Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Now Trump Wants His Wall, But It Looks Like He's Two Years Too Late

The border wall is often described as Donald Trump's signature issue, his most famous campaign promise, the very rationale for his political career—and therefore the most urgent priority of his presidency. And, indeed, Trump's recent behavior seemingly confirms this view. His unmet demands for $5 billion in wall funding have resulted in a goverment shutdown now approaching three weeks in length, and his first nationally televised Oval Office address Tuesday night, though brief and uneventful, was devoted entirely to justifying this hardball approach to what he characterizes as a "crisis" at the border. Trump is even supposedly considering the extraordinary step of declaring a national emergency that might allow him to move forward on wall construction without congressional approval, though his right to do so would remain unsettled at best for months or even years in the face of certain legal challenges.

Both allies and critics concede the centrality of the wall issue to Trump's political appeal and personal connection with his most enthusiastic supporters. But if building the wall was so necessary to the success of his presidency, why did he wait until now to act?

Trump made a very consequential decision soon after his unexpected election in November 2016 to delegate the prioritization of a legislative program to the Republican leadership in Congress: House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And the wall was far from the top priority for either Ryan or McConnell, who cared much more about repealing the Affordable Care Act and enacting tax reform. Addressing those two issues thus became the first order of business for Congress, while objectives that were more personally associated with Trump—like the border wall and infrastructure spending—moved further down the "to do" list.

At least in public, Ryan and McConnell assured Trump and other Republicans that they would get to everything on the agenda. Under the timeline unveiled at a January 2017 party retreat, ACA repeal would be accomplished by March, with tax reform following by the end of July—at which point the first phase of wall funding would be in place and an infrastructure bill would be well in the pipeline. But legislative business has a way of taking longer than expected, and in the end Republicans spent the first nine months of 2017 unsuccessfully attempting to pass a health care bill before giving up and moving to tax reform, which they pushed through in December.

By the time Congress turned its attention to immigration in early 2018, spurred on by the Trump-ordered expiration of the DACA program, a combination of several factors (fast-approaching midterm elections, Ryan's soon-to-be-public departure and its associated internal Republican leadership competition, and an increasingly beleaguered and intransigent White House) limited the potential for legislative accomplishment. Republican leaders successfully convinced Trump to wait until after the midterms to demand his wall money, avoiding an electorally disastrous pre-November shutdown but setting up a standoff in the final weeks of the 115th Congress that has now extended into the second week of the 116th.

One lesson that the Trump White House might have usefully taken from American history is that there is such a thing as a presidential "honeymoon": presidents usually have an easier time working their will in Congress during the early months of their first term than any time thereafter. But Trump, an unsophisticated newcomer to legislative politics with an amateurish and perpetually squabbling cadre of advisors, was not well-positioned to dispute the assurances of Ryan and McConnell that they knew best how to proceed—yet another example of his uniquely weak presidency. Two years later, Trump may come to regret that he didn't insist on funding for the border wall right away; the many months spent fruitlessly pursuing health care reform certainly seem in retrospect like wasted time. Though presidents may gain valuable wisdom through experience in office, the opportunity for realizing ambitious legislative change is greatest when they are still brand new to the job.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Freedom Caucus Will Remain Powerful in 2019, Thanks to Trump

Because the House of Representatives operates by majority rule (unlike the Senate), the loss of the 2018 elections means that House Republicans will need to become accustomed to an immediate evaporation of their institutional power once the new session of Congress begins on January 3. As the New York Times points out today, most Republican members have never experienced life in the minority, and will need to adjust to an abrupt reduction in their procedural importance. "We have come to grips with the shock of the election," explains Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), "but the shock of [not] governing will still be a wake-up call for some people."

One might expect that the House Freedom Caucus would be especially hard-hit by the shift in party control. Though it represented no more than about 20 percent of Republican House members, the Freedom Caucus was able to exert disproportionate leverage in the past by threatening to vote against initiatives backed by the Republican leadership. When combined with the votes of minority Democrats, opposition from the Freedom Caucus would ordinarily be enough to sink legislation on the House floor, and could even be used to force out a sitting speaker. Starting in January, however, the Freedom Caucus will be a minority of a minority, without the ability to strategically harness Democratic votes to bolster its legislative influence over the Republican conference. Its former leader Jim Jordan lost his race for minority leader to Kevin McCarthy by a lopsided vote of 159 to 43, and then failed to win enough party support to become the ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee.

