way, you’re investing in your right to know and to be informed.

That investment gives you the right to gripe about the paper: what it reports, what it doesn’t report, what editorial positions it takes, which columnists it publishes and, above all, which comics it runs.
You have the right to complain about cutbacks in copy desks and editors, which lead to embarrassing errors in headlines and photo captions.

You have the right to write a letter to the editor complaining about any and all of the above.

And, yes, you have the right to cancel your subscription. But don’t.

Full disclosure here: I’ve had a lifelong love affair with newspapers. My father was a printer. I started working at the N&O at age 16 as a newsroom copyboy. Later I was an editor and a reporter. I worked there for 10 years. I grew up at the paper, and I learned a lot.

One reason I write this column is that I’m concerned about the deep, drastic cutbacks newspapers have been forced to make in coverage and commentary. I hope to fill some of the hole.

Sadly, the hole could get bigger and deeper.

McClatchy – which owns about 30 papers across the country, including those in North Carolina – is in such bad shape it may not be able to make a pension fund payment in the spring. The company has already made severe newsroom cuts.

The merger of Gannett and GateHouse – which together own some 500 papers, about one in every six newspapers in the country – is expected to bring more layoffs. One estimate is that 3,500-4,000 of the 37,900 total newsroom employees in the U.S. today could lose their jobs.

The bleeding comes at a time when we need good reporters, good editors and good newspapers more than ever. It’s a hell of a time to lose them.

Support your local newspaper.

This 2 Percent Will Pick the President

Remember the 1 percent – the richest Americans? Meet the 2 percent – the most powerful Americans. They’ll pick the President in 2020.

They’re not billionaires. They’re not political bosses. They’re average voters, except for two things.

First, they are “truly persuadable” voters who are undecided and up for grabs in the presidential race.

Second, they live in just six states, one of which is North Carolina.

If you don’t like this small slice of Americans being so powerful, blame the Electoral College. That’s how our presidential elections work, unlike any other election for any other office.

The two percent were identified in a deep-dive polling analysis by Nate Cohn of The New York Times. He looked at a Times-Siena College survey of voters in the six states that had the closest margins in the 2016 presidential race: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona and North Carolina.

Fifteen percent of the voters in those 2020 battleground states say they are undecided in the presidential race. But, in fact, Cohn found that many of them are almost certain to vote for either Trump or a Democrat. He concluded that only nine percent “showed no consistent partnership” and can be called “truly persuadable.”

New York Times highlights the 2 percent

Since the six battleground states have about 30 million votes total, there are fewer than three million truly persuadables. That’s less than two percent of the 150 million Americans who will vote next year. That two percent is crucial because the Times-Siena poll found that the presidential contest is essentially tied in the battleground states.

And they’re a mixed bag of voters, fitting no clearly identifiable economic, demographic or ideological profile. They’re just folks. Mighty powerful folks.

Cohn’s analysis shows why it’s so misleading to look at nationwide polls of the presidential race. As Hillary Clinton can tell you, a candidate can win the national popular vote but still lose in the Electoral College.

Even that is misleading. Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes in 2016, but only because she won California by 4.3 million votes. Trump won the other 49 states by 1.4 million votes.

Will we ever get rid of the Electoral College? Almost certainly, we’ll never pass a constitutional amendment abolishing it. We’re way too polarized for that.

But there’s another way to do it: the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Under the compact, states pass a law awarding their electoral votes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. No longer would the electoral votes go to the winner in the state.

To take effect, the compact needs to be enacted by states with a total of 270 electoral votes – the number needed to elect a President. The compact has passed in 15 states and the District of Columbia, for a total of 196 electoral votes. It needs states with 74 more electoral votes.

We can debate whether to abolish the Electoral College – and whether the National Popular Vote Compact is the right way to do it. We can be sure that, in 2020, the two percent will rule.

Socialism is already here – down on the farm

The fellow from down east was fed up with his neighbors calling Democrats “socialists.” He fumed, “Some of the people yelling loudest about socialists are the biggest socialists around.”

How’s that?

“They’re farmers, and they get farm subsidies, agriculture programs, crop price supports and, now, payments to farmers hurt by Trump’s tariffs. Isn’t that socialism?”

This man has nothing against farmers – or farm programs. In fact, he used to own a farm.

“I’m all for agriculture,” he said. “I just don’t like hypocrites.”

Critics – on the right and left – agree.

Sign on US 64 in Dare County

The conservative Cato Institute bluntly calls the 2018 Farm Bill “socialism”:

A conservative website called “Downsizing the Federal Government” chimes in:

“It will spend $867 billion over the next decade, thus pushing up government debt and taxes…. At its core is central planning, which is obvious when you consider that the bill is 807 pages of legalese laying out excruciating details on crop prices, acres, yields, and other micromanagement. Furthermore, the bill lines the pockets of wealthy elites (landowners), which is a central feature of socialism in practice around the world.”

