washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

May 9: Women Aren’t the Only “Risky” Candidates–By a Long Shot

In the wake of the sudden, shocking, self-immolation of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s political career, I thought a bit about the broader implications and wrote it all up for New York:

[P]erhaps we should no longer be shocked by incidents like this. Here’s Esquire’s Charles Pierce [on the subject]:

“The downfall of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman completes the unholy trinity of prominent liberal New York politicians whose careers went into the acid bath because, at one level or another, they failed to see women as actual human beings. Eliot Spitzer got involved with a prostitution ring. Anthony Weiner used women as sounding boards for his own pleasure. And Schneiderman, allegedly, physically assaulted his romantic partners. And, in this, again, political pundits learn the lesson that gets drummed into every sportswriter over and over: none of us really know these guys.”

It’s not like you could see Schneiderman’s disgrace coming via some misogynistic political impulse. As David Freedlander notes, he was a progressive role model:

“Schneiderman was the scion of a wealthy Manhattan lawyer who donated generously to causes like Planned Parenthood and public radio. He came up through the world of public interest law, one of those do-good types who keep protesters away from abortion clinics and government running with a minimum of corruption.”

But even if he is a lefty “golden boy” rather than a right-wing “good old boy,” Schneiderman is, after all, a boy. And at some point, people should begin to wonder if placing big bets on male politicians at this particular juncture of history is a mite risky, all else being equal. Indeed, if equity or fair representation isn’t a good enough reason for 2018 to be a “Year of the Woman,” the significantly lower likelihood of female candidates turning out to be abusive could be the clincher, at least until pre-#MeToo-movement generations have passed from the scene. I’m not talking about any sort of ban or crusade against members of my own gender, but just a long look at the growing number of celebrities facing a reckoning and a realistic assessment of the odds of a random politician conflating power with opportunities for coercive sex.

This is true even at the highest levels of politics and government. This isn’t the sort of thing that tends to make it into print, but I cannot tell you how many times progressive friends and acquaintances (including serious feminists) have told me that after what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Democrats would be foolish to run another woman against Donald Trump in 2020, encouraging the same kind of sexist voter reactions and media coverage that beset HRC. From that perspective, the ontological necessity of denying Trump a second term outweighs another assault on the country’s most important glass ceiling; let Nikki Haley or (shudder) Joni Ernst become the first woman to serve as president and defang electoral sexism once and for all.

The reckoning, though, ought to make Democrats think less about the perils of a female nominee and a more about the potentially serious consequences of a male nominee who may, like Schneiderman, have a hidden habit of treating his success as a license to act in a beastly manner out of the public eye. Yes, all human beings, and certainly all politicians, are in some respects weak and fallible. But let’s face it: the kind of sins that tend to lose elections are not equally distributed between the sexes.


Women Aren’t the Only “Risky” Candidates–By a Long Shot

In the wake of the sudden, shocking, self-immolation of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s political career, I thought a bit about the broader implications and wrote it all up for New York:

[P]erhaps we should no longer be shocked by incidents like this. Here’s Esquire’s Charles Pierce [on the subject]:

“The downfall of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman completes the unholy trinity of prominent liberal New York politicians whose careers went into the acid bath because, at one level or another, they failed to see women as actual human beings. Eliot Spitzer got involved with a prostitution ring. Anthony Weiner used women as sounding boards for his own pleasure. And Schneiderman, allegedly, physically assaulted his romantic partners. And, in this, again, political pundits learn the lesson that gets drummed into every sportswriter over and over: none of us really know these guys.”

It’s not like you could see Schneiderman’s disgrace coming via some misogynistic political impulse. As David Freedlander notes, he was a progressive role model:

“Schneiderman was the scion of a wealthy Manhattan lawyer who donated generously to causes like Planned Parenthood and public radio. He came up through the world of public interest law, one of those do-good types who keep protesters away from abortion clinics and government running with a minimum of corruption.”

But even if he is a lefty “golden boy” rather than a right-wing “good old boy,” Schneiderman is, after all, a boy. And at some point, people should begin to wonder if placing big bets on male politicians at this particular juncture of history is a mite risky, all else being equal. Indeed, if equity or fair representation isn’t a good enough reason for 2018 to be a “Year of the Woman,” the significantly lower likelihood of female candidates turning out to be abusive could be the clincher, at least until pre-#MeToo-movement generations have passed from the scene. I’m not talking about any sort of ban or crusade against members of my own gender, but just a long look at the growing number of celebrities facing a reckoning and a realistic assessment of the odds of a random politician conflating power with opportunities for coercive sex.

