Monday, February 11, 2019

There Are No Clear Lane Markers on the Road to the White House

Political journalists are fond of metaphors, and one recent analogy that seems to be rising in general usage is the comparison of the presidential nomination process to a highway with multiple "lanes" corresponding to identifiable party factions or subgroups. According to this view, each candidate and primary voter resides in a specific party lane (or, on rare occasions, can straddle the boundary between two lanes). The best-positioned candidates in the race, then, will be those who can unite the voters in their lane—either because they have it all to themselves from the start, or because they quickly knock similarly-situated candidates off the road.

It's not surprising that the "lane" concept gained popularity during the initial stages of the 2016 Republican nomination contest. With so many candidates running that they couldn't even fit on a single debate stage (seventeen in all, including at least five or six with plausible paths to the nomination at various points), some sort of classification scheme seemed necessary to make sense of the situation. One representative Washington Post analysis from early 2015 (prior to Donald Trump's entry into the race) identified four Republican lanes: Establishment (led by Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio), Social Conservative (home to Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson), Tea Party (dominated by Ted Cruz), and Libertarian (aligned with Rand Paul).

In 2020, it's the Democrats who will have a large and varied field of candidates, and so analysts are already getting to work defining the salient subcategories within the party and figuring out where each potential contender stands in relation to them. One conceptual framework might emphasize ideology: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the party's left edge; Michael Bloomberg and Amy Klobuchar on the moderate wing opposite them; Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand jostling to occupy the middle space in between. Or, perhaps, the supposed lanes in the Democratic race more closely correspond to boundaries of social identity like race and gender, with voters lining up behind candidates who share their demographic characteristics. Or maybe the press will decide that the contest is really a story of Democrats who prioritize economic concerns facing off against Democrats motivated more by cultural causes, or a battle of generations, or even (please, let us be spared from this againbeer drinkers versus wine drinkers.

While some of these analytical attempts to sort out the primary competition contain grains of truth—there are, after all, identifiable constituencies within the parties that are more or less attracted to various candidates—the "lanes" model of characterizing nomination contests is fundamentally flawed and potentially misleading. It rests on assumptions about how voters behave in party primaries that don't hold up in reality, as the history of presidential nominations (including the 2016 race) makes very clear.

A reliable rule of thumb about nomination politics is that when voters are required to make an electoral choice among multiple candidates within the same party, their preferences will be relatively weak, unpredictable, based on limited information, and open to change up until the moment they cast their ballots. It can be easy to impose a clever and plausible-sounding analytical structure on the process in advance, or to explain in retrospect why one candidate won more support than another. But in the midst of the action, there is plenty about nominations that resists straightforward interpretation or forecasting. And the larger the field of contenders, the more complicated things get.

Candidates bob up and down in the polls on waves of positive or negative media attention (five different Republicans held the lead in national surveys at various points between October 2011 and February 2012, according to the RealClearPolitics aggregator). Expectations about which opponents will benefit when a particular candidate suffers a collapse in support frequently turn out to be mistaken. The important differences separating the various candidates in the eyes of party voters are themselves open to perpetual contestation by the candidates themselves, and may shift over the course of the race. And past nominees have often attracted broad support within the party by finessing internal differences in order to court multiple constituencies at once, even at the cost of logical incoherence—such as Barack Obama's self-portrayal in 2008 as simultaneously more principled and more open to compromise than his opponent Hillary Clinton.

Even though the "lanes" analogy originally caught on as a way to conceptualize the Republican nomination contest in 2016, it didn't turn out to capture the dynamics of the race that year—and may have even lulled some Republicans into adopting an ineffective or counterproductive strategy. Heading into the Iowa caucus, a widespread belief held that most Republican voters were resistant to nominating Donald Trump (and, perhaps, Ted Cruz as well), but the "establishment" lane was clogged with too many candidates: Bush, Rubio, Chris Christie, and so forth. Once a single contender broke out of the pack, Republican regulars would likely coalesce around him, and he would be in a good position to overtake Trump.

This assumption is why rival Republican candidates spent more time criticizing each other than attacking Trump despite his lead in the polls, and why Rubio's third-place finish behind Cruz and Trump in Iowa attracted a burst of media hype ("here, finally, is the establishment's chosen horse!"). But Rubio stalled in New Hampshire (thanks in part to Christie's decision, following the same strategic premise, to attack him instead of Trump in the next debate), and Trump's victory there started to set him on a path to the nomination. Rather than bumping against a hard ceiling of support, Trump's vote share in primaries and caucuses started to approach an outright majority as more Republicans jumped on the bandwagon of a successful candidate. Just as in past nomination contests, doing well in Iowa and New Hampshire generated favorable publicity for Trump that led to electoral momentum, and winning in one set of states made it easier to win in the next set as his popularity grew across the supposed boundaries separating one party subgroup from another.