Yet the Freedom Caucus will hardly be irrelevant in 2019, because it retains a powerful ally in the White House. Trump may have campaigned as a heterodox populist, but he has mostly governed as a hard-line conservative, and his intermittently rocky relationship with the Republican congressional leadership has made him sympathetic to party insurgents who share the same set of complaints about the slow pace of conservative legislative accomplishments. Members of the Freedom Caucus have further strengthened these bonds by serving as frequent defenders of his administration on cable television and by targeting Robert Mueller and Rod Rosenstein—an easy way to earn the affection of the president.

The current government shutdown over Trump's border wall demands has Freedom Caucus fingerprints all over it. Jordan and Freedom Caucus chair Mark Meadows have encouraged Trump's instincts toward political confrontation on the issue, in contrast to Republican leadership figures who have signaled their impatience with the shutdown. Like Trump, the Freedom Caucus cares a lot about maintaining the enthusiastic support of activists and media personalities on the right, and little about expanding its appeal beyond the bounds of the Republican Party's conservative base.

One potential eventual solution to what now looks like an extended shutdown is for Congress to override a presidential veto of a resolution reopening the government. But while most congressional Republicans would prefer not to take the heat for Trump's risky shutdown strategy, it's likely that the Freedom Caucus would stay loyal to Trump and gladly pile public attacks onto fellow Republicans who considered defection. Under such circumstances, it's hard to imagine that enough Republicans would join Democrats to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. The formal institutional power of the Freedom Caucus may be waning with the end of the Republican majority, but its role as an enforcer of purity within the GOP as a whole will remain fully intact as long as the Caucus stands with Trump, and Trump with it.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Get Ready for a #Hashtag Congress

The deal announced this week between Nancy Pelosi and several holdout Democrats ensures Pelosi's return to the speakership after an eight-year hiatus, in exchange for her pledge to serve no more than two additional terms in the position. Pelosi was already the endorsed choice of the incoming House Democrats to be the next speaker; 203 of 235 caucus members had supported her to continue as party leader in secret balloting conducted in late November. But the unique constitutional requirement that the speaker be selected by a majority vote of the entire House gives even small dissenting factions within the ruling party potential leverage over the speakership, as John Boehner discovered when a few dissatisfied members of the House Freedom Caucus successfully forced him from the position three years ago.

Behind-the-scenes accounts of the internal challenge to Pelosi emphasize the problems that the Democratic rebels faced in uniting behind a common set of objectives, coordinating their tactics with each other, and finding an alternative candidate willing to stand for speaker. With the anti-Pelosi effort soon stalling in the face of these obstacles, a few announced opponents flipped back onto Pelosi's side in exchange for minor concessions, signaling to the rest of the party that this wasn't a bandwagon worth jumping on. It's trendy at the moment to credit Pelosi as an all-time master legislative tactician and vote counter, but in this particular case her powers don't seem to have been put to an especially strong test.

While the renegade faction committed its share of mistakes—the (undoubtedly Pelosi-allied) sources behind the press reports seem especially intent on portraying Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, one of the ringleaders, as an arrogant bumbler—their cause was also hurt by two major changes in the larger political environment during the two years since 63 House Democrats voted against Pelosi for leader in November 2016. The first is a sudden explosion of political engagement among Democratic activists, especially online. The second is a concurrent spike in the salience of gender issues and the descriptive representation of women in Democratic politics.

Both of these trends are best understood as responses to the ascendance of Donald Trump to the presidency rather than to any developments in Congress. But Pelosi became their beneficiary nonetheless. Over the past two years, millions of Democratic citizens have started to pay close attention to the daily news from Washington—even following events in real time on Twitter and Facebook—and demanding a greater voice for liberal women in American government and society. All of a sudden, it's a good time to be a woman seeking power in the Democratic Party. Pelosi has been the leader of the House Democrats for 15 years, but only in the last few weeks has she become a liberal icon such that her confrontation with Trump at the White House over the border wall inspired online memes and the coat she was wearing sold out of stock overnight—prompting a reissue by the manufacturer.

