Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pennsylvania Special Election Recap: Good News for Democrats? Yes. 100+ Seats in Play This Year? Not Quite.

It's always possible to overinterpret the outcome of a single special election; at the same time, even one more data point can help us make a little bit more sense of the political world around us. Here are a few things that can be gleaned from tonight's results in Pennsylvania:

1. The photo finish between Democratic candidate Conor Lamb and Republican nominee Rick Saccone (with Lamb currently in apparent position to eke out a victory) in a district previously considered safely Republican indeed represents a notable development, but not a shocking one. It comports with the historical pattern of electoral politics: the opposition party reliably makes gains in midterm elections, and the magnitude of the swing is correlated with the (un)popularity of the president. The importance of tonight's outcome lies primarily in its confirmation that these dynamics still hold today as they have in the past. But the current state of President Trump's job approval rating and the congressional "generic ballot" polling already signaled that 2018 is likely to be a good year for Democratic candidates.

2. Even so, the outcome in PA-18 may itself prompt members of the Washington community to revise their predictions about what's likely to happen in November, although there's plenty of existing information on which to base their analyses. There's an undeniable psychological difference between expecting something to happen and actually watching it occur. I remember the 2006 midterms, when—despite piles of survey data pointing to a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives—a number of pundits had a hard time actually envisioning an end to what at that point was a 12-year Republican reign over the House until the votes actually came in on the night of the election.

As for the parties themselves, whatever spin we hear from either side doesn't mean very much. What's important is what they do. Will Republicans start to act as if they believe their majority is now in serious danger? Will there be criticism directed, on the record or on background, by rank-and-file members of Congress toward Republican leaders, including the president, for putting the party in such a precarious position? Or will incumbents sincerely adopt the view that the results in PA-18, along with those in the Alabama Senate race last year, reflected a mismatch in candidate quality more than a fundamental deterioration of the GOP's electoral strength?

3. Special elections can also be opportunities for the parties to test out their campaign messages in advance of a national vote. One lesson that the Republicans appear to have taken away from their Pennsylania experience is that the December tax cut bill is of limited popularity and/or salience in the electorate. Since the current congressional majority has few other accomplishments for which to claim credit, this suggests that the fall elections will be fought over something other than the legislative record of the past two years. (It's likely at any rate that the midterms will be dominated by Trump and Trumpism regardless of what most individual candidates do.)

4. It's common for election analysts these days to use the 2016 presidential election results, or measures derived from them (such as the Partisan Voting Index, or PVI), as a benchmark to characterize the party leaning of states and congressional districts: a +5 Clinton seat, a +10 Trump seat, etc. In general, presidential and congressional voting results are strongly correlated, making these figures good rules of thumb in most cases. But there are still parts of the country where voters behave somewhat differently when choosing presidential and non-presidential candidates; moreover, the distinctive candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (and, before that, Barack Obama) have the potential to produce slightly misleading pictures of the "fundamental" partisan composition of a particular constituency.

Specifically, it's worth noting that while PA-18 gave Trump a 20-point margin over Clinton in 2016, Democrats still slightly outnumber Republicans in the district's party registration figures. Washington County, most of which lies within the district, supported Trump over Clinton by 60 percent to 36 percent and Mitt Romney to Obama in 2012 by 56 percent to 42 percent, but had narrowly preferred John Kerry to George W. Bush in 2004 and had given Al Gore a 53-44 advantage over Bush in 2000.

Of course, things have changed since 2004, and recent elections are more predictive of future outcomes than more distant ones. But it's worth keeping in mind that the world of American politics did not experience a complete rebirth in 2016, rendering all previous history irrelevant. With more time and perspective, we'll be better able to tell how much of the 2016 alignment represents a "new normal" and how much is a temporary deviation from longer-term patterns.

The demonstration that a Democratic candidate like Lamb could win back many former supporters, especially among the white non-college population, who had defected in 2016 is good news for the party. Democrats are defending multiple Senate seats in states that not only supported Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, but also shifted significantly in the Republican direction in 2016—including Missouri, West Virginia, North Dakota, Indiana, Montana, and Ohio. In order to avoid a devastating series of defeats in Senate races this year, Democrats need to attract voters who had previously backed the party's candidates but who either abandoned Clinton for Trump or merely stayed home.

At the same time, I'd recommend being a bit wary of the claim, oft-repeated during Tuesday night's coverage, that there are more than 100 Republican-held House seats that are more electorally vulnerable than PA-18. Again, that's true if we use PVI or Trump's 2016 margin over Clinton as the sole measure of partisan competitiveness, but PA-18 has more of a Democratic tradition—and labor union presence—than most other districts that gave Trump (and Romney before him) comparable margins.

Republicans undoubtedly appear to be in serious danger of losing their 24-seat (now, perhaps, 23-seat) House majority later this year. But any implication that the number of seats gained by Democrats in November could approach triple figures is not exactly realistic.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Nothing Affects the Washington Climate Like Presidential Job Approval

There are many ways in which the Trump presidency is historically distinctive, but one of the most consequential is how unpopular it has been right from the start. Before Trump, even those new presidents who won a close election or entered office amidst controversy enjoyed a "honeymoon period" of elevated public support during the first months of their administrations. Of the previous twelve presidents who served during the era of modern survey research, eight ended their first year in office with average job approval ratings of at least 55 percent, and approving citizens outnumbered disapprovers at that stage of their term for all twelve.

