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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Are Rural Congressional Districts Unwinnable for Dems?

Paul Kane’s PowerPost article “Should House Democrats write off rural congressional districts?” opens up an interesting, but difficult topic for Democrats looking towards 2018 and beyond. Kane takes a look at Rep. Sean Maloney’s data-driven presentation to the Democratic policy retreat in Baltimore yesterday, and observes:

…There are House districts that Democrats have competed in, or even represented for a long time, that have moved so sharply away from Democrats that they need to reassess whether to compete there ever again. Yet there is also an emerging set of districts that have long been held by Republicans that are now bending toward Democrats faster than even the most optimistic strategists envisioned.

The ones now on the table? Longtime Republican districts that are becoming more demographically diverse. Off the table may be rural districts with little diversity, the very places where President Trump did well in 2016.

Rep. Maloney’s argument will not be popular with Democrats who believe in the 435 district, 50-state strategy, which holds that Dems should campaign everywhere. Kane explains Maloney’s analysis:

A lawyer, Maloney is a bit obsessed with data, and he said he believes there are 350 unique characteristics that can be applied to every House race that will indicate which direction it will go.

Some findings are surprising. “Did the unemployment rate matter or not?” he said. “Turns out it doesn’t matter much at all.”

Maloney also wants to abandon the longtime party metric used by operatives known as the Democratic Performance Index, a complicated formula based on presidential and congressional candidate performance in specific House districts. Instead, he said, the three biggest predictors of the partisan bent of a House district are the percentage of it that is rural, how much of its population has received college degrees and how diverse it is.

“We need to get out of the past. Our tools need to get out of the past,” Maloney said.

This means that Democrats made mistakes in places such as Iowa’s 1st Congressional District and Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, seats that in the summer of 2016 Democrats expected to win. But both are very rural and are not diverse. Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) won reelection by nearly eight percentage points in a district that swung from twice voting for Barack Obama for president to supporting Donald Trump, and Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) won his first election despite a long career of controversial statements as a radio talk-show host.

Demographic profiles of congressional districts can change very fast, and it’s important that the party address the dynamics in its campaign resource allocations. But Maloney’s analysis is not just about which districts to write off; he is equally-vigilant about working those districts that have demographics trending in a more favorable direction for Democrats:

Two highlights for Democrats came in highly educated suburban districts: in northern New Jersey, where Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D) ousted a seven-term Republican; and outside Orlando, where Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D) knocked off a 23-year incumbent.

Some of this won’t be news to [Democratic Congressional Campaign Chairman, Rep. Ben Ray] Luján and senior DCCC staff, because they have already launched a “Majority Project” in these emerging districts. In private they admit they realized too late that Trump was speeding up the shift of well-educated suburbanites toward the Democrats, leaving too many Republicans facing inferior opponents last year in potentially competitive races.

Kane points out that Democrats lost some suburban districts they should have won, based on demographic changes, because of exceptionally-strong Republican candidates and/or weak Democratic candidates. As Maloney observes, “Candidates still matter.”

Great candidates remain the wild card that can deliver victory where all logic and statistics say otherwise.  Few would disagree that one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Democratic Party is the failure to identify, recruit, train and fund enough promising candidates to be competitive in suburban, let alone rural, districts. If Dems want to be more competitive everywhere, they must invest more thought, money and action in meeting this challenge. A study that takes an in-depth look at Democratic elected officials who have beat the odds to win in districts they should have lost might yield some useful insights.

3 comments on “Are Rural Congressional Districts Unwinnable for Dems?

  1. Garry Gentry on

    I realize that resources are not unlimited to back and compete in seemingly un-winnable rural Districts like the one I live in (GA District *). Here is my argument in GA we have NO support from the State Democratic Party (I am active with my Tift County Dem Party) and candidates outside the Urban area receive none to little support. GA according to demographic changes and polls is within the margin of error in State wide polls. I contend that we should compete in EVERY County in GA regardless of projected outcome. Maybe short term we only move the needle by 5-6 points and lose by 7-8 points instead of 15-20. That could very likely swing WINS in some Statewide races generating excitement and more participation at the rural county level. Everything can not be based on DATA and we have to fight and IMO keep our message focused in the rural areas on SS, Medicare, and JOBS with higher wages. We can’t fight for social issues anyway if we can’t win State wide races which will eventually lead to wins in the rural areas.

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  2. Jan Werner on

    Sean Patrick Maloney apparently wishes to repeat the strategy that won Hillary Clinton the White House and enabled the Democrats to recapture the House last year. But the mention of “350 unique characteristics” leads me to suspect that his analysis actually originated with Mark Penn, whose advice gave Mrs. Clinton the 2008 Democratic Presidential nomination over Barack Obama and who supposedly still retains the confidence of the Clintons, for some unfathomable reason.

    Like the Bourbons in Talleyrand’s famous quote, Mrs. Clinton and Representative Maloney seem to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing from past elections. If House Democrats are guided by these ideas in 2018, Mr. Trump and the Republicans are likely to remain in power much longer than they deserve.

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  3. Ryan on

    Great write up! My experience tells me Democrats have long been too focused on data. That’s all fine and good until the algorithms no longer work – i.e. The Trump surprise. I worry that new algorithms are a short term solution. And I agree with your final point 100% – great candidates matter. Dems need to focus more on local and state races and start recruiting people to run for office. I know tons of people who worked/volunteered the last few cycles, but none of them have a desire to run. 🙁

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