“The federal government spends more than $20 billion a year on subsidies for farm businesses. About 39 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms receive subsidies, with the lion’s share of the handouts going to the largest producers of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice.

“The government protects farmers against fluctuations in prices, revenues, and yields. It subsidizes their conservation efforts, insurance coverage, marketing, export sales, research, and other activities. Federal aid for crop farmers is deep and comprehensive.”

Then there are the federal payments that President Trump ordered for farmers hurt by his trade war with China. They total $26 billion so far, and Trump tweeted this weekend that another round is coming before Thanksgiving.

“Morning Joe” Scarborough called it “pure socialism.”

Liberals don’t like it any more than conservatives. The liberal Environmental Working Group says:

“Farm bailout payments intended to offset the impacts of President Trump’s trade war have instead flowed to an estimated more than 9,000 ‘city slickers’ who live in the nation’s largest cities.”

The poster boy could be the conservative Democrat-turned-Republican governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice. Justice is said to be the only billionaire in West Virginia. A farming business owned by his family received $125,000 in soybean and corn subsidies, the maximum allowed from Trump’s “replacement money.”

Then there’s the “price support and stabilization program” that governed North Carolina’s tobacco farms for more than 70 years, from the 1930s to 2004.

The Congressional Research Service described the program this way:
“Federal law specified a guaranteed minimum price for leaf tobacco. The price guarantee was achieved by controlling supply. Each tobacco farm was assigned a marketing quota that balanced national production with domestic and export demand. Any tobacco that did not bring at least the guaranteed price was purchased by a ‘price stabilization cooperative’.”

“Guaranteed prices.” “Controlling supply.” “Price stabilization cooperative.”

Sounds like the Soviet Union.

Over the next year, you’ll hear a lot of talk about “socialism” from President Trump and Republicans. They’ve already attacked ideas like Medicare For All, the Green New Deal and wealth taxes.

Just like the farm programs, those ideas would shift money from one group of Americans to another. Just like Social Security and Medicare.

What’s the difference?

One North Carolina politician who’s been involved in farm policy for a long time put it this way: “Most people think: ‘If it benefits me, it’s not socialism’.”

Stakes are high in impeachment hearings

Contrary to what you might read and hear, not all Americans have made up their minds about impeaching President Trump. A poll of battleground states – including North Carolina – suggests that a decisive slice of voters is keeping an open mind until they hear the evidence.

The public hearings on impeachment, which begin this week, could be crucial in shaping their views.

Here’s why. By 52-44 percent, voters in the six states oppose impeaching and removing Trump from office. But, also by 52-44, voters support the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry.

That means about eight percent of voters aren’t convinced Trump did anything wrong, but they want to hear the facts. Then they’ll make up their minds.

That eight percent could decide the presidential election one year from now. Because those same six states could decide the Electoral College. And the same poll found that voters in those states are closely divided on whether to vote for Trump or a Democrat.

The poll was done by The New York Times and Siena College. It interviewed registered voters in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – six states viewed as key to 2020.

In those states, the poll found, the 2020 race is basically a jump ball. Trump trails Joe Biden by an average of two points, is tied with Bernie Sanders and leads Elizabeth Warren by two points. In North Carolina, Trump leads Biden by two and both Warren and Sanders by three.

On impeachment, the results in North Carolina were slightly better for Trump than in the other states. Voters here oppose impeachment and removal from office by 53-43. But they support the House inquiry by 50-45. That’s seven or eight percent who could go either way on impeachment.

One question in the poll touches on a key issue: Were President Trump’s comments and actions related to Ukraine and investigating Joe Biden “typical of what politicians do” or “much worse than that of typical politicians”?

By a narrow 47-43 margin, voters in the six states combined said “typical of politicians.” That’s key to Trump’s defense.
His campaign will go farther. It will try to make Trump’s combative style a plus.

Note this line from the 30-second TV ad the Trump campaign ran during the seventh game of the World Series – at a cost of $250,000:
“He’s no Mr. Nice Guy, but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington.”

Democrats will call Trump rude, crude and racist. Trump will counter: “Americans elected me to shake things up, and that’s what I’m doing.”

As the impeachment hearings begin, the swing voters will be watching and asking: Is Trump just shaking things up, or is he abusing the Presidency? Is it politics as usual, or is it out of bounds?

If Democrats make their case, they could mortally wound Trump. If they fail, he could be on the way to reelection.

This is a high-stakes game of power poker. Televised live.

