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%->1The 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 DCCC2The 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 was3I 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 standard4read: 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 county5I’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 lost6Candidate 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.7I 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. —>8A) 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 Journals9Douglas 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 reelection10Only 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,11Districts obviously don’t move in total synchrony, but their movement does track closely with the national environment12The 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.13Unless 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 votes14Besides 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 31315The 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).16Shout out to Larry J. Sabato for responding on Twitter and letting me use his map

.

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 States17States 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 States18Mostly 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 51.19There 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.

2020 BATTLEGROUNDS: ARKANSAS 2ND

This is the first post in “2020 Battlegrounds”, where every other week one closely contested 2020 House district is highlighted. Each post will: 1) Give an overview of the District and its Demographics 2) Analyze recent electoral history 3) Give an update on the district’s 2020 race and 4) See what the district can reveal about the broader 2020 race for the House. 

The district selection formula, fully explained and updated in POST 1: Housekeeping, needs a tweak. The old formula looked for the district that would have closest to 50% Republican vote. The new formula will find the district that would have the smallest percentage margin between the Republican and Democratic candidate. This post, however, uses the original formula, and favors Republicans.

DISTRICT & DEMOGRAPHIC OVERVIEW

District: Arkansas 2nd
Current Representative:
French Hill (R)
Projected Republican Vote Percentage: 50.0%.20The formula is explained in POST 1: Housekeeping. Donald Trump’s approval rating at 8:37am on February 24 was 42.7%. Calculation: (52.1 +5.2 + 42.7)/2 + 0  = 50.0.

Republicans have Arkansas locked down. They have a state government trifecta21When one party holds the Governorship, State Senate and State House and control the state’s entire congressional delegation.22Two Senators and four Representative Trump’s approval has ticked up from 50% to 53% in the state —overcoming Montana, Idaho and Oklahoma to become the 10th Trumpiest state.  

The Second Congressional District could give Democrats hope. The district houses Little Rock and much of its surrounding population density, making it the only truly urban part of the state. The district has six counties: Pulaski County is home to Little Rock and North Little Rock — giving it most of the district’s density. Saline County, Perry County and Faulkner County make up the rest of the Little Rock Metro Area. Conway County, Van Buren County and White County have distant exurbs and are heavily rural. As with most metro areas, the city core is dark blue and, moving outward, quickly turns purple and red.

Demographics

Data from Daily Kos

Arkansas Second District stands out from the suburban battlegrounds of 2018, like GA-06 and VA-07, that were better educated23% with Bachelors —  GA-06: 61%, VA-07: 39% and wealthier24MHI — GA-06: $74,000, VA-07: $87,000 MHI. Democrats, who struggle with white working-class voters, have their work cut out if they are going to win in such a white, poor and uneducated district.

RECENT ELECTORAL HISTORY
AR-02 was held by a democrat from 1991 until the 2010 midterm “shellacking”, which pushed it into Republican hands. The Republican, U.S. Attorney Tim Griffen, left the seat open in 2014 when he pitched a successful bid for Lieutenant Governor. French Hill, the current AR-02 Representative, successfully won the seat in 2014 and again in 2016.

Data from Daily Kos

In 2018, Democrats thought a blue tsunami might be able to put a Democrat in this once reliably blue seat. But the 2018 wave didn’t make it to central Arkansas.  

What Happened in 2018
The Democratic primary was seen — as is everything in Democratic politics — as a Hillary-Bernie redux. Even as he distanced himself from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, Clarke Tucker was the establishment favorite. Remarkably, nowhere in his campaign announcement did he mention he was a Democrat. Instead he emphasized his history with cancer25He said living through cancer and seeing the importance of healthcare was his impetus for running., and flexed his willingness to stand up to the “D.C. establishment”. His moderate policy positions, hesitation to denounce Trump, and bipartisan credentials drew attacks from the left and endorsements from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).  

His primary opponents ran on the Bernie Sanders’ orthodoxy — Medicare for All $15 Dollar Minimum Wage, refusing PAC campaign contributions. Tucker, with his money, moderation and party endorsement, won in a landslide. His closest competitor was Gwen Combs, a schoolteacher who had criticized Tucker for his “money” and “privilege. She ran a whopping 38% behind Tucker.

