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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

November 16: A Very Blue Midterm for California Republicans

As a resident of the Golden State of California, I have been impressed by the gradually building landslide this state’s Democrats have built as the vote slowly came in on and after November 6 thanks to Democratic-passed laws aimed at making it easier to vote and making sure every vote is counted.  I wrote an assessment at New York:

California, already a blue bastion in which Democrats held the legislature, every statewide elected position, both U.S. Senate seats, and a solid majority of U.S. House seats, managed to become even more Democratic on November 6.

Democrats regained the state legislative supermajorities they won in 2016 (they had lost that margin in the state senate thanks to a recall, and temporarily lost it in the state assembly due to resignations over sexual-misconduct charges), giving new Democratic governor Gavin Newsom veto-proof support for this agenda. Republicans again failed to win any statewide offices; the closest they came was former Republican insurance commissioner Steve Poizner’s just-short effort to reclaim his old job as an independent. And most importantly, they have lost four U.S. House seats out of the 14 they currently control, with two more losses more likely than not as late returns (mostly mail ballots postmarked on or near Election Day) continue to trend Democratic, as the Los Angeles Times notes:

“California Republicans lost a fourth seat in the House on Tuesday as Democrat Josh Harder gained enough votes to oust GOP Rep. Jeff Denham in the San Joaquin Valley….

“In Orange County’s latest ballot count Tuesday, Republican Rep. Mimi Walters fell 261 votes behind her Democratic challenger, Katie Porter. Walters finished election night more than 6,200 votes ahead, but her lead steadily dwindled until it vanished on Tuesday.

“Young Kim, the Republican running to succeed GOP Rep. Ed Royce of Fullerton, saw her lead over Democrat Gil Cisneros shrink to 711 votes in the updated Orange and Los Angeles county tallies.”

By my rough calculation, losing six seats would leave Republicans with the fewest California House members since 1944, when the state only had 23 districts. The GOP did better in House races even in such notable Democratic landslide years as 1964, 1974, 2006, and 2008.

These very blue results for Republicans extended beyond their dismal performance in electoral contests. The GOP invested heavily in a ballot initiative to repeal a big 2017 fuel-tax increase that was being used to deal with a massive backlog of road and bridge repairs; Republicans very much hoped it would drive voters to the polls in their Southern California and Central Valley strongholds, saving endangered officeholders. It didn’t seem to work, and the initiative itself was trounced.

The depths to which California Republicans have descended have already spurred calls for the party to distance itself from Donald Trump, who is pretty clearly a millstone around the elephant’s neck in this particular part of the country. A widely quoted op-ed by Republican former legislator Kristin Olsen didn’t mince words:

“The California Republican Party isn’t salvageable at this time. The Grand Old Party is dead – partly because it has failed to separate itself from today’s toxic, national brand of Republican politics….

“While the rest of the nation saw a mix of Republican and Democrat victories, we in California experienced a blue tsunami. It looks as if Democrats will win nearly every target seat, including some in districts that have been historically considered ‘safe’ for Republicans.

“It is time for a New Way. And if the Republican Party can’t evolve, it may be time for a third party, one that will appeal to disenfranchised voters in the Republican and Democratic parties who long for better representation and a better California for all.”

If this sounds alarmist, it’s not that different from the position taken earlier this year by the last Republican governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in helping to launch a moderate GOP organization called (probably not coincidentally) “New Way:”

“Mr. Schwarzenegger said the Republican Party had to be ‘environmentally progressive, socially liberal and fiscally conservative’ in order to be competitive.

“’The politics of division and anger and resentment can drive a strong base to the polls, yes,’ he said. ‘But it is tearing our country apart at the seams. And nothing is getting done.'”

Having alienated the state’s large and growing minority populations via years of anti-immigrant demagoguery and law-and-order appeals, and now beginning to lose its ancient suburban base via fidelity to Trump, California Republicans have richly earned their bad situation. It’s hard to imagine them going back and starting over, but that may be what the situation demands.

November 14: White Evangelicals in the Midterms

After some more examination of exit polls–taken with a grain of salt, of course–l wrote at New York about some findings involving white evangelical voters.

[I]t seems this voting bloc faithfully shows up at the polls in all kinds of political weather; white Evangelicals were an identical 26 percent of the electorate in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018. Their support level for Republicans is uniformly high, but does vary somewhat according to the overall results of a given election. In U.S. House races, white Evangelicals were reported to have given Republicans 78 percent in the strong pro-GOP midterm election of 2014, and a lower 75 percent in the strong pro-Democratic midterm of 2018. In 2016, a very close race in which white Evangelical leaders were outspokenly pro-GOP, their rank and file gave Donald Trump 80 percent, and Republican House candidates an amazing 84 percent.

