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 "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.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Podcast on Trump's GOP, the Democratic Opposition, and What's Ahead in November (and Beyond)

My colleague and co-author Matt Grossmann hosts an excellent podcast, Political Research Digest, featuring short interviews with social scientists about their latest research. For the first anniversary of the podcast, Matt invited me to join him in a longer and more conversational episode in which we consider how the major differences between the two parties that we identified in our book Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats have or haven't changed in the two years since the book's publication. We also discuss the 2018 elections, the future of the Democratic Party in 2019 and 2020, and my latest book Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics. You can listen to our conversation and/or read a transcript here.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Consequences of a Kavanaugh Confirmation? Yes, in the Long Term

When a political event of any note occurs in the midst of a campaign season—and often when it doesn't—media commentators predictably lapse into extensive speculation about its likely effect on the outcome of the next election. As the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court moves closer to an endgame in the Senate, debates over the impact of a potential confirmation on this fall's midterms have become more frequent. Will one party's supporters become energized and the other demoralized as a result of the vote? Would Democrats benefit in November from a rejection of Kavanaugh's nomination, or does extending the process actually help Republicans rally voters in red states?

I remain skeptical that the Kavanaugh appointment, however it turns out, will exert a measurable effect on the outcome in 2018. The voters who care about the Court and have been following the proceedings closely are also the most likely to already be strong partisans and highly engaged in the election. Kavanaugh is not a popular nominee by historical standards, but views generally fall along existing party lines and about a third of Americans don't know enough about him to have an opinion either way. It's possible that a Kavanaugh confirmation will push Democratic enthusiasm for voting "through the roof," but Democrats (as well as Republicans) are already at historically high levels on that score this year. And we still have six weeks to go before Election Day, with plenty of opportunity for a new issue or crisis to redirect popular attention elsewhere.

But that doesn't mean that the events of this week, and next, won't have important long-term implications. Just as the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings of 1991 helped to inspire a then-record number of women to seek political office the following year, a Senate vote to confirm Kavanaugh despite the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford may turn out to be an important moment in the intersection of gender and party politics. This year has already produced a remarkable surge in the supply of, and demand for, female candidates in the Democratic Party, but a widespread backlash against Kavanaugh might help sustain this unprecedented mobilization of women in 2020 and beyond.

Today's hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee also laid the foundation for another set of potential developments in the future. To the extent that it reflected a calculated strategy, Kavanaugh's combative demeanor toward Democratic senators and angry denunciation of the charges against him as a partisan conspiracy were apparently intended to rally Republicans to his enthusiastic defense—including a president who was reportedly dissatisfied with his nominee's degree of aggressiveness on his own behalf earlier in the week.

But there is a cost to dropping the cloak of non-partisanship and reserved judicial temperament en route to the Supreme Court, just as there is a cost to putting someone accused of sexual assault by multiple women in a position to cast pivotal votes on abortion rights and related subjects. Trump and other Republicans could have avoided these costs by quickly withdrawing Kavanaugh in favor of an equally conservative but less controversial nominee, but they are now in the position of either forcing their own party's moderate members to vote Kavanaugh down or setting him up to be a divisive figure on the bench for years to come. It's even conceivable that John Roberts—sufficiently concerned about the legitimacy of his institution to serve as the surprise swing vote upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act in 2012—will turn out to be less ambitious in charting a new rightward trajectory for the Court if Kavanaugh is confirmed than he would have been alongside a different appointee.

Trump, whatever his other qualities, is not known for being excessively occupied with long-term planning, and the entire Republican Party is now subject to Trump's win-the-day strategic mentality for at least the duration of his tenure as its national leader. That doesn't mean, however, that the rest of us can't take the broader view. If Kavanaugh joins the Court, the consequences may not be immediately visible in the election returns, but they will still stretch on for many years after the 2018 midterms have come and gone.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

There Are Two Gender Gaps—And the Gap Between Them Is Growing

The gender gap, produced by the relative pro-Democratic lean of women and pro-Republican lean of men in party affiliation and voting habits, has been a fact of American electoral life since the 1980s. In 2016, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, women voted Democratic for president by a margin of 15 points (54 percent to 39 percent), while men voted Republican by 11 points (52 percent to 41 percent). This difference was somewhat larger in 2016 than in other recent elections—probably reflecting the specific candidates on the ballot last time—though not dramatically so; Gallup estimated in 2012 that Barack Obama had carried the women's vote by 12 points while losing to Mitt Romney by 8 points among men.

But gender differences in the composition of the parties become greater as we move up the ladder of political engagement from average voters to activists, candidates, interest group leaders, and elected officials. Today, for example, 74 percent of female senators are Democrats, as are 73 percent of female U.S. House members—even though Republicans outnumber Democrats overall in both chambers. And this elite-level gender gap is certain to grow after the 2018 midterms. Democrats have nominated 183 women for the House this year (compared to 52 for the Republicans), representing a record 43 percent of the party's candidates. Among non-incumbents, a full 50 percent of Democratic House candidates are female, compared to 18 percent for the GOP:

This imbalance between the parties is also evident in senatorial and gubernatorial races, where women constitute 38 percent of Democratic nominees in 2018, compared to 17 percent of Republican nominees:

Democratic women are still undercounted in leadership ranks; because they reliably outnumber men among the party's supporters in the national electorate, even the perfectly balanced gender ratio among non-incumbent House candidates in 2018 gives female Democrats less than their proportionate share. But Republican women are underrepresented among the politician class to a much greater degree. According to the Pew data, women provided Donald Trump with about 48 percent of his popular votes in 2016, yet they constitute only 14 percent of the party's 2018 congressional candidates, 12 percent of its sitting senators and governors, and 10 percent of its current House membership. And it's quite possible that the share of female Republicans in Congress will decline further after 2018, since several veteran incumbents are retiring and a few others face tough races against Democratic challengers this November.