French Hill, the Republican incumbent, didn’t face a primary challenger. His traditional26Read: Boring political upbringing — Vanderbilt graduate, Deputy Assistant Secretary for something or other,  CEO of a financial firm —won him the House seat in 2014. In his 2016 re-election, Hill ran 23% ahead of his Democratic opponent and 12% ahead of Trump, demonstrating his broad support and ability to win over Democrats and Trump-skeptical conservatives.  

The 2018 General election was unremarkable27With one big exception that we will get to later.. Tucker ran as an independent centrist willing to buck the Democratic party (even as the DCCC spent $450,000 on the race). Hill ran as tax-cutting, job-creating, fiscally responsible family man.

Both campaigns believed that Tucker’s support among black voters, who make up 20% of the district’s electorate, could tip the race. Tucker successfully recruited Civil Rights icon, John Lewis, to the stump with him on the campaign trail.

Then things got gross.

A  Super PAC called “Black Americans for the President’s Agenda”28Led by Vernon Robinson, a failed political candidate and confirmed weirdo (there are exceptions to my no-value-judgements rule.) released a radio ad29A similar ad from the same PAC in Mississippi’s Senate race received more national coverage in October in support of French Hill. It featuring women saying “White Democrats will be lynching black folk again” and “We can’t afford to let white Democrats take us back to the bad old days of race verdicts, life sentences and lynching’s when a white girl screams rape.”

Tucker tied Hill to the “disgraceful” ads; Hill condemned the ads as “appalling”. The political wheels continued to spin until election day three weeks later.

Recent Election Data
Hill beat Tucker 52%-46%, with a 16,000 vote margin. An R+1030According to FiveThirtyEight’s Partisan Lean Metric district in a D+9 year should have been a closer race. Why wasn’t it?

  • Hill is a popular incumbent. In his initial 2014 election, Hill won by only 8% in an environment31An R+10 District and a R+5.7 House Popular Vote that would project a 16% victory — falling 8% behind expectations. Things changed after two years in office. In 2016 he won by 23% in an environment32An R+10 District and a D+2.1 Presidential Popular Vote projecting an 8-point margin — beating expectations by 15%. In 2018 he won by 6% when the fundamentals33R+10 District and D+8.6 House Popular Vote gave him a 1% advantage — beating expectations by 5%. In an age where the incumbency advantage is weak, averaging just 2.7% for House Representatives, Hill’s consistent outperformance of the fundamentals make him a formidable opponent.
  • Tucker underperformed in Pulaski County. Tucker needed to win Pulaski by a huge margin to overcome the blood red nature of the other six counties.

The 21% margin he won with was far below what he needed. Nationally, the swing towards Democrats between 2016 and 201834I use the Presidential Popular Vote when available (2016) because it is a better measure of national environment than the House Popular Vote was 6%. The margin in Pulaski county only grew by only 2%. 

  • Democrats struggle in rural areas
    If Pulaski County had swung in line with the national mood, the popular vote gap would have tightened by about 7,000 votes — from 16,000 to 9,000. Tucker would still have needed to have improve among the remaining voters by 3.5%.  

Perhaps Democrats can learn from Conway County. The margin in this rural, poor, white, uneducated county was far and away the best outside of Pulaski. What is it that makes Democrats more appealing in this county than its rural siblings of Saline, Faulkner, White, Van Buren and Perry? If Democrats can figure out the answer and match their -23% margin in Conway in the other rural counties35While holding their margin in Pulaski, they could win. In this world, Tucker would have won by 1,000 votes. It’s unlikely, though, that Democrats will be able to improve to a 23% margin in counties where they are losing by 55%(White), 48%(Van Buren), 42%(Perry) and 40%(Saline).

Democrats cannot win AR-02 by appealing to rural voters or running up their margin in the metro area — they will have to do both. There are not enough voters in Little Rock to overcome abysmal margins in the rural areas and its unlikely they will improve their rural margins by 20-25%. Given the current divide between urban and rural voters, this will be a challenging task.

2020 UPDATE
If Republicans lose AR-02 in 2020, its game over. The Democrats will have the House. It was the 270th bluest district in 2018, which would have meant a 270-165 stranglehold by the Democrats. Barring a total Republican collapse, that is not going to happen. If the Democrats are to win here, it will likely be due to some demographic re-alignment that boosts their chances in AR-02, but hurts them elsewhere.

