Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Primary Election Recap: A Big Upset Here at Home

Honest Graft headquarters is located in the 7th District of Massachusetts, a constituency that rarely commands the attention of the national political world. As denizens of a one-party city located within a seldom-competitive state, Boston voters are unused to producing electoral outcomes of interest to anyone but ourselves (if even that). But on Tuesday night, an already newsy day in American politics was capped by a major upset: the defeat, by a wide popular margin, of 10-term incumbent House member Mike Capuano by Boston city councillor Ayanna Pressley.

I'll admit that I expected Capuano to win this race. He wasn't caught napping by Pressley's challenge; in fact, he outspent her by a substantial amount and, at least in our corner of the district, ran a more visible campaign. Moreover, his down-the-line liberal voting record in Congress gave Pressley few specific targets to attack. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while the district is nominally a majority-minority seat, the active electorate is mostly white—and white Bostonians do not have much of a history of voting for non-white Bostonians.

As I argued on Twitter, I think it's a mistake to view the Pressley victory primarily as a manifestation of a larger pattern of ideological purity tests in Democratic nomination politics; if pundits insist upon characterizing the results in MA-07 as part of a national trend, a much better choice of context is the record-setting rate at which Democratic voters are nominating women for office in 2018. In fact, other results around the state on Tuesday didn't fit the story of a newly-dominant left. Incumbent House members Richard Neal and Stephen Lynch—the latter much less liberal than Capuano—easily defeated insurgent primary challengers, and statewide candidates Jay Gonzalez and Bill Galvin cruised to victory over more left-leaning opponents.

But the Pressley-Capuano race does represent a potential milestone all the same, with resonances that extend beyond the borders of the district in which it was fought. Steady rates of population change over the past two decades or so in Boston—as well as in neighboring Cambridge and Somerville, both located at least partially within the borders of MA-07—have brought streams of younger professionals into neighborhoods that were previously home to working-class urban residents. Both types of voters are mostly Democratic—and, to a degree, mostly liberal—but they have different sets of political concerns, priorities, and styles.

A city that has become mostly a collection of highly-educated cosmopolitan whites and politically mobilized racial minorities is potentially fertile ground for candidates with Pressley's profile—and, in fact, the most remarkable thing about this race might be how long it took for these population shifts to translate into political change. The Somerville of the 1990s was still home to a significant blue-collar "white ethnic" vote that elected Capuano mayor before helping to send him to Congress in the first place; the Somerville of today is a rapidly gentrifying satellite of the Tufts and Harvard campuses that nearly opted for Pressley over its erstwhile favorite son.

It could well turn out to be a fitting coincidence that Pressley defeated Capuano on the same day that Rahm Emanuel announced his retirement as mayor of Chicago. Emanuel personifies a certain kind of urban politician—liberal and Democratic, yet bluntly transactional, impatient with idealism, and sensitive to the interests of businesses and law enforcement unions—who once ruled American cities from one side of the country to the other but who are becoming increasingly scarce, and even somewhat anachronistic. We may be observing the rise of a new style of urban politics that is more conversant with national issues and ideological currents than its predecessors, and in which white voters increasingly join non-whites in opposing policies and patterns of demographic representation that are perceived to disfavor racial minorities and other socially disadvantaged groups. If so, Boston will not be the only city to soon feel a political change in the air.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Quiet Reinvention of Ted Cruz

It's hardly unusual for an incumbent politician to kick off a re-election campaign by producing a television ad recalling a past crisis when he provided both personal comfort and—even more importantly—public resources to his constituents in their moment of need. But when that politician is better known for taking symbolic stands on the floor of Congress than for working pragmatically with others to deliver material benefits to his home state, even a fairly ordinary 30-second spot seems like a window into a larger personal reinvention.

The politician in question is Texas senator Ted Cruz, who built a national reputation as a Tea Party-aligned conservative purist during the second term of the Obama presidency before running for president himself in 2016. Earlier this month, Cruz, now seeking a second term in the Senate, released his first positive campaign ad of the year, which emphasized his role in securing federal funds on behalf of the victims of Hurricane Harvey and featured video clips of the senator—not normally known as a touchy-feely type—embracing and holding the hands of disaster-afflicted citizens. The Cruz portrayed in the ad is indeed a fighter, but for the immediate interests of fellow Texans rather than for timeless ideological principles.