The perception that white Evangelicals are especially happy with Trump was reinforced by their voting behavior in some of the key 2018 Senate races where POTUS was heavily involved. In Indiana, where Trump campaigned twice during the last week of the midterms (alongside his conspicuously Evangelical Hoosier vice-president Mike Pence), white Evangelicals rose from 39 percent of the electorate in 2016 to 41 percent, and gave GOP Senate nominee Mike Braun 72 percent of their vote (three points higher than winning Republican candidate Todd Young in 2016). Braun won. In Missouri, Trump also made a late appearance for GOP Senate candidate Josh Hawley. The percentage of the electorate represented by white Evangelicals rose from 35 percent to 38 percent, and Hawley got 75 percentof it, a higher percentage than winning GOP candidate Roy Blunt in 2016. In Florida, Trump campaigned for Senate candidate Rick Scott and gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis. The white Evangelical share of the vote there rose by an amazing nine points, from 20 percent in 2016 to 29 percent this year. Scott won 80 percent of this elevated vote, and DeSantis won 77 percent (not quite as much as the otherworldly 84 percent won by Marco Rubio — a particular Evangelical favorite — during his easy 2016 win, but still an impressive showing).

Perhaps the best way to capture the impact of white Evangelical Republicanism is to look at the partisan leanings of the rest of the electorate. In the 2014 midterms — again, a solid Republican year — non–white Evangelicals, representing nearly three-fourths of the electorate, went Democratic by a 55/43 margin. In the 2016 presidential election, non–white Evangelicals went for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump 60/34. And in the election that just occurred, Democrats won the three-fourths of the electorate that is outside the white Evangelical ranks — including all Catholics, Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, African-American Christians, mainline Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and the nonreligious — by a 66/32 margin. The extent to which this involves an Evangelical/non-Evangelical split, instead of one (as Evangelical leaders often claim) that is strictly between the religious and the irreligious, can be illustrated by a fascinating exit-poll finding from the Georgia governor’s race. Among Georgia voters who say they attend religious services “monthly or more,” Kemp led Abrams by a single point, 50/49. Among those who say they attend religious services less than monthly (or not at all), Abrams led by two points, 50/48.

On electoral Tuesdays more than church-service Sundays, white Evangelicals live in their own world, and Donald Trump and his allies rule it.

November 9: The Evolution of Southern Democrats Accelerates

After listening to some of the post-midterm back and forth, I occurred to me that not enough attention was being paid to a new twist in a saga I had been following closely for thirty years: the evolution of southern Democrats. So I wrote about it at New York:

On one level, the Democratic Party in the South emerged from the midterm elections of 2018 looking as supine as it generally has in recent years. Democrats lost (unless late ballots overturn the apparent defeat of Bill Nelson) one of their 4 senators in the 11 states of the former Confederacy. They were 0-for-7 in governor’s races (with the same proviso about late ballots in Florida, and possibly in Georgia). They still do not control a single state legislative chamber in the region.

But in scattered U.S. House races, and in certain surprisingly viable statewide candidacies as well, you can see a Democratic revival in the South, and one that is likely more durable in its reliance on ascending rather than declining demographic configurations. Just as importantly, these southern Democrats are for the most part unapologetically left of center, and sometimes outspokenly progressive, and are thus an active element of a national party for the first time since the New Deal. Until very recently, the Democratic constituency of the South was an uneasy coalition of disgruntled, conservative white voters perpetually on the brink of defection, and loyal black voters who felt unappreciated and underrepresented. At different paces in different states, but all throughout the region, a new suburban-minority coalition is emerging. It may never achieve majority status in areas that are too white or too rural to sustain it. But it is showing great promise in enough states to make the South’s political future an open question for the first time in this millennium.

Nearly successful statewide candidates in the South for the most part represented just as much of a new wave. Obviously, Florida and Georgia gubernatorial nominees Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams were unlike their Democratic predecessors in almost every respect, most obviously in their race (they were the first African-American gubernatorial nominees in the South since Doug Wilder’s breakthrough candidacy in 1989). Gillum ran as a Bernie-Sanders-style progressive who supported single-payer health care. Abrams was a bit less ideological, but did campaign on her record as the state’s preeminent advocate and organizer for minority voters, and was clearly the most progressive Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia history. Yet Gillum won the highest percentage of the vote of any Democratic candidate for governor of Florida since 1994, and Abrams outstripped any Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia since 1998.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Beto O’Rourke’s emphatically progressive Senate campaign won the highest percentage for any Democratic gubernatorial or Senate candidate since 1990.