But according to the poll aggregator at FiveThirtyEight, Trump's approval rating has never climbed higher than 48 percent—which in itself represents a transient peak reached briefly in the days immediately after his inauguration. The share of Americans who disapproved of his performance first exceeded those who approved on February 4, 2017, barely two weeks into his presidency, and reached 51 percent of all surveyed citizens (including those who responded "don't know") on March 16; it has not dropped below this level since.

These approval ratings matter a lot for presidents. Denizens of Washington, both in and out of government, pay close attention to the polls and maintain a rough consensus across partisan and ideological lines over whether the president is popular or unpopular, gaining or losing ground. Job approval numbers act as a kind of highly visible thermometer measuring the political climate surrounding the White House, and everyone in the vicinity agrees that high temperatures are much more comfortable than low ones.

Presidents with positive ratings can harness their popularity to pressure Congress, to win battles with organized interests, and to recruit strong candidates for their party in congressional elections (and discourage strong potential opponents). But the latest reported survey numbers also strongly color the press coverage that presidents receive. Journalists and commentators rely on approval ratings as an accessible and "objective" measure of presidential success, and they also tend to be very sensitive to accusations of being snobbish or out of touch with the wider public. How better to demonstrate that one is properly attuned to the preferences and perspectives of Mr. and Ms. America than by crediting presidents with effective leadership when the polls say the voters are happy and by dwelling on their failures when the electorate is doing the same?

In 2002 and 2003, for example, media coverage routinely characterized George W. Bush as tough, decisive, dedicated, politically deft, administratively effective, and surrounded by a skilled team of subordinates. By 2007 and 2008, after both the national economy and the Iraq War had fallen into crisis on his watch, Bush was frequently portrayed as detached, out of his depth, and hampered by political and managerial incompetence. It was almost as if the occupant of the White House had become a different person entirely. What had happened instead was that the same man—with, presumably, the same personal qualities—had seen his national popularity drop by more than 50 percentage points from one point to the next.

The various public mishaps and chronic internal tensions of the Trump administration would have produced a series of unfavorable media stories in any circumstance, but the collective Washington judgment that the current chief executive is fundamentally ill-suited to his position is much less likely to have formed if his approval ratings had remained above 50 percent. Trump had an opportunity immediately after his shocking electoral upset to convince professional observers that he served as an adept and formidable messenger of a growing populist rebellion. However, the public's dim response to his governing record from its earliest days forward has merely reinforced the general perception that he is instead something of an accidental president—and, above all, a particularly hapless one. If a consistent majority of Americans told pollsters that they trusted Trump's judgment on how to handle North Korea, viewed the Mueller investigation as illegitimate, and found the president's Twitter persona charmingly delightful, the tone of press coverage on these and other matters would be much different than they are. And Democratic leaders would be faced with persistent questions about whether their party was mired in an enduring crisis.

Given the current state of (relative) national peace and prosperity, it's likely that a president who lacked Trump's unappealing personal attributes would be enjoying positive job approval ratings these days. Another, more popular Republican incumbent would be in a position to protect the party's congressional majorities in the 2018 midterm elections—and even to sow havoc in the ranks of the opposition by forcing red-state Democrats to choose between angering their party base and alienating the general electorate in their home constituencies. (The extent to which Trump's foibles have limited the political pressure on vulnerable Democratic Senate incumbents like Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Claire McCaskill of Missouri is one of the undertold stories of the 2017–2018 session of Congress.) Even if one believes that the president has been more successful than acknowledged, or even that he is on track to win a second term, surely the opportunity cost paid by the Republican Party for electing President Trump rather than a President Rubio or President Kasich is still quite considerable.

A few weeks ago, a series of polls started to report a minor upward trend in Trump's job approval. Because the media love to have something new to talk about, this movement received a substantial amount of notice in the press even though the president's rating only rose a few points into the low 40s on average (41 percent according to FiveThirtyEight, 42 percent according to RealClearPolitics, and 43 percent according to HuffPost). In part, the approval bump attracted attention because it coincided with a narrowing of the Democratic advantage in the "generic ballot" polls asking voters which party they plan to support in the 2018 midterm elections.

Over the past 10 days or so, however, Trump's modest surge has started to reverse, and the generic ballot is also moving back in the Democratic direction. We'll no doubt experience several more such fluctuations between now and November, and a few media stories proclaiming a "Trump comeback" will likely ensue whenever the polls register upward momentum for a week or two. From a larger perspective, though, the current administration remains historically unpopular, and only a truly dramatic, double-digit shift in voter sentiment could fully convince the Washington community that the president had regained his touch with the public.

One particularly curious quirk of the oft-atypical Trump regime is the apparent absence of a standard White House political shop headed by a professional strategist with substantial internal access and influence—a Karl Rove, David Axelrod, or Jim Baker type. In a normal presidency struggling with subpar approval ratings and a looming national election, well-connected publications like the Washington Post and Politico would be filled at this stage with one story after another about this operation's internal analysis of its political difficulties and its planned strategies for restoring the political standing of its party in the months before the balloting started.

But the current president, his chief of staff, and many of his top aides all lack substantial partisan-elective experience; if there is indeed anyone directing such an effort, it seems to be a well-kept secret at the moment. (What's Kellyanne Conway up to these days?) Expect increasingly nervous congressional Republicans to soon start dropping hints in the press that a White House habitually shrouded in a fog of its own self-made distractions is not paying enough attention to the potentially perilous fate of its nominal allies on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress are Washingtonians too, after all—and just like everyone else in their community, they're keeping a close eye on those job approval ratings.