Cruz appears to have good reason to recast his public persona. Unlike other candidates like Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich, who returned home with their popularity intact after losing the 2016 nomination race, the elevated visibility that Cruz received by running for president damaged his reputation among Texas voters. According to University of Texas surveys, the proportion of state residents holding a favorable impression of Cruz peaked at 46 percent (compared to 34 percent reporting an unfavorable impression) in June 2014; by the end of his presidential candidacy two years later, Cruz's favorability rating had sunk to just 31 percent (versus 48 percent unfavorable).

Cruz seems to have enjoyed a bit of a rebound since then; the latest UT survey, from June 2018, gives him a 41 percent favorable rating and a 42 percent unfavorable rating. But that showing still places him in a potentially vulnerable position as he seeks re-election, even as a Republican incumbent in a Republican state. Indeed, multiple recent polls—including a survey released this afternoon by NBC News—have found Cruz with just a single-digit lead over his Democratic challenger, El Paso congressman Robert "Beto" O'Rourke, who is running an energetic and well-funded, if at times amateurish, campaign. Cruz is still clearly favored to win, but he can't simply coast to a second term—and even a narrow victory would represent an undeniable sign of political weakness, given the massive head start bestowed on any Republican by the strong partisan lean of the Texas electorate.

Buzzfeed's recent profile of O'Rourke revealed that the Democrat's campaign "proudly employs no pollsters or traditional consultants," which seems like a very odd thing to be proud of. Cruz, presumably, has not adopted such a policy. Indeed, the visible change in his public behavior since returning to the Senate from the presidential campaign trail two years ago suggests a deliberate shift in strategy informed by direct evidence of declining popularity back in his home state. Once best known for delivering floor speeches blasting the Republican leadership as sellouts to conservatism and for leading the right wing of his party into procedural confrontations on behalf of ideological causes, Cruz has been a fairly quiet senator for a while now. In some ways, the Cruz of the new TV spot, bringing home the federal bacon to Texas with a hug and a smile, is just the latest version of a personal reinvention that began even before O'Rourke emerged as a viable challenger.

Such a change of course may only confirm the suspicions of critics—like many of his eye-rolling Senate colleagues—who found Cruz's previous persona as a tireless defender of sacred principles to be merely the product of transparently insincere and self-serving calculation. But all politicians must change with the times or risk defeat. Lindsey Graham was once one of the fellow senators most frequently infuriated by Cruz's behavior, calling him "at his core . . . an opportunist" among many other pejoratives. Of course, Graham also trashed Donald Trump in the press for months, but has more recently become one of the president's golf partners. In politics, opportunism is less an occupational hazard than a virtual inevitability.

Cruz has ultimately found himself in the same place as many other Republicans, struggling to adapt to the massive changes that have occurred since Obama gave way to Trump—both within the Republican Party and in the larger political climate. Some Republican members of Congress, such as many of Cruz's former Capitol Hill allies in the House Freedom Caucus, have become enthusiastic supporters of their new party leader; a few others have voiced open criticism (usually on route to departure from office). But most Republican politicians have cautiously stayed in the middle, calibrating their words and actions to satisfy the conservative activist base without staking their own public reputation on Trump's behavior. Once an attention-grabbing insurgent within his party, Cruz has become one more Republican hoping to be among the survivors of the high winds whipped up by this season's political hurricane.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Few Political Consequences of the Democratic Surge Among College-Educated Whites

The Pew Research Center recently released an informative report on the composition of the American electorate, based on a survey of citizens whose electoral participation (or lack thereof) in 2016 was confirmed by matching their names to state voter turnout records. High-quality studies like those conducted by Pew provide more reliable information on the distribution of attributes within the voting public than the more commonly-cited (but less methodologically sound) national exit polls, and thus any discrepancies between them are usually best resolved in favor of the former.