This is true even at the highest levels of politics and government. This isn’t the sort of thing that tends to make it into print, but I cannot tell you how many times progressive friends and acquaintances (including serious feminists) have told me that after what happened to Hillary Clinton in 2016, Democrats would be foolish to run another woman against Donald Trump in 2020, encouraging the same kind of sexist voter reactions and media coverage that beset HRC. From that perspective, the ontological necessity of denying Trump a second term outweighs another assault on the country’s most important glass ceiling; let Nikki Haley or (shudder) Joni Ernst become the first woman to serve as president and defang electoral sexism once and for all.

The reckoning, though, ought to make Democrats think less about the perils of a female nominee and a more about the potentially serious consequences of a male nominee who may, like Schneiderman, have a hidden habit of treating his success as a license to act in a beastly manner out of the public eye. Yes, all human beings, and certainly all politicians, are in some respects weak and fallible. But let’s face it: the kind of sins that tend to lose elections are not equally distributed between the sexes.


May 4: House Chaplain Shows How to Out-Maneuver Paul Ryan

I’ve been following this sage for a while, so I was happy to write up its conclusion for New York:

House Speaker Paul Ryan attended Catholic schools as a child, so this may not be the first time he’s had his knuckles rapped by a representative of his Church. Still, his retreat in the face of an un-resignation by House Chaplain Patrick Conroy, SJ, must have been humiliating to him — not as bad as, say, if Ayn Rand had arisen from the dead to call him a “collectivist,” but close.

In case you missed the beginning of the saga, Conroy announced he was stepping down as Chaplain not long ago, and then last week it came out that he had been pushed to resign by Ryan and/or his staff. Some Democrats speculated (an impression Conroy reinforced) that a “political” prayer that might have been construed as disrespecting that great golden calf of tax cuts had gotten him cashiered. But there were mixed messages, some of them highly unfortunate, like that of U.S. Representative Mark Walker, a member of the search committee for a new chaplain, who allowed as to how the House needed someone who personally knew what it was like to deal with a complaining wife and a misbehaving kid — a job description that would exclude, of course, Catholics and probably women.

Apparently realizing that his critics were not exactly standing on high or solid ground, Conroy has now sent a strongly worded letter (on official House stationary) to Ryan rescinding his resignation, confirming that Ryan’s staff wanted him gone for previously undiscussed shortcomings in his pastoral abilities (similar to those expressed publicly by Walker), and making it clear he’d respond to specific constructive advice but nothing else. There was one particularly damaging charge he made:

“While you never spoke with me in person, nor did you send me any correspondence, on Friday, April 13th, 2018, your Chief of Staff, Jonathan Burks, came to me and informed me that you were asking for my letter of resignation. I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause,’ and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like ‘maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.'”

Conroy dropped a hint or two about lawyering up, and concluded with the kind of rigorous logic for which Jesuits are known:

“Had I known of any failure in providing my ministry to the House, I would have attempted to make the appropriate adjustments, but in no case would I have agreed to submit a letter of resignation without being given that opportunity. Therefore, I wish to serve the remainder of my term as House Chaplain, unless terminated ‘for cause.'”

Ryan immediately caved like an acolyte who had been caught breaking into the communion wine supply:

“I have accepted Father Conroy’s letter and decided that he will remain in his position as Chaplain of the House.”

He went on to whine a bit about his impeccable intentions, and said he’d “sit down with Father Conroy early next week so that we can move forward for the good of the whole House.” You’d almost think it was Conroy who would have to make a good confession with a firm purpose of amendment. But it’s almost certainly Paul Ryan who will be doing penance.


House Chaplain Shows How to Out-Maneuver Paul Ryan

I’ve been following this sage for a while, so I was happy to write up its conclusion for New York:

House Speaker Paul Ryan attended Catholic schools as a child, so this may not be the first time he’s had his knuckles rapped by a representative of his Church. Still, his retreat in the face of an un-resignation by House Chaplain Patrick Conroy, SJ, must have been humiliating to him — not as bad as, say, if Ayn Rand had arisen from the dead to call him a “collectivist,” but close.

In case you missed the beginning of the saga, Conroy announced he was stepping down as Chaplain not long ago, and then last week it came out that he had been pushed to resign by Ryan and/or his staff. Some Democrats speculated (an impression Conroy reinforced) that a “political” prayer that might have been construed as disrespecting that great golden calf of tax cuts had gotten him cashiered. But there were mixed messages, some of them highly unfortunate, like that of U.S. Representative Mark Walker, a member of the search committee for a new chaplain, who allowed as to how the House needed someone who personally knew what it was like to deal with a complaining wife and a misbehaving kid — a job description that would exclude, of course, Catholics and probably women.

