2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: NEBRASKA 2ND

This is the third post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where I take a deep look at one closely contested 2020 House district. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the State and District 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what insight the district can give into larger 2020 House race. 

District: Nebraska 2nd
Current Representative: Don Bacon
Cook 2020 Projection: Leans Republican
Sabato 2020 Projection: Toss Up 

OVERVIEW OF STATE & DISTRICT
Nebraska — crimson red and socially conservative — will host one of the most competitive elections for the 2020 House. Squeezed onto its eastern border is the second congressional district, Nebraska Democrats’ only real shot at federal representation.

Because Nebraska splits its presidential electoral votes by congressional district (one of only two states, along with Maine, to do so), the second district is often a target of presidential campaigns. Barack Obama’s campaign manager said Omaha was his “personal favorite target”. In a close presidential election, this one electoral vote could be the tiebreaker — pushing one candidate from 269 electoral college votes to the 270 needed to win. Obama is the only presidential candidate to successfully isolate one of the Nebraska’s electoral votes since the state adopted the Congressional District Method in 1992. In fact, this is the only electoral vote any Democrat has received from Nebraska since Lyndon Johnson carried the state in his 486-52 electoral blowout in 1962. Before that it was FDR in 1936.

Today, the governor and entire federal delegation are Republican. Of the current executive office holders, only one, the District 2 Public Service Commissioner, ran as a Democrat. Nebraska Democrats know that most of the state is out of reach. If they are to win federal representation, their hope is in district two.

The district is centered around Omaha and comprises all of Douglas County and a portion of Sarpy County. Obama’s 2008 victory spurred a Republican redistricting (or gerrymander) of the second district in 2011. They replaced the more liberal city of Bellevue and the Offutt Air Force Base in eastern Sarpy with the more rural, conservative suburbs of western Sarpy. And while this partisan redistricting did help them hold onto the congressional seat in 2010, 2012, 2016 and 2018, there was a lapse in 2014 when Democrat Brad Ashford ousted Republican Terry Lee. A more ruthless Republican party could have gerrymandered the district to give themselves a 96% chance of victory, but that would likely have been struck down in court.

Democrats know it’s going to be a battle if they want to take the district from Republicans. A former director for the state Democratic Party explained the party dynamic in Nebraska to Politico: “Republicans have been very successful in defining Democrats culturally and socially in Nebraska.” “They’ve defined us as snowflakey, that we want to raise taxes and redistribute wealth.”

Demographics
Data: Daily Kos

Eighty two percent of Nebraska’s Second District’s residents are white, compared to 70% of the country. This translates to small black (9%) and Latino (5%) populations, two core demographic groups for the Democratic Party. The district is also well educated — 39% have bachelors compared with 31% of the country. And the district’s high density reflects that it is centered around Omaha City. White, suburban and well educated — NE-02 looks like the districts that has been trending blue and were crucial to Democrats flipping the House in 2018.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY

Presidency

House

Data: Daily Kos

 

Obama carried the district in 2008 by 1.2%, but Romney flipped it in 2012 with a healthy 7.1% margin. The district swung back about 5% in 2012, with Trump only carrying it by 2.2%. Like many suburban, educated districts, NE-02 voters liked Romney in 2012 but swung away from the Trump’s rhetoric and disposition in 2016. And while this swing may not have been enough to tip the district to Democrats, it brought them within about 2%.

The trend is different, though, when looking at House results. While the races have been consistently tight, there is no obvious trend toward one party. In 2014, moderate Democrat Brad Ashford won the district by 3.3% with the district voting 9% more Democratic than the nation overall (measured by the House Popular Vote). Ashford lost the next year to Republican Don Bacon as the district voted in line with the country — favoring the Republican by about 1%. In 2018, Don Bacon won re-election by 2% over proud progressive Kara Eastman — with NE-02 voting 11% more Republican than the nation as a whole.  

What Happened in 2018
Heading into the 2018 midterms, incumbent Republican Don Bacon did not face a primary challenger. Meanwhile, in the Democratic Primary, Kara Eastman and Brad Ashford were running one of the most contentious primaries in the nation.

Eastman, the founder of a local nonprofit and political unknown before the election cycle, ran as (to employ the overused but useful term) an unapologetic progressive. Her platform echoed that of the Bernie Sanders campaign — Medicare for All, free public college for families making under $125,000, a $15 federal minimum wage. Her theory of how to flip the district: turn out the Democratic base and low propensity voters. People do not cross party lines, so don’t waste time and money reaching out to moderate Republicans.

Brad Ashford was the Democratic establishment’s man. He represented the district from 2015 to 2016, but lost the 2016 election against Donald (Don) Bacon. The Party thought that he could appeal to and swing moderate Republicans and independents. Back in his days in the Nebraska Legislature where he served from 1987 to 1995 and 2007 to 2015, he, in fact, was a Republican. He flipped to the Democratic Party in 2010 and then registered as an Independent in 2013. Unlike Eastman, he said Medicare for All was politically infeasible, instead supporting incremental steps like a public option to buy into Medicare. He did not want to fully repeal the Republican tax bill, wanted to slowly raise the minimum wage, reaching $15 by 2026 and highlighted his “ability to find solutions…consensus building instead of partisan politics.”  

The primary was a contest between two wings of the party: the moderate, bipartisan, reach across the aisle, incrementalist wing and the progressive, appeal to the base, big idea, practicality out the window wing.   

Perhaps unsurprisingly (but maddeningly for some), the Democratic Party’s committee to elect House members, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), weighed in on Ashford’s behalf. Eastman says that after weeks of the DCCC telling here they were unlikely to intervene, the committee put Ashford on its Red to Blue program. The program signals to donors who to give to and is a de-facto endorsement. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg (then mayor of South Bend, Indiana) supported and fundraised for Ashford. He implied that Eastman was not electable, saying “If you’re a committed progressive, you want to support the most committed progressive who can win”. Meanwhile, the state party and Douglas County Democratic Parties remained officially neutral, scuffled about under the table support for Ashford and a contentious debate over party officials endorsing candidates. 

But while tension grew, it never spilled over into visible animosity between Ashford and Eastman. The primary race was focused more on policy and leadership style. Neither candidate drafted negative ads or hit the opposition too hard. The most contentious part of their debates centered on their different vision for healthcare.

As of the March 31, the last filing deadline before the May 15 primary, Ashford had outraised Eastman $535,000 to $320,000. Nobody really expected that Eastman had much of a shot — on election day, the betting website PredictIt had Ashford as a 90% favorite. But, in an election night that shocked media and election watchers across the nation, Eastman defeated Ashford by about 3%.

Progressives celebrated; strategic Democrats grumbled; Republicans cheered;. Election forecasting site, Sabato’s Crystal Ball wrote “the NRCC got what it wanted and the DCCC didn’t.” The Crystal Ball changed NE-02’s rating from “Toss Up” to “Leans Republican”, apparently agreeing with the committees that Eastman was a less formidable challenger than Ashford.

Eastman received a call from Senator Bernie Sanders the night of her primary victory, helping solidify the narrative that she’s in the Sander’s wing of the party. But the party establishment came around, as did Brad Ashford, giving her their endorsements and placing her on the “Red to Blue list.  

The general campaign was, to put it bluntly, less exciting than the Democratic primary. Eastman continued to broadcast her progressive message and Don Bacon ran as a typical Republican. He emphasized tax cuts and his fight against ‘government takeover of healthcare’, he opposed abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger and, according to FiveThirtyEight, had voted in line with Trump 98% of the time. He argued that Eastman was too extreme for Nebraska’s Second District, saying “These views would work well in San Francisco or New York City but not Omaha.”

Bacon received much more support from the Republican establishment than Eastman did from Democrats. The Congressional Leadership Fund (A Super PAC affiliated with previous Speaker of the House Paul Ryan) spent $1,397,000 on the race, mostly on ads attacking Eastman and the ‘liberal elite. A particularly…um…interesting ad attacked her for studying to be a sex therapist and her college band “Pieces of Fuck”: “While Eastman was dropping F-bombs, Don Bacon was serving in the air force.” Meanwhile, the House Majority PAC (Nancy Pelosi’s PAC) invested $0 and the DCCC contributed $90,000 to a media buy, a paltry sum compared to Republicans nearly $1.5 million. But there was still plenty of money to go around — Eastman pulled $2.6 million, out-raising Bacon by about $10,000. An impressive feat for a first-time candidate in a competitive race against an incumbent.

In the end, though, it was not enough. Going into the election, FiveThirtyEight gave Bacon a 4/7 and Eastman a 3/7 shot at winning the election. Bacon prevailed with a slim 2% margin, defeating Eastman 51% to 49%.

It’s impossible to know if a different, less polarizing candidate could have tipped the scale in Democrats favor. But that’s what election analyst Nathaniel Rakich argued the day after Eastman won the primary, writing that “Ashford would have probably bought Democrats a few extra percentage points” and that “There’s plenty of evidence that candidates closer to the ideological poles do worse than moderate ones.” But Eastman’s team would likely contest this, pointing out that some more gung-ho support from the Democratic establishment could have closed the 2% gap.

2018 Data

Data: NYTimes

Turnout was high for a midterm year, dropping only about 11% from the 2016 presidential race. Eastman was likely correct in her assessment that the Democratic base would turn out. The problem for her, though, is that the Republican base turned out too.

If Eastman’s theory that an unabashed progressive would improve Democratic turnout more than Republican’s, her numbers would have improved more in Douglas Country than in Sarpy County, given that the pool of Democrats is larger in the former. This didn’t happen. Bacon improved upon his 2016 margins in both the more Democratic Douglas County and the more Republican Sarpy County — closing the Democratic lead in Douglas from 3.8% to 3% and widening the Republican advantage in Sarpy from 25.1% to 26%.

Gubernatorial results in Douglas County also run against Eastman’s theory. The Democratic candidate, Bob Krist, campaigned as a moderate focused on bipartisan issues. He won Douglas with 108,235 votes to his opponent’s 96,120 — a margin of 6%. His vote total was about 3,000 greater than Eastman’s and his margin was about 3% wider. It looks like about 3,000 voters in Douglas County voted for Krist and not for Eastman. Perhaps a more moderate candidate like Brad Ashford could have won over these voters and closed the gap.  

 Finally, relative to the National House Popular Vote, 2018 was a particularly bad year for NE-02 Democrats. The district voted 10.6% more Republican than the nation. Compare this to 0.4% more Republican in 2016, 9% more Democratic in 2014 and 2.8% more Republican in 2012. 2018 featured a heavy swing toward the Republican relative to the national environment. It could have been Eastman’s style; it could have been national Democratic antipathy; it could have been baked in by partisanship. We’ll never know for sure, but the upcoming 2020 race will be illuminating.

2020 UPDATE
The 2020 primary will again feature Eastman and Ashford. This time, though, Eastman’s opponent is Ann Ashford, a local “attorney, human resources professional, and healthcare leader” and the wife of Brad Ashford. Like her husband, Ms. Ashford is a recent convert to the Democratic party, making the switch in 2016 because “they truly became the big tent party”. Though her website doesn’t have a policy platform, it looks like she will be running as a moderate, telling The Omaha World Herald, “I think that today’s environment has become so splintered because everybody says, ‘I’m going to fight,’ and I don’t understand that.” “If we continue to fight, we’re going to see the same non-results that we see today.”

If she does run as a consensus seeking moderate, the race may have a similar dynamic to that of 2018. Democratic primary voters will again have to decide which candidate best represents their values and which has a better chance of winning the general. And, if these are in conflict, which priority outweighs the other. In 2018 primary voters voted against the national party’s practicality, but Eastman’s 2018 loss may have changed the calculus for some voters.