For example, exit polls can overestimate the degree of educational attainment in the electorate. In 2016, the national exit poll found, improbably, that a full 50 percent of voters had earned at least a bachelor's degree, with just 18 percent reporting no more than a high school education. The new Pew study estimates that the true figures are the following: 37 percent with a BA degree or more, 34 percent with college experience short of a four-year degree, and 30 percent with a high school diploma or less—much closer to a rough three-way split among the no, some, and completed college categories than an even divide between four-year college graduates and non-grads.

But if the true proportion of college graduates in the voting public was smaller than the exit polls indicated, these voters also seem to have preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump much more decisively than the exit pollsters believed. The national exit poll estimated that Clinton had prevailed over Trump by 52 percent to 42 percent among all four-year college graduates, narrowly losing white college grads by a margin of 48 percent to 45 percent and carrying white female grads by 7 points (51 percent to 44 percent). According to the Pew researchers, however, Clinton outpolled Trump by a full 21 points (57 percent to 36 percent) among all college graduates, by 17 points (55 percent to 38 percent) among white grads, and by 26 points (61 percent to 35 percent) among white female grads.

The Pew figures aren't likely to be precisely correct; sampling error and other methodological limitations apply to them as well. But they surely come closer than the exit poll data to the true values within the American population. Since pre-election surveys and other forms of evidence indicate that Trump carried non-college-grad whites overwhelmingly (perhaps by as much as 40 points), the most logical way to account for the fact that Clinton outran Trump by 2.8 million popular votes nationwide is to assume that she prevailed among the college/post-grad sector of the electorate by a comfortable margin. In fact, Clinton is almost certainly the first Democratic presidential candidate in modern history to win more votes from white college graduates than the Republican opposition.

This achievement undoubtedly reflects the limits of Trump's appeal among college-educated voters more than any special devotion to Clinton. But the Democratic Party was evolving even before 2016 to become more dependent on the votes of racial minorities, young adults, and highly-educated professionals (the "Obama coalition") while relinquishing much of its previous electoral support among non-college-educated whites to the GOP. Moreover, recent opinion polls and the results of special elections indicate that the pro-Democratic shift among white college graduates evident in the 2016 contest has survived into 2017 and 2018, suggesting that the Democratic leanings of these voters will endure for at least as long as Trump is the leader of the Republican Party.

What are the implications of a newfound preference for Democrats within this formerly majority-Republican sector of the electorate? Here are a few areas of American politics that will be measurably affected by such a change:

1. Geography. Because educational attainment is not evenly distributed across geographic boundaries, the places where each party can expect to win votes will evolve along with the demographic composition of their voter coalitions. In general, we can expect the growing partisan divide between increasingly "blue" large metropolitan areas and securely "red" small towns, a trend explored in my recent book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics, to persist into the future. This will help Democratic candidates in high-education suburbs where a number of vulnerable Republican-held House seats are located, such as those actively contested this year in greater New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles. But most of these places already vote Democratic at the state level, while the erosion of Democratic support among non-college whites endangers the party's Senate prospects in states like Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. As a result, it's quite possible that the midterm elections this year will result in a majority-making Democratic "wave" of 25 seats or more in the House while simultaneously preserving, or even strengthening, Republican control of the Senate.

2. Participation. Level of educational attainment is always a powerful predictor, and often the most powerful predictor, of citizens' propensity for political engagement. Participatory activities that go beyond merely voting for president every four years—from turning out in midterm and primary elections to volunteering for campaigns, making monetary contributions, and organizing political events and groups—are all disproportionately the domain of the highly-educated. Democrats already appear to be benefiting this year from the energetic mobilization of metropolitan professionals, which has led to both a rise of political networking at the local level and a cascade of individual financial donations to Democratic candidates. In contrast, one of the biggest unanswered questions as we look forward to the 2018 midterms is whether the Republican Party will succeed in motivating the non-college-grad whites who supported Trump in heavy numbers two years ago to turn out at sufficient rates in a non-presidential election when Trump himself is not on the ballot.

