Checking in on the national political atmosphere

From the inbox, via G. Elliott Morris’ weekly email blast:

Are Democrats doing as well as they were in 2017-2018?

The plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, but that’s what special elections and the generic ballot are for. These numbers point to stability in the pro-Democratic political environment.

The 2017 Women’s March was one of the largest mass-mobilizations in American history. It was estimated that as many as 5.6 million people marched nationwide in a show of solidarity with women and resistance to then-newly-inaugurated President Trump. That type of mobilization is hard to sustain, though, and it ~anecdotally~ seems like enthusiasm among Democrats has faltered. Matt Grossman, a political scientist, presented this take on Twitter:

Data on public opinion show a similar story, with a few notable exceptions.

The first datum from 2019 that we can compare to last year’s figures is Democrats’ margin in generic congressional ballot polling. A reminder: This is the survey question that asks voters how they would cast their ballot in the election for their congressional representative “if it were held today”. In November 2019, the average poll put Democrats up about 8.7 percentage points. That number ended up being almost perfectly predictive; nationwide, Democrats won the House popular vote by 8.6.

This year, Democrats are hitting a similar benchmark. Though the absolute level of support for their party has waned—this is due to the tendency for voters to drift toward the “not sure” option after an election—so too has the level of support for Republicans, so Democrats’ margin remains at roughly 9 points. Here are the crosstabs from The Economist’s latest polling from YouGov.

Note the pro-Democratic lean of every age group besides 65+ year-olds, and the only slightly-bad 2-point deficit among Males.

Democrats’ margin on the generic ballot is the first point in support of the hypothesis that the national mood is about as liberal and pro-Democratic as it was in the run-up to the 2018 midterms.

The second datum I’d like to consider is Democrats’ performance in special elections. If you recall, the swing from Democrats’ lagged presidential performance in state and federal legislative districts to their off-year margin in special elections in those same districts has historically been highly predictive of the party’s eventual House popular vote. Tracking these special elections from November 2016 to 2018, Daily Kos Elections found that Democratic candidates were running ahead of Hillary Clinton by about 11 percentage points. What is that number for special elections that have occurred since November 2018, you ask? A 7 percentage point swing to Democrats. That’s high, but not *as* high, as last year. This suggests a modest shift back toward the political equilibrium—or, if I may, a reversion to the political mean.

Note the just 2-point swing from Obama’s 2012 margin in those districts. Interesting. Will 2020 look more like 2012 than 2016? That, my friends, is the million-dollar question.

Combined, these data—a lack of comparable mass mobilization, the generic ballot, and leftward swings in special elections—indicate that the Democratic Party is performing slightly below their high-water mark in 2018. Of course, given how well they did last time, this slight decline still puts Democrats’ margin high enough to win the House of Representatives again in 2020. Further, given the high correlation between presidential and congressional vote choice, this also suggests a poor showing for President Trump in November. But my mission here is not to predict what will happen 18 months from now. Instead, it’s to point out the stability in America’s political environment. The Caribbean-blue waters from the wave that washed Democrats to a House majority last year appear to have yet to recede.

I don’t have any grand point to make here, I just wanted to note this for the record. From where I sit, there’s plenty of candidate energy, not just for Congress but also for the Lege and the SBOE. There’s still a lot of engagement, not at 2017 levels but the baseline is higher. People are more experienced now, they’ve learned from the 2018 cycle, and they have their sights on bigger goals. The city races this fall, especially the Mayor’s race, is going to put some strain on everyone, but with primary season following that almost immediately, I figure we’ll get back on track. As always, this is one data point, a snapshot in time as we move forward. Things will change, and I’ll check in on the way they look and feel as we go. For now at least, the data says that Dems are in roughly the same place they were during the 2018 cycle. That’s a fine place to start out.

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3 Responses to Checking in on the national political atmosphere

  1. Tom in Lazybrook says:

    Your analysis looked interesting, so I dug a bit deeper into the special elections.

    Here’s what I found. First, I looked at swing (or swingish) states. That would include seats contested in states where the margin in 2016 was small.

    Pennsylvania – Trump won here by 0.75%, with less than 50% in 2016. In 2018, the incumbent Democratic Governor won by 18% and the Dems won the gross House vote by 9%. There were 2 special races in very conservative parts of Pennsylvania (the North Central oil patch). In those, a fall of 1% from Clinton’s margin vs Trump was recorded. All of the other 4 races were in either suburban or industrial suburban areas. In those, a 16 percent increase on Clinton’s margin in 2016 was recorded. There was one other special election in Pennsylvania, in a 96% Clinton seat, in a non-competitive special election that I excluded. So, it looks like that in Pennsylvania, a noticeable bump versus Clinton has taken place in suburban areas around Pittsburgh, and in the Poconos. That hasn’t happened in the coal/oil extraction areas around the northern tier of PA, but it has been flat. Currently polling shows every Dem leading Trump in PA. PA looks reasonably good for the Dems at this point.