Senator No and Governor Yes

The late Senator Kay Hagan’s one term and two campaigns epitomized the volatility of North Carolina’s Senate races. They also showed how our Senate elections rise and fall with national political tides – and how North Carolinians view the offices of Senator and Governor very differently.

Hagan was an unlikely and unexpected Senate candidate in 2008. A state senator, she was recruited by leading Democrats after better-known prospects declined to take on incumbent Senator Elizabeth Dole.

Kay Hagan

Dole was a formidable challenge. She was a national figure. She served in the Cabinets of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. She ran for President – briefly. She was married to Senator Bob Dole. She beat Erskine Bowles for the Senate seat in 2002. She replaced Jesse Helms, who had been in the Senate for 30 years, and she seemed set to stay there a while herself.

But Hagan won a bruising, expensive campaign. One Democratic group ran ads hinting that Senator Dole was too old. Dole’s campaign ran a last-minute ad suggesting that Hagan didn’t believe in God.

Hard-hitting ads have marked North Carolina’s Senate races since Helms won in 1972. His Congressional Club pioneered direct-mail fundraising and negative ads.

When Thom Tillis beat Hagan in 2014, it was the most expensive – and one of the roughest – races in the country. In 2020, even before what is sure to be a bitter and costly general election, Tillis faces a tough fight in the Republican primary. Carter Wrenn, who ran many of Helms’s campaign, is working for Tillis’s opponent, Garland Tucker.

For all the money and TV ads, North Carolina’s Senate races often track national politics.

Hagan won in a good Democratic year. Barack Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 – the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Democrat Beverly Perdue was elected the state’s first female Governor.

Hagan wasn’t so lucky in 2014. That was Obama’s second mid-term election, and Democrats lost their U.S. Senate majority.

It helps to be on the right side of a landslide.

Helms became North Carolina’s first Republican Senator in the 20th Century thanks to Richard Nixon’s landslide over George McGovern. Helms won his toughest reelection fight, over Governor Jim Hunt in 1984, when Reagan swamped Walter Mondale.

Helms won five Senate races, but since he retired in 2002 his old seat has changed parties in every election – first Dole, then Hagan and now Tillis.

Senator Richard Burr has won his seat three times – in 2004, 2010 and 2016. Each year, he had the national political winds with him. Before Burr, that seat changed hands – and parties – in 1974 (Democrat Robert Morgan), 1980 (Republican John East), 1986 (Democrat Terry Sanford), 1992 (Republican Lauch Faircloth) and 1998 (Democrat John Edwards).

Republicans have won 12 of the 16 Senate races since 1972. But Democrats have won eight of the 12 Governor’s races since 1972. Governor Jim Hunt won four of them.

Why the difference? It’s that voters look at the two offices very differently. We elect Governors to do good things in Raleigh, which favors Democrats. We elect Senators to stop bad things in Washington, which favors Republicans.

Our tendency is to elect Senator No and Governor Yes.

When Kay Hagan won in 2008, Obama’s slogan was “Yes we can.” When she lost in 2014, the mood was more “No we won’t.”

Age wave hits North Carolina politics

A wave of new and young voters has come ashore in North Carolina – and could reshape politics in the state and nation in 2020 and beyond.

Political scientists have long said that millennials – born between 1981 and 1996 – are the biggest and fastest-growing bloc of potential voters. But will they vote?

Well, they did in Raleigh’s municipal elections this month, and they upended the City Council.

In 2020, millennials – bolstered by Gen Z (born after 1996) – could play a decisive role in the race for President and, in North Carolina, races for U.S. Senate, Congress, Governor and the General Assembly.

Polls show these voters are more liberal and more Democratic than older voters. They could take politics in a sharply different direction.

Raleigh: the wave hits

Two long-time Raleigh City Council members, Russ Stephenson and Kay Crowder, were unseated in October by two young, first-time candidates. The winners, Jonathan Melton and Saige Martin, are the first openly gay members ever on Raleigh’s City Council.

Virginia Reed, Melton’s campaign manager, said their strategy was to reshape the electorate: “We knew he couldn’t win if the only people who voted were the people who always voted in municipal elections. We had to turn out new, younger voters.”

Jonathan Melton

Those new voters helped Melton, who was elected city-wide, beat Stephenson by over 3,300 votes. They helped the new mayor, Mary-Ann Baldwin, beat her closest challenger by 3,800-plus votes.

David McLennan, political science professor at Meredith College in Raleigh, said, “When I talked to young people, it was clear they were energized about the City Council races.”

Reed said, “I believe that younger, more diverse people are more likely to vote if they see themselves in the candidates on the ballot.”

The Trump Factor

Reed and McLennan agreed that young voters, in Raleigh and across the county, have been energized by President Trump.