3. Candidate Recruitment. Whites with college degrees are a minority of the total electorate, but they always constitute a large majority of the pool of candidates for federal and state office. A partisan shift among this population therefore influences the relative supply of strong candidates within each party's activist base. The particular antipathy to Trump evident among college-educated women in the Pew data helps to account for an unprecedented spike in the number of female candidates on the Democratic side in 2018, and the desire to send a message of opposition to Trump's behavior seems to have inspired Democratic primary voters to frequently choose these women to be standard-bearers for the party. Through the first 41 states to hold primaries so far this year, 41 percent of all Democratic House nominees this year are women, including 48 percent of all non-incumbent nominees—an astonishing increase over all previous congressional elections:



4. The Polarization of Education Policy. Education has not always been a strictly partisan or ideologically-charged issue. Past Republican presidents like George W. Bush adopted ambitious education initiatives in order to bolster their appeal among suburban moderates, while state governors and legislators of both parties have often viewed the authorization of ample K-12 and public university funding as both economically and politically advantageous. But there are signs that this bipartisan consensus is coming apart. In recent years, Republican governors in Kansas and Oklahoma have enacted ambitious tax reductions that required deep offsetting decreases to local education aid, while GOP legislators in Wisconsin have targeted state universities for budget cuts and other restrictions. In addition, conservative media sources now repeatedly direct sharp criticism at the American educational system, often describing universities as bastions of intolerant leftism and mocking college students as hopelessly coddled "snowflakes."

If highly-educated voters continue to drift toward the Democrats, a key constituency that might be expected to serve as an internal base of resistance against these policies will lose its current degree of influence within the Republican Party—which may well only further reinforce the trend of growing polarization. Trump has not made education a presidential priority, and his appointment of the controversial Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has done little to bolster his popular standing on the issue. But while Republicans may pay an electoral price in the short term due to the countermobilization of concerned parents and outraged teachers, the prospect of a perpetual partisan war over the value of American education ultimately threatens the interests of educators much more than those of politicians.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Special and Primary Election Recap: (Mostly) More of the Same

The special House election held Tuesday in Ohio's 12th District headlined an evening that also featured primary contests in Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington. Sifting through the results for information about the contemporary political landscape reveals confirmation of three existing trends, plus one more unusual development. So, three non-surprises and one surprise—adding up to a picture of "(mostly) more of the same":

1. The Ohio election received considerable national media coverage, just like previous special congressional elections held over the past year or so in Georgia, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. In all four of these contests, a district or state that was ordinarily a Republican stronghold produced a highly competitive and closely divided race for the first time in many years. In Alabama and Pennsylvania, Democrats eked out a narrow win; in Georgia and (apparently, barring a surprise twist) Ohio, Republicans managed to barely hang on. Thus, the Ohio results can be added to the existing set of clues that the national electoral environment has shifted substantially in the Democrats' favor since Donald Trump became president, but they don't themselves hold much independent importance. Given the results of previous special elections, recent polling data, and campaign fundraising totals, there was already more than enough reason to believe that Democrats are poised to gain a substantial number of House seats in November—unless the prevailing political winds shift dramatically before then.

2. The remarkable success of female candidates in Democratic primaries continues to be the biggest electoral story of the year. Women won the Democratic nomination for governor in Kansas and Michigan last night, will inherit the safely Democratic House seat in Michigan held for 53 years by ex-Rep. John Conyers, and will advance to face Republicans this November in the competitive districts of MI-07, MI-08, MI-11, WA-03, WA-05, and (probably) WA-08. Again, these results are hardly a surprise given the outcome of previous primaries, but they extend what has become an extraordinarily important evolution in the internal dynamics of the Democratic Party.

3. While some corners of the political media continue to anticipate an ideologically purist rebellion within Democratic ranks led by the supporters of Bernie Sanders in 2016—expectations that were given a shot of rocket fuel after the upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a New York House primary last June—there continues to be little evidence of a consistent national trend in this direction. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez both endorsed Abdul El-Sayed for governor of Michigan, who finished a distant second in the primary on Tuesday, and Ocasio-Cortez also personally campaigned for Cori Bush, who challenged veteran Democratic incumbent Lacy Clay in the St. Louis-based MO-01 seat but fell well short of victory. (Honest Graft maintains a long-standing skeptical stance toward claims of an imminent left-wing revolution within Democratic politics, for reasons that have been set forth at greater length in previous posts.) To be sure, two other key developments on Tuesday in Missouri—the rejection of a state "right to work" law via ballot referendum and the defeat of a veteran St. Louis County prosecutor in the wake of the Ferguson protests—can be interpreted as liberal victories, but they also both fit comfortably within our own view of the Democratic Party as primarily advancing the interests of its social group coalition.

