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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

The Popular “Moderates versus the Left” narrative about Democrats’ struggle to regain the support of working class voters is the “Night of the Living Dead” of American political commentary.

No matter how many times it is buried by the weight of events it keeps on coming back.

To Regain the Support of “Culturally Traditional but Not Extremist” Working Class Voters Democrats Need to Understand the Compelling Political Narrative That Leads Them to Vote for the GOP.

Read the Memo

The culturally traditional but non-extremist working class voters: who they are, how they think and what Democrats Must Understand to regain their support.

As the 2022 and 2024 elections approach Democrats have responded to their declining working class support by proposing variations on one or another of two strategies that they have advocated ever since the 1970’s.

The Popular “Moderates versus the Left” narrative about Democrats’ struggle to regain the support of working class voters is the “Night of the Living Dead” of American political commentary.

No matter how many times it is buried by the weight of events it keeps on coming back.

The culturally traditional but non-extremist working class voters: who they are, how they think and what Democrats Must Understand to regain their support.

By Andrew Levison

Read the Report.

The Daily Strategist

November 28, 2022

How Tight Margins in Key Races Can Trip Pollster Expectations

Nathaniel Rakich argues that “Republicans Are Just A Normal Polling Error Away From A Landslide — Or Wiping Out” at FiveThirtyEight:

With just five days until Election Day, Republicans are in good shape in the FiveThirtyEight forecast. If each party were to win every race they are currently favored to win, Republicans would have 51 Senate seats and Democrats would have 49, according to our Deluxe forecast as of Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern.1 And if the same thing happened in the House, Republicans would win 225 seats and Democrats would win 210.

But those gains would be modest by the standards of midterm elections. In other words, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast, this likely won’t be a “red-wave” election like 2010 (when Republicans picked up 63 House seats) or 2014 (when Republicans picked up nine Senate seats). Instead, it’s looking like more of a “red ripple.” But that doesn’t mean a red wave is impossible.

Our forecast emphasizes probabilities, not binary outcomes: Democrats and Republicans are only slightly favored to win many of those seats, and a seat with a 60-in-100 chance of going blue votes Republican 40 out of 100 times. As readers of FiveThirtyEight are undoubtedly aware, it’s not unusual for polls to be a few percentage points off the final mark (this is normal and just a reality of our uncertain world). Since 1998, polls of U.S. Senate elections conducted within three weeks of Election Day have had a weighted-average error of 5.4 percentage points, and polls of U.S. House elections have had a weighted-average error of 6.3 points.2

…it’s also possible that pollsters have fixed the problems that plagued them in 2016 and 2020 — maybe even overcorrected for them — and that the current polls are too good for the GOP. In other words, a wide range of scenarios is possible in this election: everything from a Republican landslide to a world where Democrats hold the House and gain seats in the Senate.

Rakich gets down to cases with charts for key Senate and House races, then concludes:

To emphasize again, these are all hypothetical scenarios. If there is a pro-Republican or pro-Democratic polling error, it will almost surely unfold differently. Hopefully, though, this thought exercise has recalibrated your expectations. Of course, the polls could also be extremely accurate — as they were in the 2018 midterm. But you should be mentally prepared for something resembling the above scenarios too.

With so many close margins showing up in the better polls, prepare for surprises. Perhaps the biggest question mark is, who will control the U.S. Senate when the dust settles. As for the role of polling errors, it’s not likely that all or even most of the polls are going to make the same mistake, one way or the other. And keep in mind that it’s “midterms,” plural, not singular.

The Truth About Swing Voters

I know at this point of every election cycle, political people are supposed to feel reverently towards swing voters. But sometimes you just have to tell the truth, so I did at New York:

If you’ve been following the midterms, you know there are a lot of close Senate, House, and gubernatorial races. The irony is that if you are tuned in to what’s happening, the odds are low that you are among the small group of voters who will determine the results next week. Call them “swing voters,” “persuadable voters,” or simply “undecided” or “late-deciding voters,” the people with the most power to shape American government for the next two years are typically underinformed about, if not thoroughly alienated from, government and the political system. And as Lee Drutman and Charlotte Hill explain in a New York Times essay, “swing voters” are often far from being the thoughtful moderates that the conventional wisdom imagines:

“If we consider only voting behavior, the number of ‘floating voters’ — those who have voted for presidential candidates from both major parties at some point in the last four elections — dropped to 5.2 percent in 2012 (down from an average of 12 percent from 1952 to 1980). In 2022, new polling suggests swing voters could make up as little as 3 percent of the electorate …

“Swing voters hold an idiosyncratic mix of priorities and values that scramble the common liberal-conservative divide. Some are economically liberal and socially conservative, while others, albeit relatively few, are the reverse. Many are holdouts from another political era: conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans who no longer feel at home in their party but who haven’t (yet) formally switched to the other side.

“But this is not to say that swing voters are moderates. Undecideds are just as likely as partisans to hold a mix of extreme and mainstream positions. The only difference is that these positions do not neatly align with those of one party.”

They’re not typically moderate or milquetoasty in their attitudes, either, They’re often angry, yet disengaged.

“[If] a shared outlook binds swing voters, it mostly seems to be generalized disdain for both major parties and a kind of anti-system, anti-partisan outlook. This only perpetuates their disengagement. It also leads to more candidates running against Washington, which further undermines trust in government.”

In fact, this disdain for politicians means that negative campaigning, featuring character attacks on opponents as corrupt charlatans, falls on fallow ground in swing-voter-land. These voters often assume the worst of politicians, so they accept this “information” even if it’s being spewed by ad agencies hired by other politicians. And all the nastiness only adds to this group’s civic estrangement.

This year, there is a small subgroup of swing voters in what CNN’s Ron Brownstein calls the “‘double negative election,’ in which most voters are expressing doubts about each party,” as reflected in low job-approval ratings for President Biden alongside low favorability ratings for Republican candidates:

“[R]ecent CNN polls in several key Senate races show that a large, and potentially decisive, slice of voters both disapprove of Biden’s performance and view the GOP nominee unfavorably: 9 percent in Wisconsin, 11 percent in Nevada, 13 percent in Pennsylvania, and 15 percent in Arizona, according to detailed results provided by the CNN polling unit.

“’The real question comes down to that group of independents in the middle, and who votes at the end,’ says Paul Maslin, a long-time Democratic pollster. ‘Is it people saying, “I hate inflation, crime is wrecking this big city I live in,” or people saying, “I’m sorry, but Herschel Walker is a clown, Mehmet Oz is a clown … Blake Masters is a joke,” and they go back to [the Democrats]? I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.’”

Of course, it’s easier for politicians to expand on these voters’ negative feelings about their opponents rather than convincing them their party isn’t so bad. So you wind up with the chimera of a political system dominated by partisans who hold diametrically opposed views on a whole range of economic and cultural issues being controlled by swing voters who dislike them all. Indeed, as Drutman and Hill point out, some swing voters prefer divided government because they don’t trust anyone to govern, leading to tactical voting aimed at perpetuating gridlock as an alternative to the kind of clear governing agenda needed to meet big challenges. And so the cycle of frustration, alienation, and poorly performing government goes on down the road to perdition.