So there are really two gender gaps—one each in mass and elite politics—that differ markedly in magnitude. But they differ in their character as well. Scholars have not settled on a consensus explanation for the emergence of the gender gap among rank-and-file voters, but some analyses have suggested that, despite common assumptions that political disagreements between male and female citizens center mostly on stereotypical "women's issues," its existence mostly reflects distinct views on economics. In general, women tend to be more liberal than men on kitchen-table domestic policy concerns like health care and Social Security, perhaps reflecting the fact that they are collectively more economically vulnerable than men—especially if unmarried.

In the echelons of political leadership, however, the partisan loyalties and policy priorities of many women on the Democratic left are visibly fueled by a personal commitment to feminism and related social causes. Because the top ranks of the conservative Republican opposition are so heavily dominated by men, the landscape populated by nationally prominent politicians and activists—as well as the related professional worlds inhabited by reporters, intellectuals, social critics, media personalities, and the rest of the "creative class"—can resemble a perpetually polarized battle of the sexes in which gender differences closely map onto other stark political divisions separating participants along lines of partisanship, ideology, and cultural perspective.

This pattern is further reinforced by current fashions in liberal thought and rhetoric. The strong individualistic streak that once characterized the American left is gradually giving way to newer intellectual trends emphasizing the inescapable salience of social group membership as a source of common interests, priorities, experiences, and threats. Contemporary liberal activists with visible social media platforms or prominent positions in opinion journalism and the entertainment industry commonly characterize issues like abortion, sexual assault and harassment, and demands for demographic diversity in high-status professions as uniting women as a group ("#YesAllWomen") against a male-identified opposition bent on their subjugation ("#SmashThePatriarchy").

But among the American public as a whole, differences in opinion between men and women on such matters are often modest or nonexistent, and are reliably smaller than more familiar divisions along party lines. For example, a recent Pew survey found no significant gender gap on abortion (59 percent of women and 55 percent of men favored legal abortion in "all or most cases") but a much wider divide separating partisans (75 percent of Democrats took the pro-choice position, compared to 34 percent of Republicans). Another survey conducted this past April asking whether "sexual harassment and assault is a major problem in the workplace today" found a 10-point difference by gender (55 percent of women and 45 percent of men agreed) and a 29-point difference by party (62 percent of Democrats agreed, compared to 33 percent of Republicans). Even the surge in female office-seekers depicted in the graphs above inspires the same pattern; 80 percent of Democrats (including 75 percent of Democratic men) say it's a "good thing" that more women are running for Congress in 2018, but only 39 percent of Republicans—and only 45 percent of Republican women—express enthusiasm about this development.

This doesn't mean that the promotion of feminist thought by liberal elites has had little effect on public opinion more broadly. The reception of these ideas has merely been much warmer among Democrats than among Republicans—even female Republicans—further fueling a societal debate in which the largest divide is between the two parties, not the two genders. Analysis that fails to acknowledge the overwhelming influence of partisanship risks misstating or incorrectly forecasting the public's response to political events or figures that touch on gender issues. Feminist thinkers and activists may claim the standing to speak on behalf of women as a group, but women out in the public at large exhibit much less collective coherence, or distinctiveness from men, than it appears from the vantage point of the politically hyper-engaged.

For example, when the "Access Hollywood" footage of Donald Trump surfaced in October 2016, most pundits, and even leading Republicans like Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan, assumed that scandalized women would abandon his candidacy en masse, leaving him to a certain and perhaps historic defeat. Instead, Trump's female supporters stayed loyal and carried him to an upset victory. Likewise, the emergence this week of sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh inspired predictions from some corners of a popular backlash among women that would soon scuttle his chances of confirmation in the Senate. It's too soon to know for sure, but there's little evidence so far of significant erosion in Kavanaugh's public support; Democrats already disliked him, and Republicans who were initially favorable to his nomination haven't yet heard anything to change their minds.

I've argued repeatedly that the coast-to-coast eruption of female-led Democratic activism in 2018 is the most important electoral development of the year, and probably the most underappreciated. A compositional transformation and mass mobilization on such a large scale is sure to have significant consequences for American political life even if it is confined to only one party. And this "pink wave" is itself a response to key developments in Republican politics that culminated in the election of the current presidential administration.

We don't yet know, however, whether Democratic primary voters' growing preference for female candidates will be shared by the much larger and politically diverse general electorate this November, or how the feminist case against Republican rule made by thought leaders in the national media will resonate among women—or men, for that matter—in the pivotal midwestern constituencies that hold the balance of power in Congress. In the age of Trump, the gender gap among elites seems to be growing more intense by the day. But will the mass gender gap start moving in the same direction, or will the gap between the gaps just continue to grow?

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.