Tag Archives: Republicans

NOT-SO-FRIENDLY-FIRE: REPUBLICAN HOUSE PRIMARIES

This is the second of two posts looking ahead to 2020 House primaries. Last week’s post looked at Democratic primaries and this week’s looks at Republicans. 

Incumbents almost never lose their primaries. In the last 37 House elections since 1946 over 98% of incumbents running for reelection have won their party’s nomination. Over the last twenty years that rate has been 99% — only 49 incumbents have lost primaries.

In 2018, two House Republicans incumbents lost their primaries: Mark Sanford (SC-01) and Robert Pittenger (NC-09). Sanford lost because he did not fully embrace Trump and his populist base. He signed a letter requesting that Trump release his tax returns, disapproved of the president’s push to drill off the Atlantic coast and said that the president was “partially to blame for the demons that have been unleashed” after the shooting at a congressional baseball practice in 2017.  The president went on to endorse Sanford’s opponent the afternoon of election day.

Pittenger’s pro-business Republican identity left room for an opponent who appealed to Trump’s more populist base. And while Pittenger did tie himself to Trump, his opponent, Mark Harris, effectively caricatured Pittenger as a member of the Washington establishment (The Swamp) and won over populist Trump supporters.  

Sanford and Pittenger lost their primaries because they were creatures of a pre-Trump Republican era. That isn’t to say they were otherwise perfect candidates — Sanford’s 2009 weeklong disappearance to Buenos Aires for an affair while he was governor did him no favors. Nor did the federal investigation into Pittenger’s real estate business help him. In the end, though, it was Trumpism that did the establishment incumbents in.   

Is the same dynamic true now? Do incumbents critical of Trump or who lack a Trumpish appeal face the greatest threat from Republican primaries? Sort of.

Of the six Republicans most vulnerable to a primary, only two are in the position because they aren’t Trump-ey enough. That’s largely because most Republicans have either gotten on board with the Trump agenda or have decided to retire. Continuing last week’s fun alliterative categories, we’ll call Republican incumbents who distance themselves from the president “Trump Traitors”. The other four are embroiled in scandals and we’ll call them “Scandalous Statesmen”.

Trump Traitors
One of Trump’s biggest critic in the House is Justin Amash (MI-03). Amash was the lone Republican to call for Trump’s impeachment following the release of the Mueller Report. This, unsurprisingly, was not popular with the president, who called him “one of the dumbest & most disloyal men in Congress”.  It was also not popular with Republicans — a June poll showed Amash trailing GOP state Rep, James Lower, 49-33. This is a departure from 2018 and 2016 when Amash didn’t face any challengers and 2014 when he won his primary by over 14%.

In July, though, Amash announced he was leaving the Republican Party to become an independent, making him the first House Republican to do so in nearly 20 years.  So, while technically this does not count as a Republican primary challenge, it’s close enough to be included here. The 2020 election will be interesting, given that there will be three major candidates — a Democrat, a Republican and Amash — unless Amash decides to run for president as a Libertarian, something he’s signaled is a possibility.

Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-01) is one of three Republican representatives who holds a district that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. He only won his 2018 general re-election by 2.6% (51.3-48.7), so has been positioning himself as a moderate. He has only voted with the president on 37% of the time since his reelection — far and away the lowest score of any Republican. Unsurprisingly, Fitzpatrick faces a challenge from the right. The first is a man named Andrew Meehan who, in a rather painful to watch announcement video, calls Fitzpatrick a “Democrat masquerading as a Republican” and an “anti-Trump, Trump-hating RINO”.  Given the quality of Meehan’s video and campaign website, Meehan doesn’t have the organizational expertise to take on Fitzpatrick who has raised nearly a million dollars this cycle. As of now, Fitzpatrick seems safe but would be in danger if a more formidable conservative enters he primary.