Drutman and Hill make a compelling case for changing our system of electing legislators to one of proportional representation wherein swing voters lose most of their decisive power and those frustrated with the political system can find outlets in viable minor parties rather than paralyzing government altogether. Maybe that will happen someday.

For now, however, it is extremely likely that Democrats will lose their rare governing trifecta next week mostly due to swing voters who’ve decided their unhappiness with the status quo outweighs their fears about Republican extremism. Two years from now, many of these same people may vote for an ex-president with such contempt for voters that he refuses to accept their judgment of his performance. The risk remains that low-information, low-trust swing voters may be the death of us as a functioning democracy.

Political Strategy Notes

From Thomas B. Edsall’s latest New York Times column:”Poll data suggest that Democratic struggles with the white working class are worsening. In “Elections and Demography: Democrats Lose Ground, Need Strong Turnout,” an Oct. 22 American Enterprise institute report by Ruy Teixeira, Karlyn Bowman and Nate Moore write:

The gap between non-college and college whites continues to grow. For the first time this cycle, the difference in margin between the two has surpassed an astounding 40 points, well above the 33-point gap in 2020’s presidential contest. Republicans trail with white college voters by 13.6 points but lead with non-college whites by more than 27 points. Democrats appear stuck in the low 30s with non-college whites — no poll this month has them above 34 percent — so a repeat of Biden’s 37 percent mark appears unlikely.

David Autor, an economist at M.I.T. who has written on the role of the trade shocks that have driven white working-class voters into the arms of the Republican Party, described his assessment of the current mood of these voters in an email:

The class and cultural resentments that were inflamed by the China trade shock (alongside other technological, cultural, and political forces) are now so burned-in that I strongly suspect that they are self-perpetuating. Like a forest fire, these resentments and frustrations create their own wind that carries them forward. While the economic forces that initially fanned those flames might have abated for now, there is plenty of fuel left to consume.

Edsall writes, further, “In an April 2021 paper, “Why Does Globalization Fuel Populism? Economics, Culture, and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism,” [Harvard Kennedy School economist Daniu] Rodrik wrote that he studied

the characteristics of “switchers” in the 2016 presidential election — voters who switched to Trump in 2016 after having voted for Obama in 2012. While Republican voters were in general better off and associated themselves with higher social status, the switchers were different: they were worried about their economic circumstances and did not identify themselves with the upper social classes. Switchers viewed their economic and social status very differently from, and as much more precarious than, run-of-the-mill Republican voters for Trump. In addition to expressing concern about economic insecurity, switchers were also hostile to all aspects of globalization — trade, immigration, finance.

I asked Gordon Hanson, a professor of urban policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School, whether there was any reason for these adverse economic trends to abate. “I see none,” he said, “at least in the medium run.”….The Democrats, he continued, “have come to be seen as the party of free trade, given President Clinton pushing through both NAFTA and China’s entry to the W.T.O. and President Obama championing the Trans-Pacific Partnership — they are seen as the engineers of manufacturing job loss.”

At The American Prospect, Stanley B. Greenberg identifies “The Crises That Overturned Our Politics” and argues that “Democrats embracing the battle is the first step to voters trusting Democrats to lead the nation.” Greenberg sees four major crises: “The first crisis was the spike in prices from the disrupted supply chains when countries came out of the pandemic. Second, an energy crisis produced by the war in Ukraine suddenly reduced Russian oil and natural gas supplied to the West….The third crisis was the climate crisis—the unrelenting extreme weather that started with the out-of-control fires in forest areas in Europe and California….Democratic or Republican, these crises have concentrated minds around the fourth crisis, the cost-of-living crisis that hit all countries in the world. Not surprisingly, that is the very top problem voters want government to address….It is time for our politics and politicians to catch up with a citizenry that has been shaken by these four crises. They see only greater uncertainty and stress, and worsened financial prospects. And they are looking for leaders and governments who understand all these intersecting crises and act to fundamentally change the direction of the country….That means an America that is providing families with fundamental supports like those they received during the pandemic and under Biden’s American Rescue Plan. That includes dependable health care subsidies and lower drug costs, the expanded Child Tax Credit and support for child care and home care. The citizenry wants greatly increased investment in the transition to low-carbon energy and oil giants having much less influence. The country wants America to use its unique energy resources and strategic strength to support Ukraine, aid Europe, and defeat Russia….That would say we are beginning to get on the right path.”

Timothy Noah has a worthy rant to share in his well-titled article, ““We” Don’t Have a Political Violence Problem. Republicans Do” at The New Republic: “Reasonable” Republicans like New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununusay America has a problem with political violence “on both sides of the aisle.” That isn’t true. America has a problem with political violence against Democrats….The proof lies in what unreasonable Republicans have been saying since Paul Pelosi, 82, got his skull cracked at 2:30 a.m. Friday morning by a hammer-wielding QAnon enthusiast shouting, “Where is Nancy?” Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a photograph of a hammer and a pair of underwear—an early news report, since corrected, said the attacker was stripped to his underwear—captioned, “Got my Paul Pelosi Halloween costume ready.”….The numbers aren’t discussed as often as they should be because most nonpartisan news organizations think it’s bad manners to document their lopsidedness. But let’s get real: “Domestic terrorism” has become a polite euphemism for “right-wing extremism.” The Anti-Defamation League counted 29 people killed in the United States by political extremists in 2021; of those, 26 were killed by right-wing extremists….nearly three times as many Republicans as Democrats approve of political violence, according to a November 2021 poll by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute….According to the Capitol Police, between 2017 to 2021 the number of threats against sitting members of Congress increased from 3,939 to 9,625. The Capitol Police don’t furnish a breakdown by party, but a New York Times analysis earlier this month of threats that ended in indictments found that more than one-third were made by Republicans or other MAGA types against Democrats, compared to fewer than one-quarter made by Democrats against Republicans….If election workers are injured or killed in the course of tallying the results on November 8, we may see more hand-wringing about the problem of political violence in America. But it’s a near certainty that this violence won’t emanate from “both sides of the aisle.” It will be from a Republican Party that has lost its mind. Failure to acknowledge this will guarantee that the problem persists.”

Are Midterm Polling Averages Skewed Toward GOP by Junk Polls?

From a pro-Democratic candidates point of view, there’s a lot of Debbie Downer poll analysis being bandied about this week. So let’s take a peek at the other end of the spectrum, and see what the Pollyannas have to say. In “‘Red Wave’ Narrative May Be Built On Crap Polling? Color Us Shocked,” ‘Doctor Zoom’ sees it this way at Wonkette:

In the final weeks of the 2022 midterm campaign, national polling averages appear to show a number of close races for the House and Senate tilting toward likely Republican wins. Very serious analysis pieces attempt to explain what’s going on in the national mood — maybe it’s Republicans deciding to stick with their party as the election gets nearer? People getting tired of hearing about abortion rights? Anger over declining gas prices, maybe?

Or perhaps the polling averages are being skewed by a lot of garbage data from GOP-friendly polling groups that have injected polling results that don’t have much to do with actual voter opinion. Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg notes on Twitter that there appears to be a “ferocious” GOP effort to “flood the zone with their polls, game the averages, declare the election is tipping to them.” He says that while it’s entirely possible for Republicans to win in many of the elections next weeks, the polling and early turnout numbers so far suggest there’s not really any sudden shift to the GOP — especially not if there’s strong turnout by young voters.