As Jonathan Bernstein observes, "the rebels seriously misunderstood the political situation . . . it sure seemed like there was real grassroots support for Pelosi, possibly organized by the same people who have energized the resistance and who drummed up turnout in the midterms." Pelosi supporters on social media began to use the hashtag #FiveWhiteGuys to refer to her challengers within the party, even though Kathleen Rice of New York was one of Pelosi's leading opponents and Marcia Fudge of Ohio came the closest to running against Pelosi for speaker (in today's liberal online rhetoric, the label "white guy" carries with it an implicit self-explanatory dismissiveness). But defense of the Democratic leader spread from the virtual realm into the real world as well; Moulton was confronted at a public event in his district over his role in the anti-Pelosi maneuverings, and a female state legislator began to talk about running against him for renomination in 2020.

The 62 members of the incoming Democratic freshman class also provide a clue about the prevailing sentiments among the party at the grassroots level, to which they are presumably attuned. A number of these newly-elected members distanced themselves from Pelosi during the campaign for electoral reasons, even pledging in some cases not to support her for speaker. But few of them wanted to have anything to do with the organized dump-Pelosi movement, preferring to keep any opposition as quiet as possible once the 2018 election was over; only five signed the public letter opposing Pelosi spearheaded by Moulton.

The unprecedented interest of Democratic activists in what some observers might have assumed to be an inside-Washington debate over congressional leadership succession raises the question of whether social media users and other politically passionate citizens will continue to be closely attentive to congressional affairs once Pelosi claims the speaker's gavel on January 3, and whether such attention will affect the behavior of Democratic members of Congress in consequential ways. In the past, conservative media sources like talk radio have often been credited with provoking tidal waves of phone calls or letters to Capitol Hill offices that have been successful at times in influencing the votes of their recipients. It's increasingly possible that the viral post or hashtag will become the modern liberal equivalent, threatening Democratic officeholders with the outrage of the logged-in activist community if they don't support one or another favored party leader, legislative item, or presidential impeachment article.

And, if the voluble and assertive Twitter feed of soon-to-be Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is any indication, in the next session of Congress more and more debate between members themselves will move from C-SPAN to cyberspace. After all, that's where the audience is.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Ten Years Later, the Democrats Are Still the Party of Obama

In the wake of a "wave" election, it's always more fashionable to emphasize change over continuity. Despite plenty of talk these days about electoral realignments, resurgent socialism, and the political coming-of-age of a potentially transformational millennial generation, however, neither of the two parties looks all that much different now than it did before November 6—even if the national balance of power between them has shifted. To the extent that the 2018 campaign brought internal change to either side, it has mainly served to reinforce the existing nature of each party—and to render the parties even more dissimilar from each other.

A few years ago, in the aftermath of Bernie Sanders's presidential candidacy, I expressed skepticism that the Sanders brand of politics represented a likely future path for the Democratic Party. While Sanders himself mounted a more successful challenge to Hillary Clinton than many analysts had initially expected, his disinclination to emphasize policy issues outside his core agenda of economic redistribution—and, relatedly, his difficulty in making greater inroads within several key party constituencies—ultimately limited his appeal. Sanders was also ill-positioned to consolidate influence within the structure of the Democratic organizational network after the 2016 nomination race in order to reorient the party toward his own priorities over the long term. Barack Obama had become the face of the Democratic Party during the preceding eight years, and I suggested that future Democrats would likely continue to follow his political approach even as Obama himself prepared to leave public office.