Another possible boost for Ashford is the state Democratic Party’s decision to switch from a presidential caucus system to a primary. Presidential primaries draw out a more moderate constituency than caucuses, as only the most invested voters (who are often the most partisan) show up for an hours long caucus. And as these primary voters would also be voting on down ballot races, notably NE-02. This more moderate voting pool could tip Ashford over the edge in a close primary.

Incumbent Don Bacon has also filed for re-election and, as of now, does not face a primary challenge. That means that while Democrats are tussling and spending their money in the primary, Representative Bacon will be stockpiling his cash. If the Democratic primary is expensive and contentious, Bacon will enter the general election with a bruised opponent and a full bank account.

The first quarter fundraising numbers, which report fundraising through March 31, look best for Bacon. He raised $371,000 and has $296,000 Cash on Hand. Eastman raised only $40,000 and has $72,000 cash on hand. Ann Ashford raised $36,000 with $24,000 cash on hand. Fundraising is only one sign of support and its importance is generally overstated, but the Democratic numbers don’t show either candidate pulling away or point to much voter enthusiasm.  Below is a chart comparing NE-02 fundraising to the rest of the 2020 battleground districts.

Data: FEC

The national parties both have their eyes on NE-02. The DCCC named it among its top targets for 2019-2020” and the NRCC put it on its “Patriot Program”, indicating that both parties will likely be giving their candidate significant support come the general election.  The NRCC has already started going after Bacon’s possible opponents, attacking Eastman for supporting “AOC’s cow ban” and calling Ashford’s fundraising haul a “LOL-inducing 36k”.  

This trollish behavior indicates that the NRCC knows Representative Bacon is in danger. But they may be getting ahead of themselves. Before the general, there is a year’s worth of Democratic primary that will be another insightful peek into the Democratic Party — exposing the Party’s priorities, divisions and the message it will deliver to 2020 voters.  

LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE

The Party Still (Usually) Decides
Of the 41 Congressional primary candidates the DCCC endorsed in 2018, only 2 lost their primaries — a success rate of 95%. Compare this to two prominent progressive groups, Our Revolution and Justice Democrats, who had primary success rates of 37% and 31%, respectively. The DCCC’s candidates also had a much better track record in general elections, winning 46% compared to Our Revolution’s 14% and Justice Democrats’ 5% success rates. Notably, the two Congressional candidates — Kara Eastman from NE-02 and Dana Balter from NY-24 — who snuck by the DCCC in the primaries both lost their general election. The big caveat here is that the DCCC usually endorses the strongest candidate in the field while Our Revolution and Justice Democrats are more likely to endorse candidates who align with their policy objectives even if their path to victory looks more challenging.

Demographics Are Not Always Destiny
NE-02 is a wealthy, suburban, white community. It looks like the archetypal district that has been steadily trending blue in recent years. But recent elections show that NE-02 has bounced around, not showing a clear drift towards either party. Maybe that’s because Eastman was too liberal, maybe it’s because Bacon is especially popular, maybe Trump is popular in the district. No matter the reason, it’s safe to say that just because a district’s demographics look like it should be trending towards one party does not mean it always will.

Structural Changes Deserve Attention
Nebraska Democrats’ decision to change the Presidential nomination process from a caucus to a primary could determine close down ballot elections. Other upcoming structural changes like the upcoming census and corresponding redistricting will change how the 435 House seats are apportioned among the 50 states and how they are divided within those states. States with a growing population (California, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Texas)  will likely gain seats while states with a shrinking or stagnant population (Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia) may lose seats. These changes will alter both the composition of the House of Representatives and the distribution of Electoral College votes and deserve more attention.

 

POLITICAL FUNDRAISING IS OVERRATED

Congressional candidates have started to shake their collection tins. Most candidates see fundraising as a top priority, as an unfortunate necessity so they can pay staff, run polls, travel and, most of all, run advertisements. The media fixates similarly on money — analyzing fundraising hauls, ranking candidates and pontificating on what it all means.

It’s all overblown. When you ask, “Is anybody actually persuaded by these political ads?” The answer is: not really. There’s plenty of research showing that money has little effect on the outcome of congressional races. Voters hold their political affiliation tightly and their grip is unlikely to be broken by a congressional campaign, no matter how much money it has raised. Split ticket voting is increasingly rare — meaning that the national environment and upper-ballot races are far more important than any congressional candidate’s political messaging.

While political ads might not sway the outcome of a general election, they are useful:

  1. When a candidate is unknown. Political ads are good at telling voters that a candidate exists. They can build name recognition and give voters a first impression. Political ads are bad at persuading voters to change their mind about a candidate they already know. These dynamics make fundraising more important for lesser known candidates . This means that advertisements are more important for challengers than for better known incumbents. Once candidates have raised enough money to build name recognition, their efforts have diminishing returns. Similarly, in races heavily covered by the media where candidates are well known, political ads don’t have much effect.
  2. In primaries. Unlike in the general election, primary voters are choosing between candidates only from their team1Unless it’s an open primary, in which case there will be some non-party members.. They don’t have their minds made up along partisan lines and are more willing to swing between candidates. Additionally, primary candidates are usually less well known than general election candidates and, as discussed in #1,  ads are more effective for political unknowns.
  3. As an election indicator. While fundraising may not be that important in actually persuading voters or determining the election outcome, it is a sign of grassroots support. It also indicates who donors think will win. Donors want to tie themselves to the winning horse, so the strongest candidates are also more likely to tally big fundraising numbers.
  4. In building a media narrative. The media loves to cover political advertisements — just look at the coverage of the 2018 Georgia Gubernatorial election. Brian Kemp’s ads got national and local press — likely reaching more voters than the advertisements themselves. Candidates can put out ads in order to establish a media narrative — and it works. Mark McKinnon, a media advisor to several Republican presidential candidates, said in an interview with NPR “sometimes, we just put out an ad, and it’ll only be up for a day. And we knew that it wouldn’t get seen by voters, but it would get coverage by reporters.”

So, what does this mean for first quarter fundraising totals (all of which became available April 15)? The big picture: look for totals outside the normal range as these could be signals that an incumbent is vulnerable or that a challenger is particularly formidable. For battleground incumbents, a haul of about $250,000 to $500,000 looks normal. For challengers (non-incumbents), than number is about $50,000 to $100,000. For most congressional races, though, their hours and hours of ‘phone time’ are trivial. Come the general, candidates from both parties will be flush with cash and have no problem establishing name recognition.

Later this week we’ll dig into these Q1 fundraising numbers for the 2020 battleground
districts2Those rated “Toss Ups” by either Sabato’s Crystal Ball or The Cook Political Report and what it means for the candidates and races there. Sneak peak: The biggest fundraiser in any of these races was Antonio Delgado from NY-19 with a whopping $755,000.

CH-CH-CH-CH-CHANGES

Two changes3To clear up any confusion, the title is a reference to this. are taking place here at ESY.

1) Candidate interviews & district analyses are taking the front seat. I will be conducting interviews with candidates in the most competitive 2020 House Districts — those deemed “Toss Ups” by either Sabato’s Crystal Ball or The Cook Political Report. I am posting transcripts of these interviews rather than writing profiles to give an unfiltered view of the candidates.

2) “Big Picture” analyses will be shorter (~600 words or less), more frequent and rawer. If you want beautiful, extended pros, there is always The New Yorker.

Thanks for reading and send me an email (s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com) or reach me on Twitter (@skmoskowitz) with questions, comments, suggestions, interview requests, etc.

CANDIDATE INTERVIEW: WILL FISHER

Will Fisher is a Democratic candidate for Texas’s 24th District. He ran for the Democratic nomination in Texas’s 26th District in 2018 but has decided to run in the 24th this cycle. Cook Political Report has rated the district a “Toss Up” for 2020. Between 2016 and 2018, the Democratic margin shrunk from -17% to -3%. Read the “2020 Battlegrounds” post to get an overview of the district, the 2018 election and the upcoming 2020 race. This interview was conducted on Wednesday, April 3, 2019.

The following interview has been condensed and edited to remove unnecessary words, phrases and questions for clarity. If you want the full, messy, extended version, you can find it in under Candidate Interviews –> Extended Interviews.


Seth: I wanted to start off just by hearing about your day to day life on the campaign trail.
Fisher:
The focus right now is fundraising which means I spend a lot of time on the phone. We’re not running a campaign based on corporate tax donations so it means making a lot of phone calls. I had a teacher in high school and he would ask us to clean up the room at the end of the period he would say, “if everybody does a little, nobody does a lot”. And that’s what I apply to campaigning. When you can get a lot of people together united working together, everybody pitches in, 20 or 100 dollars, what they can do, that to me is how you run a race. It’s also helpful that you’re not beholden to these big corporate PAC interests. And so that’s where I’m at right now. 

Seth: Have you seen that the your supporters and volunteers from the 26th district are planning to help you out in the 24th district? Or will you have to build a new base of support, specifically volunteers and people helping you knock on doors and give phone calls. 
Fisher: 
The signs so far are that those who supported me in the 26th race are supportive both in vocal support as well as in fundraising. It helps to be able to return to that base of support for this race and undoubtedly that’s an advantage or a benefit I have going into this race.

But I would say the more important carry over from the 26th race that I ran was the name recognition and the experience of running a race. The reason I ran in 2018 was we had just elected a racist and authoritarian, in my eyes, to the White House and it’s one of those moments where we realize the Democratic Party does not have a strong base and it takes people with my resume and experience — I have experience writing law. I have experience interpreting and applying it — to run for office and to try and establish a base of support and I did that in 2018. So that was the analysis at the time and the analysis now is “how do I take that support and that experience that I developed and now apply it for the most effect? How do you create the most good?” And to me, that’s using that experience to flip the 24th Congressional District. 

Seth: How long after the 2018 primary did you decide that you wanted to run for office again? Why did you decide that you wanted to run in the 24th district? 
Fisher: 
Timing…to be honest I don’t know. It wasn’t immediate by any means. I would say it was certainly after the general when I made the decision to run in the 24th. The 24th needs to flip. And to me that’s a non-negotiable point. We cannot go another cycle leaving Kenny Marchant in office. This is a guy who almost single handedly authored the gerrymandering redistricting plan for North Texas. He essentially created this district for himself when he was in the Texas Legislature. I looked, after the dust had settled from the general and said “where can I do the most good this coming election cycle? I felt like the most effective way for me to use my experience and support was to ensure or help ensure that the 24th congressional district flipped. Right now, that means I’m a candidate. If the voters decide that I’m not the candidate they want in the general, then after the primary I’ll turn my focus on: who is that candidate and how do I best support making ensure that they flip the district?

Seth: What about your candidacy will help you stand out from the field of Democrats who you likely agree with on a lot of the policy substance? 
Fisher: 
What it takes to win the district in the general is somebody who, without giving up their progressive principles, in fact holding onto those is incredibly important, can still message and talk to those voters. Beto O’Rourke did this very well. It’s one thing that I think made him a very strong candidate. He was able to be very non-exclusive in the way that he presented his policies. Speak to large big picture more morality type issues. Who are we as Americans? A very uniting message and I think that’s the type of candidate that it requires to flip this district. It will be up to the voters to decide how strategic they want to be in the primary. And then my job is to get behind the voice of the electorate. And whoever that candidate is that comes out of the primary, fight to make sure they are our representative for 2020.  