Rosenberg warned Sunday that media organizations are being “played” if they uncritically report polling averages like those from FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics, given the number of GOP-aligned polls being added in recent weeks in key states.

Given the stakes of the outcome of the midterm elections, who among us would doubt that the G.O.P. would do such a thing? Doesn’t mean they did. But flooding the zone with garbage polls to jack up averages in their favor is not all that big a moral stretch for the party that winks at the January 6 thuggery and also the plots to kidnap a governor and the U.S. Speaker of the House. Dr. Zoom asks further,

How much might the influx of GOP polling be skewing the polling averages? Rosenberg notes that there’s a “3.3 pt difference between the generic on Real Clear [Politics] and one without any partisan polling.”

It’s not just Rosenberg, either; Tom Bonier, CEO of Progressive data firm TargetSmart, pointed out Friday that an “avalanche” of GOP polling — some relying on an “older, whiter, more male” sample of voters than in the actual electorate — was making it look like Republicans were moving ahead.

Sure, you might expect progressives to articulate such a viewpoint. Doesn’t mean they are wrong, though. Dr. Zoom continues, quoting Rosenberg from a transcript of his recent interview by Joy Reid on MSNBC:

“What’s really unfortunate is that the places we rely on to help us tell us what’s going on in the election have been corrupted by a flood of Republican polling in the last few weeks. Now, in six major battleground states, more than half the polls conducted in October have been conducted by Republican firms. That means basically we can’t trust the data on Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight any longer. It’s essentially Republican propaganda,” Rosenberg claimed. […]

“Listen, these are junk polls. The Republicans, this is part of the information war. They’re trying to suppress Democratic turnout, create more negative sentiment for Democrats and more positive sentiment for them. What I think is disappointing, many of the people who do the analysis on elections, should’ve caught this. This is an unprecedented massive campaign by the Republicans to game the polling average. And it’s disappointing to me this wasn’t caught earlier by many of the people that do this that are on TV and do this for a living. But it has to be understood now that the polling averages have been corrupted. We now need to look in my view towards the early voting,” Rosenberg said.

All of this would be based on Republicans trying to create a ‘bandwagon’ psychology to hustle the press and depress Democratic turnout. Stranger things have happened, and they are pretty clever about manipulating the media. There’s often a lot of volatility in polls in the closing weeks, but gamblers would be wise to pay more attention to non-biased poll averages in the closing 2 or 3 days of the midterm campaigns.

Bonier chucks some interesting stats into the mix in a couple of his Monday tweets:

Just 4 days ago, the Dem margin among those ballots returned so far was 2 pts wider than the same point in 2020. Now it’s 3.6 points wider. Meaning the returns since the debate have gone even more solidly Dem than they were before….But the most astounding element of the PA early vote? Voters under the age of 30 returning ballots thus far are +69.2% D. At this point in ’20 that same age group was +51.9D.

The last thing I would add is that, whether you believe the Pollyannas or the Debbie Downers, the margins in key senate races seem unusually close. Either way, it’s time for Democrats to pour it on to minimize losses and win close races.

Teixeira: Tough Love for Democrats

The following post by Ruy Teixeira, author of The Optimistic Leftist and other works of political analysis, is cross-posted from The Bulwark:

Charlie Sykes wrote up some of our conversation on the Bulwark podcase. Nice job by Charlie.

“To even get in the door with many working class and rural voters and make their pitch,” writes Ruy Teixeira, “Democrats need to convince these voters that they are not looked down on, their concerns are taken seriously, and their views on culturally-freighted issues will not be summarily dismissed as unenlightened. With today’s Democratic party, unfortunately, that is difficult. Resistance is stiff to any compromise that might involve moving to the center on such issues.”

Resistance? You don’t know the half of it.

ICYMI: Ruy, who has spent decades as a progressive analyst, joined me on Wednesday’s podcast to talk about his recent articles about the Democrats’ challenges on crime, culture, immigration, economics, and patriotism.

Democrats Must Move to the Center on Cultural Issues

Democrats Must Promote an Abundance Agenda

It’s great stuff, and it’s very much worth your time. (And also quite timely given today’s headlines: Democrats Worry as G.O.P. Attack Ads Take a Toll in Wisconsin.” And: “In key battlegrounds, GOP onslaught of crime ads tightens Senate races.”)

You can listen to our whole conversation here . . . or, if you are a Bulwark+ member, you can listen to the ad-free version here.

Not surprisingly, not everyone is in the mood for this kind of tough love right now. Here’s a comment from one Bulwark+ listener:

We are where we are now – it’s a month til the midterms. So:


2. Make the best of the situation with the candidates we have to defeat the lunatic GOP slate and save our democracy from these racist ass terrorists.

As much as I appreciate the sentiment, I’m afraid there will not be any shutting up anytime soon.

Some clarification also seems to be in order: It’s not our role to be cheerleaders or flacks; others can do that. Our job is to tell you the truth and give our best analysis, especially if we think we might be sailing at flank speed into an iceberg. With all due respect, if you want a safe space, or a rah-rah for our side site, you really ought to look elsewhere.

And here’s the thing about Ruy’s tough love: he’s saying these things because, unlike too many of his fellow Democrats, he actually does think we face an existential crisis . . . and he is trying to explain how not to lose to what our listener calls “these racist ass terrorists.”

That’s what makes Ruy’s warnings so important — and urgent. If you haven’t read his stuff, his latest piece is a good place to start. His advice: “Embrace patriotism and don’t apologize for it.”

That’s the creed of ordinary Americans even if many activist Democrats reject it. Illustrating this, a survey project by the More in Common group was able to separate out a group they termed “progressive activists” who were 8 percent of the population (but punch far above their weight in the Democratic party) and are described as “deeply concerned with issues concerning equity, fairness, and America’s direction today. They tend to be more secular, cosmopolitan, and highly engaged with social media”.

These progressive activists’ attitude toward their own country departs greatly from not just that of average Americans but from pretty much any other group you might care to name, including average nonwhite Americans. Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans, in fact, are highly likely to be proud to be Americans and highly likely to say they would still choose to live in America if they could choose to live anywhere in the world. In contrast, progressive activists are loathe to express these sentiments. For example, just 34 percent of progressive activists say they are “proud to be American” compared to 62 percent of Asians, 70 percent of blacks, and 76 percent of Hispanics.

Here’s some more tough love from Ruy:

Exit take: The tough love will continue until morale improves.