4. The biggest surprise of the night occurred on the Republican side, where Donald Trump's public endorsement of Kris Kobach in the Kansas GOP gubernatorial primary did not lift Kobach to a comfortable victory over incumbent governor Jeff Colyer. (As I write this, the vote count is neck and neck; Kobach may win, but he can hope for a slim advantage at best.) After Trump intervened in other primaries—most recently, for governor of Georgia—on behalf of candidates who cruised to easy victories, it appeared that he enjoyed an impressive kingmaking power due to his personal popularity among the Republican electorate. But the president may learn why his predecessors have normally been reluctant to wade into internal party contests—if your anointed candidate struggles, it makes you look weak, politically speaking. And Donald Trump is not a man who likes to look weak.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Was the Midwestern "Red Shift" More Pro-Trump or Anti-Hillary? The Answer Matters a Lot for 2018

The election analyst Nate Cohn of the New York Times published an excellent piece today arguing that the Democrats are benefiting from an electoral battleground in 2018 that is broader than was anticipated by the post-2016 conventional wisdom. In particular, he notes, Democratic candidates appear to be doing better than expected this year in heavily white, lower-education congressional districts that voted for Donald Trump. This has allowed the party to contest many more seats than it would if the scope of electoral competition were restricted to the smaller number of Republican-held well-educated suburban districts that had shifted toward Hillary Clinton in 2016.

In general, one of the most challenging aspects of analyzing events in real time is distinguishing temporary blips from more durable trends. Popular pundits and other media figures often tend to overstate the degree to which immediate events portend long-term patterns; as I noted once in another context, "There's a temptation to assume that everything new in politics is a harbinger of the future. But lots of things are dead ends: They rise, and they go away." On the other hand, we academics are often prone to the opposite bias, hanging onto familiar theories and assumptions past the point when evidence has built up that the world has indeed changed.

When it comes to the geographic polarization of American voters, there's an unmistakable decades-long trend of divergence between (pro-Democratic) metropolitan areas and (increasingly Republican) rural areas, but also an especially sharp and unprecedented increase in this gap in the 2016 presidential election—as illustrated in this summary of partisan voting in the pivotal Midwest region taken from Chapter 6 of my book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics:



The rural Midwest has been trending Republican for a long time; Bill Clinton narrowly carried it twice in the 1990s, but Barack Obama lost this vote 53 percent to 47 percent in 2008 and 57 to 43 in 2012. In 2016, Donald Trump routed Hillary Clinton here, attracting 68 percent of the two-party rural Midwestern vote—6 points better than Ronald Reagan in his 49-state landslide 1984 reelection.

If 2016 indeed represents the "new normal," than it would make sense for analysts to take a bearish view of Democratic chances in white, small-town congressional districts in the Midwest and elsewhere this year. But if 2016 was something of an aberration, and the Trump-Clinton vote does not fully reflect the relative fundamental strength of the two parties, then the map of electoral battlegrounds opens wider, and the fortunes of congressional Democrats improve accordingly.

Midterm elections are always primarily a referendum on the president, and Trump has dominated the political scene so thoroughly since he took office that this rule of thumb is likely to be especially applicable to 2018. If the remarkable Republican strength in the rural Midwest in 2016 was primarily a reflection of Trump's personal popularity, we might expect it to carry over into 2018 unless a significant share of formerly-enthusiastic Trump supporters had become disillusioned in the interim. But if the abrupt partisan shift between 2012 and 2016 visible in the figure above was largely a reflection of Hillary Clinton's personal unpopularity with rural Midwesterners—as well as a Clinton campaign that eschewed economic issues to an unprecedented degree for a modern Democrat—we shouldn't be surprised by a significant Democratic rebound in the region this November, since Clinton will be neither on the ballot nor in the White House.

