Thursday, June 18, 2020

The winner of smart money in the Biden VEEPstakes is ...

… Val Demings!

I must lead with two things.

First, I did not see that coming. So I learned a lot from a professional gambler (who is also a Republican of the Never Trumper variety). I learned because of a discrepancy between what I expected going into this and what I got. My pick for VP all along was different and now I am revising my preference.

Second, what follows is an email from The Bulwark, a publication staffed by a group of conservatives (to which I subscribe - the publication, not the ideology). I read The Bulwark religiously because of the clear thinking and because we share a common goal - to Dump Trump.

So this item is from Jonathan V. Last’s “Triad” which appears in The Bulwark. This one is a bit different as he explains. Here are excerpts. (You should read the whole thing] .)

  • Betting on Biden
  • I’m going to do something I’ve never done here before and probably won’t do again. So bear with me.

    I got a long, looonng email from a reader this week about Biden’s VP pick.

    This reader is a professional gambler who bets on political outcomes for a living.

    He does not want his name revealed.

    So we’re just going to call him code-name “Domer.”

    Anyway, Domer wrote for me a giant piece explaining why he thinks the literal smart money—meaning, sharp players making cash wagers—should be on Val Demings as Biden’s VP.

    And the entire thing is so smart and interesting that I’m going to give this entire newsletter over to Domer so he can explain his thinking.

    Ladies and gentlemen, good luck. Here’s Domer:

    Joe Biden is likely to select Kamala Harris, a Senator from California, as his running mate about six weeks from now. Bettors are betting on Harris. Pundits are predicting Harris. Reporters are reporting Harris in the lead. And Kamala’s personal connection to Joe is previewing a possible ticket. But that could be a mistake and, in my estimation, an unforced error at a key inflection point for the campaign.

    I’m betting, literally, that when the vetting narrows down the choices— - when the pros and cons of all of the candidates they’ve interviewed are white boarded and chewed over and argued about in the context of what this race is really about— - that a little known member of Congress, Val Demings, comes out on top.

    Will this actually happen? Probably not! But it might happen, and bettors are starting to figure that out— – the odds on Demings have shortened from 50–1 to 5–1 in the past few weeks. I hope to walk you through the process of trying to find and predict an unlikely outcome. An outcome that could provide a windfall profit, if my instincts are correct.

    As a brief introduction, I bet on politics (mostly), and have been betting as my sole occupation since I put in my two-weeks notice in 2007.

    In 2020 political alignment parlance, I’m a college-educated, “Never Trumper” Republican who has been realigned from a certain straight-down-the-ballot R voter to a certain, if unenthusiastic, Joe Biden voter. I primarily use a website called PredictIt (and before that, the now-defunct Intrade). PredictIt is a peer-to-peer exchange that allows users to bet legally with one another on all manner of political forecasts; the most popular of these forecasts revolve around the Presidential election. As a tradeoff to its legality, there are strict limitations imposed by the CFTC of $850 at-risk per contract, and the door to PredictIt is fully open to any academics who want to study what its traders are doing.

    In order to make a consistent living, one needs to be right a bit more than wrong, and to occasionally be right on very unpredictable outcomes that people did not see coming. I wrote an article in 2012 discussing my process, and in it are stories about discovering a governor from Alaska named Sarah, imagining a Jon Huntsman Presidential campaign before it existed, and losing my shirt misjudging Barack Obama’s cabinet selections. In this 2020-focused article, I’ll dive deep into a single topic: Biden’s VP selection. My goal is to unearth one of those unpredictable outcomes that people did not see coming. For perspective on my recent VP selections…in 2016, I did manage to nail Mike Pence for Trump, but I lost money on Tim Kaine, thinking Hillary would make a more outside-the-box (read: smarter) choice.

  • The Lessons of 2016
  • Okay, so with that preamble out of the way, here’s Domer laying out the history of 2016 and how that impacts the 2020 dynamics:

    The place to begin in Joe Biden’s vice presidential selection process is my analysis of the current general election landscape. Biden has a lead of 8.1% over Trump on RealClearPolitics as of June 15th; he is also a slight betting odds favorite to become our next President (~57% chance). It’s not a guarantee that Biden wins, though, and further uncertainty creeps in via the fact that Trump is running a VERY unconventional campaign.

    Immediate problems present themselves with Trump’s Back to the Future strategy. The first is that Biden has an enormous favorability gap over Clinton. The second is that Trump is now an insider incumbent who should not be able to realistically hoodwink voters into believing that he is still an outsider!

    Joe Biden is, by almost all accounts, a genuinely good person who has deep friendships across political lines. This is his biggest edge against the antagonistic Trump.

    To quote Lindsey Graham from 2015 (prior to Graham’s reputational seppuku) “[Joe] is the nicest person that I think I’ve ever met in politics…he is as good a man as God ever created.”