Political Strategy Notes

At FiveThirtyEight, Geoffrey Skelley and Holly Fuong write, “….with the election right around the corner, we wanted to take a closer look at the views of likely voters.2 Overall, our poll found likely voters split evenly at 41 percent over whether they planned to vote for a Democrat or a Republican in the upcoming congressional election, about the same as in our September wave. But because most likely voters will vote Democratic or Republican, we asked the other respondents — those who were undecided, planned to vote for an independent or third-party candidate, would not vote or skipped the question — which major party they would support if they had to choose, as voters who lean toward one party tend to vote for that party. Even with those responses incorporated, however, likely voters remained almost evenly divided: Forty-nine percent said they would back a Democratic candidate, and 48 percent a Republican one. Nearly all self-identified Democrats and Republicans planned to vote for their respective parties, while independents preferred Democrats over Republicans, 49 percent to 42 percent….But while likely voters were split on which party they planned to vote for, they largely felt that neither party had earned the right to govern after November. Overall, 51 percent of likely voters said Democrats hadn’t earned another two years controlling the federal government, while 39 percent said they had.4 Among independents, 50 percent said Democrats didn’t deserve another two years and 34 percent said they did, while Democrats and Republicans mostly answered in accordance with their party….Yet things were no better for the GOP, as 55 percent of likely voters also said Republicans had not made a good case for why they should be given control of Congress for the next two years, compared with 35 percent who said they had. Notably, 61 percent of independents said the GOP had not, while just 27 percent said they had (once again, Democrats and Republicans largely answered in line with their partisan views).”

In “Power, politics and persuasion: Why Democrats don’t win — and how they can fight back,” Paul Rosenberg writes at Salon that “Anand Giridharadas is onto something in his new book, “The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy.” As he put it in a tweet promoting an excerpt in the Atlantic:

A lot of people — well-meaning and malevolent ones alike — want you to believe that trying to change minds is futile.

They are wrong.

On the other hand, more than 60% of Republicans still believe Trump’s big lie about the 2020 election being stolen, according to a recent Monmouth poll. But changing the course of history — that is, winning the fight against resurgent fascism — doesn’t depend on reaching those committed Trump supporters. It only requires shifting a few percentage points, either by attracting a few voters from the other side or convincing a few non-voters to vote.

“I thoroughly believe that turnout is persuasion,” [Anat] Shenker-Osorio says in the book. “And if the choice is not singing in harmony, then the congregation is not going to hear the joyful noise….Rosenberg cites “three principles from an online guide Shenker-Osorio created that guided the creation of the race-class narratives: “1) Lead with shared values, not problems. 2) Bring people into the frame – offer clear villains and heroes. 3) Create something good, don’t merely reduce something bad.”

“One apparent point of difference between Shenker-Osorio and Bitecofer,” Rosenberg continues, “comes on economic issues. Bitecofer relishes attacking Republicans on the economy, as part of what she calls a “brand offensive” approach. “The economy is always going to be the No. 1 issue,” she told me. “You can’t cede ownership of the most important issue to the other party. You have to fight on that turf.”  Shenker-Osorio tends to steer away from this area, as Giridharadas explains:

Worrying about what’s good for Mr. Economy — that is the right’s issue, the right’s conversation, the right’s question. Shenker-Osorio drew a contrast between that and, say, the concept of “freedom.” That idea was contested. People on the right spoke of freedom from taxation and regulation and vaccines. But people on the left spoke of reproductive freedom and freedom from police violence and freedom from want. To frame your ideas in the language of freedom wasn’t validating the right’s frame. It was staking a claim to the idea of freedom as being as much yours as theirs. It was participating in the debate about what freedom is and who guards it.

Rosenberg adds that “Democrats should send the message that they’re fighting to allow you to vote and have your vote be counted, and be meaningful; to protect bodily autonomy and reproductive rights; to keep your kids safer from gun violence, in school and on the streets; to build a fairer economy that can lift everybody; to respect migrants who want to pursue the American dream and contribute to the economy; and to protect the individual dignity of every American, whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

I don’t buy it whole hog, but at slate.com Luke Winkie argues that “Democrats Can Only Lose Debates Now: Or at the very least, they can’t “win,” and their lack of awareness of this explains one of the biggest problems with our current politics.” As Winkie notes, “anyone who still believes that a debate performance casts residue on electoral prospects—who trusts that an entrenched, exponentially more unhinged Republican base will suddenly see the light after a caustic Tim Ryan riposte—is hoodwinking themselves. Debates are not a conversion tool, and they haven’t been for a long time. There is little evidence that these recent rave reviews are indicative of a shift in Democrat prospects come November….Trust me when I say I understand the appeal of the debate clips that catch fire in #Resistance circles. I too would prefer to live in a world where congressional deliberation served as a real inflection point of a campaign—it would mean there is still a currency in objective truth and that information still takes precedence over frothy rage. But there is a stubborn, obdurate belief within the Biden contingency that, eventually, Republicans will snap out of the MAGA stupor and become profoundly aware of the cruelty and chaos wreaked by the Trump years….A debate seems like the prime venue for such a righteous triumph; surely, in front of neutral observers, where you are forced to ’fess up to the wide array of documentation showing that you’ve paid for abortions despite being staunchly pro-life, Americans can then see Herschel Walker for the spiteful charlatan that he is….This will not happen, and that’s partly because this isn’t what happens in a debate anymore. The directives of the parties are splintering off into elementally different directions, to the point that the pure aesthetic presentation of a debate as a concept has become increasingly incoherent in plenty of sections of the culture. A stuffy ritual of formalized political performance appeals to a segment of the citizenry that is pro-institution, pro-democracy, and pro-civility. The Republicans, meanwhile, have given up on all of those ideas—to the point that election conspiracy theories have almost become a de facto requirement for anyone in the GOP to ascend the midterm primaries.” Winkie notes that Trump has lost every debate he has participate in , according to virtue;ly all media analyses. But he is still considered his party’s front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination (although thatch change quickly). Winkie concludes that “The GOP cannot be defanged with diction; we cannot manufacture a treacly, Sorkin-ish magic bullet that will suddenly break the spell. No, in 2022, they can only be defeated.”

What Tim Ryan Has Already Won

For anyone interested in Democratic Party strategy and/or the midterm elections, your excellent read-of-the-day is “The Revenge of Tim ‘I Told You So’ Ryan” by Kara Voght at Rolling Stone. Some excerpts:

It’s the final stretch of his Senate race, and Tim Ryan is spending one of the campaign’s last Saturdays in Allen County, where Trump won by a mammoth 40 points two years ago. Most in his party believe the white working-class voters here have been permanently lost to the GOP. But Ryan made his way to this cavernous union hall in northwest Ohio because he hasn’t given up.

On stage, the 10-term congressman stood before a crowd of just a few dozen. He talked about ending a “broken economic system” in which workers “work six or seven days a week to make ends meet.” He lambasted trade deals that sent American manufacturing jobs to China — and criticized his GOP opponent, J.D. Vance, for raising “all that money from the big corporations who shipped our jobs overseas.” He said the word “Democrat” only four times during his half hour of remarks — and almost always in a negative context.

It was probably a wise approach in a county that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ryan is nevertheless convinced his voters are at union halls in counties just like it across Ohio. Over the last 18 months of campaigning, has held hundreds of similar events throughout he state — including a second one at a building trades hall in East Toledo that evening. “That’s the coalition,” Ryan tells me, bleary-eyed and slumped in a chair at the Toledo stop. “You’ve got to get those guys back.”

In national Democratic circles, it hasn’t been fashionable since Trump’s 2016 win to “get those guys back” — at least not with Ryan’s vigor. A vocal faction responded to the shock of Trump’s victory with a strategy to increase turnout in Sun Belt states, believing that the emergence of a  younger, more diverse electorate held greater promise for the party. Those efforts paid off in 2020, when states like Arizona and Georgia — which hadn’t cast their electoral votes for a Democrat since the 20th century — went for Joe Biden.