After this year’s developments, Georgia or Florida or Texas Democrats are very unlikely to return to the old blue dog formula of running white statewide candidates who cling to the center or center-right on issues while expecting minority voters to play along in order to keep Republicans out of office. Even in states like Alabama and Mississippi, which do not have a plethora of wealthy suburbs with relatively liberal white voters to form coalitions with minority voters, change is in the air. Doug Jones, who won his improbable 2017 Senate race on the wings of supercharged African-American turnout, is well to the left of prior statewide Democratic candidates in Alabama. And African-American former congressman Mike Espy will face appointed Republican senator Cindy Hyde-Smith in a November 27 special election runoff that could provide another test of newfound Democratic strength.

At the substate level, Democratic wins and near-wins in urban-suburban House races will likely become a regular occurrence in the South — as will candidate platforms and messages similar to those of Democrats in the rest of the country. Georgia’s Lucy McBath, who ousted Republican veteran Karen Handel in the same north Atlanta suburban district where Jon Ossoff fell just-short in 2017, is an African-American best known as a national advocate for gun control. That kind of candidacy succeeding, in Newt Gingrich’s old district no less, would have been unimaginable in Georgia until, well, now. Nine of the 13 members of Virginia’s congressional delegation next year will be Democrats, and the most conservative of them could well be Senator Mark Warner.

The transformation of the southern Democratic Party won’t be entirely uniform. In a state like Tennessee, with its relatively low minority population and sizable rural areas, there isn’t much potential statewide for the kind of suburban-minority coalitions we’re seeing elsewhere. It’s not surprising that Democrats there turned to their last statewide office-holder, former governor Phil Bredesen, as a Senate candidate this year – nor that Bredesen ultimately fell short despite all but denying his affiliation with his national party.

There is more than demographics, however, behind the new wave of southern Democrats. Donald Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party has reinforced its most atavistic tendencies, which in the South, as elsewhere, are inhibiting the GOP’s ability to become a stable governing party. Georgia is a state long accustomed to subtly race-tinged conservative politics. But this year’s gubernatorial campaign from Republican Brian Kemp was a throwback to a rawer right-wing era, with his attacks on “outside agitators,”his proud boasts of being “politically incorrect,” and his blatant defiance of voting rights as the state’s chief election officer. Even if southern Democrats move markedly to the left, the region’s Republicans are poorly positioned to move anywhere close to the center.

The 2020 presidential election could provide a very good test of the South’s political future. In much of the recent past, the largely Republican makeup of voters in presidential elections made presidential election years especially difficult for southern Democrats. With both parties beginning to more closely resemble their national leaderships at large, that’s not so much the case anymore. As recently as 2000 and 2004, Republicans won every single electoral vote from the former Confederate states. Virginia has now voted Democratic in three straight presidential elections. Florida went Democratic in 2008 and 2012, and North Carolina was carried by Obama once, in 2008. Virginia should now be considered a reasonably solid blue state; Florida and North Carolina are purple; and Georgia and Texas are most definitely trending in that direction. It’s not at all unimaginable that all these states could go Democratic in 2020 if it’s a good year for Democrats nationally.

November 8: Were the Midterms Just About Mobilizing Pro-Democratic Groups? Maybe Not, According to the Exit Polls

I was staring at the 2018 and 2014 exit polls yesterday, for signs of a different electorate showing up this year, and was surprised at what I saw, as I explained at New York.

If you heard it once, you probably heard it a hundred times: the 2018 midterm elections, and perhaps all midterm elections, were “all about turnout.” With the electorate polarized down to its every molecule, the winning equation was simply to identify demographic groups that were in or trending towards one’s own side, then nag and scare and excite and anger and knock and drag them to the polls.

If “base mobilization” was in fact all that mattered, then it would be logical to expect that the shape of the 2018 electorate would be dramatically different from that of the 2014 midterms, in which Republicans had a very solid performance, gaining 13 House seats, 9 Senate seats, and 2 governorships.

But a comparison of exit polls, the best preliminary indicator we have of the shape of the 2014 and 2018 electorates, doesn’t show as much change as you might expect. Yes, the 2018 electorate was much bigger than 2014’s: an estimated 114 million people voted this year, as opposed to 83 million four years ago. But the shape of this bigger electorate is familiar, according to the Edison Research exit polls for both midterms.

The white makeup of the electorate was 75 percent in 2014 and 72 percent this year, though the modest difference is mostly attributable to demographic change rather than some sort of voter mobilization effort. African-Americans formed 11 percent of the electorate in 2014 and 12 percent in 2018, another modest change. Latinos are a rapidly rising share of the population, so it’s not too surprising that they grew from 8 percent to 11 percent (they were only 9 percent, by the way, in a separate NORC exit poll).