    Biden may get overly handsy and may have a wayward son. He may make political errors and even try to take unethical shortcuts like ripping off another guy’s speech. You may disagree with him or even hate him politically. But it is fair to say that Joe Biden is a nice guy who means well, and it is equally fair to say that voters share this sentiment.

    Joe Biden has been an elected leader in Washington, D.C. since there were 4 channels on TV; he was sworn in 3.5 years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Biden has 8 years as a veep and 36 years(!) as a U.S. senator—oodles of experience and longevity, true, but also an opening for Trump to define Biden as “status quo.”

    But …

    Additionally, Trump already defeated a candidate who wore out the cassette tape on her “Most Qualified Person to Ever Run for President” soundbyte, and he is itching to run against the deep-state D.C.-types yet again. In Trump’s framing of the election, Trump is the dam preventing the forgotten man from being crushed by a raging flood of swampy water. Trump wants Biden at the political scene of all of Trump’s imagined Deep-State crimes, and he has an army of sycophants equally eager to place Biden there.

  • Val Demings and the Smart Money
  • Which brings us to the VP pick. My lens for picking Biden’s best running mate is a woman who does absolutely nothing to aid Trump’s dual strategies. A woman who will do no harm. This means that I think a career politician like Amy Klobuchar is a poor choice (irrespective of recent events), even though she seems like a good fit for the blue wave coalition that delivered so much success to Democrats in 2018.

    It also means that I think a partisan firebomber like Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren is a poor choice, because then Trump gets to paint Biden with the brush of a well-defined and disliked liberal legislator from a liberal state.

    These may seem like simplistic and trite ways to dismiss a candidate as flawed, but that doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. Trump’s dream is to mold Biden out of socialist clay; to define Biden in a way that, for instance, reverses Biden’s advantage with finicky senior citizens. Trump’s goal is to further define Biden as a puppet for liberal interest groups in Washington that want to destroy the country. Trump wants Biden’s gargantuan 25 point edge in a recent WSJ/NBC poll on “the ability to bring the country together” to evaporate.

    The question Biden’s team should be asking is: Why give Trump any openings whatsoever to hammer Biden when the choice is in your hands?

    And so my thinking goes that extensive D.C. political experience is a negative with the uber-experienced Biden already at the top of the ticket.

    Out of that research, three names stuck out to me as “long-shot” fits for Biden: Tammy Duckworth, Terri Sewell, and Val Demings.

    Both Tammy Duckworth and Terri Sewell are great people with phenomenal life stories that bolster Biden’s strengths.

    Demings, however, is a natural communicator in the clips I watched, as compared to clips of Duckworth, and she had extensive experience in leading, as compared to Sewell.

    In Demings, I’d found my dark horse candidate.

    She was 50–1.

    SCRIBER WEIGHS IN HERE: In my eyes, Warren and Harris , for example, are needed in their present positions in the U. S. Senate. We will need every “D” in the Senate if a newly elected Biden has any hope of getting a legislative agenda passed. Flipping the Senate would dump Rich Mitch - a worthy goal in itself.

    I knew of Val Demings from following the Mueller investigation and the impeachment proceedings. In fact, I asked for a market from PredictIt on who the impeachment managers would be, specifically because I wanted to bet on Demings. (Luckily for the other traders, they did not put up the market; she was indeed a semi-surprise pick.)

    My VP research on Val Demings started from a place of knowing her as an effective and thoughtful person in Congress, and that was about it. I read her backstory as the first step, and discovered that she was a former police officer who rose to police chief in Orlando.


    Then I watched a video from a few years ago where Demings said offhandedly about being a rookie cop: “My plan was that I was going to go to the police academy, and just kind of stay under the radar and not draw attention to myself. And I was elected class president within a couple of weeks.”

    After listening to that, something clicked.

    I put together the three pieces in front of me:

    She was the first non-lawyer to be an impeachment manager;

    She rose to become chief of an organization dominated by white men;

    She was elected class president in the early 1980s long before it was in vogue to elevate women.

    She grew up incredibly poor, a descendant of slaves. Her parents did not finish high school, and worked in low-skill jobs. Demings was sent across town to a segregated school until sixth grade. She was the first in her family to attend college, and put herself through Florida State University by working at McDonald’s. She became a social worker after college and then applied to the police department. After serving as a police officer for 27 years, culminating in the top job, she ran unsuccessfully for Florida’s 10th Congressional District in 2012 against a quasi-incumbent. She lost by 3 points, but outperformed Barack Obama’s 2012 vote share in that district by 2.6 points. She started and stopped an Orlando mayoral run in 2014 and then successfully ran in a reconfigured Florida 10th Congressional District in 2016, garnering 64.9% of the vote and outperforming Hillary Clinton by 3.1 points in her district. Republicans did not oppose her in 2018.