Scandalous Statesman
Republicans have a problem in Steve King (IA-04). He’s long been criticized for his flirtations with racism and white supremacism. He was rebuked by Republican leaders in 2013 for saying that immigrants have “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert”. His expanding list of controversies culminated this year in a defense of rape and incest, arguing that without it, there might be no population left on earth.  Unsurprisingly, Republicans want him out. He only beat his 2018 Democratic challenger, J.D. Scholten, by 3% in a district that leans Republican by 23%. With Scholten running again, national Republicans are lining up behind state Senator Randy Feenstra. Feenstra has almost $340,000 in the bank, which could help him overpower King’s $20,000. King has represented the area since 2003, meaning that voters have consistently re-elected him even after seeing his warts, which is a promising for his primary chances. Given that he’s one of the only Republicans in the country who could manage to lose the heavily Republican leaning district, expect establishment Republicans to throw support and resources to a more electable Republican. 

Chris Collins (NY-27), Duncan Hunter (CA-50) and Ross Spano (FL-15) are all in trouble for various accusations of corruption. Collins faces an indictment of insider trading; Hunter is facing federal accusations that he stole money from his campaign to “take their family to Italy, buy their children school lunches and fly a relative’s pet rabbit to Washington; Spano admitted that he violated campaign finance laws for failing to disclose “loans” from friends. The charges against Collins and Hunter and accusations against Spano all emerged after the 2018 primaries, meaning that they haven’t had to face their party’s voters with these accusations in the open. Primary challengers can also attack Collins’ and Hunter’s electability in a general election, claiming that they are endangering a safe Republican seat. Collins only won his 2018 general election by 0.4% in a district that leans 22.9% Republican, earning the distinction as the House Republican incumbent who most underperformed his district’s partisan lean. Hunter didn’t do much better — winning by 3.4% in a district that leans Republican by 21.6%.

Challengers have emerged against Collins and Hunter races. New York state Senator Christopher Jacobs, who is running against Collins, raised $446,000 in the second quarter of 2019 while Collins raised just $9,000. Hunter already faces five Republican primary challengers including Larry Wilske, a former Navy SEAL who raised over $200,000 in the last quarter. Spano, however, faces no primary challenger yet and had a relatively strong second quarter, raising over $200,000, making him seem like the safest of the three scandal makers.

The Takeaway
These are not the only Republican incumbents who will face viable primary challengers in 2020. Other incumbents including John Carter (TX-31) and Ted Yoho (FL-03) have primary opponents may eventually pose a threat, but don’t seem to viable right now. Chances are that Carter, Yoho and almost every Republican incumbent not mentioned above will easily win their party’s nomination. Even some of the six that I presented as vulnerable will probably breeze past their primary opponents next year.

The biggest factor in any of these primary races, though, is not fundraising totals or even the scandals. It is the president. The president’s blessing would probably even overcome egregious scandals, but endorsing controversial figures may be dangerous for a president hoping for reelection himself.

If Trump explicitly endorses or tweets support for a candidate — incumbent or challenger — they will have the upper hand. Similarly, if a candidate can successfully paint their opponent as anti-Trump, they have a good shot at winning over the party’s base. Remember, about  90% of Republicans approve of Trump, meaning that to defy him is to defy the party: a terrible strategy for trying to win the party’s primary.

Having Trump as party leader has created a primary season less fractured than that of the Democrats. The president’s kingmaker status will scare off and neutralize most party dissension and snap Republicans into line — at least through primary season. After winning their elections, many of these Trumpist tones may die down in favor of moderate appeals.  Until then, though, expect to see Republicans bringing out their ropes as they tie themselves as tightly to the president as possible.

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.

 

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). 

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: 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 is10In my opinion the clearest, most useful way to think about downballot candidate selection. The rest of the analysis rests on this model. 11So 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->12Sandra 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 coattails13From 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… 

14Data from Gallup; Data Missing for 1988, 1996, 2000

and parties…

along with a stubbornly divided electorate with intense party loyalty.15There 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 voters16Voters 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.

17Data 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 recruitment18*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.19Since 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.20Only 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 –>21Presidential 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 votes22Measured 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.