Now, a full decade after Obama's first election and nearly two years after his presidency ended, Obama-style politics remains alive and well. Indeed, the Democratic Party continues to be molded in Obama's image even though he no longer serves as its official leader. The candidates who led the Democratic electoral resurgence in 2018 collectively represent a new cohort of mini-Obamas, reflecting the enduring influence of his strategy and style in a number of specific respects:

1. The personification of "change." Obama's decision in late 2006 to seek the presidency after less than two years in the Senate was viewed by contemporary observers as a very bold, if not risky, move. Conventional wisdom suggested that voters might deem Obama unprepared for the job, or scoff at his lack of legislative accomplishments. Instead, Obama turned his inexperience into a political strength in his races against both Hillary Clinton (in the Democratic primaries) and John McCain (in the general election), separating himself from an unpopular class of veteran politicians while promising to offer a different, more hopeful future. His personal biography—relative youth, recent arrival on the national scene, absence from the partisan wars of the previous years—thus reinforced his central campaign message in an unusually effective manner.

Many of the successful Democratic candidates in 2018 also credibly, and potently, positioned themselves as political outsiders opposing "career politicians" or "a broken Washington." Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the newly-elected Democrats in the House of Representatives lack previous experience in elective office—including 80 percent of those who captured seats previously held by Republican members. Like Obama in 2008, this Democratic freshman class is also unusually young, with 14 members under the age of 40 and a median age of just 45.

2. Acting liberal, but not talking liberal. Unlike Bill Clinton, Obama did not openly distance himself from, or pick fights with, the left wing of his party, and he generally took firmly liberal positions on major policy issues. At the same time, however, he consistently declined to portray himself as guided by a comprehensive ideological value system. While Democrats in safe party seats have become more likely over the past few years to identify themselves as "liberals" or "progressives" and to push for ambitious left-wing initiatives like single-payer health insurance, Democrats in competitive races mostly followed the Obama playbook in 2018 by running on specific proposals that would represent incremental left-of-center shifts—or even by defending the policy status quo against Republican-imposed rightward changes—instead of offering a more transformational vision.

3. A party of the metropolitan North, not the rural South. Though it had been in motion for a full half-century, the pro-Republican realignment of the South further accelerated during the Obama presidency. The mobilization of anti-Obama backlash in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections wiped out most of the remaining moderate Democratic officeholders in the South (as well as the rural Midwest and West). Despite an otherwise favorable electoral climate, Democrats mostly failed to make up this lost ground in 2018, and even suffered further defeats in the Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota Senate races, plus two House seats in outstate Minnesota. The most promising geographic terrain for the post-Obama party to make countervailing gains is now clearly located in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas, home to many highly-educated voters who have been drifting away from the GOP since the 1990s but who are especially alienated by Trumpism.

4. Demographic diversity. It's important to remember how rare it was in the pre-Obama era for non-white politicians to be elected, or even to run competitively, in majority-white constituencies. Obama himself was only the fourth African-American since the end of Reconstruction to win a statewide election for senator or governor  when he was elected to the Senate from Illinois in 2004, and there was considerable skepticism in many corners that a minority candidate could win the presidency up until the very day of the 2008 election. But the number and geographic reach of non-white nominees has continued to rise in subsequent years, and the 2018 contests produced an abrupt spike in the number of successful minority candidates. Democrats of color newly elected to the House from majority- or plurality-white districts include Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Antonio Delgado of New York, Andy Kim of New Jersey, Lauren Underwood of Illinois, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Sharice Davids of Kansas, Lucy McBath of Georgia, Colin Allred of Texas, Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, and Joe Neguse of Colorado, while Andrew Gillum of Florida and Stacey Abrams of Georgia ran near-miss campaigns for governor.

It seems quite apparent that working to increase the demographic diversity of elected representatives has become a priority for many Democratic activists and voters across racial, religious, and gender lines in the post-Obama era. This year also produced a record number of female candidates for office on the Democratic side, representing a sharp popular backlash to Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. In the next session of Congress, white men will constitute less than 40 percent of the Democratic caucus in the House for the first time in history—but will remain about 90 percent of the Republican conference.