    In the intervening years, Demings married fellow police officer Jerry Demings (also a rousing self-made success story!); they have 3 children and multiple grandchildren. Both she and her husband ride Harleys, and she is heavily involved with her church, counting Rev. Terence Gray as a mentor. Her biography is best summed up by Val herself:

    “[My parents] worked hard, and so every day now when I look at what I’ve been able to accomplish…it’s a tribute to my parents. [When I became the chief of police], they became the chief of police. When I look at being a member of Congress, they became members of Congress. And so their sacrifices paid off. All of their hopes and dreams as Maya Angelou says in her poem “Still I Rise”: we’re ‘the hope and dream of slaves.’ What I have been able to accomplish…the hope and dream of my parents.”

    Bearing in mind that I’m biased (and this should be front of mind for anyone reading this), I’ve also mulled over her shortcomings, namely a lack of political experience and the fact that she was a police officer.

    Val Demings has only been a Congresswoman since 2017, which would traditionally be an immediate dismissal for a VP candidate’s chances. In talking with other people who bet on politics, many disregard her as an option because of this.

    But I’ve found that elected experience simply doesn’t matter much.

    Obama was a senator for 3.5 years before being elected president. The current president had 0 years of experience.

    Plus, her track record would seem to indicate that she is an effective leader. Demings has also been spending considerable time as a media surrogate for Biden during this pandemic, likely so that the Biden campaign can evaluate her abilities.

    Finally, Biden would be sneakily mirroring the Obama/Biden ticket with a Demings selection. An older white candidate with a long history of elected office paired with a more recently elected black official with a deep background of non-legislative experience.

    Demings’ career as a police officer is the thorniest subject in the wake of the George Floyd murder …

    I talked about Demings being my top choice and explained some brief things about her.

    With the strong caveat that the vetting could turn up law enforcement skeletons (Florida’s Sunshine Law provides easy access to records of public officials), I’ve again decided that this does not matter. Controversial! And also quite convenient!

    The reason I decided this isn’t complicated though: The demographics where Biden has made inroads into Trump, as compared to 2016, all approve of the police more than average. Biden is peeling off suburbanites, college-educated whites, and senior citizens from Trump. These three groups easily have the highest approval of police officers in their respective demographic groupings.

    Because that enthusiasm revolves around deposing Trump.

    My thinking on the VP selection process from today, in mid-June, through the selection around August 1 is that the Biden campaign is soon to narrow down a long VP list of anywhere between 12 and 20 candidates.

    The campaign will get that initial list down to 5 or 6 eventually, and I think that final list will very likely include Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Michelle Lujan Grisham, Amy Klobuchar, Val Demings, and Tammy Duckworth. There’s also a possibility that Gretchen Whitmer, Susan Rice, Keisha Bottoms, Maggie Hassan, or Tammy Baldwin make the final list in lieu of names that I’ve mentioned.

    My biggest leap forward in logic is that I think, ultimately, the choice will come down to Kamala Harris or Val Demings. They fit the moment and fit with Joe. On a personal betting level, the two options have quite different outcomes: I’d win $5,000 on Harris and $50,000 on Demings.

    I am not totally dismissive of Harris’s chances. If Biden had to make the choice right now, without any further vetting, I think he would pick her without much thought. But I’d like to take a quick moment to hash out why I am skeptical of her chances after a thorough evaluation by Biden’s team.

    First and foremost, it is true that Harris has been vetted extensively already as a result of running for president in 2019. It is equally true, however, that the result of that public vetting was a total disinterest from that same public in voting for her. Harris excelled at little, other than fundraising and some viral debate clips.

    The good news for Joe is that regardless of whether Harris is his VP or not, she can still do fundraising for him and she can still be a quippy surrogate for him.

    Secondly, prior to becoming a senator, her two runs for attorney general were unspectacular affairs in California politics. In 2010, she won by the narrowest margin of any of the major candidates for statewide office, and in 2014 she was in the middle of the pack. The best spin on her electoral history is that she does about as well as a generic Democrat, even with vast sums of money at her disposal. Harris also has a scandal in plain sight that will be fodder for swamp-obsessed Republicans: her boyfriend Willie Brown kickstarted her political career with two key appointments, for which she had zero qualifications—and he threw in a BMW for good measure. If life is a comic book, Harris’s origin story in politics is just plain icky, and it subverts many of the narratives that Biden already has going in his favor.

    I think the “safe,” but well-defined, liberal senator from California is a mistake waiting to happen and one that would provide a jolt of energy to a Trump playbook that’s currently on life support.

    If Demings versus Harris is indeed the choice in front of Joe Biden weeks from today, I think the woman born in Jacksonville—home of the newly-relocated 2020 Republican convention—should be on that stage.

    A woman who pulled her parents along with her through segregated and integrated schools into college. A woman who pulled her parents with her through the police force. And a woman who pulled her parents with her into the halls of Congress, where she swore another oath to serve and protect, and led the prosecution of the current occupant who broke that oath.

    And that’s where I’ve pushed in my chips. Wish me luck.

    My thanks to Domer for all of this. May the odds be ever in his favor.

    Jonathan V. Last
    Executive Editor of The Bulwark

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