Voght adds, “But that shift in focus pushed former working-class Democratic strongholds like Ohio, where Trump twice won by 8 points, farther down on the party’s list of priorities. Ryan vehemently objected, and he has demanded his party rebuild the so-called “Blue Wall” that Trump breached….”

Ryan is up against a daunting challenge. As Voght notes, Ryan’s opponent is having his coffers larded up with “millions of dollars in support from Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel.” The Republicans and their minions plan “to spend $28 million on advertising [for Vance] in a state where it hadn’t planned on spending much at all.” Further,

More than simply a Senate race, what’s unfolding in Ohio is a redemption arc for a congressman who has been ignored, marginalized and maligned by his own party for his out-of-vogue political prescriptions. If Ryan wins, he proves a Democrat can win on the backs of voters his party has forsaken. If he loses, he likely demonstrates a willingness among those voters to return to the Democratic fold — so long as the party courts them as acutely as Ryan has. Neither outcome is likely to settle his party’s debate over winning tactics, but Ryan will have nevertheless proved his point, donning his fellow Democrats’ doubt as a badge of honor.

For much of the last decade, Tim Ryan has related to his party in the same manner as a pebble relates to the inside of a shoe. While Democrats licked their wounds after the GOP swept the White House and Congress, Ryan blamed his party for flubbing its outreach to working-class voters like the ones in his Youngstown-based district. “We need blue-collar workers to vote blue, and in order to do that, we need to have the message and the messengers … able to connect with them,” he said on CNN soon after Trump’s win. Ryan challenged Pelosi for the House minority leader post soon thereafter and belly-flopped spectacularly. He led a second failed rebellion in 2018 after Democrats regained control of the House.

Although Ryan’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 ultimately tanked, he did crank up his national name-recognition and intrigued a lot of commentators who were wondering if the Democrats had any candidates who had smarts about winning back working-class families. Voght notes that Ryan has waved away from his campaign President Biden, who lost Ohio. Ryan has also staked out a ‘Democratic iconoclast’ persona, and has “committed to being “a royal pain in the ass” if he makes it to the Senate. According to Voght, Ryan’s strategy is “To put as much distance as he can between himself and the Democratic brand. “It’s a pretty negative one in places like this,” Ryan tells me in Toledo. I ask him how he thinks it’s perceived. “Elite,” he says, before I even finish the question. “That sensibility is just a huge headwind for us.” Also,

So Ryan has barnstormed the reddest corners of Ohio as the patron saint of the anti-elite. “We remind them of an old-school Democrat who’s all-in for the working person,” as Ryan puts it — “white, Black, Brown, gay, straight, men, women, service, manufacturing — anybody out there busting their ass.” He’s fervently opposed to trade deals, especially any involving China; so fervent was his first television advertisement’s “us versus them” rhetoric against “Communist China” that he was accused of Sinophobia by fellow House Democrats. Ryan dismisses Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) as “not helpful,” but has applauded “the New Green Deal — 1,000 percent for that,” he told me in 2018, drawing a line between the transition to a climate-friendly economy and job creation.

Ryan is also loath to invoke Sanders, his 2020 debate sparring partner. But Ryan’s anti-trade, pro-green economy overtures sound a lot like the Vermont senator’s.“Look, I think Tim is running a very good campaign,” Sanders tells me. “What he is in his own way — not my way — is he is trying to stand with the working class of Ohio — trying to stand with them and take on powerful special interests.”

Ryan is full hawk against China trade deals, but also against Republican election deniers:

But Ryan is clear that he is not condoning the GOP’s election denialism, the insurrection on January 6th or any of Trump’s other sundry attacks on democracy. He doesn’t think many voters who cast ballots for Trump in Ohio do, either. “We are running against people who want to destroy the country, and we keep fucking up our message, keep screwing up what we’re supposed to be doing here and who we’re supposed to be for,” Ryan says. “These guys, they voted for Trump, but they’re not storming the Capitol — that’s not their values.”

I saw Ryan rage and roar against the January 6 thugs and their Republican enablers on the floor of the House. It was the most powerful takedown of the GOP’s moral cowardice I’ve yet seen. Noting that Ryan’s casual, regular guy persona comes natural, Voght explains,

He nails, in other words, the “authenticity” factor, that je ne sais quois that helps candidates thrive when political conditions would suggest otherwise. “Tim Ryan has done a good job communicating to people that he’s on their side in a very human way,” says Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and the publisher of The Bulwark. That’s helped Ryan as much as it may have hurt Vance, whose time in Silicon Valley and essays in The Atlantic about “day trips to wine country” have, as Ryan and his allies insist, reduced him to an opportunistic carpetbagger.

Ryan is running “the best campaign of the cycle,” Longwell says. “I try very hard to not play fantasy politics, but the one place where I’ve been willing to indulge in some real optimism is Ohio.” His embrace of the working class is key to Longwell’s assessment, but so, too, is his courtship of highly-educated suburban voters, who have emerged as Democrats’ reliable demographic since Trump’s 2016 victory. On the stump, Ryan talks about GOP attacks on abortion rights as “government overreach,” addressing the issue without taking up the culture war. His football career cuts both ways: Ryan talks about treating his lingering injuries with yoga and a mindfulness practice, New Age remedies with suburban “yoga mom” appeal. Longwell notes a commercial in which Ryan is sitting with his wife and having a glass of wine, talking about how they only agree with one another 70 percent of the time. “He’s telegraphing the college-educated suburbanites in that ad,” Longwell notes. (There’s also a chance Ryan doesn’t need to do much to activate those voters, who have proclivity to reject Vance’s anti-abortion and pro-Trump sensibilities.)

This has all amounted to a statistical tie with Vance in a state where recent elections would suggest a much wider gap. Ryan is polling better than almost any Democrats attempting to flip GOP-held Senate seats, bested only by Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman and Wisconsin’s Mandela Barnes. He’s raised nearly $40 million dollars, an enormous sum only Fetterman has eclipsed. But Ryan’s success hasn’t inspired support from the national party, which has buoyed Barnes, Fetterman, and North Carolina’s Cheri Beasley with tens of millions in outside spending. “Ohio is the battleground of the past,” a Democratic strategist told the Washington Post last week, adding that the party is better off investing in places with more college-educated voters that are trending bluer, not former strongholds that are trending red.

The sentiment played right into Ryan’s hands. “I will fight anybody from any party who’s trying to peddle that bullcrap here in Ohio,” Ryan said during his event at the union hall in Lima. “If you need a college degree to get the passport to be able to go into the political party — no shot on my watch.”

“They really said that out loud!” Ryan tells me. “We kind of knew that was where everyone was going. But you can’t, like,” Ryan pauses and shakes his head. “It’s so insulting.”