5. Health care, health care, health care. More than eight years after it was enacted, Obama's signature legislative achievement is still a highly salient issue in American politics. But while Democrats found themselves on the political defensive over the Affordable Care Act in the years after its passage, the unpopular Republican attempts to roll back the ACA's provisions once Trump took office fundamentally reshaped the partisan dynamics. The Wesleyan Media Project found that while Republican candidates were much more likely than Democrats to mention health care in their advertising in every election between 2010 and 2016, in 2018 it was Democrats who couldn't stop talking about the issue—invoking it in more than 50 percent of all television spots. Even with Obama long departed from the White House, Obamacare remains an extremely hot electoral topic.

There are other ways in which Obama's legacy continues to shape the Democratic Party—for example, a number of newly-elected congressional Democrats are Obama administration or campaign alumni, including Kim, Underwood, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Haley Stevens and Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, and Deb Haaland of New Mexico. In general, the changes evident on the Democratic side in the Trump era have brought the party even more in line with the politics of its most recent president than it was when he first ascended to the White House. But as the 2020 campaign begins to stir, the durability of Obama's brand of Democratic politics will soon face yet another historical test. Will Democratic voters choose another Obama-esque figure? Or, perhaps, will they signal their support for their ex-president by nominating his own former second-in-command?

Friday, November 09, 2018

2018 Election Recap: It Ain't Over Yet!

In this age of instant hot takes and pre-written post-mortems, it's frightfully gauche for a political analyst to wait more than a minute before weighing in on a major national event. But while unrelated professional responsibilities prevented me from updating the blog until now, perhaps I can take advantage of having had a little more time to assess the evidence before adding my voice to the chorus of electoral interpreters. After all, it's been amusing to watch the conventional wisdom evolve from "the Democrats are underperforming in the House vote" to "the Democrats did fine in the House, but have to be disappointed by the Senate and governors' races" to "the Democrats engineered a big House wave, plus they also held their own in the Senate and made key gains downballot" over the 48 hours that elapsed after the first returns arrived on Tuesday night.

Besides, the election itself isn't exactly over: plenty of ballots remain to be counted in California and Arizona, while both major statewide contests in Florida are headed to recounts that have already plunged into legal challenge amid charges of fraud and maladministration. Those of us with students too young to have consciously experienced the extended postgame in 2000 will surely welcome the opportunity to guide them through a remarkable replication played out in real time over the rest of the current academic semester. And with that, some initial observations on the results of the 2018 midterm elections—or at least the results so far—with more to follow in the coming weeks:

1. The shifts in party fortunes that resulted from this week's vote are of course important, but not enough is being made of the astounding voter turnout rate—now estimated at 48.5% of eligible citizens, which would be the highest level in a midterm election since 1966 (before the national voting age was lowered to 18) and would even approach the 51.7% of Americans who turned out for the 1996 presidential election. The opposition party is typically well-mobilized in a midterm year, and Democrats certainly succeeded in stimulating exceedingly high participation by those dissatisfied with the ruling regime. But Republicans also marched to the polls to defend a president whom many had only reluctantly supported in 2016, just as pre-election indicators of interest and engagement had suggested, and succeeded in salvaging control of the Senate and a majority of state governors and legislative chambers from the national Democratic tide.

Whether they land on the pro or con side, Americans are thinking, talking, and doing politics much more since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Trump's ubiquity is, in general, a massive liability for his party—given the state of the economy, the Republican House majority would surely be intact today had virtually any other 2016 presidential candidate won the office instead—but it does have its specific uses, such as a super-charged rural vote that helps to deliver midwestern and southern Senate seats and governorships into Republican hands. From today's vantage point, the turnout rate in 2020 seems likely to hit or exceed 65 percent (it was 60 percent in 2016)—which would represent the highest proportion of eligible citizens participating in a national election in more than 100 years. It sure looks like we've found a solution for the much-lamented "vanishing voter" problem of past decades; weirdly enough, though, few people these days seem to be cheering that American civic virtue has been restored to a robust state of health.