No candidates have officially announced that they are running in 2020. Tucker  has been silent on Facebook but active on Twitter. Hill hasn’t made any announcements. This is not surprising — we are still 21 months away from the election. In more competitive districts, though, candidates have already begun to announce. Keep up with all of the 2020 Battlegrounds36Once a district is covered on ESY, it will be followed through the election. using this Google Sheet, which will track campaign announcements, polls and other updates.

LESSONS FOR THE 2020 HOUSE
Not All Suburbs Are Equal
The headline of the 2018 midterms was that suburban voters — particularly white, college-educated voters — abandoned Republicans. All cities and suburbs, however, are not the same. The suburbs where Republicans suffered losses are wealthier and better educated than Arkansas 2nd. Little Rock’s population of 200,000 also shows that the density of a city is crucial. The population of 200,000 — even with its dark blue nature — is overwhelmed by the white working-class suburbs and rural surroundings. Cities with larger populations will have better luck overcoming darker red suburbs and exurbs.

Progressive Power Is Overrated
The power of the moderate Democrat and the party endorsement was clear in Arkansas 2nd. Progressive candidates ran far behind Tucker and his more measured and careful policies.

This was also true nationally. The DCCC frequently endorses moderate and conservative candidates who are well-matched to their district. Progressive groups like Justice Democrats and Our Revolution, only endorse progressives. According to FiveThirtyEight, “In races where a party-endorsed candidate ran against a progressive-group-endorsed candidate (excluding any races where a candidate was endorsed by both sides), the party-endorsed candidate won 89 percent of the time.”

The Democratic party is not, as Trump declares, a Socialist party. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and the progressive wing of the party receive outsized attention.  

Things Can Always Get Worse
The respectability of political discourse feels like it’s at an all-time low. But things can get worse. An ad claiming that Democrats will bring back lynching is, hopefully, the bottom of the barrel. We’ll have to make it through 2020 to find out.


Follow all of the 2020 Battleground Districts using this Google Sheet, which will track campaign announcements, polls and other updates.

THE DEMOCRATIC LITMUS TESTS

The Democratic Party’s presidential contenders are straining to prove their progressive credentials. Policies considered unworkable by Hillary Clinton just three years ago — Medicare for All, $15 Minimum Wage, Free Public College — are the emerging Democratic litmus tests. These policies, pioneered by Sanders in 2016, have been endorsed by nearly every Democrat in the race. In the coming months, the Democratic field will face new litmus tests that will strain even the most progressive candidates.

The Democratic Party’s leftward lurch is not surprising given the changing ideologies of Democratic voters. Over half of Democrats now consider themselves ‘liberal’ — double the percentage owning the label in 1994 and up 10% since 2010. But if the Democratic Party hopes to defeat Trump in 2020, they will need to win over independents and moderates. An unrestrained slide to the left37Queue the Cha Cha Slide will have electoral consequences.

The big questions are:

  1. What are the established and emerging Democratic litmus tests?
  2. How will these litmus tests affect Democratic 2020 prospects?

TABLE: WHICH CANDIDATES ARE PASSING WHICH TESTS?
The table below shows 10 progressive litmus tests and each one’s support among the top tier38Gillibrand was included despite her low poll numbers due to her national platform as a U.S. Senator. of declared Democratic candidates39Other big names including Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke and Sherrod Brown could still jump in., Democratic party members and the American public. The Democratic fundamentals — Support for Same Sex Marriage, Pro-Choice, etc. — are not included.  Any Democrat who doesn’t support these would be running about ten to forty years too late. For a comprehensive look at the contemporary Democratic orthodoxy, take a look at the Post Script at the bottom of this post.

Green means a candidate supports a policy.40Believe All Women/Me Too and Refusing Corporate PAC Money are not policies, but I’ll use the word as a catch-all. Yellow means a candidate is waffling on a policy, Red means a candidate does not support a policy and White means a candidate has not made a clear public statement on an issue.

Click Footnote Four->41for a list of the 10 litmus tests and the acronyms used in the table, Footnote Five->42 for how candidate support was categorized, Footnote Six->43for details on the in-table links and Footnote Seven->44 for polling caveats.


Download Table & Links

WHAT ARE THE REAL LITMUS TESTS?
The policies in the chart can be broken down into those that are Broadly Popular Among Democrats [>70%], Popular Among Progressives and Some Moderates [>55%] and Only Popular Among the Progressive Base [<55%].