Seth: How do you feel like you’re going to be structuring your campaign and what’s your message going to be in the primary to the Democratic voters? 
Fisher: I try not to fall into the trap of overthinking what the voters are looking for. I think the key is to be genuine and focus on issues that affect you personally. So, number one for me is health care because it’s a personal issue to me. My daughters have some challenges that it’s critical when they become adults that they have access to the healthcare. I want to see expanded healthcare access for every single American. I think we do that through a universal system. There are a lot of different ways to get there but the goal being that every single American should have health care when and where they need.

Number two on that list for me is that we need to expand and make cannabis legal. My mother, she passed away several years ago from Parkinson’s and was willing to try any legal remedy or process or treatment that was recommended and available. It’s frustrating to me that we have an opioid crisis and at the same time we have people suffering that could benefit from cannabinoid-based medication. And we continue to make it illegal in this country. I intend to support that and fight for legalization at the federal level. While it may seem shocking that in Texas a candidate who proclaims to be more palatable for general election voters is loudly out there on Cannabis to me that actually that tells you where the general public is. I actually think the general public is in support of legalizing Cannabis.  

Seth: The House seems to be divided between moderates in red and purplish districts and the progressive from deeper blue districts that are a little bit louder and running to the left like AOC, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. Do you see yourself aligning with one of those two camps
Fisher: 
That’s a really tough question. The problem is I don’t see myself aligning cleanly with any particular camp. Part of that could be points on messaging. I believe strongly in not ignoring one side of the aisle, you can do that without coming off of your values. So, I agree on policy issues…I agree on Medicare for All. Right now, I think the way we get there is through a public option. What we should be debating on right now is how we get there. Because so often I see us debating as Democrats on what should be the ultimate goal. The more important question right now is how we get there. I think the smartest way to get there is through a public option. One, you’re pretty quickly increasing the coverage rate. The amount of people that don’t have access to medical insurance is dropping, especially if you expand Medicaid, which I support. Number two, you’re forcing private insurers to start to compete with he public option, which, one of the biggest differences between those two camps is one is paying bonuses to their executives. One is paying dividends to shareholders, and the other is not. So those private insurers are going to have to figure out how to be more competitive. Well, maybe they reduce their bonuses to their executives. Too bad.

Seth: This does sound different than the messaging that would be coming from Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio Cortez because I don’t know that they would be willing to talk about taking votes for anything short of a full single payer system and be willing to have a conversation as openly as you are about this more incremental approach. So, do you feel like you being willing to have this conversation and talk about that more step by step approach sets you apart from those kinds of politicians and that coalition within the party?
Fisher: 
No and let me tell you why. I would vote tomorrow for a full single payer answer. If we had a chance of getting it through the Senate. I love the idea of getting out there and fighting for something big and impactful in terms of rallying Democrats. But when we’re not talking about the best policy approach to save more lives, then I start to think about the structures that we’re within and what do we do about dealing within the limitation of those structures. Now are we talking about getting rid of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate? If you want to look at what the presidential candidates are arguing for and the positions that they’re setting forth, the number one question I have for them is “how are you going to get that through the Senate?” That’s not arguing for an incremental approach that’s saying give me a plan for how we get these big ideas that I agree with on a policy level, how do we get them through the Senate. 

Seth: How do you feel about those more systematic changes like getting rid of the 60 vote threshold, eliminating the Electoral College, adding justices to the Supreme Court
Fisher: 
I liked some of the ideas that I’m hearing about from Pete Buttigieg. Expanding the size of the Supreme Court but not through court packing. I don’t think court packing is the way to do it. I like the idea of it becoming less of a nuclear event every time there is a vacancy on the Supreme Court. One that strikes me as really interesting is expanding the size by bringing in some temporary judges off the Appeals Court, but requiring a unanimous consent vote on the current justices. I’m open to the idea of getting rid of the 60-vote threshold in the Senate but I recognize the cost of doing that are that you are likely to have a swing of policy depending on who is in power, which also would not be good. Before I would be able to buy into that I would want to start to think through and hear particularly the leaders in the Senate, who are in control of this issue, think through how are we are going to deal with what might be the ramifications of swinging policy every four or eight years. 

We are so divided as a country and voter turnout is so low, if you asked me what is more likely to avoid those kinds of swings it’s to fully expand voter access in the country. Automatic voter registration, election day being a holiday, ensure that people who even have to work holidays have access to vote. Mail in ballots. 

I think if we strengthen the Voting Rights Act and make sure that we are really making an effort as a country to get everybody out to vote then I think you’re going to see less swings. Because people are more consistent on a one by one basis than the electorate is on a macro basis. 

Seth: If you’re in the general election would your strategy be to turn out the base of the Democratic party through progressive policies and policies that the Democratic party base supports, or try to be that candidate that can flip conservatives, continuing the trend of flipping white suburban voters to the Democratic party? And how do you see yourself being able to do that?
Fisher: You’ve got to be able to do both. As difficult as that sounds, I don’t think there is a one approach strategy that works. You have to be able to reassure your progressive voters that you’re there with them on progressive policies. Then you have to be able to message those policies to scared moderate voters who see the writing on the wall, see what’s going on in the White House, who see that Kenny Marchant is either a complete copycat of Donald Trump with the bigotry and authoritarianism, or he’s a coward. I realize that these issues are sometimes complex and that messaging complex issues to voters can be a challenge. But that’s the challenge of a successful candidate. Can you talk about progressive issues, making sure every single American has health care when and where they need it, in a way that resonates with you? 

Seth: You’re aiming to strike this balance between campaigning on these big ideas but also digging into the policy and telling voters the substance of the policies that you want to enact. 
Fisher: 
Getting turnout among progressives and the left is about focusing on bigger ideas and reassuring them that you’re going to be a fighter for those ideals. But when your campaigning in the white suburban district, or the white suburban areas of the district. Right now, this is my analysis. I’m not going to go out there and win the Tea Party vote. I’m not even going to aim for it. And the people on the margins who are looking at the White House saying, “I can’t support that but there’s a Democrat over here talking about Single Payer Health Care and that freaks me out.” So that’s where policy discussions and policy messaging become really important. Because there you’re reassuring them that “I am not fear. I am not bigotry. I am not hatred and I’m not an authoritarian. But I know you have your concerns about XY and Z. Let me help you understand why XY and Z are better for your family.”

Seth: I’ve heard you say that “Donald Trump is an authoritarian in the White House.” I’m curious to hear a little more about what you mean by that and exactly what kinds of things you’re thinking about when you use that term. 
Fisher:
Look who he cozies up to. he cozies up to Putin. And Kim Jung Un. He loves these dictators. You can tell he admires them. He wants to be them. Just today he’s talking about closing the southern border. And he says, “we may have to get rid of the judges”.I can’t tell you what is more authoritarian than talking about getting rid of judges. So, the assumption of executive power going over the heads of the legislature and particularly talking about reducing the power and influence of the judicial branch is textbook authoritarianism. 

Seth: Is that something that you think that Democrats in the House of Representatives should consider impeachment? 
Fisher: 
I want to see the Muller report. Certainly, he has said and done things that I think are impeachable offenses. From a legal point of view, The Constitution does not define “High Crimes and Misdemeanors”. There’s common law guidance that we have here from English law about what that means. But at the end of the day, it’s essentially a political remedy to a political problem. If I were a Representative, I would want to see and read the Mueller Report. And I’d be fighting for that because we’ve gone through this two-year investigation to understand what has actually been done. And I don’t accept a four-page book report from Bill Barr. I want to see the actual hundreds page report or however long it is that goes into the details. Before I can say whether I would vote for impeachment or not, that’s a prerequisite. 

Seth: Are there any issues in the Democratic orthodoxy or the Democratic platform that you have second guesses about?
Fisher:
Up until very recently, the Democratic Party has been more willing to take Corporate PAC money. That’s been disturbing because what you end up with is Senators in Congresspeople on the one hand who say all these great things but then when it comes to a really hard vote that might upset one of their Corporate PAC donor, they get a little more skittish. I’m not going to throw stones at any presidential candidate right now, but there’s a few that come to mind on particular important votes regarding prescriptions and things like that that are worrisome. It also gets back to the 60-vote threshold issue. That I want to see somebody tackle in a meaningful way because we have a tendency to talk about big, big issues but then voters become really frustrated if you can’t do anything about it and so what I want to see is the Democratic Party take the lead on…I was happy with HR1 for example. I want to see [the bill] move forward because we don’t ever actually implement any of these big important issues unless we have the politically support to do it and while public opinion is one thing you’ve got to have those votes in the ballot box to make sure you can accomplish those things. I guess my critique would be, in the past we’ve been willing to take…not me because I don’t throw myself in that boat… but a lot of Democratic Representatives have been willing to take money from unsavory donors which colors their vision when it comes to taking tough votes and then also promising things without actually having a plan to be able to get them through the Senate. This is probably, if you ask me, the number one issue I’m looking for leadership from presidential candidates. Dealing with that 60-vote threshold issue. How do you get your policies in place given those restrictions?

Seth: It does seem like it’s somewhat of a binary thing. Where it’s either go for the bipartisan compromises where you win some Republican votes or eliminate the Filibuster or do some other more structural changes like D.C or Puerto Rico statehood and giving them representation in the Senate.
Fisher: 
It could be a little bit of both. D.C. Puerto Rico, Guam, these are people who I think deserve representation. So that’s its own issue that can be a help towards resolving this problem we’re talking about, but I think also dealing with is it the right policy to have such a high threshold. And maybe it’s something other than 50%. Maybe its 55. There are some other ways to get us closer to being able to pass these policies while still requiring something more than a majority.
Seth: It is a good example of norms and which ones are important to uphold and which ones are okay to break down.
Fisher: 
Norms are important. They’re critical to make sure that the system doesn’t get flipped in the night. I guess one critique of Democrats is that we often hold to these norms in a way that the other side doesn’t and it puts us at a huge disadvantage to actually help people because the other side throws norms out the window. We need to be able to balance valuing these norms while also recognizing that the other side has been corruptly gerrymandering and restructuring the system to benefit their donors for years. So, I don’t want us to fall into the trap of holding these norms and squeezing them tight like something precious to you while all it’s doing is ensuring the policies you believe in, that will help American families, never gets passed. And what good does that ever do? It questions whether you are even accomplishing what you set out to try and accomplish in the first place. Are you actually doing what you said you were going to do?

Seth: Where will you and will you not take money from in your 2020 campaign?Fisher: I won’t take money from Corporate PACs. If Planned Parenthood wants to donate to my race, I am ideologically aligned there so there is no issue from my perspective. These kinds of organizational PACs that are designed to help Democrats and progressive policies be enacted. I don’t have any issues. None at all. 

Seth: What kind of things you and your team have been thinking about that you’ll have to differently, given that you’re changing form the 26th to the 24th.
Fisher: 
My campaign ethos has always been to put yourself out there in as many locations as often as possible. And that’s not going to change, but with one recognition. And that recognition is that turnout will be astronomically higher given that it’s a presidential year. Donald Trump is on the ballot. Turnout is going to be very high. So, reaching voters in mass is going to be much more important than perhaps it was in my prior race. In an election cycle like this one, big media has to be involved.  

Seth: Have you been seeing the other primary candidates in the district campaigning? What kind of interactions have you had with the other candidates?
Fisher: 
All the other candidates that I know I have great relationship with and I deeply respect them. Nothing ill to say at all. So far there’s not been a lot of community campaigning by any of the candidates that I’ve seen so far. It’s just too early. 

