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Thunderdome: Barstool Conservatives, Polling the Issues, Florida vs. California
And another Manchin tease
Welcome to Thunderdome: have you placed a bet yet on if Chris Christie actually shows up to the debate with a pair of brass knuckles? It certainly would be entertaining to see the New York and New Jersey guys just ignore the rest of the field and tangle — it’d be enough to justify having the debate itself. But Trump might skip it, which makes the prospect of a DeSantis/Newsom debate the most interesting possibility on the horizon — and presents a make-or-break chance for the Florida governor. Meanwhile, Republicans struggle with how to aim their message in a time where culture war is the dominant narrative but perhaps not the most salient one.
Listen and subscribe to the latest Thunderdome podcast where this week we discuss all of the above, and if ESPN is going to turn out to be more problematic than Barstool Sports for the gambling industry...
What does ‘Barstool conservative’ even mean?
This week the New York Times released an interview by Jane Coaston, guest-hosting The Ezra Klein Show, with me on the recent past and near future of the American right. We talked at length about a number of subjects, and I hope you’ll listen to the podcast or read the whole thing.
One topic that came up is a question about “Barstool conservatives,” an oft-deployed descriptor that Coaston has written about before. It led to this exchange:
Jane Coaston: There are so many different strains within the conservative movement. Can you briefly describe what Barstool conservatism is?
Ben Domenech: So it’s a term that was used because of its association with Dave Portnoy and Barstool Sports, the very successful online personality-driven publication, has a ton of podcasts, including ones that I listen to, that are off-the-wall and funny and entertaining. But it came to be something that was associated with the rise of Donald Trump. Because a lot of them were saying very positive things about him. They were entertained by him. But then when Covid really hit, it took off in a much bigger way. And so Barstool conservatism became kind of this stand-in term for a kind of libertine-ish conservatism that really was about being left alone.
JC: But also, I would argue, kind of an ethos of, “sex is good, me having sex is awesome, anyone telling me what to do in any way is bad and they should stop doing that.” But it’s something that we’ve talked a little bit about of these different strains working together. And they found common cause, I think, during Covid. Covid became a moment in which, for many people on the right, this was the ultimate nanny state telling people what to do. People were changing their Twitter user bios to “do not comply.” And then later, they were like, actually, we would like you to comply with this other stuff.
But even describing the Barstool conservatives as conservative is a weird thing to do. And you saw that a little bit after Dobbs. You know, Dave Portnoy himself was like, “emergency press conference, this is terrible, how dare we tell women what to do with their bodies?” And you saw a bunch of people on the right being like, “wait, what?” No, it made sense. But what do you think of these divides, these strains? What does this relationship mean?
BD: So the dynamic that you’re identifying is real. There is an anti-nanny statism that can overlap from both a coherent conservatism and then just a meandering populism, which is essentially what I think the Barstool element of it is. We want to be able to gamble. Porn is good; it’s not bad. We want people to have fun, drink High Noon, gamble more. We want them to be entertained by the people who we have on our programs, who are both big winners and big losers, buy cheap T-shirts, and just keep the ethos rolling. And where that interacts with politics, it really is kind of a celebrification. Obviously, Portnoy got to do a long interview with Donald Trump. And, historically, you can see the appeal to that. It’s one of these things that is basically for people who don’t consume politics on a regular basis. It’s when something goes viral that interacts with the political world where they interject. Sam Tallent, a very talented comedian from Colorado, described the pandemic as being a point where some people were getting very, very authoritarian about masks and distancing and narcing on people and then everybody else viewed their act of patriotism as saying if I can’t go to Buffalo Wild Wings, then I’m going to blow up a post office, which I think is very much an accurate description of the two poles.
What I think of as being a good attribute of Barstool conservatism is, essentially, that it overlaps with the Gadsden flag just leave us alone coalition, whether that be going after menthol cigarettes or vaping or any of these things that are kind of nanny-state government stuff that they rebel against. I think that that’s good. And it’s also something that historically is very American.
Barstool conservatives are the types of people who would have dressed up as Native Americans and thrown in Boston Harbor. Like, Portnoy is that guy. He’s a Sam Adams-type of crazy man who is kind of on the extreme of that. And then there’s the John Adams conservatism, which is I need to go in and defend the British soldiers in order to show that we have equal justice here in America. And we’re not just some backwards colony that’s going to not be able to govern ourselves. Those two forces overlap on some things. But they are at direct odds on others.
I wanted to add an additional thought that only came to me after interacting with some others who have strong opinions about Barstool. Some people, particularly in media, use the term to suggest that the sports website is some hotbed of right-wingers, when it’s clearly not — the people who create content for Barstool seem to be overwhelmingly agnostic or progressive on politics. Dave Portnoy seemed to stand alone in his fandom for Donald Trump, and even that was borne more out of appreciating him as a wrestling style character than as a president.
