The Politics of Disappointment

Left: Ossoff for Congress; Right: AP/David Goldman

As I look at the post-election evaluations and interpretations of the GA-06 race by fellow Democrats, one main thing has been driven home yet again: nothing makes Democrats learn the wrong lesson more effectively than disappointment.

Really, if I read one more hot take on how the loss in GA-06 somehow proves that Democrats “can’t win elections” or have to “change our messaging,” I’m going to take up day-drinking. There’s even a small movement underfoot now to ask Nancy Pelosi to resign as Minority Leader. Because when a man loses an election, the smartest thing to do is attack yet another female Democratic leader. It’s astonishing.

Yes, anyone familiar with Democrats or the media could have seen this coming. But that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. And to be fair, I realize that not everyone follows politics well enough to know the electoral history of GA-06, the general nature of special elections, or why any of that matters. But it does matter. So once again (and with feeling):

FROM: The Office of Rumor Control
TO: Nervous Nellies & Those Standing on Ledges
RE: GA-06

I. Special Elections

It appears that many people are simply not aware that when a president chooses a congressman to join their administration, it is standard operating procedure NOT to choose a congressman from a contested district, because that would give the other party an obvious opening.

In other words, let’s say that the president is looking at three different Congressmen for a position in his cabinet. Congressman Red and Congressman Blue serve in districts that have flipped back and forth between parties over the years, but Congressman Yellow’s district has been a reliable party seat for over twenty years. Can you guess who gets the call? (Hint: it rhymes with “smello”)

One of the reasons Trump chose Congressman Price was because GA-06 has been a reliable, staunchly red district since the 1970’s. Before that it was, not surprisingly, staunchly Democrat. (And if that last point confuses you please go to Google and type in “Dixiecrat.”)

There are powerful cultural forces at play in many of these districts, especially in the South, and they are not easily overcome. A surprising number of Democrats/Liberals seem consistenly unable to grasp this. And if you doubt these cultural forces by the way, let me introduce you to some of the insane ads the GOP starting running against Ossoff toward the end of the campaign.

This one for example essentially claims that Ossoff (and all liberals) are little more than domestic terrorists. And it wasn’t put together by some whack-o fringe group. It was created and paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee!

And this is the key thing to understand — the reason the NRCC creates this type of ad is because it works. And the reason it works is because a large portion of GOP voters actually already believe that this is true. (The people who insist on new “messaging” rarely offer any suggestions on what new message would successfully combat that type of crazy.)

In the last three congressional elections GA-06 has gone Republican by 23, 33 & 29 points respectively. That’s an average of over 28 points. The idea that any Democrat was going to waltz into GA-06 and walk away with it was always delusional.

Did Ossoff ever really have a chance? Of course he did! And to his credit, he did an amazing job, losing by less than 4 points. That may be the best Democratic performance in that district since the Southern Strategy kicked in. Ossoff will be back in 2018, and if Handel doesn’t impress her constituents, or Trump continues to melt down, he may very well close that small gap.

But it’s important to understand, as many apparently do not, that this contest was never going to be a walkaway, and anyone insisting that it was (or should have been) simply does not understand our political process.

II. Money

The fact that Ossoff spent a great deal of money on his campaign is being used by some as an indicator that this was an even bigger failure for both him and the Democratic Party. Umm…no.

First of all, most of the pieces talking about how much money the Ossoff campaign spent are carefully (and oddly) avoiding the important point that Handel’s campaign spent nearly as much. And while it’s true that Ossoff’s campaign raised about five times as much money as Handel’s, nearly two-thirds of Ossoff’s donations came from small donors (less than $200), while only one-third of Handel’s did.

Also, the money the campaigns raised was only part of the money actually spent on the election. In that regard, Handel received over twice as much from outside groups as Ossoff did, with pro-Handel outside spending close to $20 million. See for example the image below, from Michael Beckel’s analsyis of the most expensive congressional race in history.

Information Collated by Michael Beckel

Also note that in the SC-05 election held on the same day, which received a lot less attention and spent a lot less money, Parnell (the Democrat) overperformed even more than Ossoff. So money was probably not the deciding factor in these races. And in fact an argument can be made that Ossoff may have done even better if his campaign had spent less money.