Apparently realizing that his critics were not exactly standing on high or solid ground, Conroy has now sent a strongly worded letter (on official House stationary) to Ryan rescinding his resignation, confirming that Ryan’s staff wanted him gone for previously undiscussed shortcomings in his pastoral abilities (similar to those expressed publicly by Walker), and making it clear he’d respond to specific constructive advice but nothing else. There was one particularly damaging charge he made:

“While you never spoke with me in person, nor did you send me any correspondence, on Friday, April 13th, 2018, your Chief of Staff, Jonathan Burks, came to me and informed me that you were asking for my letter of resignation. I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause,’ and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like ‘maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t a Catholic.'”

Conroy dropped a hint or two about lawyering up, and concluded with the kind of rigorous logic for which Jesuits are known:

“Had I known of any failure in providing my ministry to the House, I would have attempted to make the appropriate adjustments, but in no case would I have agreed to submit a letter of resignation without being given that opportunity. Therefore, I wish to serve the remainder of my term as House Chaplain, unless terminated ‘for cause.'”

Ryan immediately caved like an acolyte who had been caught breaking into the communion wine supply:

“I have accepted Father Conroy’s letter and decided that he will remain in his position as Chaplain of the House.”

He went on to whine a bit about his impeccable intentions, and said he’d “sit down with Father Conroy early next week so that we can move forward for the good of the whole House.” You’d almost think it was Conroy who would have to make a good confession with a firm purpose of amendment. But it’s almost certainly Paul Ryan who will be doing penance.


May 3: Midterms a Silver Lining To the Dark Clouds of 2016

In thinking about what’s ahead and what might have been, I offered a counterfactual take at New York:

It is perfectly natural for Democrats to think of the midterm “wave” election they are hoping for in November as representing a righteous repudiation of the particular characteristics of the 45th president — his constant lies and provocations, his manifest lack of respect for the rule of law, his perpetual racial and ethnic appeals, his chaotic approach to decision-making, and his oppressively omnipresent personality. But in fact, the kind of midterm backlash to the White House that appears to be shaping up is entirely normal, even if Trump is not.

To recapitulate: the party that controls the White House almost always loses House seats in midterm elections. There have been just three exceptions in the last century (in 1934, 1998, and 2002), all of them occurring when the president had unusually high job approval ratings and when something else unusual was going on (the Great Depression, for which Republicans were persistently blamed, in 1934; the impending impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998; and a security-conscious reaction to 9/11 in 2002). When the president’s party is in theory “over-exposed” in the House by recent success (e.g., the big Republican wins of 2010 and 2014), the odds of losses are even higher. And while there is a less systematic carryover to Senate elections because of the high variability of the particular “class” of 33 or 34 senators up in any one midterm, an anti-White House midterm “wave” affects those outcomes, too — particularly with partisan voter polarization steadily increasing.

So had Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or John Kasich won in 2016, we’d almost certainly be looking at a very good Democratic midterm performance this year, albeit probably one with lower levels of fear and anger among the Democratic voters flocking to the polls.

And the flip side of that reality is plain as well: Had Hillary Clinton eked out an Electoral College victory in 2016, we would almost certainly be looking at a very good Republican midterm in 2018.

The size of that hypothetical GOP advantage when it comes to the House or down-ballot races is debatable, and largely dependent on things we can never know. Presumably the economy would be doing relatively well, as it was in much of Barack Obama’s second term. But in the partisan climate that existed before the 2016 election (Lock her up! Lock her up!), and that would have been intensified by divided control of the federal government and the certainty of perpetual investigations and accusations aimed at a chief executive the GOP loves to hate — the odds of a President Hillary Clinton being able to accomplish a whole lot, or enjoying robust job approval ratings, would have been vanishingly low. And that would have very likely translated into at least modest, and perhaps larger than modest, House losses, and consolidation of the already large GOP advantages in governorships and state legislatures (a big deal as the next decennial round of redistricting grows nigh).

The Senate landscape for 2018 in a new Clinton administration would have been potentially catastrophic for Democrats. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich observes, this is the most vulnerable Democrats have been in a Senate cycle since at least the 1980s:

“2018 could be not just bad, but a veritable armaggeddon for Senate Democrats. They should count their lucky stars that their worst-case map looks like it’s going to coincide with their best-case turnout environment.”

Even so, matching their best post-1990 Senate overperformance (in 2012) would leave Democrats with a net loss of two seats this autumn. And if the wind was blowing the other way, as it undoubtedly would have been had Clinton won in 2016, Democrats could have lost virtually all their red-state senators (heavily concentrated in the class up for reelection this year), leaving the party at a disadvantage in the upper chamber for a long time.

“One bad election cycle for this class could virtually eliminate red-state Democrats from the Senate in one fell swoop. That would give Republicans something like a 20-seat majority in the upper chamber — probably too wide for Democrats to overcome in any single future election cycle. Our current sense that the Senate could switch hands in any given election year would be no more, potentially emboldening the Republican majority to pass more conservative policies. In order to regain control, Democrats would not only need to rebuild their standing in red states from the ground up but also sustain that success over multiple election cycles.”