There is no good polling on the Green New Deal or Refusing Corporate PAC Donations. Because 77% of the public and 85% of Democrats think that “there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and organizations can spend on political campaigns”, Refusing Corporate PAC Money will be considered “Broadly Popular Among Democrats” and net favorable among the general public. Because the Green New Deal has unanimous support among the candidates, it will be considered Broadly Popular Among Democrats. It’s popularity among the general public will remain undetermined due to the lack of polling.

Broadly Popular Among Democrats
Every Democratic contender support an Assault Weapons Ban, a $15 Minimum Wage, Refusing Corporate PAC Money and The Green New Deal. This categorical unanimity — among even the least progressive candidates — signals that these are all new Democratic litmus tests.

Five of the six also support the other three policies — Medicare for All, Free Public College and Believe All Women/Me Too — that are Broadly Popular Among Democrats. Amy Klobuchar, who is implicitly running on her electability as a moderate, is the outlier. If Klobuchar capitulates on any of these or fails to break into the 20-30% range in polls, it is a signal that these are emerging Democratic litmus tests as well.

Popular Among Progressives and Some Moderates
Every candidate, including Klobuchar, supports Overturning Citizens United — indicating that it, too, is a box Democrats must check. Warren and Harris have explicitly endorsed Slavery Reparations, Sanders is waffling and Booker, Gillibrand and Klobuchar have remained quiet.

If the rest of the field (besides Klobuchar) comes out in favor of Reparations,45Or other policies that, like Reparations, are only popular among progressives and some moderates it means the progressive wing is successfully pulling candidates leftward — indicating that their influence is greater than anticipated.

Only Popular Among the Progressive Base
Abolish Ice is only popular among the progressive base. Gillibrand and Warren are the two lone candidates who have come out in support of AI. If Sanders’s, Harris’s and Booker’s refusal to endorse this policy46Or other policies that, like Abolish Ice, are only popular among the progressive base spells their doom, it would signal that the base has a lock on the party and only true-blue, outright progressives can win the nomination.

So…how do these possible litmus tests break down?

Established Litmus Tests

  • Assault Weapons Ban
  • $15 Minimum Wage
  • Overturn Citizens United
  • Green New Deal
  • Refusing Corporate PAC Money

Emerging Litmus Tests

  • Medicare for All
  • Free Public College
  • Believe All Women/Me Too 

Possible Future Litmus Tests  

  • Slavery Reparations
  • Abolish Ice

2020 PROSPECTS
Six of the nine47the Green New Deal is not included in this tally due to the lack of polling. policies are viewed favorably among the general public. The populist48Overturn Citizens Uunited and wealth distribution49Medicare for All, Free Public College, $15 Minimum Wage policies have the strongest approval. This support, however, fluctuates depending how the question is framed. Support for Medicare for All, for example, falls around 20 percent when people are told that it will require Americans to pay more in taxes.

“Culture war” issues like Believe All Women/Me Too, Slavery Reparations and Abolish Ice have the lowest levels of general support. The latter two, with public support in the mid-30s, could get Democrats into trouble in 2020. Democrats would be better off electorally running on populist and wealth-redistribution policies than culture war issues. If Democrats go the redistribution route — because support for these policies depends largely on how they are framed — their success will hinge on how well they present their argument to voters. Regardless, expect Republicans to continue portraying Democrats as extremists and highlighting their “calls for socialism” in 2020.  

There are more fringy ideas that could make their way into the Democratic mainstream. As some candidates start to fall behind in the polls, they may endorse increasingly ‘out there’ policies to win over progressives. By this time next year, we could have a field supporting a Universal Basic Income50One Democratic underdog, Andrew Yangalready does and Packing the Supreme Court.

It wouldn’t be unusual for one candidate to change the direction of an entire party. Just ask the man in the White House.


POST SCRIPT

I will be improving and expanding the list of litmus tests as the primaries continue. Here’s what I have so far:

  • Wealth Redistribution (M4A, Free Public College, $15 Minimum Wage)
  • Racial Justice (Slavery Reparations, Black Lives Matter, Abolish Ice, Abolish Private Prisons)
  • Gender Equality/LGBTQ+ Rights (Believe All Women/Me Too, Same Sex Marriage),
  • Elections & Campaign Finance/Election Reform (Overturn Citizens United, Refuse CPAC Donations, D.C./Puerto Rico Statehood)
  • Climate Change/Environment (Green New Deal)
  • Etcetera (Assault Weapons Ban, Oppose Trump’s Wall)   

If you have any suggestions for additional categories or tests, send them my way at s.k.moskowitz@gmail.com.