Cohn's piece focuses exclusively on the House of Representatives, but the question of whether the 2016 "red shift" across the north-central section of the country is a temporary or enduring development becomes even more critical when we turn to the Senate—where Democrats are defending nine seats in Trump-carried states stretching from Pennsylvania to Montana plus two more in Minnesota (which Trump lost by less than two points). Using the 2016 presidential results as a starting point for expectations of 2018 outcomes paints a very optimistic picture for Republicans; Trump carried Indiana, Missouri, and Montana by about 20 points and won North Dakota and West Virginia by more than 35. Yet all of these states elected Democratic senators only six years ago, and all of them but North Dakota were actively contested at the presidential level as recently as 2004 or 2008. 

Many loyal Democrats will not easily accept the belief that the results in 2016 reflected a widespread popular antipathy to Hillary Clinton. And the surprising nature of Trump's victory has encouraged the view, even among his fiercest critics, that he maintains under-appreciated political strengths. But the more validity to the conclusion that Trump was a weak candidate who won a close and fluky election only because he was facing a seriously flawed opponent, the rosier the outlook becomes for Democrats this November.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Is The "Resistance" the Most Under-Covered Political Story of 2018?

Last week, candidates for Congress submitted their campaign fundraising and spending reports for the second quarter of 2018, as required by federal law—and a clear pattern emerged from the thousands of individual filings. In more than 70 Republican-held or competitive open House seats, at least one Democratic candidate out-raised the leading Republican over the preceding three months; 56 of these Republicans are incumbent members of Congress. Democratic fundraising success extended from the perennial battleground districts of CO-06, IA-01, and TX-23 to seats that were widely considered to be deeply red-hued even in this year's electoral climate (for example, Democrats Ken Harbaugh and Liz Watson raised more than $500,000 apiece in OH-07 and IN-09, respectively—two districts that are currently classified as "solid Republican" by the Cook Political Report).

The campaign money flowing on the Democratic side this year is just one sign of a larger mobilization of Americans moved to political action in response to current events; as David Wasserman of the Cook Report quipped, "Donald Trump is the best fundraiser Dem candidates have ever had." Reports from journalists and academics describe grassroots organizational activity by left-of-center citizens and groups that is unequalled since Barack Obama's first presidential campaign, and disproportionate political engagement among women that may have been last matched during the push for the Equal Rights Amendment four decades ago. Yet even as the conventional wisdom continues to tilt toward the expectation of major Democratic electoral gains this year, some important micro-foundations underlying this national shift—the changing behavior of citizen activists in local communities—are receiving a small fraction of the media coverage that was directed to the Tea Party movement in advance of the Republican victories of 2010.

One obvious potential explanation for this relative inattention is that Trump himself dominates the daily news to an unparalleled degree, crowding out other stories about other topics. Indeed, the latest fundraising reports might have made a bigger public splash if the president hadn't had a particularly newsworthy few days last week. But that alone isn't enough to explain why the "resistance" in general isn't getting more press. Under the right circumstances, it's actually quite easy for the media to become fascinated with Democratic Party politics, even in the age of an uniquely attention-grabbing Republican chief executive.

For example, when a previously unknown challenger won an upset primary election victory over a mid-ranking member of the House leadership last month, she immediately became a media phenomenon, even sparking serious suggestions by multiple members of the commentariat that the Democratic Party in general was turning toward socialism. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gained so much attention precisely because she seems like a dramatic exception to the usual pattern. Preoccupation with novelty is an understandable human response—but when translated into journalistic practice, it results in a hurricane of national coverage descending on a single, decidedly atypical congressional candidate.

As I have recently argued, the Democratic Party is indeed evolving in important ways, and the class of candidates running this year is visibly different from those of the past. But these changes have produced little of the internal party conflict and factionalism that tends to interest the media. (Ocasio-Cortez's relatively confrontational approach toward other Democrats is one of the main reasons why she's received so much attention—though here, too, she is unrepresentative of broader trends.) The Tea Party movement's aggressive challenge to existing Republican leaders' hold on power helped to earn significant publicity during the Obama years, but the current activist backlash against Trump lacks the Tea Party's ideologically purist and anti-Washington character.