Add in some marginal considerations like the fact that with a Clinton presidency Jeff Sessions would not have resigned a Senate seat Democrats subsequently captured in a strange special election, and the “Clinton won” scenario could have endangered even routine Senate confirmations for her and possibly for future Democratic presidents. And a bad 2018 midterm for Democrats could have made confirmation of a Supreme Court appointment — the big, permanent prize associated with control of the White House — extremely difficult and perhaps even impossible.

Democrats’ fundamental problem in the Senate, of course, is the institution’s small-state bias; given the current demographic foundations of both parties, there is a built-in GOP advantage. Rakich estimates that all other things being equal, Republicans should control 62 Senate seats. It is rarely discussed, but the same factors give Republicans a natural majority in state governments, which in turn have a disproportionate control over U.S. House and state legislative redistricting. All the interminable and redundant talk about Democrats “collapsing” outside Washington to a considerable extent reflects an illusion caused by the disproportionate power of conservative states. At the moment, a fifty-fifty national electorate logically means about a sixty-forty GOP margin in the Senate and in state governments controlled.

In that context, Democrats really need a great 2018 midterm, both to avoid an almost irreversible disadvantage in the Senate, and to give it a fighting chance to do well during the momentous redistricting cycle just on the horizon. For reasons that have almost nothing to do with her leadership abilities and other sterling qualities, a President Clinton would have made a great 2018 midterm for her party extremely unlikely, and a debilitating defeat quite possible. (The same would have been true, to be clear, with a President Sanders or a President Biden). A President Trump could make an inevitably bad midterm for his party really bad.


Midterms a Silver Lining To the Dark Clouds of 2016

In thinking about what’s ahead and what might have been, I offered a counterfactual take at New York:

It is perfectly natural for Democrats to think of the midterm “wave” election they are hoping for in November as representing a righteous repudiation of the particular characteristics of the 45th president — his constant lies and provocations, his manifest lack of respect for the rule of law, his perpetual racial and ethnic appeals, his chaotic approach to decision-making, and his oppressively omnipresent personality. But in fact, the kind of midterm backlash to the White House that appears to be shaping up is entirely normal, even if Trump is not.

To recapitulate: the party that controls the White House almost always loses House seats in midterm elections. There have been just three exceptions in the last century (in 1934, 1998, and 2002), all of them occurring when the president had unusually high job approval ratings and when something else unusual was going on (the Great Depression, for which Republicans were persistently blamed, in 1934; the impending impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998; and a security-conscious reaction to 9/11 in 2002). When the president’s party is in theory “over-exposed” in the House by recent success (e.g., the big Republican wins of 2010 and 2014), the odds of losses are even higher. And while there is a less systematic carryover to Senate elections because of the high variability of the particular “class” of 33 or 34 senators up in any one midterm, an anti-White House midterm “wave” affects those outcomes, too — particularly with partisan voter polarization steadily increasing.

So had Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or John Kasich won in 2016, we’d almost certainly be looking at a very good Democratic midterm performance this year, albeit probably one with lower levels of fear and anger among the Democratic voters flocking to the polls.

And the flip side of that reality is plain as well: Had Hillary Clinton eked out an Electoral College victory in 2016, we would almost certainly be looking at a very good Republican midterm in 2018.

The size of that hypothetical GOP advantage when it comes to the House or down-ballot races is debatable, and largely dependent on things we can never know. Presumably the economy would be doing relatively well, as it was in much of Barack Obama’s second term. But in the partisan climate that existed before the 2016 election (Lock her up! Lock her up!), and that would have been intensified by divided control of the federal government and the certainty of perpetual investigations and accusations aimed at a chief executive the GOP loves to hate — the odds of a President Hillary Clinton being able to accomplish a whole lot, or enjoying robust job approval ratings, would have been vanishingly low. And that would have very likely translated into at least modest, and perhaps larger than modest, House losses, and consolidation of the already large GOP advantages in governorships and state legislatures (a big deal as the next decennial round of redistricting grows nigh).

The Senate landscape for 2018 in a new Clinton administration would have been potentially catastrophic for Democrats. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich observes, this is the most vulnerable Democrats have been in a Senate cycle since at least the 1980s:

“2018 could be not just bad, but a veritable armaggeddon for Senate Democrats. They should count their lucky stars that their worst-case map looks like it’s going to coincide with their best-case turnout environment.”

Even so, matching their best post-1990 Senate overperformance (in 2012) would leave Democrats with a net loss of two seats this autumn. And if the wind was blowing the other way, as it undoubtedly would have been had Clinton won in 2016, Democrats could have lost virtually all their red-state senators (heavily concentrated in the class up for reelection this year), leaving the party at a disadvantage in the upper chamber for a long time.