Seth: Are you going to support the Democratic nominee?
Fisher: 
Yes and I trust the voters to not make a decision there that is somebody that you couldn’t put your support behind. 

Seth: Am I right that you endorsed or supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary?
Fisher: I voted for Bernie in the primary. That’s right.
Seth: Do you have a candidate in the presidential race that represents your values or that you’ll vote for?
Fisher:
 It’s too early. I’m just spending a lot of time listening. I’ll tell you those that are sticking out for me. Beto — I admire the way Beto is able to talk about progressive policies in a way that doesn’t in my opinion scare off independent moderates. I admire that. I think it’s important that we don’t exclude people from any side of the political spectrum. That they have the ability to come and hear you and take something away that may be a nugget that develops in them the ability to maybe see the hope and the possibilities in progressive policies. I really have enjoyed listening to Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He sort of fills that professor role in terms of the candidates that are currently in the race and I like that. I love policy. I consider myself a bit of a wonk and so I like to hear him speak I like to hear candidates get into the details because details matter. For a lot of voters, that may not be the case. So that’s something that I’m following very closely. Kamala, Cory, Elizabeth Warren. I love the big ideas that Elizabeth Warren has. Look, what excites me about Bernie is his fight for Single Payer. That’s what inspired me in the 2016 primary. I love the passion that he brings to that debate and the effects that he has had on the Democratic electorate of moving it more progressive, particularly on the issue of health care legislation.  

Seth: I think he’s the one candidate that hasn’t spoken about being willing to vote for an incrementalist approach so it is interesting to hear the things that you value about his candidacy. 
Fisher: 
I’m a negotiator by trade. And when you negotiate you often don’t start out in the middle. You start out asking for more than you’d be willing to accept in the end. And I think Democrats made a mistake with the ACA negotiations where the Public Option was the big thing that they were then willing to give up in order to get it passed. If there had been a public option you wouldn’t see the crumbling of so many of the healthcare markets. Bernie’s approach is, “hey let’s go out there and fight for the big thing.” Tt the end of the day, if he were negotiating legislation, maybe he’ll take something less than that. And I admire that fully. I will tell you that while that may be effective on a national stage, I’m thinking about my district. It’s going to take to get them on board with moving in that direction. Because these are not Brooklyn voters. You have to recognize there’s a difference. And I think a public option is what we need right now in order to move in the direction of things there. 

Seth: Is there anything that we haven’t covered that you’re interested in talking about?
Fisher: Two of the other issues I want voters to know I’m passionate about: One is criminal justice reform. The particular focus that I want to have is on white collar corruption, which is incredibly costly and damaging to our system and we see it right now with the Trump administration. There’s a lot of opportunity we have to make our system more equitable in part my ensuring that those who commit white collar crimes are prosecuted and receive appropriate penalties in line with the crimes they commit. It’s important to me that we have people accused of Marijuana possession that end up with more jail time than somebody who commits bank fraud, for example. Something that significantly hurts our system, increases the costs of products for everyone. And that’s something that we have to tackle because at the end of the day I think that there’s racial inequity involved there and our entire criminal justice system needs overhaul in order to address some of those racial inequities. And the other one is firearms legislation. We need to ensure that the universal background check bill that recently passed that that gets through. So we need to keep fighting for that in the House until we have a Senate that can pass it. And a part of that that’s really personal for me. Personal experience with folks who ended their lives where a mandatory waiting period may have given us a chance to intervene. So I’m going to fight for three day waiting periods nationally. 

When it comes to this particular issue, a strong majority of Americans support Universal Background Checks. Now Mandatory Waiting Periods is not a policy that’s gotten as much, I certainly don’t hear it as much in the political milieu, punditry type discussions. So that one will be, let’s see how voters react to it. To me it’s a personal issue. And it’s something I feel passionate about. My sense is that it’s not offensive to gun owners. The misconception on this issue many times is that Democrats don’t own gun. That people who support Universal Background Checks don’t own guns. I think that’s just not true. That’s NRA messaging, “the Democrats are there to take away your guns”, which is just not true. I find that popular opinion on those issues are, kind of across the board, positively received. 

Seth: Do you have any requests of me? 
Fisher: 
I’m very cognizant of the divisions right now in the Democratic Party. I’m hesitant personally to be classified in any of these camps. I agree with Representatives like AOC who are fighting against incrementalism. My concern is short term. I want to make sure we’re not promising things that we can’t follow through on because right now were in this moment of brief excitement. I don’t want that followed by a moment of great disappointment. And I foresee that being a risk. And I realize that by saying that, that may have someone classify me as a moderate, which I don’t think I am. I don’t use that label myself. I think I’m a practical progressive: someone who aspires to practical policies that works within the limitations we have and says “how do we get as close as possible to that?” So, take that for what it is. My goal in life is not to be labeled as “Well, Will is the moderate in the race”. I just don’t think that would be accurate either. 

Seth: I know you’re busy as a candidate and as a lawyer so I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me over the phone. 
Fisher: No worries. Thanks Seth. 

PARTY TIME: INDEPENDENTS

This is the fifth post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which looks at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race. For three weeks we have focused on the major voting coalitions — Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Party affiliation is the strongest single indicator of voter choice. It can determine feelings about the economythe direction of the country and even financial wellbeing.

RECAP FROM THE LAST TWO WEEKS
Twenty-six percent of Americans consider themselves Republican, 31% percent Democratic, and 38% Independent, according to a recent Pew study. Because independents who lean towards one party vote for that party at almost the same rate as party members, they will be considered party members for this analysis. When these independent leaners are included in party totals, 39% of the public is Republican, 48% is Democratic and only 7% is Independent.

The charts below show who Independents, Democrats and Republicans are. This is different than showing how demographic groups align. For example, the first chart shows that 45% of Independents are women, but it does not show what percentage of women are Independents.

THE INDEPENDENT VOTING BLOC
Gender

Race  
AgeEducation
Data: PewMore Pew
*Used 2016 presidential vote as a stand in for party

Independents differ demographically from both Democrats and Republicans. The share of men among Independents, 55%, is higher than the general voting population. It’s even higher than that of the Republican Party, typically considered a male-dominated voting bloc. Independents are less white relative to the overall voting population (50% vs 70%) and are much more Hispanic (23% to 9%). Independents are also younger than partisans — 59% are under 50 years old while the same is true for 52% of Democrats and 42% of Republicans. Independents are also much less educated than both Democrats and Republicans. 46% of Independents have only ‘high school or less’ education, while 32% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans say the same. In some ways (age, racial diversity) the Independent voting bloc looks more like the Democratic Party) while in others (gender, education levels) it aligns more closely with the Republican Party.

Policies & Ideologies (Net Support)

Policies & Ideologies Continued

Data: Pew

Independents fall in-between Democrats and Republican on most political issues. These numbers do not measure intensity of individual voters’ feelings but how the voting bloc is split. Independents sit in-between Democrats and Republicans for five of the six policies in the chart. The exception is marijuana legalization, which Independents support in greater number than both Republicans and even Democrats. In addition to marijuana legalization, Independents are closer to Democrats than Republicans on support for same sex marriage, immigration, and a belief that the economy is generally unfair. The one issue on which Independents more closely align with Republicans is wanting a smaller government.  This ideological combination — socially liberal and wanting a smaller government — signals a libertarian streak in the small portion of the country that considers themselves true non-partisan independents

Independents are Less Engaged
Independent voters are less engaged than party members.   ‘No lean’-ers are almost half as likely to vote in 2018 as Republican party members — 33% compared to 61%. Relative to Republicans, Democrats vote at a slightly lower rate, 59%, but still vastly outperform Independents.

Their disengagement is as a result of their independence and a cause of it.  A lack of interest in politics causes independents to identify as such, simply because they are disengaged from political life. Other Independents do not alight ideologically with Democrats or Republicans, and, without a team to support, are less likely to engage in political activity. The directionality runs both ways.

Independents Don’t Like the Parties
The partisan antipathy dominating contemporary politics is not isolated to Democrats’ and Republicans’ mutual disdain for each other. Independents partake as well. But while most voters view their own party favorably and the other unfavorably, Independents are more even handed. 37% of Independents have an unfavorable view of both parties, 22% have a favorable view of both parties, and about 20% view one of the two parties favorably.
Independents who do lean towards a party say that “other party’s policies [are] bad for the country” is the number one reason for their partisan lean. These partisan leaners even view members of their own party unfavorably more than half of the time.

Independents Aren’t as Important as We Think
Independents are seen as the crucial tie-breakers in a nation evenly divided by two political parties — if independents swing towards one party, so goes the nation. This is not true. Independents (the only data available here is for leaners and non-leaners alike, so that what is used here) voted for Trump in 2016, but the popular vote went to Clinton. A similar split happened in 20002004 and 2012.  Elections can turn on how well each party turns out its base — a task that is often more challenging for the larger, but less engaged Democratic Party. The parties and their candidates cannot expect to win by only targeting the 7% of truly independent voters if it means sacrificing a portion of their base.

When choosing between energizing the party base versus swinging moderate/independent voters, the question parties should ask themselves is ‘why not both?’ In earlier posts, I suggested that the parties might do well by highlighting issues that 1) are seen as priorities by the general public and 2) the public supports their policies over the opposing party. But maybe they instead should focus on issues that 1) excite their base and 2) are supported by independents. If they go with route #2, Democrats should emphasize health care, the ‘unfair’ economy and socially liberal issues like marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage. Republicans have less to work with, but could highlight limited government and the economy (especially if it holds strong through 2020). 

CANDIDATE INTERVIEW: JAN MCDOWELL

Jan McDowell is a Democratic candidate for Texas’s 24th District. She was the Party’s nominee in 2016 and 2018 and in those two years the Democratic margin shrunk from -17% to -3%. Cook Political Report has rated the district a “Toss Up” for 2020. Read the “2020 Battlegrounds” post to get an overview of the district, the 2018 election and the upcoming 2020 race. This interview was conducted on Wednesday, March 27, 2019.

The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited to remove unnecessary words or phrases for clarity. If you want the full, messy, extended version, you can find it in under Candidate Interviews –> Extended Interviews.

Seth: Tell me about the state of the campaign and what your day to day looks like.
McDowell: I have contracted with a professional fundraising consultant so I’m trying to get a jump start on that. All of the towns in the area are having these municipal elections coming up in early May so you know you don’t want to step on those races. One thing I was told early on when I started this journey was show up show up show up. And I’ve tried to do that all along the way in all the towns across the district.

Seth: Have these candidates been asking you to come as a supporter or are you going more to present yourself and your candidacy.
McDowell: No I’m not going as a candidate myself so much. I’ve offered, coming up in the next few weeks, to do a little bit of block walking for several of them. I don’t want to step in for one Democrat which would pit me against another Democrat. When there’s one Democrat, I’m definitely all in for them.

Seth: There are going to be a lot more candidates in the primary this year because of how close it was in 2018 and Cook Political Report rating it a toss-up. Can you tell me what you’re expecting to do to differentiate yourself from these other candidates?
McDowell: I’m aware of, including myself, seven people, most of whom have not declared but maybe they’ve told me or appeared at public forums and said that they’re running. My biggest difference is I am determined to represent the people of District 24 in the United States Congress. It’s the area that I’ve lived in for forty years. I am not picking a district on a map that the Cook Political Report says ‘oh this is a winnable district so I’ll jump in here and try to run in a district I don’t even live in’ and I have been working at this since late 2015. The District 24 seat in Congress is where my passion lies. Mainly trying to solve the income inequality gap. That includes health care and so many other things, that’s what I’m focused on.