Voght writes that Ryan has followed, to some extent, the working-class playbook of  his fellow Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is “the only Democrat elected to statewide office in Ohio, having defended his seat for a third time in 2018 by roughly the same margin as Trump’s victory two years earlier.” Brown won with a message “that drove home the very same worker-centric platform Ryan champions.” Brown is also a master of communicating working-class values, “slipping so seamlessly into the jargon of plant closures and union pensions you’d think he worked a line.” Voght adds,

Ryan was in his fullest expression at his event in Toledo. After delivering remarks, he drank a beer, tossed a football, and obliged a pair of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members to take a selfie with him in front of their motorcycles. The sun set behind a pair of 20-foot-tall inflatables of a “corporate pig” and “fat cat” squeezing a worker in one fist and a bag of money in the other. The pig’s face had been covered with a photo of Vance.

Union members spoke glowingly of Ryan — always in terms of policy before personality. “We load equipment and teach foreign people how to run the equipment as it ships away, and people lose their jobs,” says Tracy Counselor, the pipefitters’ union president who spoke with Brown. “It’s refreshing to see someone actually fighting for us.” Joe Abernathy, a leader in his local IBEW, says he’s hearing a lot of enthusiasm for Ryan, even among members who voted for Trump. “It’s a common misnomer that we’re all Democrats,”  Abernathy explains. “We’ve got to find some way to reach across the aisle, and I think Tim does an excellent job of that.”

It was easy to gaze upon the scene and think Ryan has cracked some code, but the odds are still very much stacked against him. Enthusiasm is among Republicans, not Democrats, across the board this cycle. Collin Docterman, the chair of the Scioto County Democratic Party in deep red southern Ohio, says he’s optimistic Ryan’s methods will convince some working class voters to vote for him, but definitely not all. “There’ still a demonization of anyone with a ‘D’ by their name — people think Democrats are bought and paid for by the Hollywood elite,” he explains. “It’ll be a long time before we get out of a general mentality here.”

No matter what happens, Ryan’s supporters hope Democrats are paying attention. “If Tim wins, there’s going to be a lot of important reasons why,” Barasky says. “But it’s important, if Tim loses, that we don’t learn the wrong lesson from what is an unbelievable campaign.”

Put another way, by running so close to his extremely well-heeled Republican opponent, Ryan has already shown that smart Democratic senate candidates can sometimes make a way out of no way — if they connect to a healthy share of the white working-class voters, who are the largest voting block in every state. Those who want to help Ryan overcome his adversary’s spending tsunami can do so at Ryan’s ActBlue page.

Partisanship Will Limit Extent of Any Midterm Election Wave

It’s still unclear which way the winds are blowing going into the midterms. But if a GOP wave does develop, Republicans might want to curb their enthusiasm, as I explained at New York:

Republicans are generally upbeat about their midterm prospects while Democrats are fearful, if not necessarily pessimistic. Most of the major indicators of likely midterm performance (notably the generic congressional ballot and polling of a lot of battleground races) are turning steadily red, which is also what one would expect from all historical precedents involving the party of an unpopular president in sour economic times. GOP activists and spinmeisters are excitedly imagining that the wave in their favor will rise and rise and engulf all sorts of Democratic candidates thought to be safe.

They should curb their enthusiasm. There are some structural factors at play this year that limit the probable size of any big turnover in offices in either direction.

The first is what the professionals call “exposure,” which means the number of Democratic-held offices that are reasonably within the reach of any rival. High-exposure cycles are typically those that follow a landslide in the opposite direction, creating a lot of vulnerable incumbents next time around. For example, the 2010 wave that swept 63 House seats into the Republican column came right after two consecutive very good Democratic cycles (2006, in which Democrats gained 31 House seats and flipped control of the chamber, and 2008, when they added 21 more).

While Democrats do go into the midterms with a small House majority, their surprising losses in 2020 essentially took some vulnerable Democratic districts off the table this time around. In the last midterm, in 2018, the authoritative Cook Political Report listed 73 Republican-held House seats as being up for grabs in competitive races (toss-ups or leaning to one party or the other). Democrats ultimately netted 41 seats. In the 2022 cycle, Cook has just 44 Democratic House seats as being at risk in competitive races. The battleground just isn’t as large, so the losses will likely be smaller, even in a rout.

The efforts of both parties to protect their own House seats via control of the redistricting process also reduces exposure to big losses. In essence, both parties are trading the opportunity for big gains for a reduced risk of big losses. And since they are making decisions that will draw maps for an entire decade, they may not be all that opportunistic about short-term gains.

There’s a different calculation for U.S. Senate seats thanks to the eccentric patterns created by six-year terms, which means only one-third of the seats are up in any one election. And the 2022 Senate landscape has never been that promising for Republicans, with only 14 Democratic seats up, none of them in states carried by Donald Trump in either 2016 or 2020. Meanwhile, the GOP is defending 21 seats, two of them in states carried by Joe Biden in 2020 and six left open by retirements.

But there’s another factor as important as reduced exposure in placing something of a cap on Republican gains this year. It’s the sheer partisanship of an electorate that just isn’t as “persuadable” as it used to be and also doesn’t need much “enthusiasm” for its own candidates to become motivated to vote in order to smite a feared and hated enemy party. New York Times columnist Tom Edsall has assembled some political-science literature on this subject. He quotes UC San Diego’s Gary Jacobson on how partisanship modulates big electoral swings:

“Partisans of both parties report extremely high levels of party loyalty in recent surveys, with more than 96 percent opting for their own party’s candidate. Most self-identified independents also lean toward one of the parties, and those who do are just as loyal as self-identified partisans. Party line voting has been increasing for several decades, reaching the 96 percent mark in 2020. This upward trend reflects a rise in negative partisanship — growing dislike for the other party — rather than increasing regard for the voter’s own side. Partisan antipathies keep the vast majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents from voting for Republican candidates regardless of their opinions of Biden and the economy.”

This helps explain the persistent gap between the president’s underwater job-approval ratings and Democratic voting preferences (which we also saw on the other side of the partisan barricades in 2020). But it also helps explain positive assessments of Joe Biden from the vast majority of self-identified Democrats who do think he’s doing a good job, Edsall notes:

“As partisanship intensifies, voters are less likely to punish incumbents of the same party for failures to improve standards of living or to live up to other campaign promises.

“Yphtach Lelkes, a professor of communication and a co-director of the polarization lab at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote by email that ‘people (particularly partisans) are far less likely to, for instance, rely on retrospective voting — that is, they won’t throw the bums out for poor economic conditions or problematic policies.’”

“In the early 1970s, Lelkes wrote, ‘partisanship explained less than 30 percent of the variance in vote choice. Today, partisanship explains more than 70 percent of the variance in vote choice.’”

A wild card is whether either of the two parties gains or loses significant support from whole demographic groups. Republicans are still boasting about the modest but significant gains they made among Latinos in 2020, and Democrats are counting on detaching Republican women offended by the Supreme Court decision abolishing constitutionally protected abortion rights.

But another possibility is that abrupt swings in partisan performance may simply not occur in the immediate future as often as they did in the recent past. If polls continue to redden, then Democrats may profoundly hope this is the case.