Instead, it’s a description of a certain type of conservative voter. In the description, Barstool is modifying “conservative” — and it’s not the first time the marketplace of political commentary has done this, pairing a cultural phenomenon with a voter set in lieu of soccer moms or NASCAR dads. There was even a book back in the day which included me as a “South Park Conservative.” Really, it’s an acknowledgement that stuck-up old visions of rich conservative white men as representative of conservatives are being replaced by a more economically and racially diverse working and middle class. Guys with bow ties are turning into guys drinking a zillion beers, cricket and tennis are now big state football, WFB writing essays on sailing is now the MAGA boat parade.
The left media finds it frustrating that the right turned from people whose sense of humor went from Bob Hope to Bill Burr — and whose vision of beauty went from Tippi Hedren to Pam Anderson.
There are a host of reasons the left should prefer their new coalition of unmarried women and high-income, college-educated Americans. They have greater spending power and the time and inclination to be extremely active in non-presidential election years. But there’s also something unnerving and uncool about losing the idea of fighting for “the American working man” — and deep down, acknowledging that these boobs and brews all-Americans are everything you hate now about our politics.
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The issues that matter most to early state voters
Some very interesting polling data from the early states, developed by the Manhattan Institute’s Jesse Arm, contains a plethora of information about second choices for voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina — along with the way they view the important issues. Here’s Arm’s analysis of the findings:
Newly released Manhattan Institute polling on the 2024 GOP primary and policies shaping the contest confirms Trump’s large lead. Still, the survey indicates a slightly tighter race in the early primary states. The data show that DeSantis’s base of support has a disproportionately large amount of both “somewhat conservative” and “very conservative” voters, but not enough of either group to run competitively with the former president yet.
The Iowa caucuses take place in five months, a lifetime in electoral politics. A challenger could still conceivably make up ground against Trump, just as Barack Obama did against Hillary Clinton when she was far ahead in the Democratic presidential polls throughout 2007. Roughly one in four Trump supporters in the early primary states of Iowa, South Carolina, and New Hampshire say that they may change their minds and back another candidate.
But it’s increasingly evident that attempting to out-Trump Trump is not an effective method for capturing those votes. And running to the right on everything is unlikely to work with the 41 percent of likely GOP primary voters in Iowa, 36 percent in South Carolina, and 53 percent in New Hampshire who are not backing either Trump or DeSantis at this stage.
Challengers could instead focus on voters’ policy preferences. Given DeSantis’s widely reported penchant for substantive discussions over the small talk that retail politics calls for, it is surprising that his campaign website does not feature a section devoted to his positions on issues. (The Trump campaign site does.) One reason for avoiding certain policy disputes may be the major debates playing out among conservative leaders over economic and foreign policy. Yet the Manhattan Institute poll indicates that what is most intensely controversial among DC’s conservative chattering class is not always so among Republican primary voters.
By a wide margin, GOP voters believe that deregulation and tax cuts are a more effective way for the federal government to help grow American manufacturing than an industrial policy approach of regulations, tariffs and subsidies. Overwhelming majorities support increasing trade with ally nations, believe President Biden has been too weak in punishing Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, think Vladimir Putin is a war criminal and feel the federal government is spending too little on national security and the military. Republicans are divided on wedge issues — such as continuing financial support for Ukraine or reforming entitlements — but grassroots revulsion on these matters is less pervasive than certain talking heads suppose.
The data also suggest that aggressively prosecuting the war on wokeness is a good strategy. The share of primary voters who say that they are “very conservative” on race and gender issues is considerably larger than the faction that says the same about politics generally, economics or such social issues as abortion and guns. Republican voters are strongly enthusiastic about banning affirmative action and mandatory diversity trainings at public universities. Support for heartbeat bills to limit abortion is softer and more varied by state. Surprisingly, they firmly endorse certain proposals that would toughen gun laws, including universal background checks, mental-health checks on gun buyers and allowing police temporarily to take guns away from people who have been shown to be a danger to themselves or others.
Where does this leave the candidates? The anti-woke crusade, shrewd technocratic governance and resistance to the federal bureaucracy’s Covid guidelines formed the basis for DeSantis’s dominant midterm performance in an otherwise difficult year for Republicans. The problem for the Florida governor and others who have oriented their candidacies around opposing wokeness, such as entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, is that while these issues unify disparate ideological factions of the GOP primary electorate, they are not a top priority for voters in this year’s nominating contest. Concerns over the economy, taxes, government spending and immigration take priority.
One more thing
There he goes again: Joe Manchin says he’s seriously considering leaving the Democratic Party to run as an Independent.
“I’m thinking seriously,” Manchin told West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval, adding, “I have to have peace of mind, basically. The brand has become so bad. The D brand and R brand... You’ve heard me say a million times, I am not a Washington Democrat.”
Pressed on how seriously he is approaching the idea, Manchin said he has “been thinking about that for quite some time” and wants to “make sure that my voice is truly an independent voice.” Manchin said he hasn’t “made any decisions,” telling Kercheval, “When I get ready to make a decision, I’ll come see you.”
Here’s the problem: in a presidential election year, even running as an Independent probably won’t save Manchin. But there’s still another path: with the latest polling in Arizona showing Kyrsten Sinema only serving to help Democrats beat likely GOP Senate nominee Kari Lake, the dream of a No Labels candidacy of Manchinema 2024 remains alive — if not practically speaking, at least in our hearts.
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