2. Trump's alienation of previous Republican supporters among the white-collar professional suburban class (especially the female members thereof) continues to leave its marks on the electoral map. Most of the gains made by Democratic House candidates were located in the nation's largest metropolitan areas: greater New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles all produced at least one (and, in some cases, much more than one) R-to-D seat flip. (And in metro Boston and San Francisco, there simply are no remaining GOP-held seats for Democrats to capture.) But many of these shifts are either located in states that are already solidly blue (like New York and California) or are potentially neutralized by countervailing trends in smaller cities or towns elsewhere (as in Florida or Pennsylvania), limiting the consequences for state-level partisan alignments—which remain quite stable.

And while Democrats have reason to be encouraged by rising electoral strength in Sun Belt population centers from Georgia and Texas to Arizona and Nevada, their performance in the Midwest—while markedly better than its 2016 nadir—still stopped short of a full rebound to Obama-era levels. In fact, while the pre-election polling was for the most part impressively accurate, it consistently underestimated Republican strength in statewide races in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and Missouri. The Midwest will remain the nation's biggest battleground in 2020, but it's clear that Democrats can't simply depend on Trump's New York-style brashness pushing the region's voters back in their direction. (And this observation, in turn, has associated implications for a Democratic presidential nomination contest that will soon kick into high gear.)

3. While the 2018 election was largely a referendum on the president, the identity of the individual candidates still mattered as well—as confirmed by the margin of victory in the Texas Senate race. Departing, perhaps out of necessity, from its usual practice of favoring veteran elected officials in its candidate recruitment efforts, the national Democratic Party managed to assemble a very strong assortment of "not a typical politician" congressional challengers who, for the most part, proved good fits for their districts and convinced the electorate of their qualifications for office even as they lacked long public records ripe for mining by the Republican opposition.

What we don't yet know, however, is how many of these self-styled new voices will attempt to keep their distance from older generations of Democratic leaders once they take their seats in the Capitol. There's little reason to expect a collectively demanding and persistently unruly class of House freshmen à la 1995 or 2011, but the number of Democratic candidates who promised not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker on the campaign trail this year suggests the perceived political value that lies in maintaining public independence from the existing congressional party. Pelosi herself may be safe, at least for a while—among her other advantages, there doesn't appear at present to be a clear alternative candidate for the speakership from within the Democratic ranks—but the newly-elected members will need to be given some kind of visible accommodation once they arrive in Washington, and the question of what the post-Pelosi future looks like will hang in the air even if she successfully reclaims the speaker's gavel.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Uncertainty Remains High Even as Election Day Awaits

Close observers of American politics seem to live in a world of constant suspense and frequent unforeseen plot twists, but the state of public opinion out in the country at large is in fact remarkably stable these days. President Trump's approval rating has varied within a fairly narrow band ever since he took office nearly two years ago, and the "generic ballot" measuring congressional party support in the 2018 election has likewise drifted only marginally during that time. As usual, some commentators have attempted to manufacture drama by treating events such as the Kanavaugh confirmation hearings as electoral "game changers," but the national political climate simply hasn't shifted very much over the course of the 2018 campaign.

Stability isn't the same thing as certainty, however, and the lack of large-scale change in the prevailing partisan trends over the past few weeks and months doesn't mean that the picture is much clearer as we look ahead to Election Day. In some years, what may initially seem like a sprawling national battleground resolves itself into a relative handful of doubtful races as the election approaches. That hasn't happened in 2018. In fact, at least in the House, active partisan warfare seems to be expanding into new territory in the final weeks of the campaign—due in part to the unusually flush coffers of candidates, parties, and independent groups.

The sheer number of highly competitive seats this year is remarkable. Any list of recent House polls—such as the series conducted by the New York Times and Siena College in their "live polling" project—will reveal many districts in which the candidates are separated by a few percentage points at most. In this week's House ratings, 31 seats are classified as "tossups" by at least one of the three most prominent election handicappers (the Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, and Sabato's Crystal Ball), with another 50 seats deemed only "leaning" to one party or the other. As of Thursday night, the 538.com "classic" forecasting model projects that 107 House seats will be decided by 10 points or less in the two-party vote—virtually triple the number of seats (36) that produced a margin that narrow in 2016.