Political Strategy Notes

At Maddowblog, Steve Benen writes “If the Senate race comes down to which candidate can deliver a more polished debate performance, then Oz and the GOP have reason to be optimistic….But as the dust settled on last night’s event, there was something entirely different that put a spring in Democrats’ step. As NBC News’ report noted, it was Oz’s line on abortion rights that “immediately raised eyebrows.”“I don’t want the federal government involved with that at all,” Oz said. “I want women, doctors, local political leaders letting the democracy that’s always allowed our nation to thrive to put the best ideas forward so states can decide for themselves.”….If Oz had simply said the matter would be left to women and doctors, that would’ve been a perfectly fine response. But the Republican instead said that he wants “local political leaders” involved in reproductive decision-making — which was the break Democrats were hoping for….Our campaign will be putting money behind making sure as many women as possible hear Dr. Oz’s radical belief that ‘local political leaders’ should have as much say over a woman’s abortion decisions as women themselves and their doctors,” Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello said in a statement. “After months of trying to hide his extreme abortion position, Oz let it slip on the debate stage on Tuesday. Oz belongs nowhere near the U.S. Senate, and suburban voters across Pennsylvania will see just how out-of-touch Oz is on this issue….What’s more, as my MSNBC colleague Zeeshan Aleem noted, Oz also repeatedly dodged questions about whether he’d vote for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed 15-week abortion ban.”

Democratic campaigns looking for messaging tips should check out “The Red State Murder Problem” by Kylie Murdock and Jim Kessler at thirdway.org. Among their observations: “The US saw an alarming 30% increase in murder in 2020. While 2021 data is not yet complete, murder was on the rise again this past year.  Some “blue” cities, like Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, have seen real and persistent increases in homicides. These cities—along with others like Los Angeles, New York, and Minneapolis—are also in places with wall-to-wall media coverage and national media interest….But there is a large piece of the homicide story that is missing and calls into question the veracity of the right-wing obsession over homicides in Democratic cities: murder rates are far higher in Trump-voting red states than Biden-voting blue states. And sometimes, murder rates are highest in cities with Republican mayors….For example, Jacksonville, a city with a Republican mayor, had 128 more murders in 2020 than San Francisco, a city with a Democrat mayor, despite their comparable populations. In fact, the homicide rate in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco was half that of House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Bakersfield, a city with a Republican mayor that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Yet there is barely a whisper, let alone an outcry, over the stunning levels of murders in these and other places….We found that murder rates are, on average, 40% higher in the 25 states Donald Trump won in the last presidential election compared to those that voted for Joe Biden. In addition, murder rates in many of these red states dwarf those in blue states like New York, California, and Massachusetts. And finally, many of the states with the worst murder rates—like Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, and Arkansas—are ones that few would describe as urban. Only 2 of America’s top 100 cities in population are located in these high murder rate states. And not a single one of the top 10 murder states registers in the top 15 for population density….Whether one does or does not blame Republican leaders for high murder rates, it seems that Republican officeholders do a better job of blaming Democrats for lethal crime than actually reducing lethal crime.” Read the entire article for even more useful data.

Nicole Narea argues at Vox that Democratic candidate for Governor of Texas Beto O’Rourke has yet to make the sale to his state’s suburban women in order to win the election: “Beto O’Rourke came closer to turning Texas blue during his 2018 run for Senate than any Democrat has in decades, losing by under 3 percentage points. To win his campaign for governor against incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott this year, he’s looking to again drive up massive Democratic turnout, particularly among women in the state’s rapidly growing suburbs….“We’ve always known … that if the same people vote in this election as are voting in every other election, we’re likely to lose,” O’Rourke told reporters at a rally here Saturday, just after several highly rated polls found him in striking distance of Abbott…..Though the notion that suburban women are persuadable is nothing new in American politics, O’Rourke, a singularly popular figure among Texas Democrats since 2017, might be the first member of his party capable of competing for them in the state….And he has a carefully crafted pitch to suburban women that includes hammering Abbott for rising property taxes, for failing to fix the state’s power grid, and for not addressing gun violence in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting. He’s campaigning on expanding Medicaid, legalizing marijuana, and investing in public schools, while highlighting the threat to democracy and voting rights posed by Republicans. But if there’s any one issue he’s counting on, it’s outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and Texas’s enactment of what he called the “most extreme abortion ban on the books in America….In the suburbs, as was the case in 2018 and remains true in other parts of the country, women are a key demographic: they typically vote for Democrats at higher rates than suburban men. Overall, women also backed O’Rourke by a 9-point margin in 2018….An October Marist poll suggested O’Rourke was having some success with them: Registered suburban voters preferred him over Abbott, 50 to 44 percent. It also showed him with a 2 percentage point advantage among women (and a bigger advantage among those under the age of 45.) Recent internal polling by the Abbott campaign also reportedly showed the governor down in critical suburban areas outside Dallas and Houston….Two October polls have O’Rourke within their margins of error.” Narea goes on to share her insights about dozens of interviews she conducted with Texas voters.

Kara Voght writes in Rolling Stone that today Senator Bernie Sanders “will hit the campaign trail to make his closing midterm pitch. He’ll go to states like Wisconsin, Nevada, and Pennsylvania — “to places where we think we could have the most impact,” he says. He’ll go to congressional districts where his party has given up, like South Texas. He’ll campaign on behalf of Senatecandidates who aren’t planning to appear alongside him….He’s going because, in the eyes of the 81-year-old progressive senator, his party is blowing its chance at midterms success. Democrats are letting Republicans win the messaging war on the economy — even though, as far as Sanders can tell, the GOP’s only plan is to cut popular social programs. “The Democrats have not been strong enough in making that point — and we’ve got to make it,” he says….So Sanders is taking it upon himself as he embarks on an eight-state tour on Thursday. He’ll make 17 stops in total, primarily in liberal strongholds, such as Madison, Wisconsin, and Austin, Texas, where his most loyal supporters live. He’ll also go where he outperformed President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential primary — particularly among working class voters in cities such as Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada. Sanders will hold an event on behalf of Michelle Vallejo, a progressive House candidate locked in a dead heat in a southern Texas district. National Democrats have abandoned Vallejo’s campaign in its final weeks as their financial resources dwindled, but Sanders, who won in the district in the 2020 primary, thinks that’s a mistake: “Why would you turn your back on a solidly working-class group of people, the Latino community in South Texas?….“The theme that I am going to be bringing forth and making as strongly as I can, is that if you have concerns about creating an economy that works for all people, and not just billionaires, you cannot vote for Republicans,” Sanders tells me from his home in Burlington, Vermont, on Tuesday afternoon. “That it is insane.” For the time-challenged, USA TODAY has a graphics-rich update probing “Who will control Congress after the 2022 midterms?” featuring the latest Real Clear Politics poll results. The post spotlights the closest 8 senate races, 8 of the 35 House of Reps ‘toss-ups’ and 10 governor’s races.

Six Important Things We Don’t Know About the Midterms

Since I write a lot about things I think I know about politics, it’s good occasionally to write about the “known unknowns,” so I did so at New York.

There are some things we don’t quite know just yet that could wind up being as important as what we know (or at least think we know). Here are a few political suspense stories whose endings might shock or comfort us when it’s all said and done.

Early-Voting Patterns

By my rough calculation, early voting is underway in 31 states. Though polls can sometimes give a sense of how voting by mail is proceeding (along with harder data on mail-ballot requests and returns), the numbers you always here about shortly before any election involve in-person early voting, which is a bigger deal in some parts of the country (notably the South) than in others.