How about that most notorious category of voter, the non-college educated white voter (a.k.a. the white working-class voter)? Its membership constituted 36 percent of the electorate in 2014 and 41 percent in 2018. That’s not very consistent with a demography-driven Democratic Wave, is it? So is gender turnout a factor? Did women show up in droves to punish Trump and the GOP? Well, yeah, women were up a tick (from 51 percent to 52 percent) as a percentage of the electorate. But white women, supposedly super-mobilized, actually dropped from constituting 38 percent of all voters in 2014 to 37 percent this year.

One difference that might look significant is that the percentage of voters identifying as “white evangelical or born-again Christian” dropped from 26 percent of the electorate to 22 percent. But much of that is simply owing to the general relative decline in the size of the white population, compounded by the erosion of membership that is now hitting conservative Protestant denominations just like their more liberal counterparts. It doesn’t mean Republicans didn’t do as good a job herding the Evangelical flocks to the polls as they have in the past.

So if the electorate isn’t all that different in its component parts than it was four years ago, what did change? It’s hard to say definitively, since it’s always possible that one party or the other did better at turning out their particular share of various demographic groups than the other. But it looks like public opinion changed, with or without partisan efforts to sway it.

The example that jumps off the page in reading the exits is voters over 65. Republicans won them 57-41 in 2014, but only 50-48 in 2018. That’s about the same margin as in 2006, the last Democratic “wave” election, before the tea party movement-driven realignment of the electorate made “old” all but synonymous with “Republican.” White college graduates shifted from 57-41 Republican in 2014 to 53-45 Democratic this year. By contrast, white voters without a college degree changed marginally, from 64-34 Republican to 61-37. White women didn’t trend as massively Democratic in 2018 as some of the anecdotal evidence suggested, but did go from 56-42 Republican to 49-49 this year. The 2014 exits didn’t provide a breakdown by race, gender, and education-level, but given the relatively low change in the vote of non-college educated white voters generally, you can figure this year’s 59-39 Democratic margin among college-educated white women was a pretty big shift.

Yes, the exit polls are quite fallible, as the evidence of the undercounting of white non-college educated voters in the 2016 exit polls shows. But if the change of partisan outcome between 2014 and 2018 was strictly a matter of one mobilization machine outperforming another, it would show up pretty dramatically in the numbers.

It’s not fashionable to say it, but perhaps persuasion by candidates and campaigns had a bit more to do with the Democratic surge in 2018 than we might otherwise suspect. And there’s a good chance that objective reality did, as well: the experience of having Donald Trump as president for two years, with a supine Republican Party doing his bidding. It’s worth pondering as 2020 approaches.

November 2: Trump’s Plans for Spinning the Loss of the House

It was about what you’d expect from someone who couldn’t even be honest about the size and nature of his own presidential victory. But still, Trump’s plans to spin the midterms even if his party loses the House are amazing, and I wrote it up at New York.

According to Politico, the post-election plan is already set:

“President Donald Trump and his allies have crafted a face-saving plan if Democrats trounce their way to a House majority — tout Trump as the savior of Republicans in the Senate.

“In public and private, Trump and advisers are pointing to the president’s surge of campaigning on behalf of Republican Senate candidates — 19 rallies alone since Labor Day — as evidence that nobody else could have had a bigger impact in the states. The argument is classic Trump, who despite making the midterms a referendum on his own presidency, has a history of personalizing and then dwelling on his victories while distancing himself and diverting attention from his losses.”

So now we know part of the thinking behind the otherwise oddly exclusive focus of Trump on states with Senate races instead of close House races. “Saving” the Senate was an extraordinarily easier task, given the fact that Republicans have the most favorable partisan landscape in living memory for that chamber. As veteran election forecaster Stu Rothenberg recently said: 

“The map continues to be the main reason why the Democrats aren’t likely to flip the Senate. It’s the worst map for one party I have ever seen.”


So “winning” the Senate is about as impressive an accomplishment for Republicans this year as pushing a bicycle down a suburban driveway. The amazing thing is that Democrats ever had a realistic opportunity to flip the chamber (they still have a one-in-six chance of doing that, according to FiveThirtyEight). But if Republicans not only hold onto their slim Senate margin but pick up seats, the howls of triumph will be deafening:

“Should Republicans pick up Senate seats, ‘that’s all they’ll talk about,’ said Barry Bennett, a presidential adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign….

“”If the president picks up Senate seats, they’ll be no honest people talking about a ‘blue wave,’ Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally and chairman of the American Conservative Union, told POLITICO.”

No one will admit that had Hillary Clinton been elected president Republican Senate gains this year would have been certain, and probably significantly larger. It’s all about Trump’s magnificance!