We are left, instead, with a picture of millions of Americans arrayed from the political left to the center, disproportionately well-educated, suburban, and professional, who are simultaneously captivated and repulsed by the day-to-day behavior of Donald Trump. Perhaps the real reason that reporters and editors don't find this story more interesting is that they feel like they already know plenty of people like that. (In fact, many of them are people like that.) Yet if the balance of partisan power shifts after November, it won't just be because of Trump himself, but will also reflect the actions of citizens who responded to his presidency by making room in their own lives for heightened engagement in the political arena.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

In the Democratic Party, Even "Anti-Politicians" Tout Policy Credentials

One of the most distinctive characteristics of the large congressional freshman classes elected in the Republican midterm landslides of 1994 and 2010 was the sizable proportion of new members in both years who had never before held elective office. These "citizen legislators" effectively harnessed longstanding public suspicion of Washington and temporary time-for-a-change popular sentiment to cast themselves as untainted outsiders rather than professional politicians, successfully jumping directly to Congress without climbing the traditional career ladder via town councils and state legislatures.

On the Democratic side, candidates have historically been less likely to adopt the persona of the insurgent outsider, and Democratic organizations have normally preferred to recruit and reward candidates for Congress who have previously served as elected officials. (From the party's point of view, potential congressional nominees who have already attained positive name recognition among voters, who have built extensive fundraising networks, and who can boast a successful track record in managing political campaigns have normally been considered the safest bets to perform well in general elections.) Thus even the national Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008 did not produce freshman classes packed with self-styled "anti-politicians" who had won their seats by advertising their status as electoral newcomers.

This year, however, many of the Democratic nominees in competitive districts lack previous elective experience—a pattern that could foreshadow a more reformist House if the 2018 elections return the Democrats to power. But these new Democratic "amateurs" are still not exactly the mirror images of their Republican counterparts. As Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report recently wrote after interviewing twelve Democratic challengers in pivotal House districts:

Only four of the 12 hold elective office or have ever run for office. Most of the others, however, are policy veterans. Some worked in the Obama White House or other branches of the federal government during the Obama era. Others worked as advocates in their states/districts on issues ranging from voting rights to child advocacy to housing issues. In other words, they aren’t your local dentists or lawyers or business owners who suddenly got "fed up" or "activated" to service. Their lives have long been defined by activism of one sort or another.

Walter doesn't name the specific subjects of her interviews, but it's not hard to identify candidates who fit this description. Here are a few examples of Democratic House candidates who have never held elective office but have served in government or as policy activists, all from competitive seats that the Cook Report currently classifies as "Tossup" or "Lean Republican/Democratic" in the coming election:

Katie Hill (California 25): Anti-homelessness non-profit organization executive

Lauren Baer (Florida 18): Former State Department staffer

Lauren Underwood (Illinois 14): Former Heath and Human Services Department staffer

Cindy Axne (Iowa 3): Former state employee and local education activist

Elissa Slotkin (Michigan 8): Former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense, CIA analyst, and White House national security staffer

Susie Lee (Nevada 3): Education non-profit organization executive

Andy Kim (New Jersey 3): Former White House National Security Council member and State Department staffer

Tom Malinowski (New Jersey 7): Former Assistant Secretary of State and White House National Security Council member

Leslie Cockburn (Virginia 5): Journalist, author, and environmental organizations board member

Abigail Spanberger (Virginia 7): Former CIA operations officer

It appears that even non-traditional congressional candidates get ahead in the Democratic Party by promoting themselves as holding relevant political or governmental experience, even if it's not specifically elective experience. Voters in Republican primaries chiefly demand ideological qualifications, but voters in Democratic primaries also value policy expertise—a natural asymmetry given that Democratic constituencies have a much greater perceived interest in effective government action. (Recall that in the liberal fantasyland of the West Wing TV show, the Democratic president was a Nobel Prize-winning economics professor who also spoke four languages and was an excellent chess player with a mind for trivia.)

Even the non-"career politician" bloc among future House Democrats is therefore likely to have less of a purist, insurgent character than was displayed by the aggressively anti-establishment Republican freshmen of 1994 and 2010. At the same time, the first order of business for newly-elected Democratic members after the November election will be a leadership vote that could well result in a shakeup deposing one or more of the current regime. So while they won't have come to Washington to attack government itself, this potential new generation of first-time legislators may still be in a position to bring immediate change to Capitol Hill.