Seth: Can you talk a little more about what policies you’re expecting to put on the forefront of your campaign?
McDowell: It’s mainly about shrinking the gap between the haves and the have nots in our country. That gap is so huge and is getting bigger all the time and it’s not healthy. It’s not sustainable. It’s just flat not right. It is better for everybody on all parts of that spectrum if we were all working together rather than trying to pull ourselves apart and trying to benefit the people at the top so much. I see healthcare as huge issue that is part of the economic inequality that we have now because if you don’t have reliable, affordable healthcare, you can’t be economically vibrant.

Seth: I’m curious if you’re rethinking your approach to any of the progressive policies that have become more popular in the party. You said Medicare For All is ‘probably the answer’ and I’m curious if you’re considering  jumping on board more fully with some of these policies.
McDowell: I generally don’t think it’s as productive to have a fully formed policy and say ‘this is what I’m for’ and dig my heels in and say ‘therefore I’m against any other ideas’. I want every person to have healthcare available to them at a price they can afford. From what I’ve seen Medicare For All is probably the best way to get there. If somebody has an idea and they call it something different and it  does something slightly different but the bottom line is everyone gets healthcare, then I’m not opposed to that. I’m not so much married to one name or label or particular policy. It’s the bottom line result that matters to me.

Seth: Are you worried about some candidates coming in and running further to your left in the primary? Are you worried about candidates coming in and saying ‘I’m for Medicare For All I’m for Abolish Ice’, which may excite the base more than a moderate, bipartisan approach?
McDowell: I’m not that much of a politician. I look at problems and solutions and things that will work and I like to talk to people and have discussions and get their input and come up with ideas that work. Once you start saying ‘this is more to the left or more to the right’, I don’t think most people think in those terms. And I’m probably pretty far left. But the vast majority of people in my neighborhood don’t think [in] those phrases.

Seth: In 2018 Beto O’Rourke carried your district by around 3%. How much do you give him credit for lifting your numbers?
McDowell: I don’t really know how to quantify that. I think it’s obvious that the Beto effect helped all the Democrats up and down the ballot in 2018. With almost 80 million dollars, you can do a lot. So clearly, I benefited from that. To be able to put a quantitative analysis on how much was him and how much was the candidate, I don’t know how to do that. I know we worked hard. I know I had a phenomenal team of people helping me. Small paid staff and lots of volunteers were everywhere from block walking and writing postcards to being professional marketing and IT and all sorts of other professionals input on my campaign that they volunteered.

Seth: Do you expect the 2020 race, with the presidential election happening at the top of the ticket, will bring out a different coalition of voters?
McDowell: Possibly. I know Texas has been historically pinned as a solid red state. Obviously not so much anymore. But for years and years that’s been the case. I know a lot of people who are Democrats who said ‘well I voted in the Republican primary because I wanted to have a choice because that’s who’s going to win.’ And I see the potential for that to happen in reverse next March when there’s such an array of outstanding Democrats running for president, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see quite a number of Republicans deciding it’s pretty darn likely that whoever wins the Democratic nomination for president will be our next president so I’m going to go vote in their primary and have a say on that race. So that could impact the makeup of the primary race in my race as well.

Seth: Do you think that will affect the way you run your campaign or which policies you highlight?
McDowell: I believe what I believe and if voters agree with that, I hope they’ll vote for me. I’m not going to start changing what I say to try to play to that game. My team and I haven’t really talked about real specifics yet. Were focused on the money part at this point.

Seth: This year, the DCCC put your district on their Red to Blue list. The Democratic nominee will likely get some more funding from the national party. How do you see that changing the dynamic of the race? How would you be able to campaign differently?
McDowell: I think that would be huge. This time some of that spotlight and money are going to shift to the left for District 24, so I have a tremendous talking point speaking to potential donors that we shrank the gap in this district that started out as an absolute longshot. Who would think to run with a 17-point gap in 2016 and got it down to 3 points in 2018? I kept saying ‘this is a suburban district, well-educated it’s the very picture of the kinds of districts that are flipping.’ And still, all the attention was going to District 32. I think this time donors will be much more willing to believe that their money and their effort and their passions can be productive in actually resulting in another seat in Congress.

Seth: You talk about the district being the archetypal district that is swinging left and that Democrats are flipping. Is there anything that Representative Marchant has done or votes that he’s taken that you expect you will use in the campaign?
McDowell: I mentioned before that the big thing is for a candidate to show up, show up, show up. That’s exactly what Marchant absolutely never does. Very few people have ever seen him. I’ve started referring to him as a professional ghost. He doesn’t show up in the district; he is not accessible to constituents. Every time there is a vote, I can post and say ‘this is what Marchant voted. I would have voted the opposite of it in every case’. The House has passed HR1 which is all about campaign financing, gerrymandering and voter suppression and all of the things that try and make our democracy work and I would’ve been an enthusiastic jumping up and down yes vote and he called it ‘subverting our democracy’ or something real sinister. The House needs to be the check and balance of the co-equal branch of government and he’s always way too willing to be told by the party which way he is supposed to vote.

Seth: I’ve seen that Kim Olson(the Democratic nominee for Texas Agriculture Commissioner in 2018) may be getting in the primary. She was a little bit closer with her margin, 48.1 to 49.4 in Texas 24. Do you think that gives her a leg up in the primary saying that maybe she is a more electable candidate?
McDowell: I don’t think so. I’m not saying anything negative about her. I think she’s a phenomenal woman. She lives 80 miles to the west of the western edge of the district. When I say she lives in Mineral Wells, a lot of people around here don’t even know where Mineral Wells is. The law says you only have to live in the same state as the district you represent. That’s what’s in the Constitution. But I think that’s a real surprise to people. When they realize that is what the Constitution says, they think it shouldn’t be that way. I can just imagine if the Democrats have a candidate in the general election against Kenny Marchant. I can see the ads of him growing up here, being here forever and she’s just way outsider and I don’t think that would be a positive thing for Democratic chances at the general election.

Seth: Would you go out and support the Democrat regardless of who they were?
McDowell: Absolutely.

Seth: Have you seen from the numbers from the last election that there is any type of general election voter that either you believe is most likely to flip to being a Democrat or that you think didn’t quite turn out in 2018 that you might be able to encourage to turn out in 2020?
McDowell: Both of the above. There are still hundreds of thousands of people who are registered and don’t vote. Not to mention people who are not even registered. More money will make it possible to reach more people to both register and then to turn out the vote. I kept hearing going into the 2018 race that Texas isn’t a red state, it’s a non-voting state and that’s definitely true.

Seth: And are there any presidential candidates or other candidates higher on the ticket who you could see boosting Democratic turnout or flipping the most voters? Do you think that O’Rourke could be beneficial to you in your district because he was so popular in the state?
McDowell: Well that Beto effect would certainly come into play if he were on the general election presidential race. Really, out of all the Democrats who have thrown their hats into that ring they almost all just so impressive and so dynamic and so not Donald Trump that I think that the presidential race is going to energize voters to turnout to vote in the 2020 general election. I can’t imagine it not being a wildly engaged electorate ready to go vote.

Seth: Do you think that if there is a candidate at the top of the ticket that is running further to the left that there could be a problem with you not being quite as progressive?
McDowell: I don’t think thats me. If people are for Medicare For All, and I’m sitting in Congress and there’s a vote on that, I’m a yes. I’m an enthusiastic yes.
Seth: Okay so that’s pretty straight down the line. You’re a yes vote.
McDowell: The only thing I’ve said that’s different than that is if there was a vote on another policy that had a different name and also gives everybody health insurance, I’d be an enthusiastic yes for that too. I don’t think that makes me less of a Medicare for All person.

Seth: The current makeup of the House seems to be divided into more red and purple districts, I’m thinking specifically of Virginia 7 and New York 11, and progressive more deeper blue districts like Ilhan Omar’s, Rashida Tlaib’s and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s. Do you imagine yourself aligning more closely with the more progressive or more bipartisan moderate members of the House?
McDowell: That’s tough. I tend to be more progressive. I would probably align with more progressive people than more conservative people. When I listen to AOC’s positions on things, I find very little that I disagree with. I’ve read posts that she’s done and thought ‘that’s exactly what I would have said’ if I was quite as eloquent as she is. I don’t always agree with her method or her approach. Sometimes things are so urgent that it’s not going to be acceptable to sit back and be patient and polite. And you have to just go in there like a bull in a china shop. But it’s not always that way. Sometimes you do sit back and watch and learn a little bit when you’re the new kid and take notes before you say ‘I can do so much better’. I don’t think people react tremendously well to being approached that way.

Seth: The issue of the day is the Democratic Party’s position towards Israel and Ilhan Omar’s comments about Lindsay Graham and other House and Senate members. Do you have a position towards Israel or Representative Omar that you would be willing to share?
McDowell: I am all for Jewish people. I am also all for Muslim people. I don’t think that people and their governments are the same thing. I think that we are desperately hoping that’s the case now when our government is doing things like separating families at the border and taking children away from their parents. When the Israeli government or Palestinian government groups do things, I think it’s possible to say ‘we don’t agree with that we don’t like that’, but give the people in those nations the benefit of the doubt just like we hope they are giving us. People of every religion or faith or no religion or faith are equally deserving of respect and have their personal dignity and I think that needs to be reflected separate from our positions on what their governments do.

Seth: Are there any issues or one issue that you feel you’re not in line with the Democratic orthodoxy?
McDowell: I can’t think of anything off the top of my head that I would be at odds with the Democratic mainstream line of thought on.

Seth: Is anything else that we haven’t gotten the opportunity to talk about that you would like to?
McDowell:
 Gun safety rules. I’m so impressed with New Zealand and their ability to say ‘gee we have a problem, here lets fix it’. Something that our government has not been able to manage to do. I just so believe that there’s just so much logic and commons sense to having some oversight on the ownership and registration of firearms that I think is just incredibly important and we need to be able to do that. The other thing is our environment. That is an existential threat to our nation and to our planet and I think we disregard that at our peril. The reports from scientists are alarming. And no I don’t think that that means that nobody can have hamburgers anymore. That’s kind of akin to when Obamacare came out and Republicans wanted to talk about death panels and come up with something that you can throw out there and have people catch onto rather than talking about the real issue and real solutions. I think that there are enough smart people in our country who, given the opportunity and the funding and support and encouragement to come up with new and better and innovative ideas of how we can do things without destroying our planet in the process. I think it would be great for our economy to send those people and those ideas loose and as a bonus still have a planet to live on for our kids and our grandkids.

Seth: The Senate just took a vote on the Green New Deal resolution and a lot of Democrats either voted Present or voted against it. What do you think of the tactic of introducing resolutions that Democratic Senators or Representatives will vote against?
McDowell: I don’t know that I’m the best person to know what’s the best politics involved. I think the concepts in the Green New Deal are things that we need. My understanding of the Green New Deal is that at this point it’s kind of a wish list and I don’t really know how you vote on a wish list. It’s not a bill. In concept I think it’s incredibly of paramount importance to start acting on those initiatives to get us there and I’ll leave it to Nancy Pelosi and other leaders in the House to figure out how we do this and how we frame it. I’m not an expert on how the politics of it works.

Seth: The idea of the Green New Deal was to bring together the environmentalism with health care and income inequality. Do you support the framework of tying all those policies together or do you think they should be tackled individually and one on one?
McDowell: I think that the issues are all tied together and I think that good solutions for each one will all benefit the others. I think that they’re all of a piece. Each one of those is so enormous that I can’t imagine being able to come up with a bill that had all three rolled together in one. But I think each one should draw from the others and be mindful of the impact that they’re having on the others.