And if Republicans hold onto both congressional chambers (an unlikely but far from impossible result), the president might just declare further debates about his greatness a waste of time.

If Trump’s party, however, loses on all fronts, what you will not hear is anything like Barack Obama’s admission after the 2010 midterms:

“A sober President Obama acknowledged Wednesday that he took ‘a shellacking’ in the midterm election and that his once highflying relationship with the American voter had hit rocky times….

“Obama took responsibility for Tuesday’s losses, expressed sadness for Democratic lawmakers who lost while standing by the administration’s policies, and defended his more controversial efforts. Pronouncing himself humbled, he pledged to negotiate with Republicans on a much less aggressive agenda.”

Only losers admit they’ve lost.


November 1: Trump’s Closing Midterm Pitch: White Identity Politics

Even before his “immigration speech” at the White House that telegraphed all sorts of panicky militarism about the southern border, the president was making it clear that he only had eyes for his “base” and was determined to get them fired up to save Republican candidates, as I pointed out at New York.

As the midterm election campaign winds down (or given the enthusiasm levels, winds up) to a tense conclusion, there’s not much doubt about the Trump/GOP closing pitch, made almost exclusively to the party’s conservative “base:” it’s about the “caravan,” the evil lying media, the scheming socialist Democrats, and the threat to law and order posed by (non-white) Democratic constituencies. It’s a fear campaign with the president’s usual lurid touches.

But make no mistake: underlying these themes is a politics of race and identity that somehow isn’t seen as malignant by Republicans because of the race involved and its endangered majority status. Adam Serwer does a good job of exposing the truth that is just barely beneath the surface of the GOP midterm message:

“In upstate New York, an embattled Republican incumbent attacks his black, Harvard-educated Democratic challenger as a ‘big-city rapper’; in California, an anti-immigrant Republican under federal indictment smears his Arab American rival as a terrorist; in Georgia, a state far from the Southern border, the Republican candidate for governor brags that he’ll drive around in his pickup truck and ’round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself.’ Although the president hasn’t spent as much time in recent appearances emphasizing the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, he framed the opposition to his nominee, who faced multiple accusations of sexual assault, as an attack on powerful men by dangerous feminists.

Indeed, white male identity politics has become so central to conservative appeals to the electorate that it has become an obligatory orthodoxy as oppressive as any left-wing campus speech code, as I noted in observing Georgia gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp’s boasts of being “politically incorrect” earlier this year:

“If Kemp wins…with this strategy, it is going to reinforce the already powerful Trumpian impulse to treat conservative “base” voters as motivated above all by the desire to go back to the wonderful days when a white man could without repercussions tell a racist joke, ‘tease’ women about their physical appearance or sexual morals, and mock people who in some way (say, a disability) differ from one’s own self. At some point we may all come to understand that it’s not (except in some scattered college campuses) the politically correct who are imposing speech norms on the rest of us, but the politically incorrect who won’t be happy until offending the less powerful is again recognized as among the principal Rights of Man.”

It has for years been unclear whether Republicans fully understand that they are living on borrowed time in depending on appeals to the fears and resentments of a shrinking majority, and to an increasingly insecure male minority within that majority. After their 2012 presidential defeat they were briefly chastened by the need for a more inclusive message, before Donald Trump came along and doubled-down on white identity politics one more time – and won.

Now there’s no doubt this is Trump’s party now. Its desire for policies benefiting the largely white business class is harnessed to an appeal to racial solidarity that keeps non-college educated folk in the fold despite the lack of any tangible accomplishments on their behalf. In a pure power struggle bereft of any principles of generosity or common purpose, those who already hold power have a built-in advantage, and that’s what Republicans are counting upon. But let’s please discard the idea that Trump and his allies are innocent of identity politics. They are master practitioners of that art.

October 25: Channeling Bad Memories of 2016–For Victory

As the midterms approach, it’s hard for many Democrats to forget what happened in the last nationwide general election. I wrote about the positive side of that trauma for New York:

Things looked even sunnier for Democrats this time two years ago, right? And then the nightmare began …

The sense of déjà vu is intensifying with reports of increased Republican enthusiasm, and in some places, better polling numbers for the GOP. Could it all be happening again?

That’s the question being posed by Orange County, California, Democrats in a close-up piece by the Washington Post’s Matt Viser:

“[V]oters there seemed racked with uncertainty. They want to feel optimistic, but they said that after Trump’s unexpected victory, they will never trust their expectations again.

“‘I’m getting anxious. I’m getting very anxious,’ said Carol Barnes, a 70-year-old retired clinical laboratory scientist from East Anaheim. ‘We just have to keep going and hope for the best. I don’t want to go home crying again.’

