Democratic Dilemma: Yes, And

Here are some somewhat connected thoughts on the Democratic performance in the midterm elections.

The Midterm Penalty is a Function of Time

Most political watchers understand that the President’s party does poorly in midterm elections. What is less well understood is that the previous President’s party matters in what we expect to occur over the 22 months from inauguration to the midterm elections. What Bafumi, Erikson and Wleizen found is that the generic ballot in February of the midterm election year is highly predictive of what will occur in November of that year.

However, how the environment evolves away from the President over that year depends on the previous President’s party. The idea is that over the course of the midterm election, the effect of the previous party decays on midterm voters while the effect of the current party increases in salience for midterm voters.

Democrats, it should be remembered, performed quite well in the 2009 special elections. George W. Bush was fresh in voters’ minds, and even as Obama’s popularity waned into late 2009, Democrats flipped New York’s 23rd district. It was not until early 2010 that political fortunes turned. Over the course of the year, the salience of Democratic control increased and the salience of George W. Bush decreased.

Democrats have performed like Hillary Clinton in the suburbs and Barack Obama in the Rustbelt.

Thanks to the folks at Daily Kos elections we can compare how Democrats are performing in special elections with presidential results. I’m sure people are aware of the general Democratic overperformance compared to 2016 (+10) and 2012 (+8), but the nuances tell a much more interesting story.

The big argument on the left right now is whether to pursue suburban white voters who went for Romney and Hillary Clinton as they did in pouring money into the GA-6 special or whether to go after votes in areas that voted for Obama and Trump, like NY-23 and the upper Midwest. The below reveals that the answer is yes.

Democrats are outperforming in special elections mainly by holding onto Hillary Clinton’s gains in the suburbs and winning back Trump/Obama voters in Rust Belt areas.

In areas where Donald Trump swung seats more than 5 points more than the national swing of two percent, Democrats are outperforming Barack Obama’s 2012 performance by 8 points. However, in those areas, they’re outperforming Hillary Clinton by 21 points! Conversely in areas that swung away from Mitt Romney and towards Hillary Clinton more than 5 points more than the national swing (i.e. 3 points towards Hillary or more), Democrats are running five points ahead of Hillary but beating Obama 2012 results by 21 points. The numbers hold in the bigger sample: Democratic candidates are outperforming Hillary by 15 points in all Obama/Trump swing districts, and beating Obama by just 4. They’re beating Hillary by just 2 in Hillary/Romney swing districts but beating Obama by 9 in those districts.

The best interpretation I have of this data is that if you voted for a Democrat in either 2012 or 2016 for President, right now you are incredibly likely to be voting for a Democrat in a special election plus maybe a couple more who didn’t or at least who are staying home.

Strategically what does this mean for Democrats? First, to address the Ossoff question it suggests that expecting to tack on gains in the suburban areas Hillary Clinton won may be a bit ambitious. Historical party affiliation still carries weight and of Donald Trump didn’t make those voters switch in 2016 they probably won’t in 2018. On the other hand, there were a number of districts that had similar swings to Hillary where, unlike GA-6, she actually won. Those are places like CA-45 and CA-49 and TX(insert). Those are winnable and should be contested. So should GA-6 again too in what I’ll talk about in a moment.

But Democrats should also gun for all those Obama/Trump districts. Those voters are historically Democrats who voted for Trump, because he was able to a) scramble the economic differences between the parties thanks to his promises not to gut the welfare state and his positions on trade and b) heighten racial resentment as a political force both on immigration and against black America. This was particularly powerful as a force as the presence of our first black President was salient and Hillary Clinton, fearing drop off in black turnout given her history, leaned particularly hard into racial justice issues.

As we learned in the UK election, however, when many northern UKIP voters returned home to Labour when the election was drawn on more traditional fights over the NHS and the welfare state. Having won on Brexit, perhaps the salience of immigration decreased, allowing these voters to vote on more bread and butter issues, with the “Dementia Tax” becoming the big issue of the day.

Similarly, with Barack Obama’s salience fading, and Donald Trump governing like more of a traditional Republican than he campaigned as, those historical Democratic voters may be willing to return home, especially if Republicans pass their horrific health care bill, with partisan lines drawn in a more traditional manner.

Where to Target

To put it all together: Democrats have a generic ballot advantage of about 6 points right now. If that number holds in February, the advantage will most likely be about 11 points come November 2018. The salience of Barack Obama still matters. Nonetheless, Democrats are performing like Hillary Clinton in the suburbs and outperforming Obama in the Rust Belt.

There are 34 Republican held districts that voted for at least one of Obama in 2012 or Hillary in 2016. There are another 33 GOP held seats that voted for Obama plus 6 or Hillary plus 8. That’s 67 seats that Democrats should be seriously contesting. To win back the House, Democrats need a platform that reminds Democrats who voted for Trump why they are Democrats and Republicans who voted for Hillary why they dislike Trump. There are a million ways to do this but I have a simple negative message to compliment a positive message: They’re covering up Trump’s corruption to make it easier to take away your healthcare in order to give their billionaire donors a tax cut.

Then offer whatever positive message you have: Medicaid for All, Medicare buy in, investigations, criminal justice reform, financial regulation, bankruptcy reform, tougher antitrust rules, whatever. There are a million good things to offer and argue for because there’s a lot of stuff broken.