Thank you to Ms. McDowell for taking the time to speak with me. I have heard from TX-24 Democratic Candidates Kim Olson and Will Fisher and will (hopefully) be interviewing them next week. Republican Incumbent Kenny Marchant has not responded to any of my requests. Stay tuned! 

2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: TEXAS 24TH

This is the second post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where (almost) every other week I take a deep look at one closely contested 2020 House district. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the State and District 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what insight the district can give into larger 2020 House race.

Candidate interviews are the newest addition to ESY! For each battleground district, I will interview as many declared & potential candidates as possible. You can find the transcripts (both complete transcripts and ones condensed to just the highlights) under the “Battleground District” tab. Go read my interview with Jan McDowell, the TX-24 Democratic candidate for 2020 and was the 
Party’s nominee in 2018.

District: Texas 24th
Current Representative: Kenny Marchant
Projected District Margin: 0.0%->4The formula is explained in POST 1: Housekeeping. Donald Trump’s net approval rating at 4:09am EST on March 12 was -11.7. (Calculation (3.1 +8.6) – (11.7) + 0 = 0%)
Cook 2020 Projection: Toss Up
Sabato 2020 Projection: Leans Republican

Texas has been Republican territory for a long time. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the state was Carter in 1976, over 40 years ago. The last Democratic governor to win was Ann Richards in 1990. And while Texas is probably still out of reach for the 2020 presidential election, Democrats hope that the state’s quick population growth and diversity will tip a few districts in their favor. 2018 featured the dramatic Beto O’Rourke versus Ted Cruz senate race. O’Rourke outperformed Texas’s partisan lean by 10 points by running up margins and turnout in urban areas. His near-success had more to do with winning over Republican leaning white voters than with harnessing the state’s growing diversity.  

O’Rourke’s urban margins contributed to Democrats successfully flipping TX-32 and TX-07. He carried them by 11% and 7%, respectively. And Democrats are hoping to squeeze even more from the state in 2020. Six of 33 seats that the DCCC5The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is the main campaign arm for House Democrats is targeting on their “Red to Blue” list are in Texas. Five of these seats — TX-10, TX-21, TX-22, TX-24 and TX-31 —are in or near the state’s major urban areas — Austin, Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio.

If Democrats are able to win these seats it will be an astounding turnaround in eight years. In 2012, Romney took these seats by 20%, 22%, 25%, 22% and 21% respectively. Trump’s poor margins in 2016 — 9%, 10, 8%, 9%, 10% — show clear leftward movement.

Texas 24 is an educated, diverse, wealthy suburban district — the archetype of the district that flocked to Romney in 2012 and ran from Trump in 2016. The swing away from Republicans in 2016 and 2018 wasn’t enough to flip the seat, but things look different for 2020.  The 2018 race was much closer than expected. FiveThirtyEight projected a 13.8% margin, but the real gap was 3.1%. Things look tenuous for Republicans, especially with coming demographic changes.

Demographics

Data: Daily Kos

Texas  is more diverse and educated than the country overall. Thirty seven percent of the district is non-white and 32% are white college graduates. The key Republican voting bloc — non-college whites — account for only 31% of the population.

Coming demographic change looks troubling for Republicans. Dallas, Tarrant and Denton counties all expect to grow by about 1.5 million by 205058%, 66% and 160%  over their current populations. A majority of this growth is going to be non-white, pushing the district, and state as a whole, towards Democrats. And unless Republicans broaden their appeal to non-white voters, TX-24 is destined to turn blue. The only question will be how quickly Democrats can flip it.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY
Texas 24th has been a reliable seat for Republicans since the 2003 Texas redistricting. Democrats lost six Texas seats in the 2004 election, including the 24th District which had been re-drawn by the Republican State Legislature to include more Republican leaning suburbs around Dallas instead of more liberal Forth Worth/Arlington areas. The abrupt turn away from Republicans is clearly a Trump driven phenomenon. Mitt Romney won the district by 22%, a 4% greater margin than McCain; Kenny Marchant won re-election in 2014 by 33%, a 7-point greater margin than in 2012. And then in 2016, Trump won the district by just 6% — dragging Marchant’s margin down to half of what it was in 2014.

Presidency

House

Data: Daily Kos

What Happened in 2018
Nobody expected the race to be close in 2018. The four democrats running in the primary had never held elected office. Jan McDowell, the Democratic nominee in 2016, had lost by over 17% in 2016. McDowell was6I couldn’t decide between past and present tense here. Everyone is still alive, don’t worry. a 64-year-old CPA. Tod Allen was a 38-year-old teacher. John Biggan was a 34-year-old researcher at University of Texas. And lastly, Josh Imhoff was a 47-year-old attorney who slid in at the last minute…filing for candidacy on the last possible day. The candidates were pretty standard 2018 Democrats,  running on the ACA and a moldable version of Medicare for All, bipartisanship and opposition to the Republican tax bill and immigration policy.

McDowell won 52% of the primary vote, just barely avoiding a run-off. Turnout in the Democratic primary was astoundingly low — 3.5% of the district’s population. And this may not be a flawless metric, but the runner-up, John Biggan, has 244 Twitter followers. All this to say, it wasn’t a star-studded Democratic primary.

The Republican field wasn’t too impressive. Kenny Marchant had one competitor, Jonathan Davidson, who said his primary focus in office would be “to obtain access to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court”. Which…a bit of campaign advice here…may be a bit too niche for a political platform. Marchant won with a 75-25 percent victory.

Jan McDowell ran an inoffensive general campaign, emphasizing standard Democratic policies — gun control, protecting social security, women’s rights, etc. While McDowell says she mostly agrees with the left wing of the party on policy, the more radical proposals were not the forefront of her 2018 campaign.  Her primary attack on Marchant for being an absent representative. As she said, he was a “professional ghost”. And her closing argument on Twitter was her support for pre-existing conditionsopposition to the Republican tax bill and support for birthright citizenship.  

On more controversial policies — Abolish Ice and Medicare for All — she found middle ground.  She believes in Medicare for All, but would support a different policy that had similar outcomes. She did not explicitly endorse Abolish Ice, instead writing “I believe that it is the policies that should be changed, whether or not a given agency is eliminated.”

In my interview with her, though, she clarified that she is a progressive.  “I’m pretty far left”, “if people are for Medicare For All, and I’m sitting in Congress and there’s a vote on that, I’m a yes.” “When I listen to AOC’s (Alexandia Ocasio Cortez’s) positions on things I find very little that I disagree with”. She clarified that while she may agree on the policy substance, doesn’t “always agree with her [AOC’s] method or her approach.”

Her campaign was bare bones, as the DCCC refused to give any assistance. She raised only $108,000 and $103,000 of it was individual contributions. She did not have much institutional support. McDowell operated mostly on Facebook and Twitter, running very few television ads, showing her shoestring budget. Her modest videos show that some more money could give her a boost.

Kenny Marchant, the Republican incumbent since 2005, was well funded. He went into the campaign with a $1.6 million war chest. He raised another 1.1 million — about 850k from PACs and 250k from individual donors — giving him about a $2.5 million lead over McDowell. He ran as a conservative Republican — touting on his campaign’s homepage his ranking as the 3rd most conservative House member. He’s a Tea-Party Republican. He vote’s with Trump 94.1% of the time. He supports tax cuts, the Second Amendment and is pro-life. All together, he’s a pretty standard7read: dull Republican. His website has three pages — “Home” ‘About Kenny” and “Contribute”. His social media is painfully boring.

So…the underfunded Democrat and milquetoast Republican face off! And McDowell came within ~3% of Marchant, shocking everyone and bringing the district into the 2020 spotlight.

The 3% margin, however, is perhaps less impressive when Beto O’Rourke carried the district by 3.5%. This could be trouble for Democrats in 2020 if they are unable to find an up-ballot candidate inspiring enough to drive turnout like Beto did last year.

2018 Data

Data: Census, Texas Gov’t

The marginal improvement across the district’s three counties were almost identical. In each county8I’m only referring to the portions of the counties that lie in the twenty-fourth district, McDowell closed the margin by about 15%. This may be suprizing considering that minorities constitute just 31% of Tarrant County’s population but make up a majority, 57%, of Dallas. Usually more minority voters translate to better Democratic margins. But, remember that O’Rourke’s improvement over Clinton’s came largely from white voters, meaning that they were not necessarily a drag on his performance relative to 2016. And while McDowell’s supporters differed from O’Rourke’s in some ways, she likely benefited from a similar combination of high democratic enthusiasm and large numbers of white flippers.

But Beto, and by extension McDowell, did not fully harness the state’s growing diversity and Hispanic population. If they had, maybe they could have pushed past their republican opponents. So, while this likely hurt them in 2018, it is a hopeful sign for Democrats that they have room to improve and new voters to target in the upcoming election.  

2020 UPDATE
Cook political rated TX-24 as a “Toss Up”, drawing national attention to the district and probably a few new democratic contenders. Jan McDowell already announced her 2020 campaign. It will be interesting to see if being a third time candidate helps or hurts her. While her name recognition and tenacity may give her a boost, it could drive away voters who think she has missed or shot or that just isn’t a winning candidate. The National Republican Congressional Committee has already attacked her as a “perennial losing candidate”.
But this time, McDowell will have to worry as much about the primary as the general. Ideologically, there is still room to her left, and in terms of campaign strategy, there is room for a more polished and prolific fundraiser. Enter: Kim Olson, the Democratic candidate for Apgricicultre Commissioner in 2018. Her announcement (but maybe not officially announcement?) has stirred up some internal fighting on the Democratic side after McDowell posted an aggressive attack on Facebook.
Janemarie Clark, McDowell’s Communications Director, then went on to tell a story about a supposed backroom meeting where Olson claimed to have support from “national powers that be” and that “everyone else just needed to stand aside”. Weird stuff. Who knows if this really happened, but the #drama is interesting nonetheless.


One more important tidbit on Olson. She beat McDowell’s margins by about 2% in a bid for Agriculture Commissioner last year, boosting her claim that she might be a more electable candidate than McDowell. And while Olson hasn’t officially declared her candidacy or filed with the FEC, her cryptic hinting at a run makes it seem inevitable.

Two other candidates (along with McDowell) have filed as candidates with the FEC. One is Will Fisher, a lawyer who ran for the TX-26 Democratic nomination last cycle and lost9Candidate interview coming next week!. The other is Crystal Lee Fletcher, who filed on March 26.  She is a seemingly unknown lawyer with no campaign website (that I could find) and the most information available on her is from the State Bar of Texas. The field is sure to continue to grow on the Democratic side due to its newly won status as a swing seat. According to McDowell, there are around eight candidates planning to run, whether or not they have officially declared or filed with the FEC.

Regardless of who wins the primary, they will have more institutional support than McDowell did in 2018. Of the districts that Sabato or Cook rate as a “Toss Up” for 2020, only four — NY-11, OK-05, SC-01 and TX-24 — received no financial support from the DCCC in 2018.  This new cash source and attack dog might be enough to tip a district over the edge. Even $90,000, the smallest amount that the DCCC contributed to any of these races in 2018, would nearly doubly McDowell’s fundraising numbers from last year.
Data: Open Secrets

On the Republican side, Marchant has the seat locked down. He was uncontested in 2014 and 2016 and won his 2018 primary by about 50 points. He is the only Republican officially running so far and will likely smash any competition with his incumbency and $1.5 million war chest.