PRESIDENTIAL COATTAILS: What Are They?


This is the first 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, below, looks into what coattails are, what causes them and why they are losing power. Part 2 will focus on the 2020 presidential race and what different candidate strategies and outcomes could mean for the House.


Even a blog explicitly not about the presidency can’t avoid the ruckus at the top of the ticket. Because presidential votes are highly determinative of down-ballot votes, understanding presidential elections is a prerequisite to understanding House elections. The messy, complex relationship can be tidied up with the idea of presidential coattails — “that the winning presidential candidate can sweep into office fellow party members in down-ballot races.”

THE DIRECT MODEL
In the mundanely named “Direct Model of Coattail Effect”, a voter’s downballot decision process starts with their presidential vote.

Excluding local race dynamics, a House candidate’s baseline support in their district — measured by popular vote percentage — would match that of their party’s presidential candidate. A popular House candidate and favorable local dynamics will lift this percentage up; an unpopular House candidate and unfavorable local dynamics will drag it down.

House candidates that win, but with a smaller percentage of the district vote than their party’s presidential candidate — and who therefore benefited from the president’s higher level of support — are riding the president’s coattails.

The Direct Model is51In my opinion the clearest, most useful way to think about downballot candidate selection. The rest of the analysis rests on this model. 52So come at me if you think The Simultaneous Determination Model is more accurate.

To walk through an example of the candidate selection process, meet Sandra in the footnote->53Sandra lives in Moorhead, Minnesota (where they’re a bit overly excited about being the birthplace of the DQ “Dilly Bar”) and pays peripheral attention to the news. She is a strong supporter of the Republican presidential candidate because:

1) She’s a registered Republican.

2) She just got a pay raise.

3) She is pro-life.

So, Sandra goes and votes for the Republican presidential candidate. But what about those downballot races?

Sandra came to support the president and doesn’t know much about these other candidates. She decides to vote the Republican ticket all the way down to support her presidential pick and the Republican Party.

This is a presidential coattail vote — a downballot vote that comes from support for a presidential candidate.

In another world, Sandra still lives in Moorhead (and is just as proud of the ice-cream-on-a-stick heritage) but has seen ads saying that the Democratic House candidate supports the President’s economic agenda and is pro-life (Moorhead, Minnesota actually is in one of four districts represented by a pro-life Democrat) — both things that Sandra likes! Sandra also likes that the Democrat, Colin Peterson, used to be — and this is true— in a congressional bipartisan conservative rock/country/country rock band named “The Second Amendments”. 

In this world, Sandra splits her vote: Republican for President, Democrat for House. Thus (I’m allowed a pretentious word here and there) no presidential coattails.

THE POWER OF COATTAILS TODAY
How powerful are presidential coattails54From here on, referred to as just ‘coattails’. and are they getting stronger or weaker? Well, it’s complicated.

Coattails are measured by tallying the number of districts where the president’s vote total was greater than that of their party’s House candidate. By this measure, coattails are weak.

WHAT ARE COATTAILS MADE OF?
To understand why they appear to be weakening, we’ll look at the two pieces that determine coattail length: Presidential Popular Vote Percentage (PPVP) and Ticket Splitting Rate.

Presidential Popular Vote Percentage (PPVP)
The downward trend in PPVP is clear. Looking at the chart below, no presidential candidate has cracked 55% since Reagan in 1984.  It is also clear that the candidates who won in landslides — Eisenhower (1956), Johnson (1964), Nixon (1972) and Reagan (1984) — had the longest coattails.

So why are landslide elections and high PPVPs becoming less common?

Historically unpopular candidates… 

55Data from Gallup; Data Missing for 1988, 1996, 2000

and parties…

along with a stubbornly divided electorate with intense party loyalty.56There are plenty of analyses on the other factors that influence presidential elections. But what matters here is identifying the causes of the downward trend in PPVP. Everything else that is happening under the surface can stay there.

This environment limits a candidate’s ability to win over enough voters to reach into the mid-fifties, let alone garner enough votes for a landslide. And even recent elections with excited voters and high turnout— like Obama’s 2008 election — still feature a polarized electorate, and PPVPs around 50%.

Recent candidates, with their record unpopularity, have also boosted support for third parties. Third party votes have been on the uptick since 2004 and jumped in 2016. According to the 2016 exit polls, five percent of third party presidential voters57Voters who said they did not vote for Clinton or Trump or gave no answer. supported a Republican or Democrat House candidate. When seats are decided by one or two percent, the direction that these voters swing downballot can be decisive.