“Under-30s didn’t think their votes mattered,” Reed said. “Then Trump won in 2016.” Young voters’ opposition to Trump contributed to Democratic gains in the Virginia legislature in 2017 and in mid-term elections in North Carolina and across the country in 2018, she said.

This fall’s Meredith Poll found that millennials and Gen Z in North Carolina are more negative about Trump than older voters. Trump’s job approval among all voters was 40-55 negative; with millennials and Gen Z it was 34-59 negative.

McLennan said national polling shows that millennials and Gen Z favor Democratic candidates and Democratic policies by a margin of two-to-one. They favor Medicare For All and gun-safety laws.

What it means for 2020

Millennials and Gen Z have the numbers to significantly impact future elections, McLennan said.

Trump is President because he won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by a total of 80,000 votes. He won North Carolina by 173,000 out of nearly five million votes.

In North Carolina next year, Democrats will target congressional and legislative races in newly redrawn districts in metropolitan areas, where the population of young voters is growing fastest.

Young voters could swing the Democratic presidential primary here March 3 – and help the Democratic candidate in November.

The Meredith Poll found:
• Among all North Carolina voters, Trump leads Joe Biden 38-34, Elizabeth Warren 39-33 and Bernie Sanders 39-33.
• But among millennials and Gen Z, Biden leads Trump 39-28, Warren leads 36-28 and Sanders leads by a whopping 48-26.

Sanders’s lead suggests he’ll have strong support from young voters in North Carolina’s March primary.

Will Democrats whiff their shot at the White House?

A Republican friend of mine was down in the dumps after the 2008 election. Democrats had won the White House, both houses of Congress and, in North Carolina, the U.S. Senate race, the Governor’s office (for the fifth straight election) and both houses of the legislature.

My friend feared for his party’s future. “Don’t worry,” I assured him. “We Democrats will screw it up.”

Sure enough, in 2010, Democrats suffered devastating defeats up and down the ballot.

I’m reminded of that experience today as Democrats celebrate polls showing President Trump’s approval ratings falling and support for his impeachment rising.

There are two big reasons Democrats shouldn’t get too cocky. The first is the economy. The second is the party’s uncertain search for a candidate who can beat Trump.

As James Carville said, it’s always the economy, stupid

Americans are upbeat, if anxious, about the economy. One poll suggests that Americans have more confidence in Trump’s ability to handle the economy than a Democrat’s.

An October 6-8 Internet Economist/YouGov poll of 1,500 people (including 1,241 registered voters) found that:

  • By 61-39, people say the news about the economy is positive.
  • While Trump’s overall approval rating is under water (43-49 negative), his handling of the economy gets a 47-42 positive rating.
  • If Trump is reelected, 33 percent think the economy will get better and 37, worse. That’s not great, but only 29 percent think the economy will get better if a Democrat wins; 39 percent say it will get worse.

Which Democrat can beat Trump?

Last week’s 12-candidate Democratic debate showed how split the party is on a presidential nominee. The big split is between moderates and progressives, and there are divisions over race and age.

Elizabeth Warren’s surge in the polls worries moderate Democrats. In the Economist/YouGov poll, 42 percent of people said Democrats are “too liberal.” Only 34 percent said Republicans are too conservative.

That’s why the moderates on the stage – Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg – targeted Warren. They said Medicare For All would cost too much, take away people’s insurance and scare away swing voters.

Front-runners at last week’s debate

Bernie Sanders might be over his heart attack, but he gave some Democrats a heart attack when he said out loud what Warren wouldn’t say: Taxes will go up to pay for Medicare for All, although he claimed that premiums, co-pays and, thus, total costs would go down.

Klobuchar and Buttigieg clearly think Joe Biden is fading, thanks to his shaky debate performances and the Hunter Biden questions. They calculate that the moderate lane to the nomination is opening up to an alternative. But the Democratic Party’s debate rules kept other moderates – Steve Bullock, Michael Bennett and John Delaney – off the stage.

Then there’s race. Barack Obama won the Presidency twice by turbocharging minority turnout. But neither Kamala Harris nor Cory Booker are winning strong support.

Obama also energized young people. Can a 70-year-old-plus nominee do that? At the other extreme, is America ready for a 37-year-old – and gay – President Pete?

Trump’s at his best one-on-one

Here’s what will likely happen now: The House will impeach Trump. The Senate will acquit him. Trump will claim victory. And he will end up in a head-to-head, WWE-style mudwrestling death match with one Democrat.

It won’t be Trump against “somebody else.” It will be Trump against somebody. He’ll do just what he did against Hillary Clinton in 2016: He won’t try to build up his numbers. He’ll try to tear down his opponent’s.

And Trump is good in that wrestling ring.