Marchant told the Texas Tribune, regarding his campaign, “It is more cautious. It is more contemplative”. “I think, in my case, we’re going back and examining every precinct and discovering who turned out, who didn’t turn out, who turned out we didn’t expect to turn out, and we’re finding that the Beto effect was very, very prominent.” “Our campaign will start maybe six months earlier.”

Marchant is right to re-think his strategy. He is going to have to broaden his appeal and slow the Republican hemorrhaging of educated, suburban white voters. As with everything in politics these days, it will likely come down to Trump. The president is relatively unpopular in Texas (he had a -11% net approval in 2018 according to Pew) and even more unpopular among educated, urban voters like those in TX-24.  If Marchant can safely distance himself from the president’s most erratic behavior and policies without losing the Republican base, he will have a better shot at keeping his seat. But if Democrats can pin Marchant to Trump, he may be in for a rough election. Democrats have already begun this strategy, blaming Marchant for the unpopular government shutdown.

LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE

There Are Always Surprises
Every election has a few big surprises. In 2018 TX-24, along with SC-01, OK-05 and NY-11 were some of the biggest. Democrats were able to pick up the latter three and learn that Texas 24 was competitive because they competed in races that seemed like longshots. The parties should compete across the map.  They will win some surprise districts and see which districts may be competitive or winnable down the road. 

Up-Ballot Candidate Matter
Beto O’Rourke was a big reason this district came within striking distance for Democrats. His popularity in urban areas and ability to flip white, college educated voters trickled down to voters in House races across Texas. If Democrats choose a similarly popular candidate as their presidential nominee (maybe even O’Rourke himself) in 2020 it would help down-ballot House candidates across the map. The nominee, though, would have to reach into the mid-fifties in the popular vote percentage for his or her coattails to be significant. While it is more difficult to find a presidential nominee with the support that O’Rourke had in 2018, the parties may have more luck with Senate candidates. If either party can recruit inspiring, popular candidates for any up-ballot race, it will pull some House candidates over the line and bring others onto their radar for future elections.

Texas Is A Big Deal
Texas will probably be the biggest battleground of 2020. National Democrats have their eye on five flappable Texas seats, TX-10, TX-21, TX-22, TX-23, TX-24 and TX-31, and Republicans are looking to win back two they lost in TX-32 and TX-07. All of these, except TX-23 which spans across Southwest Texas, are the classic suburban, well-educated white, districts that Democrat’s had success with in 2018. All these elections, along with a Senate race and O’Rourke as a potential presidential nominee, have brought Texas into the national spotlight up and down the ballot.


Now that you’re invested in the drama, go read my candidate interview with Jan McDowell! You can read the full, extended interview or the condensed version. Next week I will interview Democratic candidates Will Fisher and (hopefully) Kim Olson.

PARTY TIME: DEMOCRATS

This is the fourth post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which will look at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race. For three weeks we will focus on the major voting coalitions — Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Party affiliation is the strongest single indicator of voter choice. It can determine feelings about the economythe direction of the country and even financial wellbeing.

RECAP FROM LAST WEEK
Twenty-six percent of Americans consider themselves Republican, 31 percent Democratic, and 38 percent Independent, according to a recent Pew study. Because independents who lean towards one party vote for that party at almost the same rate as party members, they will be considered party members for this analysis. When these independent leaners are included in party totals, 39% of the public is Republican, 48% is Democratic and only 7% is independent.

The charts below show the makeup of the Democratic and Republican parties. This is different than showing how demographic groups align. For example, the first chart shows that 61% of Democrats are women, but it does not show what percentage of women are Democrats.10I don’t know how, but I feel like the ‘all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares’ logic applies. The ‘Democrat minus Republican’ rows show the difference in how much each bloc is composed of a given demographic.

Gender

Race

Age

Education

Race & Education

Religion 

…Religion Continued

Urban, Suburban and Rural

Data: Pew, More Pew
*Used 2016 presidential vote as a stand in for party
** Used Data from CNN Exit Polls

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
The stereotypes about the Democratic party are true: the party has more women, minorities, college educated voters and religiously unaffiliated voters than the country overall. And when compared to the Republican party these gaps are even more pronounced. But the size of some of these coalitions — like minorities and college educated voters — are often overstated. The media rarely makes the distinction between a demographic group being overrepresented in a party versus a demographic group making up the vast majority of the party. So which numbers in the charts above can help give a more nuanced understanding of the Democratic Party’s demographics? 

First, The Democratic Party has a huge gender gap — much bigger than that of the Republican Party — of 61% women and 39% men. Women, though, only account for 38% of Democratic Representatives and 37% of Democratic Senators. So while 2018 may have been “The Year of the Woman”, even the Democratic Party, being 60% women, dramatically under-elects them.

White people make up a majority of the Democratic party. But all the talk about the Democratic Party being the party of minorities has skewed perceptions here. It might be surprising that 57% of Democrats are white, but it is less so when you know that 70% of the general electorate is. Uneducated white voters make up 32% of the Democratic Party. While this is low — especially because they makeup 45% of the electorate — it is still a big coalition within the party. The Democratic Party, known for repelling uneducated whites, is one third…uneducated whites.

Similarly, Democratic youthfulness and education levels are often overstated. Only 20% of Democrats are 18-29 years old, almost exactly the same percent that is 65+ (19%). The majority of Democratic voters, 61%, are in-between 30 and 64 — precisely the same percent that are in the same age range for the country overall. And even though the Democratic Party is thought of as the party of college graduates, it’s not really true. A majority of the party, 62%, does not have a bachelor’s degree. And while the percent of Democrats with a college education is greater than that of the general public, the 4% divide is not as stark as media and stereotypes would have us believe.

Democrats are religiously diverse. Seventy one percent of the party is religiously affiliate. The largest religious coalition in the party, Protestants, make up 34% of the party. And while the party under-represents white religious voters, this is because the party under-represents white people generally. The exception is white evangelical voters, who make up 35% of the Republican party and 20% of the general electorate, but only 8% of Democrats.

Lastly, the Democratic urban/suburban/rural split matches the country well. Urban voters are underrepresented in both parties. How is this possible? Suburban and rural voters vote at much higher rates than their urban counterparts, so while Urban voters may lean more heavily towards democrats, they still make up a smaller portion of the party.

What A Democrat Wants
The charts below show what percentage of Republicans and Democrats think a given policy “should be a priority for Trump and Congress” relative to the general public. It also shows which party voters think handles those policies better.


Data: PewPewGallupPollingReport 

Democrats are in a good position for campaigning. For each of the Democrat’s top seven priorities, the public believes they are better with the issue than Republicans. The most important issue to Democrats, “Health Care Costs”, was a winning issue for Democrats in the 2018 midterms. And its easy to see why — the general electorate prefers Democrat’s approach by a seven point margin. It’s also an the second most important policy issue for the public, trailing “The Economy” by just one percent. The general electorate most strongly prefers Democratic leadership in “Climate Change” and “The Environment”, although only 44% and 56% of all voters think they should be a priority.

The two policy areas that could give Democrats trouble are “The Economy” and “Terrorism”. They are both relatively far down among Democratic priorities — ranking eighth and tenth — and voters prefer Republican leadership on the issues. So, while Democrats can probably avoid these issues in the primary, they have two options for the general.

1) Avoid these issues on the campaign trail. This, however, could make them seem disinterested in matters that are top priorities for much of the country. Not usually a winning campaign strategy.

2) Emphasize and debate these issues on the campaign trail. If they hold the line on their unpopular policies without persuading voters, though, it will cost them votes. They will have to communicate their policies in a way that voters like. The three ways to do this are: win over public opinion with strong arguments, frame the issues in bland, inoffensive platitudes or adopt the more popular Republican stance on the issues.

One optimistic scenario for Democrats is that candidates in purple or red districts can embrace more conservative stances on the economy and terrorism — demonstrating and independent and moderate nature — while holding the line on other liberal policies higher on the Democratic priority list to keep the party base energized. This strategy worked for Jared Golden in Maine’s Second Congressional District, who put “Jobs and Economy” as the first issue on his website, ran ads emphasizing his bipartisan economic proposals, but also supports liberal cornerstones like Medicare-for-All and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.

Another possibility, one that makes this exercise seem a bit futile, is that voters don’t care about policy. Some research shows that voters — rather than forming opinions on their own and voting for politicians with similar ideas — take their queue on policy from political leaders. The idea that voters don’t care much about policy is not too wild. Trump transformed the party of free trade into a tariff-loving community in just two years. When Democratic primary voters break down their first and second choice presidential candidates, the plurality of Biden supporters choose Sanders, perhaps the most dissimilar candidate in the field, as their second choice. And vice versa. 

This policy agnosticism is probably due to the increasing sports-like nature of party politics. Voters support their team rather than strict ideological beliefs. There is however, a small number of voters who are without a team. Next week on ESY…a look at independent voters.

PARTY TIME: REPUBLICANS

This is the third post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which will look at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race. The next three weeks will focus on the major voting coalitions — Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Party affiliation is the strongest single indicator of voter choice. It can determine feelings about the economy, the direction of the country and even financial wellbeing.

Nobody Knows the Parties
Perceptions of Republican and Democratic voters are wildly inaccurate. Take a guess at a) What percent of Republicans make over $250,000 per year and b) what percent of Democrats are gay, lesbian or bisexual.  The real numbers is in Footnote 1. —>11A) 2.2% B) 6.3%

If you overestimated both, you’re not alone. The chart below compares the share of the Republican and Democratic parties that belong to a demographic group versus public perception. People overestimate, by 1736% (!!!), the percent of Republicans who make over $250,000 per year.

Data: The University of Chicago Press Journals12Douglas J. Ahler and Gaurav Sood, “The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions about Party Composition and Their Consequences,” The Journal of Politics 80, no. 3 (July 2018): 964-981

To understand the real makeup of the U.S. electorate, the next three posts will break down the country’s main voting blocs: The Republican Party, The Democratic Party and Independents/Unaffiliated Voters.

Twenty six percent of Americans consider themselves Republican, 31 percent Democratic, and 38 percent Independent, according to a  recent Pew study. Because independents who lean towards one party vote for that party at almost the same rate as party members, they will be considered party members for this analysis. When these independent leaners are included in party totals, 39% of the public is Republican, 48% is Democratic and only 7% is independent.

The charts below show the makeup of the three coalitions. This is different than showing how demographic groups align. For example, the first chart shows that 53% of Republicans are men, but it does not show what percentage of men are Republicans. The ‘Democrat minus Republican’ rows show the difference in how much each bloc is composed of a given demographic.

Gender

Race

Age

Education

Race & Education

Religion 
…Religion Continued

Urban, Suburban and Rural

Data: Pew, More Pew
*Used 2016 presidential vote as a stand in for party
** Used Data from CNN Exit Polls 

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY
The charts mostly speak for themselves: The Republican party is overwhelmingly white (86%), religious (only 12% are unaffiliated) and skews older (58% over 50). But with a bit more context, some less obvious numbers jump out.

While there is some truth to stereotypes of the Republican Party — old, male-dominated and white — they obscure demographic nuance. The party is surprisingly diverse when it comes to gender, age, education levels and where voters live. Forty severn percent of Republicans are women; Sixty five percent live in urban or suburban areas; Sixty six percent have some college experience; Only 25% of the party is 65 and older and only 35% live in rural areas. And while this just reflects that there are fewer older and rural people in the country overall, it still means the party is more diverse than stereotypes suggest.