Even if that estimate overshoots the final results by a bit, it's likely that the number of close races this year will at least double that of two years ago—and will surely be higher than it was in any congressional election since 2010. Analysts once debated whether the 2018 House election would be fought on the geographic turf that Trump took from Barack Obama, or the turf that Hillary Clinton took from Mitt Romney; today, it seems that the answer is "both." Democrats remain favored to gain a majority, though not prohibitively so, and the range of plausible post-election seat margins is still quite wide.

Of the nine most electorally vulnerable Senate seats entering this year—six (FL, IN, MO, MT, ND, WV) held by Democrats and three (AZ, NV, TN) held by Republicans—in only one, North Dakota, has one party (in this case, the Republicans) established a strong advantage over the course of the past few months. While the probability of a Democratic takeover remains fairly small, the large number of tossup races makes it difficult to forecast the likely outcome, and anything from continued virtual parity between the parties to a 55-45 Republican advantage in 2019–2020 has to be counted as fully consistent with the available evidence at this stage.

State governorships have also contributed some of the most fascinating and hotly-contested races of the year, from Florida to Ohio and from Georgia to Wisconsin. For every state like Michigan or Minnesota where the governor's race appears to be less competitive than originally anticipated, there is another state—Iowa, Kansas, Oregon, even South Dakota—that is unexpectedly tight heading into the final stretch. And with another round of congressional reapportionment awaiting after the 2020 census, these state-level elections will have significant consequences for the balance between the national parties as well.

Some political junkies may be tempted to spend the final days before November 6 hunting through late polling trends and early voting figures for hints of the likely outcome—and perhaps a few such hints will surface over the next week or so, though accurately separating signal from noise at this stage is a very difficult endeavor. Most of the big stories of the 2018 election, however, seem set: the president is especially polarizing, the public is unusually energized, a historic number of women are running for office, and two closely-matched parties are fighting hard for power up and down the ballot. It's enough to inspire feelings of envy in those of us who reside in places where the electoral contests this year are sleepy, one-sided affairs. Here in Massachusetts, at least, we have a World Series to supply some extra October excitement.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Why the 2018 Election Won't "All Come Down to Turnout"

The claim that an upcoming election "all comes down to turnout" is one of the most venerable clichés in American punditry. But it's become more popular than ever in an era when the mass public is commonly characterized as consisting of two implacable partisan tribes, equally unshakable in their preferences and aversions. If virtually every potential voter is a loyal member of either the red team or the blue team, the outcome of a national election is presumably determined simply by which party can motivate its supporters to participate at the highest rate.

Swing voters are indeed less numerous than they used to be, and the geographic polarization of the American electorate has reduced the number of states and congressional districts that are politically competitive in any given contest. But at a time when the two major parties are closely matched in national strength, the voters who remain open to persuasion continue to hold a lot of electoral power. And it's far from clear whether there will be a large enough difference in the participation rates of committed Democrats and Republicans for turnout to be the primary factor deciding the 2018 election.

To be sure, evidence is piling up that Democratic voters are unusually mobilized this year compared to the recent past. A September survey by the Pew Research Center found that 67 percent of Democratic supporters reported being "more enthusiastic than usual" about voting—a much higher rate than Pew found in either 2014 (36 percent) or 2010 (42 percent). Turnout in Democratic primary elections surged to 23 million voters in 2018, up from 14 million in 2014. And the astounding fundraising totals reported by Democratic congressional candidates, fueled by an unprecedented explosion of small-dollar contributions by individual donors, surely reflects an unusual degree of engagement among politically attentive Democratic citizens—and also ensures a series of generously-funded Democratic get-out-the-vote operations from one end of the country to the other.

But 2010 and 2014 were both unusually poor elections for the Democratic Party nationwide. Improved Democratic participation in 2018 compared to the two most recent midterms may prevent another disastrous performance, but it hardly guarantees a blue wave. And while Democrats are clearly much more engaged this year than in the recent past, Republicans are not necessarily less engaged.