But at least one Democratic congressional candidate in the area, Katie Hill, is actually using the bad memories to keep her supporters motivated:

“Terrified of reliving the dejection they awoke to on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016, they are attempting to harness those nervous emotions and inject a bit of fear in the hearts of their supporters.

“Katie Hill, who has emerged as one of the party’s most promising first-time congressional candidates, looked out at a group of about 100 supporters days ago and revealed that new polling indicated a four-point swing against her in what for decades has been a conservative stronghold, driven by consolidation by Republican voters into the camp of her opponent.

“‘We were ahead by a few points just a few weeks ago,’ she said from a campaign headquarters sandwiched between a vape shop and a gun store. ‘The last poll we got back a couple days ago has us exactly tied.'”

This isn’t the first time Democrats have exhibited Post-Trump Stress Disorder, as I observed at a similar juncture last year during the off-year Virginia gubernatorial contest:

“Earlier this week the Daily Beast’s veteran political reporter Sam Stein wrote that Democrats were ‘panicked’ over Virginia, worried about a lack of enthusiasm for their candidate and the absence of the kind of massive national small-dollar investments in the campaign that characterized the congressional special election in Georgia earlier this year. A prominent Virginia activist penned a piece that rocketed around the internet with this headline: ‘Heads Up — An Impending Disaster in Virginia.’ And Vox’s Jeff Stein penned a classic glass-half-empty assessment noting that polls showed the race as ‘surprisingly close’ while ‘worried’ Democrats fretted over Gillespie’s ‘culture war’ attacks on Northam.”

Then, as now, Republicans were getting very Trumpy in their efforts to motivate conservative voters with savage cultural themes.

“[T]he more Gillespie’s campaign begins to resemble Trump’s in its borderline-racist savagery about criminal gangs of immigrants and politically correct efforts to take down Confederate monuments, the more Democrats relive Election Night 2016, when all those objective indicators of a Clinton victory proved illusory.”

But it all turned out well on Election Day in Virginia, when Democrat Ralph Northam actually over-performed his polling expectations. It’s unclear whether the “Democratic panic” so palpable in the home stretch of that race helped motivate Northam’s supporters, or tempted them to hide under their beds. And it’s also unclear whether gambits like Katie Hall’s will make a positive difference in her prospects on November 6. It is very clear that if Democrats failed to win the House after a solid year or more of talk about a “Democratic wave,” left-of-center voters may not trust election punditry or projections for a good while.


October 24: Stacey Abrams’ “Flag-Burning” Incident Was a Peaceful Protest

Something popped up in the political news this week that brought back some personal memories, so I wrote about it at New York:

On a rainy Monday morning in June of 1992, I happened to have a meeting in the Georgia State Capitol (I was communications director for U.S. senator Sam Nunn at the time). Upon arriving, I learned a demonstration against the Confederate flag insignia that segregationists added to the state flag in 1956 would soon begin on the steps outside. But it looked like a war was imminent: Just inside the doors at the Capitol, there was a phalanx of State Building Authority police officers in full riot gear. Walking behind their ranks, peering over them to see what was happening at the protest site, was none other than former governor Lester Maddox, the last of the state’s segregationist governors. Turns out he was, like me, just there for a meeting, but for all the world it looked like those mostly black cops were there protecting ol’ Lester from civil-rights protesters.

I went about my business, and I suppose Maddox did, too; meanwhile a brief protest took place just outside the building. The general feeling at the time was that the state had massively overreacted to a small, peaceful demonstration. The reason was obvious: Just over a month earlier violent protests had erupted in Atlanta (as in other cities) after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles. At one point, a car parked just outside the Capitol (belonging, ironically, to then–Governor Zell Miller’s top African-American staffer) was overturned. There were no deaths, fortunately, but there were many injuries.

And so in June the flag protesters were outnumbered not just by nearby riot police, but by Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents taking snapshots and trying to intimidate the young college students carrying out the protest. They briefly set fire to the 1956 flag. The rain probably extinguished the fire pretty quickly.

Another piece of context is crucial to this story: Just two weeks earlier, Governor Miller, a Democrat who had once been Maddox’s chief of staff (and who would be a supporter of many conservative candidates later in his career), had called for getting rid of the Confederate emblems on the Georgia flag — a stance that quickly gained the support of soon-to-be U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a conservative Republican from Georgia. So the position, if not the incendiary behavior, of the June protesters was very much in the political mainstream (though it would take another near-decade for the flag to change, under Governor Roy Barnes in 2001).