It's important to understand how candidates behave strategically to build electoral coalitions and, to the best of our ability, to identify what considerations prompt voters to choose a specific candidate. But any conceptual model of nomination politics needs to incorporate a large random error term, representing the varying effects of personal charisma, persuasive advertising, memorable debate performances, catchy slogans, journalistic takedowns, verbal gaffes, and other factors that have proved difficult to anticipate yet can be just as influential as substantive positions or group membership in shaping voters' evaluations of the candidates. We're about a year away from primary and caucus participants being asked to officially register their preferences, which means that we're still a year away from rank-and-file Democrats beginning to settle on their choice of nominee. It's a long road to the nomination, and the vagaries of timing and luck ensure that many unforeseen twists and turns still lie far ahead.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Why Pelosi Gets More Attention Than Schumer For Taking on Trump

In the wake of President Trump's decision last Friday to sign a temporary continuing resolution that reopened the government for three weeks, thus ending the longest federal shutdown in American history, the most popular interpretation of this development (widely held in all but the most pro-Trump corners of the conservative media) was that Trump had conceded defeat in a one-on-one battle of wills with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi, by most accounts, had personally outmaneuvered, outwitted, and simply out-toughed the president. The resulting headlines tell this story clearly enough: "How Nancy Pelosi Ended Donald Trump's Shutdown" by Ezra Klein of Vox; "'She's Not One to Bluff': How Pelosi Won the Shutdown Battle" by Politico"How Nancy Pelosi Used Her Smarts and Strength to Absolutely Dominate Donald Trump" by columnist Elizabeth Drew.

This Pelosi-centered frame prevailed even though the precipitating legislative maneuver that preceded Trump's concession occurred in the Senate. Last Thursday, Mitch McConnell introduced a Trump-backed proposal that included billions in funding for a border wall; it received only 1 Democratic vote (from Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Senate's least liberal Democrat) and lost 2 votes from arch-conservative Republicans. McConnell then allowed consideration of a Democratic alternative "clean bill" that lacked wall funding, which attracted a higher level of support by combining a unanimous vote from Democrats with 6 defecting Republicans. It was clear at that point that momentum had turned against the White House.

According to a report from Axios, it was only after Chuck Schumer told McConnell that Trump's idea for a "down payment" on the wall funding was a non-starter among Senate Democrats that Trump was convinced to drop his demands and reopen the government. Schumer had previously goaded Trump into taking responsibility for the shutdown during a December meeting in the Oval Office that Trump had abruptly opened to the press. Throughout the entire process, Schumer and Pelosi seem to have worked in close collaboration to oppose the White House and congressional Republicans—even appearing together to deliver the response to Trump's national address on January 8. Yet the same media stories that featured blaring headlines crediting Pelosi for besting Trump relegated Schumer's role to brief passages in the bottom paragraphs when they mentioned him at all.

Why have the two Democratic leaders received such different coverage, in both quantity and quality, during and after the shutdown? Here are three reasons for this pattern:

1. Personal Reputation. Before the shutdown occurred, Pelosi was widely considered to be a committed liberal, while Schumer was viewed as much more of a "squish." This distinction is not unjustified. Yet it reflects the differing institutional constraints of the two Democrats as much as their personal instincts. The procedural complexity of the Senate requires its leaders to be more transactional than the majoritarian House, and Schumer's need to defend ten members of his caucus running for reelection in Trump-carried states during the 2017–18 session of Congress constrained his ability to lead the public opposition to the president—in contrast to Pelosi, who was freer to play offense. But it also meant that media analysts and partisans on both sides were likely to view the shutdown resolution as a victory for the supposedly tougher and more principled Pelosi regardless of the true nature of events. (Note the January 15 headline from the satirical Onion: "Chuck Schumer Honestly Pretty Amazed He Hasn't Caved Yet.")

2. Job Title. Put simply, Pelosi is the leader of a majority and the most powerful legislator in her chamber, and Schumer is not. It is thus natural in a sense for her to be treated as the primary face of the opposition to Trump, even if the Senate minority's ability to exercise obstructive power via the filibuster is a fundamental characteristic of our political system. Pelosi was also in the position to send a highly-publicized letter to Trump disinviting the president from giving his State of the Union address until the shutdown was ended, which certainly added to the perceptions that the larger partisan standoff over the border wall amounted to a personal conflict between the two of them.

3. Gender. Nancy Pelosi has been a highly skilled and effective legislative leader for 16 years, including a very productive previous tenure as speaker between 2007 and 2010. It is hardly a coincidence, however, that after almost two decades in power she has achieved a newfound status as a national feminist icon at a time when the opposing president is Donald Trump. Even for the mainstream press, the idea of anti-Trump forces being led by a woman is simply too good a story line not to adopt as the dominant frame of the current partisan divide in Washington. Journalists are especially interested to know what Trump thinks of Pelosi—a curiosity that does not extend equally to Schumer or many other Democrats.

Gender is on everybody's mind more than usual these days. If, say, Patty Murray were serving as the Senate minority leader rather than Schumer, it's very likely that the events of the past several weeks would have been framed as "Trump versus two women" rather than "Trump versus Pelosi," even if the legislative roles, sequence of developments, and final outcome had remained the same. At a time when journalists and citizens alike are even more inclined than usual to view politics in terms of the personalities and identities of individuals rather than larger structural or institutional factors, it's worth remembering that the stories we're told are sometimes the stories we're in the mood to hear.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Honest Graft in the Washington Post: Why Trump Didn't Get His Wall

Today in the Washington Post, I explain why the Republican-controlled Congress of 2017–2018 didn't fund Trump's border wall when they had the chance, and why Republicans are better off keeping immigration as an issue than trying to implement their favored policy solutions.

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?