“One bad election cycle for this class could virtually eliminate red-state Democrats from the Senate in one fell swoop. That would give Republicans something like a 20-seat majority in the upper chamber — probably too wide for Democrats to overcome in any single future election cycle. Our current sense that the Senate could switch hands in any given election year would be no more, potentially emboldening the Republican majority to pass more conservative policies. In order to regain control, Democrats would not only need to rebuild their standing in red states from the ground up but also sustain that success over multiple election cycles.”

Add in some marginal considerations like the fact that with a Clinton presidency Jeff Sessions would not have resigned a Senate seat Democrats subsequently captured in a strange special election, and the “Clinton won” scenario could have endangered even routine Senate confirmations for her and possibly for future Democratic presidents. And a bad 2018 midterm for Democrats could have made confirmation of a Supreme Court appointment — the big, permanent prize associated with control of the White House — extremely difficult and perhaps even impossible.

Democrats’ fundamental problem in the Senate, of course, is the institution’s small-state bias; given the current demographic foundations of both parties, there is a built-in GOP advantage. Rakich estimates that all other things being equal, Republicans should control 62 Senate seats. It is rarely discussed, but the same factors give Republicans a natural majority in state governments, which in turn have a disproportionate control over U.S. House and state legislative redistricting. All the interminable and redundant talk about Democrats “collapsing” outside Washington to a considerable extent reflects an illusion caused by the disproportionate power of conservative states. At the moment, a fifty-fifty national electorate logically means about a sixty-forty GOP margin in the Senate and in state governments controlled.

In that context, Democrats really need a great 2018 midterm, both to avoid an almost irreversible disadvantage in the Senate, and to give it a fighting chance to do well during the momentous redistricting cycle just on the horizon. For reasons that have almost nothing to do with her leadership abilities and other sterling qualities, a President Clinton would have made a great 2018 midterm for her party extremely unlikely, and a debilitating defeat quite possible. (The same would have been true, to be clear, with a President Sanders or a President Biden). A President Trump could make an inevitably bad midterm for his party really bad.


April 28: Explaining the Gap Between Special Election Results and the Generic Congressional Ballot

After yet another big overperformance by a Democratic candidate in another special election, this time in Arizona, I looked at a question that a lot of observers are asking, and wrote it up at New York:

There have been two story lines this year that offer contrasting impressions about what’s likely to happen in the November battle for control of the U.S. House: One is a seemingly unending string of big-time performances by Democrats in special elections (including the one earlier this week in Arizona). The other is a Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot (a polling question about party preferences in House elections), which is a shadow of what it was at certain points last year.

Nate Silver posed the problem directly after the Arizona results:

“The bigger question is what to make of the disparity between the overwhelming swing toward Democrats so far in special election results — which would imply a Democratic wave on par with the historic Republican years of 1994 and 2010 — and the considerably more modest one suggested by the generic congressional ballot, which shows Democrats ahead by only 7 points and implies that the battle for House control is roughly a toss-up.”

After musing that maybe the generic ballot was a lagging indicator that might change as November approached, Silver essentially concluded that both special elections and generic ballots were data points that should both be considered, instead of choosing one exclusively.

Cook Political Report’s Amy Walters is looking at the same question:

“If a so-called “blue wave” is about to hit in 2018, why isn’t the generic ballot showing a bigger margin for Democrats? The latest Real Clear Politics average shows Democrats with a 6.5 percent lead. The FiveThirtyEight.com average has Democrats with a 6.9 percent lead. If Democrats are cruising to victory in the fall, why does the generic not look more like it did over the summer when it showed Democrats with a double-digit lead?”

Like Silver, Walters figures the numbers may turn bluer later this year. But she has a specific theory for why that could happen: the bulk of the “undecided” generic vote is among self-identified independents, and “here’s what we know about them: they don’t like Trump.”

“In the latest Marist/NPR/PBS poll (April 10-13), for example, Trump’s job approval rating among independents is 38 percent. On the generic ballot question in that same poll, the congressional Republican gets 32 percent of the independent vote. A late April Quinnipiac poll showed Trump with a 33 percent job approval among independents, and 36 percent of independents say they will vote for a Republican in the fall.”

As more independents begin to make up their minds about their midterm choices, their anti-Trump leanings will probably push up Democratic margins — an anti–White House dynamic that tends to happen during midterms anyway.

Both Walters and Silver also think the superior Democratic enthusiasm so evident in special elections hasn’t fully manifested itself in generic polls at this point. As Nate puts it:

“One plausible answer is that the generic ballot will shift further toward Democrats once voters become more engaged with the campaign in their respective districts and pollsters switch over to likely voter models.”