For example, in his analysis of the GA-06 race for the The Cook Political Report David Wassermen stated that, “saturation-level campaigns can backfire on the party with a baseline enthusiasm advantage — in this case, Democrats…The crush of attention motivated GOP voters who might have otherwise stayed home, helping Handel to victory.”

Now to be clear, spending $60 million on a single congressional race is ludicrous. Personally I think it’s fair to call it offensive. And it illustrates once again (as if we needed a reminder) why we need to exert some realistic control over the monies spent in our political contests. But Jon Ossoff did not invent the rules of this game, and the attempt by many to insinuate that only Ossoff spent big money is little more than dishonest propaganda.

To sum up: Karen Handel, who has already held high elected office in Georgia, run for two other major offices (Senator & Governor), and is in general far better known, had to spend nearly $25 million to eke out a victory that was seven times smaller than the average election result for a Republican in that district.

There was definitely a signficant underperformance here, but it was on the Republican side. Make no mistake about that.

III. Performance

And speaking of performance, look at the image below. That is a graphic analysis from David Wasserman’s piece for the Cook Political Report on all of the recent special elections. The report shows the actual performance of the Democratic candidates compared to their expected performance, based on Cook’s “Partisan Voting Index.”

The Cook PVI is a measurement of how much a district has performed for Democrats or Republicans in the average of the previous two presidential elections. For instance, “R+8” means a district voted an average of eight points more Republican than the nation in 2012 and 2016. Personally I have mixed feelings about blending presidential and congressional voting trends together in this manner, but it’s a reasonable place to start.

Based on the Cook analysis, Democratic candidates have in fact significantly overperformed in every one of these special elections. (Plain English Version: all of the Democratic candidates got a lot more votes than they were actually expected to get.)

In fact the overperformance of the Democratic candidates averaged out to 8%. And in order to get a sense of just how meaningful that is, Cook points out that if Democrats were to outperform by 8 points across the board in 2018, they would likely take 80 seats in Congress!

Now before we get overly excited, I should point out that it’s not very likely that Democratic candidates will overperform by 8% across the board in 2018. Then again, they don’t need to. Democrats don’t need 80 seats to take back Congress; we only need 24. And despite the self-flagellation among many of our fellow Democrats today, these special elections indicate that the Democrats are definitely well placed to accomplish just that.

As David Wasserman states, “Democratic candidates in these elections have won an average of 68 percent of the votes Hillary Clinton won in their districts, while Republican candidates have won an average of 54 percent of Trump’s votes. That’s an enthusiasm gap that’s big enough to gravely imperil the Republican majority next November…”

Bottom Line: It’s always better to win than not. And yes it would have been very satsifying to see Jon Ossoff win the GA-06 special election. But the political journey we find ourselves on is a marathon not a sprint, and we have to engage some emotional control if we want to make it to the end without giving ourselves a series of small strokes.

One of the best ways to increase our endurance is to understand the rules of the game. Also, we need to understand what the events we are seeing mean along with what they do not mean. The GA-06 election is a good example of why that matters.

The nature of our current political reality seems to be that Republicans spin and Democrats moan. But personally, I’m not that interested in moaning. And really, nothing that happened in GA-06 gave me reason to moan. And it shouldn’t give you reason to moan either.

Trust me, Republicans have access to the same numbers we do, and while they are no doubt relieved by the final wins, they know that these wins were all much weaker than they should have been. They also know that this is a very bad sign.

Trump hasn’t even been in office six months. If things keep going as they are (and Trump being Trump they almost certainly will), what do you think the political picture will look like a year from now? If Democratic candidates are overperforming by this much in reliable GOP districts now, what can we expect in 2018, after another year and a half of Trump?

Over the next few days many Democrats will whine, many Republicans will shout “scoreboard!”, many pundits will draw ridiculous conclusions from facts not in evidence, and throngs of broletariats will figure out a way to insert “Bernie would have won” into the whole mess.

Take my advice and ignore all of them. 

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