58Data from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S.

Ticket Splitting
A voter who supports candidates from different political parties on the same ballot is called a ticket-splitter. Their ballot is dubbed a split-ticket.

A popular House candidate with favorable local dynamics may pull enough votes to win a race in a district that their party’s presidential candidate lost. Likewise, an unpopular candidate with unfavorable local dynamics may lose in a district that their party’s presidential candidate won. These split-ticket districts can be one-offs, but if a national party does an exceptionally good or bad job with candidate recruitment59*cough* Democrats in 2010 *cough* or fundraising, it could have an aggregate effect.

It might seem that weakened coattails would mean a rise in ticket splitting. That’s not the case; split-ticket voting is at a record low. Take a look at this Washington Post graphic. It shows that ticket splitting on a district level has plummeted, particularly since 2012. Here is another picture showing the same trend.60Since I know some of you lazy boobs didn’t click the link.

The dive in ticket splitting has continued even as states do away with Straight Ticket Voting — the option to check one box and vote for all candidates of a single party.61Only 8 states will have the option in 2020. Given the antipathy between Republicans and Democrats, they’ll surely take the time to check those boxes D or R top to bottom.

The party loyalty trickles down from presidential politics into Senate, House, Gubernatorial, and even state assembly races. When it comes to elections of all levels, people take their cue from national party. This might be due to the nationalization of media or because national parties are a good and easy stand-ins for voters’ values. It’s a rabbit hole that goes down deep enough for books to be written on the subject.    

BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Reading material that dense might be throwing spaghetti on the wall. If you need a summary, click the footnote –>62Presidential coattails are a factor of 1) Presidential Popular Vote Percentage (PPVP) 2) The percentage of their voters who split tickets downballot.

PPVPs have steadily decreased in recent years — a result of unpopular parties, unpopular candidates and high party loyalty — lowering the number of districts in which presidential candidates run ahead of the House candidate, which is one way to measure coattails.

Ticket splitting has fallen in recent years due to high partisan loyalty and the nationalization of politics and media.

So…are presidential coattails getting stronger or weaker?

It depends how they are measured. While presidential votes have become more and more indicative of House votes63Measured by falling ticket-splitting rates., low PPVPs are rarely enough to pull House candidates over the finish line.

Remember, however, that these trends are not destiny — they could intensify, reverse or hold steady. We live in a volatile and Mercurial Nation. Voters happy with the economy could view incumbents charitably, keeping Trump and a Democratic House. Voters could go to the ballot with hopes of electing a split government as a check on the parties, a theory known as balancing. Or voters could be hungry for change and elect a Democratic President and Republican House.

Next week we’ll go deeper into how the 2020 presidential election could play out and what these scenarios would mean for the House.

WHO WILL WIN THE HOUSE IN 2020

Let me start off by saying that I have no idea who will win the House of Representatives in 2020. Phew…it feels good to get that out of the way.

Now, if you’re still here64Hi mom., let’s take a look at what happened in 2018 and the current makeup of the House. Then we’ll turn to 2020. Keep in mind that the House, Senate and Presidency are different centers of power with different constituencies and voting trends. Be wary of translating any lesson or theory from one chamber or branch of government to another.

2018 was a great year for House Democrats. Approach conservative commentators making dubious claims about why it wasn’t with a healthy dose of skepticism. Democrats picked up at least 40 seats65We’re still waiting for NC-09 and won the House Popular Vote — the total votes Democratic and Republican House candidates received nationwide —  by 8.6%, the largest margin since the 1974 post-Watergate, mid-energy & inflation struggles

Republicans managed to flip only three districts (if we’re being generous66They only flipped PA-14 because of Pennsylvania’s court mandated redistricting.) out of 195 possible targets — a flippage success rate of 1.5%. Democrats flipped 46 out of 240 — a much more impressive flippage rate of 19%. Democrats were successful in nearly every type of district: Romney-Trump, Obama-Trump, Obama-Clinton, Romney-Clinton, suburban, and urban (see chart below). Conventional wisdom is that they struggled in rural districts, but even that is debatable as Democrats saw some of their largest gains percentage-wise in rural districts, even if these gains didn’t turn into outright wins. In fact, Democratic gains were largest in Republican strongholds that voted heavily for a Republican House candidate in 2016.