Now that’s certainly a switcheroo from the 2010 and 2014 midterms, when the shift to likely voter screens usually boosted GOP margins. But that does raise one point of caution about assuming Democrats will benefit from the same dynamics this November: the kinds of people who currently tend to vote Republican — older and whiter voters — have eternally been more likely to show up for non-presidential elections than the kinds of people who currently tend to vote Democratic — younger and minority voters. It’s so familiar a phenomenon that there’s a name for it: the Democratic “midterm fall-off” problem, which has been exacerbated by this decade’s exceptional polarization of the electorate by race and age.

It’s pretty clear by now that Democrats have found at least a temporary solution to the “midterm falloff” problem, and his name is Donald J. Trump. But there remain two questions: will the enthusiasm among Democrats he has created totally erase the traditional disparities in non-presidential turnout? And does the evidence that it has in so many special elections since Trump became president mean we can assume it will carry over to a regular midterm election, when Republican turnout will likely return to its “normal” levels?

Keep these questions in mind as November approaches.


Explaining the Gap Between Special Election Results and the Generic Congressional Ballot

After yet another big overperformance by a Democratic candidate in another special election, this time in Arizona, I looked at a question that a lot of observers are asking, and wrote it up at New York:

There have been two story lines this year that offer contrasting impressions about what’s likely to happen in the November battle for control of the U.S. House: One is a seemingly unending string of big-time performances by Democrats in special elections (including the one earlier this week in Arizona). The other is a Democratic advantage in the generic congressional ballot (a polling question about party preferences in House elections), which is a shadow of what it was at certain points last year.

Nate Silver posed the problem directly after the Arizona results:

“The bigger question is what to make of the disparity between the overwhelming swing toward Democrats so far in special election results — which would imply a Democratic wave on par with the historic Republican years of 1994 and 2010 — and the considerably more modest one suggested by the generic congressional ballot, which shows Democrats ahead by only 7 points and implies that the battle for House control is roughly a toss-up.”

After musing that maybe the generic ballot was a lagging indicator that might change as November approached, Silver essentially concluded that both special elections and generic ballots were data points that should both be considered, instead of choosing one exclusively.

Cook Political Report’s Amy Walters is looking at the same question:

“If a so-called “blue wave” is about to hit in 2018, why isn’t the generic ballot showing a bigger margin for Democrats? The latest Real Clear Politics average shows Democrats with a 6.5 percent lead. The FiveThirtyEight.com average has Democrats with a 6.9 percent lead. If Democrats are cruising to victory in the fall, why does the generic not look more like it did over the summer when it showed Democrats with a double-digit lead?”

Like Silver, Walters figures the numbers may turn bluer later this year. But she has a specific theory for why that could happen: the bulk of the “undecided” generic vote is among self-identified independents, and “here’s what we know about them: they don’t like Trump.”

“In the latest Marist/NPR/PBS poll (April 10-13), for example, Trump’s job approval rating among independents is 38 percent. On the generic ballot question in that same poll, the congressional Republican gets 32 percent of the independent vote. A late April Quinnipiac poll showed Trump with a 33 percent job approval among independents, and 36 percent of independents say they will vote for a Republican in the fall.”

As more independents begin to make up their minds about their midterm choices, their anti-Trump leanings will probably push up Democratic margins — an anti–White House dynamic that tends to happen during midterms anyway.

Both Walters and Silver also think the superior Democratic enthusiasm so evident in special elections hasn’t fully manifested itself in generic polls at this point. As Nate puts it:

“One plausible answer is that the generic ballot will shift further toward Democrats once voters become more engaged with the campaign in their respective districts and pollsters switch over to likely voter models.”

Now that’s certainly a switcheroo from the 2010 and 2014 midterms, when the shift to likely voter screens usually boosted GOP margins. But that does raise one point of caution about assuming Democrats will benefit from the same dynamics this November: the kinds of people who currently tend to vote Republican — older and whiter voters — have eternally been more likely to show up for non-presidential elections than the kinds of people who currently tend to vote Democratic — younger and minority voters. It’s so familiar a phenomenon that there’s a name for it: the Democratic “midterm fall-off” problem, which has been exacerbated by this decade’s exceptional polarization of the electorate by race and age.

It’s pretty clear by now that Democrats have found at least a temporary solution to the “midterm falloff” problem, and his name is Donald J. Trump. But there remain two questions: will the enthusiasm among Democrats he has created totally erase the traditional disparities in non-presidential turnout? And does the evidence that it has in so many special elections since Trump became president mean we can assume it will carry over to a regular midterm election, when Republican turnout will likely return to its “normal” levels?

Keep these questions in mind as November approaches.


April 27: The Shifting Anti-Abortion Base and Why It Matters

I’ve been immersed in the politics of abortion policy for so long that I felt the need to take a step back and analyze how the demographics of the RTL rank-and-file have changed over time. I wrote it all up at New York:

Looking at an article in the Washington Post about the frenetic activity in many states since 2010 aimed at enacting abortion restrictions, some in order to set up a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson noticed a pattern, which he discussed in a subscription email to readers that I happen to receive.