This more-diverse-than-one-might-expect coalition could be trouble for the Republican Party. It means they will have to champion policies that can appeal beyond old rural men. The red-meat culture fights are not going to appeal to all these voters and could make holding the coalition together a challenge.

What A Republican Wants
The charts below show what percentage of Republicans, Democrats and Independents think a given policy “should be a priority for Trump and Congress.” It also shows which party voters think handles those policies better.


Data: Pew, Pew, Gallup, PollingReport 

Republicans care most about terrorism and the economy. The next crop of policies — Immigration, Social Security, Medicare and the military — are about 10% down.

Immigration could give Republicans trouble. It’s a priority for their party’s voters (68%), meaning that it will be foregrounded in Republican primaries. Primary candidates will be pressured to align with the president and take a hard stance on the issue, which will scare off general election voters — who prefer the Democratic Party’s approach to immigration by 14%.

Social Security and Medicare are similarly problematic for Republicans. They are priority for a majority of the party (68% and 60% respectively). This makes sense as the party skews older. Republicans risk scaring off this core constituency if they continue to emphasize unpopular policies around Social Security and Medicare. The general public supports the Democratic approach by 9 and 19 point margins. Republicans scrambling to defend pre-existing conditions and cast Democrats as a threat to Medicare means that they may be pivoting away from their entitlement-cutting agenda due to its unpopularity.  

Republicans do have some popular policies. Voters approve of their handling of the economy, military and terrorism over that of Democrats. Electorally the party would likely be better off emphasizing these issues over their unpopular and divisive social policies. But candidates need to win primaries. Meaning they need to win over the Republican base and restraint is unlikely. Republican candidates will probably continue to sprint rightward in primaries and tiptoe back towards the center for the general.

PRESIDENTIAL COATTAILS: 2020

This is the second post in the series “Mercurial Nation”, which will look at the elements that make up the political climate (the ‘mood’ of the country) and how they will affect the 2020 House Race.

The first element, Presidential Coattails, is split into two parts. Part 1 looked into what coattails are, what causes them and why they are losing power. Part 2, below, focuses on the 2020 presidential race and what different candidate strategies and outcomes could mean for the House.


The 2020 presidential election will dominate politics for the next two years, coloring downballot races nationwide. Democrats should be worried.

Presidents usually win reelection13Only two presidents (Carter & Bush I) since World War II who have ran for re-election have lost. Both lost partly due to a recession. and the blue wave in 2018 shouldn’t be any comfort. Midterms don’t indicate much about the following presidential election. Other presidents with bumpy midterms — Reagan in 1982, Clinton in 1992, Obama in 2010 — won two years later. There’s a good chance Trump will be around through 2024.

Still, 20 months is a long time for a president and political environment as volatile as ours. Trump’s unpopularity, which already could cost him re-election, still has room to fall. Things outside his control — the economy, the Mueller report, the Democratic nominee — could determine the election.

All this to say…anything could happen before election day. For now, we’ll assume 2020 will feature a closely contested presidential race. If, however, one party wins the presidency in a landslide — or breaks into the mid-50 percentage range — it will probably carry the House too. So, if it’s November 2020 and Kamala Harris has a 10 point lead over Trump, you can stop reading.

How tight does the presidential race have to be for the House to be competitive? If House districts moved perfectly in line with the national environment,14Districts obviously don’t move in total synchrony, but their movement does track closely with the national environment15The following calculation gives the projected margin (+ for Democrat and – for Republican) of a district in a neutral national environment: 2018 Democratic House Candidate % – 2018 Republican House Candidate % – 8.6%(to adjust for the D+8.6 national environment) +(for Democrats) or – (for Republicans) new incumbency advantage (0% for holding a seat, 2.7 % for winning an open seat, 5.4% for beating an incumbent). Democrats would lose 17 House seats, holding their majority by just one.16Unless they win the election in NC-09 (the 2018 results were invalidated due to election fraud), scheduled for September or November 2019. If Democrats win, they will have a two seat advantage. The tipping point seat, FL-27, would go to Democrats by just 0.1%.

And while a 3% presidential margin in favor of either party would likely be enough for them to win House comfortably (In my calculations, both parties would take a 16 seat lead), to be safe, any margin less than 5% should be considered a competitive environment for the House.

Getting to 270
The Electoral College (EC) distorts presidential elections, giving one party a boost relative to their percentage of the national popular vote. That advantage, though, goes back and forth between Democrats and Republicans due to changing demographic coalitions. In 2000 and 2016 it benefited Republicans — both years their nominee lost the popular vote but won the presidency — and in 2004, 2008 and 2012 it favored Democrats. Read this FiveThirtyEight article if you’re interested how this is measured.

Because EC votes17Besides in Maine and Nebraska. are awarded all or nothing by states, candidates don’t bother to campaign in states whose fates are predetermined. California’s 55 votes will go to the Democrat; South Dakota’s three will go to the Republican. No amount of campaigning will change that. Of the 538 EC votes, Cook Political Report and Sabato’s Crystal Ball assume that between 308 and 31318The discrepancy comes from Cook rating New Mexico as “Safely Democratic” and Sabato rating it “Likely Democratic”. votes are baked in. The states that could go to either party, dubbed ‘swing states’, are the ones that matter.

The 2020 “Toss Up” EC Votes — according to either Sabato or Cook or both — will likely be Florida (29 EC Votes), Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16), Arizona (11), Wisconsin (10), New Hampshire (4) and Nebraska’s 2nd District (1).19Shout out to Larry J. Sabato for responding on Twitter and letting me use his map

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Sabato’s Crystal Ball Electoral College Projections. The major difference between Sabato and Cook: Cook puts MI, MN, and FL as “Toss Up” and NH as “Lean Democratic”.

The toss up states can be divided into two groups:

  1. Sun Belt States20States stretching across the bottom of the U.S. from Arizona to to South Carolina. that have increasingly diverse populations and big cities with lots of white, educated suburban voters. These states have been trending away from Republicans as their non-white and college educated populations grow and they become more socially liberal. Trump, with his racialized politics and combative politics, has accelerated the trend.
  2. Rust Belt States21Mostly in the Midwest and Great Lakes Region. that have a lot of white, uneducated, “working class” voters. These voters tend to be culturally conservative and more economically populist than the Republican establishment. They notoriously swung towards Trump in 2016 after voting for Obama in 2008 and 2018, helping to break Democrats’ “Blue Wall” of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan and give Trump his Electoral College victory.

Of this year’s “Toss Ups”, Florida and Arizona are Sun Belt States; Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are Rust Belt States. New Hampshire and Nebraska-02 — both heavily white and well educated — have characteristics of both. 

If these are the competitive states, Democrats will likely have 228 EC votes locked down and Republicans will have 219. The magic number is 270 — Democrats need to win 42 and Republicans 51.22There are several scenarios that could give an EV vote total of *gasp* 269-269 (if Republican won the Rust Belt States and NH but lost lost NE-02). This scenario that would likely end in a Republican president.

In this scenario, the Republican can win by:

  1. Sweeping the Rust Belt Toss Ups (46 Electoral Votes ), NH (4) and NE-02 (1)
  2. Winning a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states.

The Democrat can win by:

  1. Sweeping the Rust Belt Toss Ups (46).
  2. Winning the Sun Belt Toss Ups (40) and NH (4).
  3. Winning a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states

How Presidential Strategies Could Tip the House
The tactics and voter appeals that each nominee uses will largely depend on how they plan to make it to 270. If the House is closely contested, the messages and strategies deployed by presidential nominees could be decisive for control of the chamber.

The charts below include the 22 House districts rated “Toss Ups” by either Cook or Sabato. The “Diversity and Education Index” takes into account the what percentage of the district is non-white and what portion of the white population has a college degree. Negative numbers indicate a higher proportion of uneducated whites; Positive numbers indicate a higher proportion of educated whites and non-whites.

Data: Daily Kos
Data: Daily Kos

The big takeaway is that the 2020 Toss Up districts include an almost perfectly even distribution of districts dominated by white, uneducated voters and districts dominated by non-whites and college educated whites. 

So, how could the presidential campaigns tip these districts? Lets start with Democrats.

Democratic Path 1: Sweeping the Rust Belt Toss Ups. If Democrats aim to sweep the Rust Belt and win over white uneducated voters, their best shot is to emphasize their populist agenda. This means focusing on the economy and revitalizing rural America, judiciously criticizing Republicans for their unpopular tax cuts, attempts to repeal the ACA and ‘swampiness’. It would also require laying off unpopular culture war issues, something Democrats seem reluctant to do. While this might be the Democrat’s best chance to win the presidency — Clinton only lost these states by about 1% in 2016 and they have historically Democratic roots — it could hurt them in diverse, educated House districts.

Democratic Path 2: Winning the Sun Belt Toss Ups and NH. To win Florida, Arizona and New Hampshire, the Democrat would need to drive up minority turnout and continue to pull educated whites away from Republicans. This would require more focus on divisive social issue — “The Wall”, Charlottesville, Trump’s “Family Separation Policy”. Like Path 1, this would mean sacrificing voters — this time in the white, uneducated House districts.

Democratic Path 3: Winning a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states. This is probably the most challenging path for Democrats. But, if successful, it would help them win the most House seats. To win over voters in both the Sun Belt and Rust Belt, the Democratic nominee would need to appeal to white uneducated voters and non-white and college educated voters. A candidate who has a flexible image could thread this needle. Someone like Obama — who had a popular economic message among rural voters and was also a symbol of social progress to educated and non-white voters — could win over the three categories of voters. A Democrat who allows voters to see the candidate they want — a populist, a moderate, a progressive or a symbol of social change — would run up numbers across the board, helping Democrats in all of the toss-up districts. This path, however, risks failing in the same way that Clinton did in 2016 — falling just short enough among white, uneducated votes to lose the Rust Belt, but not picking up enough non-white and college-educated voters to win diversifying Sun Belt states like Arizona. It is a high risk tactic that could help Democrats run up their seat margin in the House.

Republican Path 1: Sweeping the Rust Belt Toss Ups, NH and NE-02. If Trump tries to sweep the Rust Belt and win New Hampshire and NE-02, he will try to appeal to the socially conservative, economically populist Obama-Trump voters. He will invoke ‘culture war’ issues and racialized politics that will boost his (and Republican House candidates’) popularity in white, uneducated districts, and hurt them with diverse and college educated voters elsewhere. 

Republican Path 2: Winning a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states. If Trump wants to win a patchwork of Rust Belt & Sun Belt states he will take a more moderate tack. This would mean toning down his racialized rhetoric, dropping unpopular fights (like shutting down the government to get money for The Wall) and putting down Twitter while emphasizing the strong economy and making a deal or two with congressional Democrats. This would require Trump to transform into a candidate with a flexible image typified in Democratic Path 3. If he could successfully make this pivot — though nothing in his history suggests he will — towards a broad appeal, he would help pull House Republicans into office across the board.

Remember, these tactical variations will only matter if the presidency is decided by a close margin — less than about five percent. Otherwise, the winning presidential candidate’s party is sure to take the house. In a tight presidential election, both parties would do better in the House if their presidential nominee could win the election through a patchwork of Sun Belt and Rust Belt states rather than by dominating in one of the two regions.

This mixed state coalition, however, will probably not be the easiest path to victory. Presidential candidates will probably angle towards either 1) white, uneducated voters in the Rust Belt or 2) non-white and college educated voters in the Sun Belt. In doing so, they will win over additional voters in about half of the “Toss Up” House districts and sacrifice voters in the other half — helping and hurting their party’s House candidates in roughly equal numbers.