Democrats picked up seats in nearly every type of district: 67Sorry about the ugly charts. I’ll work on it.
Chart Formatting/Idea from FiveThirtyEight; Density Data from CityLab

CityLab Category Obama-Clinton Obama-Trump Romney-Clinton Romney-Trump Total Percentage of Democratic Gains
Pure Rural 0 1 0 0 1 3%
Rural-suburban mix 1 1 0 2 4 10%
Sparse Suburban 4 3 3 6 16 40%
Dense suburban 2 0 6 4 12 30%
Urban-suburban mix 3 0 3 0 6 15%
Pure urban 0 1 0 0 1 100%
Total 10 6 12 12 40  
Percentage of Democratic Gains 25% 15% 30% 30%    

For more on the 2018 election go here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here or anywhere else on the internet.

On to 2020.

Right now, Democrats hold 235 seats, Republicans hold 199 and NC-09 is still undecided. This means that Republicans need a net flip of at least 18 seats to win back the chamber. What are their chances?

The TLDR 68Too Long Didn’t Read (a summary). I’m throwing in some internet slang to help the older folks keep up to date. is this: history looks bad for Team Red’s chances to take back the house, but the only honest prediction out there is  ¯\_()_/¯. 

Let’s rewind to 1972. This will be the starting point for analysis because it was the first election after a pair of Supreme Court cases, Wesberry v. Sanders and Baker v. Carr, which required all congressional districts to be roughly equal in population and redistricted after each decennial census.

Looking back, it’s clear that flipping the House in presidential years is very rare. So rare in fact that it has not happened in the post 1972 timeframe. The last presidential flip was way back in 1952, 66 years ago.

And in presidential re-election years (which 2020 will be with Trump69most likely at the top of the ticket), the president’s party averages a net of +2 seats. This number includes years where the presidents both won and lost re-election. Even in successful re-election years, the president’s party nets only +8 seats on average. Not enough for 2020 Republicans to take back the House.

The best year for any incumbent president’s party in this sample was 1984, Reagan’s re-election. Republicans picked up 16 seats — close to the 18 Team Red needs in 2020, but not quite.

The President’s party doesn’t usually win many House seats in re-election years:

Data from history.house.gov 70The net +/- reflect overall change from the previous national congressional election.

Year Incumbent President Incumbent President Win/Loss Incumbent President Party’s House Net +/-
1972 Nixon W 12
1980 Carter L -35
1984 Reagan W 16
1992 Bush L 9
1996 Clinton W 3
2004 Bush W 4
2012 Obama W 8

Still, history is just history and politics has changed a lot since 1972. It would be foolish to think that this sample size of 5 elections could tell us everything we need to know about the upcoming election. In politics, past is not always prologue.  

To get a better picture of what’s coming up in 21 months, we need to look at today’s political trends and individual House districts. I’m going to use Sabato’s Crystal Ball and The Cook Political Report — two of the most respected and historically accurate projection websites — to get a quick feeling of how things stand for 2020.  

Both site’s rating scale include “Toss Up”71Cook Definition: “These are the most competitive races; either party has a good chance of winning.”, “Lean D” or “Lean R” 72“Cook Definition: “These are considered competitive races but one party has an advantage., “Likely D” or “Likely R”73Cook Definition: “These seats are not considered competitive at this point but have the potential to become engaged.” or “Solid D” or “Solid R”74Cook doesn’t define, but I hope you can extrapolate. districts. According to FiveThirtyEight, these districts have an average margin of victory of 0%, 7%, 12% and 34% respectively.

The biggest takeaway from their 2020 House ratings, (take a look at them here and here) is that they both give Democrats the upper hand to keep the House while also placing more Democratically held seats as Toss Ups or Leans, the two most vulnerable categories.  Particularly worrisome for Democrats are the 16 (according to Cook) and 10 (according to Sabato) seats rated as “Toss Ups”. Sixteen is alarmingly close to the 18 seats that Team Red needs to flip control of the House. Many of these were extremely tight races in 2018 or voted heavily for Trump in 2016, and could easily flip back to Republicans.

Side note — Nearly 80% of districts are so heavily Team D or Team R that there is no question which party they will vote for! A divided nation indeed.

A future post will go deeper into details about these ratings, but this is getting long so it’s time to wrap up.