“Thirty-three states have enacted abortion restrictions since [2010], while just 17, plus the District of Columbia, have not.

“What interested me about those two lists was the degree to which they didn’t align with the share of Roman Catholics in the states. The eight most heavily Catholic states—in order, Rhode Island (42 percent Catholic), Massachusetts (34 percent), New Jersey (34 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), Connecticut (33 percent), New York (31 percent), California (28 percent) and Illinois (28 percent)—were among the 17 that had not passed legislation curtailing abortion rights. Conversely, the 13 states with the lowest percentage of Catholics—in order, Mississippi (4 percent), Utah (5 percent), West Virginia (6 percent), Tennessee (6 percent), Alabama (7 percent), North Carolina (9 percent), Georgia (9 percent), South Carolina (10 percent), Kentucky (10 percent), Idaho (10 percent) and Virginia (12 percent)—were among the 33 states that have curtailed access to abortions since 2010.

“In sum, the relationship between the number of Catholics in a state and the intensity of the state’s anti-abortion policies is completely inverse.”

This fact might come as a surprise to people who still think of Catholics as the bedrock core of the right-to-life movement, as they undoubtedly were in the days immediately following Roe.

In fact, Catholic public opinion on abortion policy (as on most political topics) is pretty close to that of the country as a whole, which means marginally pro-choice. Here’s how the Public Religion Research Institute put it in a 2015 survey:

“On the issue of abortion, Catholic attitudes generally mirror Americans overall. A majority (53%) of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43% say it should be illegal. Among Catholics, a slim majority (51%) says abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 45% who say it should be illegal.”

A more recent survey from Pew showed Catholics favoring the “legal in all or most cases” position by a slightly slimmer 48/47 margin. Both surveys showed that white Catholics — i.e., those significantly more likely to identify with the anti-abortion Republican Party — were more likely to be pro-choice than overwhelmingly Democratic Latino Catholics.

This is not — repeat, not — to say that there aren’t a lot of passionately active RTL adherents in the U.S. Catholic ranks, who can rely on the consistent support of the hierarchy and the Vatican (and yes, despite some RTL angst about his recent statement that defending the poor was as important as defending the “unborn,” Pope Francis hasn’t given much aid and comfort to pro-choice Catholics).

But there’s no question the religious community that is far more solidly in the anti-abortion camp is white Evangelical Protestants. In a 2017 survey that broke out this particular segment of the population, Pew found that 70 percent of white Evangelicals thought that all or most abortions should be illegal. Less than half of Catholics (44 percent), black Protestants (41 percent), white mainline Protestants (30 percent), and the unaffiliated (17 percent) agreed with this position.

This is remarkable in no small part because unlike Catholics, white Evangelicals have little traditional investment in the anti-abortion cause. They have no formal hierarchy, no teaching tradition, no papal encyclicals, and no “natural law” philosophy leading them in the direction of regarding abortion as grievously sinful. They purport to follow only the Bible, which never mentions abortion and only obliquely refers to fetal life. Evangelicals, moreover, were not as a group actively engaged in state efforts to keep abortion illegal prior to Roe; many (particularly among Southern Baptists, the largest white Evangelical denomination) favored “liberalized” abortion laws back then.

However you choose to explain the white Evangelical shift toward strongly anti-abortion views — as a moral “awakening” after Roe; a general rejection of liberalism and feminism; a nostalgic embrace of cultural conservatism in all its elements (including patriarchy); or a byproduct of a growing alliance with conservative politics — it’s unmistakable, and it has offset the gradual drift toward pro-choice views among Catholics.

Getting back to Meyerson’s observation, most of the states he notes as having small Catholic populations along with virulently anti-abortion policies also have large white Evangelical populations (there’s also Utah, with an LDS majority that is culturally conservative and also has a strong church hierarchy doctrinally opposed to abortion). And not coincidentally, they all (with the partial exception of Virginia) are currently Republican-run states.

The polarization of the two parties on abortion policy stems from multiple sources, but none is so powerful as the shift in the anti-abortion “base” from a Catholic population that is more or less split down the middle between the two parties (and if anything leans Democratic) to a white evangelical population that has become aligned with Republicans on a broad range of issues from civil rights to taxes to “size of government” to the cultural issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights that we associate with the Christian right.

So the archaic view of abortion as primarily a “Catholic issue” needs updating for those who want to understand why some places are so hospitable to anti-abortion politics.