According to Pew, 59 percent of Republican supporters are "more enthusiastic" about voting than usual in 2018—not far behind Democrats and at least equal to Republicans' own reported enthusiasm levels in 2014 (52 percent) and 2010 (57 percent). Among respondents to a recent Washington Post poll, 81 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans claimed to be "absolutely certain to vote" in November (surely a massive collective exaggeration of the actual turnout rate, but not one that reveals a significant difference between the parties), and an NBC-Wall Street Journal survey found that 72 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of Republicans reported "high interest" in the 2018 elections. Similarly, while the GOP didn't experience a spike in participation as large as that of the Democrats this year, turnout in Republican primaries was still higher in 2018 than 2014, growing from 15.5 million to more than 19 million votes.

Moreover, few pollsters are finding that restricting their analyses to the fraction of respondents identified as certain or likely voters (as opposed to all registered voters) produces significantly more favorable results for Democratic candidates in 2018. In fact, it's relatively good news for Democrats that they don't seem to lose ground when survey analysts use a "likely voter screen" to compensate for the projected composition of this year's electorate. Republicans normally enjoy a persistently higher turnout rate in midterm elections that diminishes or disappears in good Democratic years but seldom, if ever, transforms into an actual pro-Democratic turnout advantage. As Nate Cohn of the New York Times observes, "When Democrats hold the presidency, Republicans generally have a big midterm turnout edge . . . [and] when Republicans hold the presidency, Democrats fight back to parity."

Based on the incomplete signs so far from state election officials' reported early voting and absentee balloting totals, turnout is likely to increase across the board in 2018 from its 2014 levels. Democrats, of course, are strongly motivated this year by their deep antipathy to the Trump presidency. But Republicans don't appear to be staying home either—certainly not to the degree that Democrats did during the two Obama midterms. The polarizing figure of Trump may be inspiring elevated engagement on both sides; at minimum, it seems likely that the constant public attention commanded by the current president has resulted in Americans of all partisan persuasions thinking and talking more about politics than they did before he took office.

With Democrats and Republicans both invested in this year's election, a potential nationwide blue wave will require a non-trivial proportion of voters to shift from the GOP (or third parties) in 2016 to Democratic candidates in 2018. There are 25 Republican-held House seats that were carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, barely more than the minimum net gain (23) needed by the Democrats to take control of the chamber, and it seems unlikely that Democrats could win enough of these seats alone to gain an overall majority. But there are also 16 Republican-held seats that Trump carried with less than 50 percent of the total popular vote, 23 additional Republican seats where Trump received between 50 and 52 percent of the total vote, and another 24 seats where Trump received 53 or 54 percent of the vote. These are the pivotal districts that hold the partisan balance of power in the House. Democrats don't need to peel off a large share of voters who previously preferred Republican candidates in order to capture majority control, but merely energizing their own habitual partisan supporters is probably insufficient to flip enough seats their way absent a modicum of successful persuasion as well.

In the Senate, the Democrats' need for a lopsided advantage among swing voters is even more evident. Five of the six most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this fall were elected in 2012 even as Mitt Romney carried their states over Barack Obama (Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jon Tester of Montana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia); the sixth, Bill Nelson of Florida, represents a state where Obama achieved a narrow plurality win. All six states shifted further toward the Republicans in 2016; these Democrats are thus dependent upon a significant share of their constituents continuing to divide their partisan preferences, and this dependence increases further with every sign of a mobilized Republican base in 2018.

According to exit polls, self-identified independents preferred Republican candidates by margins of 56 percent to 44 percent in 2014 and 59 percent to 41 percent in 2010, making an underappreciated but critical contribution to the national GOP sweep in both elections. In 2006—the last Democratic midterm victory—independents gave Democrats an equally favorable margin of 59 percent to 41 percent. Leads for Democratic candidates in 2018 voter surveys, including a persistent advantage for the party in the national generic congressional ballot, have similarly been fueled by a steady erosion of Republican support among independents since the 2016 election. The addition of these independent votes to the revved-up Democratic "resistance" seems like a formula for electoral success in November, but many persuadable voters are not as attentive to politics as strong partisans are, and their preferences are likely to be somewhat unsettled even as Election Day swiftly approaches. With so many seats in play at all levels of government, it's still too soon to tell exactly how far the swing vote will swing.