Election projections depend largely on the greater political climate — the aggregate mood or opinions of a population about current political issues.” The big question for the 2020 House is what the political climate will look like and how it will affect the House elections.

But ‘political climate’ is so vague and unquantifiable as to border on useless. Some presumably important events, like the State of the Union, have no meaningful long-term impact on it, while other seemingly ridiculous correlations, like the Whole Foods vs. Cracker Barrel culture gap, have real lessons to teach us. 

So, to help understand the broad but all-important concept of the political climate, ESY will start off with a series called Mercurial Nation. Each post in the series will look at one major element of the political climate and how it could affect the 2020 House Race.

Next Sunday753/3/2019:  Presidential Coattails: What Are They?

POST #1: Housekeeping

Election nerds, family, friends, interweb surfers of good fortune — welcome to Every Second Year.

This is a blog about power and how voters in the United States decide who gets to hold that power.

Specifically, it’s about the race for the 2020 United States House of Representatives — the 435 members who, according to the Constitution “shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States”. In need of a refresher on the three branches of government? Here’s a classic. It doesn’t quite replicate the genius of I’m Just a Bill, but sequels never do. The blog will have three parts:

1. (Almost) weekly posts, published on Sundays, using electoral history and trends to analyze the 2020 House Election broadly. These are labeled “The Big Picture”.

2. Bi-weekly ­(every other week) posts, without a set publishing day, looking deep into one race. These are labeled “2020 Battlegrounds”.

For each “Battleground” post, a formula picks out the district that would have the smallest percentage margin between the Republican and Democratic candidate if 1. the election were held now 76“Now” meaning whenever I start researching and writing, but no more than two weeks before a post is live. 2. polls were perfectly accurate and 3. every district swung perfectly in line with the national mood.

The formula isn’t perfect, but it will highlight a variety of competitive districts and give some spontaneity. It may point to a different district every week or stay on one for a few in a row; regardless, compelling stories will ensue.  

Big picture readers, feel free to skip the next paragraph — it goes through the details of the selection calculation.

Here is the formula: Average the 2020 congressional generic ballot margin 77Using FiveThirtyEight’s aggregator.78While congressional generic ballot polls are not available, I will use President Trump’s approval rating from FiveThirtyEight’s aggregator. with every congressional district’s two party margin in its 2018 House election.79Adjusted up 8.6% to account for the 2018 popular vote margin Factor in any incumbency advantage (2.7% as estimated by FiveThirtyEight).80Seats where an incumbent was beaten will be adjusted 5.2% to account for the previous incumbent’s 2.7% advantage The district which has the smallest margin will be the district de jour. If there is a tie, the district with the closer 2016 House result will be chosen.

3. Candidate interviews in the Battleground Districts. There will be both edited/condensed interviews with the most interesting parts of the conversations and extended interviews, which will include the messy, unedited parts. They have no publishing schedule. 

In addition to these weekly and biweekly posts, I occasionally write about other political topics: Presidential primaries, scandals, Cardi B’s views of the government shutdown. You know … the important stuff. These come without a schedule, when I have something to say and time to write.

Be warned: this is a policy-light blog. It was almost named “Horse Race House” to really lean into the non-policy angle. But that seemed a bit heavy handed. And how we choose our leaders is important! It matters for our country’s short-term policies and long-term survival.  Democracy is not predetermined. Societies can — and usually do — break down.

And on that light note, it’s time to wrap up.

In my second post, I quickly lay out the results of the 2018 fight for control of the House and look at the GOP’s chances to take back power in 2020. It’s up now! Go read it 🙂

I also want to give credit to the journalists and news outlets upon which I am building my writing style and analysis.

  • FiveThirtyEight — This is where I started and continue to learn about electoral politics. Much of my writing/analysis will emulate their style. My writing format— using lots of internal footnotes and plenty of links — will also come from them.
  • Nathaniel Rakich — His blog Baseballot gave me the idea to start one of my own. He showed that it’s okay to put your work out there before you’re an expert and to learn along the way.
  • The Washington Post’s “The Trailer”, Politico’s “Morning Score” and The Daily Kos’s “Morning Digest”  — These newsletters keep me up to date on the latest campaign and electoral news.

It’s a bit scary posting online these days. Once you put something out there … it’s really out there. There’s no turning back. You can pretty much count on someone having a screenshot of your most embarrassing online moment. So, Future Seth, if something on this blog comes back to haunt you, take this as Past Seth’s apology.

– Seth