All this would be a forgotten footnote to the long story of social change in the Deep South had not one of those protesters at the Georgia Capitol been Stacey Abrams, who is running to become the first Democratic governor since Barnes won 20 years ago. Someone dug up a 1992 article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that showed Abrams among the flag-burners, and posted it on Facebook. The New York Times wrote it all up, omitting most of the context I outlined above.

It’s unclear whether this will become an issue in the red-hot, very close contest between Abrams and her conservative Republican opponent, Brian Kemp. Abrams’s underlying position on the flag is now, of course, accepted by everyone other than hard-core neo-Confederates. She has taken far more controversial positions on other divisive relics, such as the giant marble billboard of Confederate leaders chiseled onto the face of state-owned Stone Mountain. But in a racially as well as ideologically polarized gubernatorial election in which Kemp has worked hard to depict Abrams as some sort of lawless radical (particularly in the context of Abrams’s long-standing effortsto register poor and minority voters), the symbolism of flag-burning is easy to exploit, and the larger Lost Cause will also rouse not-so-quiet racists.

The protests in which Abrams participated were righteous then and now, and posed no threat to public safety or order.

October 17: Don’t Believe the Polling Hype

I read an awful lot of stuff about polls, and know just enough about polling to know (most of the time) when I’m being spun. Having seen one clear example, I decided to slice and dice it at New York.

Polling averages like those published by RealClearPolitics and the highly masticated poll-based analysisat FiveThirtyEight are a good corrective to the tendency to see only the results that confirm the reader’s biases, hopes, and dreams. But the announcement of polls is often accompanied by the blare of partisan trumpets, and the results laundered by a partisan spin cycle. This is very evident with respect to a piece at CNBC today. Here’s the lede:

“With economic optimism soaring in the country, will Democrats be able to sweep to power in either house of Congress or will buoyant sentiment help Republicans keep hold of their Congressional majorities?

“The latest CNBC All-America Economic Survey offers mixed signals, but leans against a wave Democratic election like that those that swept Republicans to power in 2010 and 2014.

“The poll of 800 Americans across the country, with a margin of error of 3.5 percent, found a six-point Democratic lead on the question of who voters will choose in the November congressional elections. The 42 percent to 36 percent margin is not far from what pollsters would expect given the greater percentage of Democratic registered voters.

“‘A six point differential is not something that’s going to cause a big electoral wave,’ said Micah Roberts, the Republican pollster on the CNBC poll, a partner Public Opinion Strategies. ‘Economic confidence that people have among a lot of groups is providing a buffer’ for Republicans.”

1) So the findings “lean against a wave election like those that swept Republicans to power in 2010 and 2014.” It’s hard to understand exactly what this means. Republicans picked up 63 net House seats in 2010; nobody’s predicting Democrats will do that well, and they need just 23 seats to win control of the House. Republicans netted 13 House seats in 2014. That isn’t “like” 2010. If this is supposed to be a reference to the Republican conquest of the Senate in 2014, we’re really mixing apples and oranges since a national poll of partisan preferences has little or nothing to do with a Senate landscape that exists in one-third of the states.

2) This is a poll of 800 adults — not registered voters, much less likely voters. That’s a very imprecise sample. And the Margin of Error of 3.5 percent could be pretty significant when it comes to a generic ballot difference — the key statistic in the poll — of 6 percent.

3) The suggestion that the Democrats’ margin in party preferences (the so-called generic congressional ballot) is meaningless because it’s “not far from what pollsters would expect given the greater percentage of Democratic registered voters” is very misleading. The generic ballot includes Democrats, Republicans, and independents; if the plurality of Democratic registration determined it, Democrats would always have an advantage, which they don’t.

4) All the economic data in this poll is interesting, but isn’t terribly predictive when it comes to midterm elections, which are pretty highly correlated to overall presidential approval ratings (which have been underwater almost the entirety of the Trump presidency) and to the generic congressional ballot. Economic perceptions can help explain why voters feel the way they do, but if “economic optimism is soaring,” that will show up in the more predictive poll findings.

5) At varying points CNBC suggests the poll shows there probably won’t be a “wave Democratic election” or a “big electoral wave” or a “massive wave election.” Nowhere is there any definition of the phantom phenomenon the data are supposed to rebut. Presumably a Democratic takeover of the House would be considered a “wave,” if not a “massive wave,” whatever that means. CNN’s Harry Enten thinks a Democratic generic ballot advantage of six to eight points will be sufficient to accomplish that; Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz thinks four points could be enough. Others think it will require a bigger margin. But this particular poll doesn’t provide any decisive guidance on the subject.

At the moment, the RealClearPolitics polling average on the generic ballotquestion gives Democrats a 7.2 percent advantage. FiveThirtyEight’s gives Democrats an 8.6 percent lead. Both these averages include the CNBC poll, though not very high in their listings, because it was conducted from October 4–7, which not exactly super-fresh in the world of public opinion.