Sometimes the chatter is about overall early-voting levels as a sign of high or low overall turnout levels, as in a CNN report earlier this week:

“Three weeks from Election Day, nearly 2.5 million Americans have already cast their ballots in the midterm elections, according to data from election officials, Edison Research and Catalist. In 30 states where Catalist has data for 2018 and 2022, pre-election voting is on par with this point four years ago — which was the highest turnout for a midterm election in decades.”

In states with party registration, it’s often possible to discern which party’s voters are turning out early. And even without such data, some southern states collect racial data on early voters as part of a Voting Rights Act reporting requirement (one of the few features of the VRA still in place).

There’s been some excitement this week about very high initial early-voting numbers in Georgia, a state with highly competitive Senate and gubernatorial races. The data also show an especially high percentage of that vote has been cast by Black voters (39 percent, whereas Black voters only make up 29 percent of registered voters in the state).

Is that good news for Democrats, who really need high youth and minority turnout to over-perform expectations this year? Maybe, but we don’t know, as Sean Trende pointed out two years ago when there was even more excitement about early-voting numbers:

“Unless you somehow know what is going to happen on Election Day, this argument is useless. To take an extreme example: Democrats could turn out every one of their voters early, and Republicans could still win the election by turning out more on Election Day.

“Obviously, that isn’t going to happen. But we exist somewhere along that spectrum. Most, if not the overwhelming majority, of these early voters are people who would otherwise vote on Election Day. The fact that they decide to cast ballots early just isn’t all that interesting.

“We don’t know in these states what share of Republicans, Democrats, or independents are voting for Republicans or Democrats, and we don’t know how many voters for any party are going to end up voting on [Election Day]. This is all speculation dressed up as news.”

Understanding early voting in this particular cycle is additionally difficult because we don’t know if the early-voting habits many Democrats cultivated during the COVID-19 pandemic will stick, and how many Republicans are still averse to anything other than Election Day voting after Trump told them that’s what they should do in 2020. So it’s best to wait and see.

Potential Polling Errors

There was a lot of anxiety over polling errors in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, mostly involving under-sampling of non-college-educated white voters, which in turn led to underestimation of Trump’s vote. That could mean polls may be similarly off-kilter in the same direction again (even though most pollsters have tried to adjust methodologies to reduce under-sampling). But on the other hand, polls in the last midterm election were quite accurate. Then, as now, Donald Trump is not on the ballot anywhere. So what’s the appropriate precedent?

We probably won’t know that until the results are in. But there are some signs that polls with reputations of being more or less favorable to the two parties are beginning to converge as this particular election approaches. In Pennsylvania’s Senate race, for example, six of the last seven public polls, from a variety of outlets, showed John Fetterman two to four points ahead of Mehmet Oz. Similarly, in Nevada’s Senate race, the last ten polls have shown at most a five-point variation in a race narrowly favoring Republican Adam Laxalt. And in Arizona’s tense gubernatorial race, there’s only a four-point variation in nine polls dating back to mid-September, with most showing Republican Kari Lake with a slight advantage. If either candidate won narrowly in any of these races, no pollster is going to be completely humiliated, and there probably won’t be much discussion of polling errors.

That could all change, of course, before Election Day, and polls showing dramatic last-minute trends in key races will be hyped to the stratosphere by the campaigns and parties that appear to benefit. Until then the best bet remains looking at polling averages and not at individual polls. There’s enough confusion now over “best practices” in polling methodology that cherry-picking “better” pollsters is perilous.

Youth Turnout

Back as recently as 2014, you could confidently predict that any party depending on young voters was in trouble during midterm elections, because The Kidz did not vote much in non-presidential elections, for a variety of reasons mostly having to do with personal mobility and complicated lives and work schedules. But something remarkable happened in 2018: Youth turnout more than doubled. Combined with high voting preferences for Democratic candidates, this youth-turnout boom helped Democrats win back the U.S. House and win some key governorships that year. Youth turnout remained high and solidly Democratic in the presidential year of 2020, too.

If the large and diverse millennial and Gen-Z cohorts show up similarly on November 8, they could save a lot of Democratic bacon. Objective indicators of youth engagement with voting this year are high. But there’s significant disgruntlement with Joe Biden among young voters, who are also very much cross-pressured by economic concerns they feel acutely, and a liberalism on cultural issues like abortion on which they feel strongly.

Even fairly small variations in youth turnout and voting preferences could be crucial in close races. And young voters obviously aren’t the only demographic category that should be watched closely. Republicans are counting on maintaining and if possible increasing the inroads they made in 2020 among Latino and certain Black voters.

Contested Elections

Given the extraordinary number of Republican candidates this year who have bought into Donald Trump’s stolen-election fables from 2020, there are obviously reasons to fear that some of these election-deniers may deny their own defeats and cast the results in doubt. A survey by the Washington Post identified 12 Republican candidates in high-profile statewide races who would not affirm they would accept the results, win or lose. So barring a GOP sweep, we can expect some contested elections in the courts, in the court of public opinion, or unfortunately even in the streets.

Democrats might have some issues of their own given the wave of restrictive voting laws Republicans have enacted in many states, along with the voter intimidation efforts of MAGA “poll watchers” that will appear across the country.

With control of the the U.S. House and Senate, and many key state positions at stake this year, you can expect post-election contests over close elections to become larger and more divisive than ever. With one of our two major parties more or less completely subscribing to doubts about “election integrity,” it’s only going to get worse.

The Wave Factor

Some of the talk about “waves” and “winds” and “breezes” in this election represents a meteorological metaphor for perceived momentum and predictions of the results. But as Amy Walter recently pointed out, there is a tendency in most elections for close contest to break in one direction or the other:

“[S]ome of the races that many are expecting to go in different directions — like Pennsylvania toward Democrats and Nevada toward Republicans — may not turn out to be the case. Instead, we shouldn’t be surprised to see Pennsylvania not as an outlier but part of a trend. For example, if Republicans are winning Pennsylvania on Election Night, we should expect to see the lion’s share of those other Toss Up seats go that way. A Democratic win in Pennsylvania would suggest that Democrats are going to win a disproportionate share of the closest contests and hold onto the majority.”

“Waves” are more predictable in House races where national trends frequently dwarf whatever individual candidates are doing. But we’ve seen Senate waves too: Democrats won eight of ten toss-up Senate elections (using the Cook Political Report’s authoritative ratings) in the otherwise very close 2012 cycle. Republicans won eight of nine toss-up Senate races in 2014. And I’m old enough to remember the elections of 1980, when Republicans netted 12 Senate seats — winning virtually every competitive race — and took control of the upper chamber for the first time since the Eisenhower administration.

Late trends can move a lot of elections, in other words, particularly at a time when partisan polarization has made all elections more or less national.

Another Overtime in Georgia

Lastly, one other imponderable is the possibility that Senate control could come down for the second cycle in a row to a post-November runoff in Georgia. That state eccentrically requires majorities for general-election victories, and the Raphael Warnock–Herschel Walker Senate race looks close enough to make the expected 3 to 4 percent minor-party vote an off-ramp to a December 6 runoff. The two combatants might even be joined by bitter gubernatorial rivals Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. It could be lit.

Don’t get too easy in your pre-election — or post-election — EZ chair.