The Shifting Anti-Abortion Base and Why It Matters

I’ve been immersed in the politics of abortion policy for so long that I felt the need to take a step back and analyze how the demographics of the RTL rank-and-file have changed over time. I wrote it all up at New York:

Looking at an article in the Washington Post about the frenetic activity in many states since 2010 aimed at enacting abortion restrictions, some in order to set up a legal challenge to Roe v. Wade, the American Prospect’s Harold Meyerson noticed a pattern, which he discussed in a subscription email to readers that I happen to receive.

“Thirty-three states have enacted abortion restrictions since [2010], while just 17, plus the District of Columbia, have not.

“What interested me about those two lists was the degree to which they didn’t align with the share of Roman Catholics in the states. The eight most heavily Catholic states—in order, Rhode Island (42 percent Catholic), Massachusetts (34 percent), New Jersey (34 percent), New Mexico (34 percent), Connecticut (33 percent), New York (31 percent), California (28 percent) and Illinois (28 percent)—were among the 17 that had not passed legislation curtailing abortion rights. Conversely, the 13 states with the lowest percentage of Catholics—in order, Mississippi (4 percent), Utah (5 percent), West Virginia (6 percent), Tennessee (6 percent), Alabama (7 percent), North Carolina (9 percent), Georgia (9 percent), South Carolina (10 percent), Kentucky (10 percent), Idaho (10 percent) and Virginia (12 percent)—were among the 33 states that have curtailed access to abortions since 2010.

“In sum, the relationship between the number of Catholics in a state and the intensity of the state’s anti-abortion policies is completely inverse.”

This fact might come as a surprise to people who still think of Catholics as the bedrock core of the right-to-life movement, as they undoubtedly were in the days immediately following Roe.

In fact, Catholic public opinion on abortion policy (as on most political topics) is pretty close to that of the country as a whole, which means marginally pro-choice. Here’s how the Public Religion Research Institute put it in a 2015 survey:

“On the issue of abortion, Catholic attitudes generally mirror Americans overall. A majority (53%) of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 43% say it should be illegal. Among Catholics, a slim majority (51%) says abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to 45% who say it should be illegal.”

A more recent survey from Pew showed Catholics favoring the “legal in all or most cases” position by a slightly slimmer 48/47 margin. Both surveys showed that white Catholics — i.e., those significantly more likely to identify with the anti-abortion Republican Party — were more likely to be pro-choice than overwhelmingly Democratic Latino Catholics.

This is not — repeat, not — to say that there aren’t a lot of passionately active RTL adherents in the U.S. Catholic ranks, who can rely on the consistent support of the hierarchy and the Vatican (and yes, despite some RTL angst about his recent statement that defending the poor was as important as defending the “unborn,” Pope Francis hasn’t given much aid and comfort to pro-choice Catholics).

But there’s no question the religious community that is far more solidly in the anti-abortion camp is white Evangelical Protestants. In a 2017 survey that broke out this particular segment of the population, Pew found that 70 percent of white Evangelicals thought that all or most abortions should be illegal. Less than half of Catholics (44 percent), black Protestants (41 percent), white mainline Protestants (30 percent), and the unaffiliated (17 percent) agreed with this position.

This is remarkable in no small part because unlike Catholics, white Evangelicals have little traditional investment in the anti-abortion cause. They have no formal hierarchy, no teaching tradition, no papal encyclicals, and no “natural law” philosophy leading them in the direction of regarding abortion as grievously sinful. They purport to follow only the Bible, which never mentions abortion and only obliquely refers to fetal life. Evangelicals, moreover, were not as a group actively engaged in state efforts to keep abortion illegal prior to Roe; many (particularly among Southern Baptists, the largest white Evangelical denomination) favored “liberalized” abortion laws back then.

However you choose to explain the white Evangelical shift toward strongly anti-abortion views — as a moral “awakening” after Roe; a general rejection of liberalism and feminism; a nostalgic embrace of cultural conservatism in all its elements (including patriarchy); or a byproduct of a growing alliance with conservative politics — it’s unmistakable, and it has offset the gradual drift toward pro-choice views among Catholics.

Getting back to Meyerson’s observation, most of the states he notes as having small Catholic populations along with virulently anti-abortion policies also have large white Evangelical populations (there’s also Utah, with an LDS majority that is culturally conservative and also has a strong church hierarchy doctrinally opposed to abortion). And not coincidentally, they all (with the partial exception of Virginia) are currently Republican-run states.

The polarization of the two parties on abortion policy stems from multiple sources, but none is so powerful as the shift in the anti-abortion “base” from a Catholic population that is more or less split down the middle between the two parties (and if anything leans Democratic) to a white evangelical population that has become aligned with Republicans on a broad range of issues from civil rights to taxes to “size of government” to the cultural issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights that we associate with the Christian right.

So the archaic view of abortion as primarily a “Catholic issue” needs updating for those who want to understand why some places are so hospitable to anti-abortion politics.