I went through the analysis above not because this particular poll used a questionable methodology (it didn’t) or is somehow useless (it’s not). But it’s important to know when the presenter of polling data is selling you a bill of goods for her or his own reasons. There will be a lot more of that as November 6 approaches.

October 12: Republicans May Mobilize Against Feinstein–And For Her Progressive Opponent

A very strange byproduct of the Kavanaugh saga is beginning to emerge out here in California. I wrote about it at New York:

Going into the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, Senate Judiciary Committee ranking minority member Dianne Feinstein had some things to think about related to her re-election bid this year. Her opponent (fellow-Democrat Kevin de León, who won a general election slot under California’s Top Two primary system by finishing a distant second to the incumbent on June 5) has criticized her explicitly for insufficient partisanship in the Senate, and implicitly for sticking around too long (she is 85 years old and has held her seat for 27 years). To combat this narrative, she needed to look like an alert and articulate leader of committee Democrats in the hearings, not a wobbly bridge to Republicans.

During the regular Kavanaugh hearings from September 4-7, Feinstein probably cleared both hurdles. She wasn’t as aggressive in questioning Kavanaugh as her California colleague Kamala Harris, or Cory Booker, or Mazie Hirono. But she wasn’t reticent in challenging Kavanaugh, either. And while Feinstein occasionally showed her age, she looked pretty sharp in the geriatrics ward occupied by senior Judiciary members like Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Pat Leahy.

Still, a PPIC survey of California taken just after the hearings (from September 9-18) showed her lead against de León shrinking to eleven points (40/29); she led him 44/12 in the primary (with 30 — that’s right, 30 — other candidates dividing up the rest of the vote). So it was at best a mixed blessing for her that she became a far more central figure in the subsequent hearing involving Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, whose letter alleging a sexual assault by the judge had been withheld by Feinstein out of concern for Ford’s privacy (it was ultimately leaked by an as-yet-unknown source after rumors had spread of its existence). She again handled herself well in questioning Ford, but then was subjected to an extended pummeling by Kavanaugh himself and most of her Republican colleagues for “sitting on”the Ford letter until so late in the confirmation process — with broad hints that she was the leaker.

Most Democrats in California and elsewhere defended Feinstein from the attacks over her handling of Ford. But not Kevin de León, who began criticizing his opponent from practically the moment the story about Ford started trickling out. CalMatters reported his arguments:

“De León — who last week called Feinstein’s approach a ‘failure of leadership’ — said that if he were in Feinstein’s situation, he would have shared a redacted version of the letter with fellow Judiciary Committee members.

“’I believe that Christine Ford’s confidentiality could have been kept and at the same time this issue could have been dealt with,’ he said. ‘But it was neither. And it wasn’t until the pressure mounted, because of the press, because of the leaks, that (Feinstein) started acting.’”

It’s unclear how many voters heard or agreed with de León’s critique; given the intense polarization surrounding the Ford and Kavanaugh testimony, it’s possible some Democrats will decide Feinstein was too hesitant in the whole affair. But de León also may have erred by opening himself up to counter-criticism concerning his own handling of sexual-harassment allegations in the state senate, for which he is responsible as Majority Leader. On the other hand, the Ford/Kavanaugh hearing and the fallout from it may have given help to his candidacy from an unexpected direction: Republican voters.

Powerline’s Steven Hayward made the case for what he called a “delicious possibility”:

“California Republicans have it in their power to punish Feinstein for her role in the Kavanaugh nomination process by voting en masse for de León. Since the Democrats are heading fast to the far left, why not help them out on this self-destructive course …

“There has been speculation that Feinstein launched the late stunt on Kavanaugh because she was worried about losing to de León. It would be the height of irony if it was Republicans delivered a humiliating blow and ignominious end to her long career as a result of that bad faith act.”

Would Republican voters actually want to “punish” Feinstein so badly that they’d vote for the progressive de León? It might seem counterintuitive, but then again, attendees at Donald Trump’s latest rally in Iowa seemed to be in a genuine hate-rage towards Feinstein, as The Hill reported:

“Attendees at President Trump’s campaign rally in Iowa on Tuesday night chanted ‘lock her up’ after the president questioned whether Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) leaked allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.”

The PPIC poll that showed Feinstein’s lead over de León shrinking showed self-identified Republicans preferring the latter to the former, despite her centrist reputation. But here’s the more important thing: 52 percent of Republicans told PPIC they did not plan to vote for either Democrat. If they stampeded to de León out of anger at Feinstein, the race could get very interesting between now and November 6.