    Wisconsin. Trump won here by 0.6% in 2016. In 2018, the Dems won both the statewide race for Senate (by 11%) and for Governor (by 1.2%). There has been only 1 special in WI since 2018, in a suburban/industrial area that Trump ran strong in. In that race, the Dem increase percentage was 14%. Trump has no margin for error in WI. In fact, Sen. Baldwin’s (D) win was so huge that she got enough votes in an off year election to win a majority in a Presidential year. The Dems’ small margin in the Governor’s race is a concern. Current polling shows the Dems with a large lead.

    Virginia. Clinton won here by 5.8%. Everything since then has been a disaster for the GOP. The GOP got decisively beaten in 2017’s statewide elections, and had the exact same margin deficit in the House races and Senate race in VA in 2018. Two specials here. In the historically Republican district (an exurban/rural/suburban seat), the Dems increased their vote from 2016 by 11 percent (from 29 to 40 percent). In the other, a heavily Dem DC suburban seat, the Dems lost margin by 10 percent (from 65 to 59 percent). There’s some other things going on in that district as well. This probably means that VA is safe for the Dems

    Minnesota. Clinton only won here by 1.66%. In 2018, the Dem candidates increased on 2016 margins by 12 to 25%. The Dem support gains have been uneven, and that can be seen by the 2 special elections held since then. Both are in the Iron Range/Duluth area, which has been trending strongly to Trump. But even there, the Dems gained 7 percent in one and lost 7 percent of margin in the other. I suspect that holding steady over 2016 in the Iron Range probably represents a win for the Dems, because they’re getting more votes and margins in the Twin Cities and in SE Minnesota. The Dems will need to watch this one, but I think this looks good for the Dems.

    Maine (2nd CD). Trump flipped the 2nd CD in 2016, which has its own electoral vote. Trump won the 2nd CD by 12%. In 2018, the Dems flipped the seat ousting an incumbent by a small (instant runoff margin). In the Bangor area special election, the Dems managed an 11 percent margin gain. The 2nd CD is VERY important in 2020 because if the Dems flip that district and NE-02 (where they are competitive), they can win the White House even if they lose Wisconsin. This is going to be a nail biter, but with the impact of instant runoff, its probably a slight lean to the Dems at this point.

    Iowa. Trump crushed Clinton here in 2016 by double digits. Since then, things have gone south for the GOP. In 2018, the Dems flipped 2 House seats after a net gain of 15% on 2016, and barely lost the governor’s race. Since 2018, there was 1 special election, in a Dem leading suburban district. The Dem margin increased by 11 percent over 2016. Trump cannot win without Iowa (if he loses here, he will certainly lose Wisconsin too). It looks like a tossup right now.

    Texas. Trump won by 9.4% in 2016. In 2018, the margins fell to around 3-5% in most races. As we all know, that gain was uneven, with largely Mexican American area turnout lagging that of other demographics. There was a special election in Texas in 2019, and the Dem performed poorly, falling by 11 percent off of 2016 numbers (still got 58%). It looks like Latino enthusiasm and turnout remains a problem for the Dems.

    Other observations.

    Connecticut remains a local problem for the Dems. It went for Clinton heavily, and is likely to go for the Dems heavily in 2020, but the incumbent governor is very unpopular (although he squeaked by in 2018). In addition, the Republicans tend to be pretty moderate. There have been 6 special elections since 2018 and the GOP has performed quite well in them. The Dems should keep an eye on CT.

    South Carolina is turning into a bright spot for the Dems. Trump remains pretty popular there, but South Carolina is showing signs of becoming much more competitive. The Dems won a Congressional seat in 2018, and almost flipped another one in 2017. There has been a 15% margin gain from 2016 on an average basis. And in even better news for the Dems, the areas in which the Dems are gaining are in areas considered to be extremely hostile to the Dems (upstate). SC isn’t likely to turn Dem in 2020, but its starting to look interesting.

    The rest of the specials included: a special to replace a long time Dem incumbent in Kentucky in a district that is one of the most Republican seats nationally. This result means nothing that we don’t already know and likely has no bearing on the 2020 elections. 3 seats (in CA and 2 in Louisiana) that are hopelessly non-competitive and are probably bad examples of anything.

    There were two special elections in Tennessee. In the Nashville suburban seat, the Dem percentage increased by around 13 percent in a marginally competitive district. In the very GOP Memphis suburban district, the Dem percentage fell by 28 percent. That would mesh with my understanding of the different electorates in Memphis’ and Nashville’s suburbs. Tennessee isn’t going to be in play in 2020.


    The special election datapoints show generally the following:

    1) Dems are doing better in most suburban environments, increasing their total over 2016 by and average of around 11 percent

    2) There appears to be some stubborn support for Trump in the Oil/Coal patches

    3) South Carolina and Connecticut may be diverging from their historical paths, electorally

    4) Hispanic Texas turnout remains a problem for the Dems

    5) In the races where the Dems need to pick up margin, they are picking up margin.


    Its early, but these numbers look pretty good for the Dems.

  2. Bill Daniels says:

    One thing I don’t see factored into any of this research is the Mueller witchhunt, which surely put the wind at the backs of Dem. candidates in 2018 Many Americans were just sure that Trump colluded with Russia, that Trump was some kind of Manchurian candidate. That’s finally over, and while Team Trump took a smearing, most Americans now know that Trump, in fact, is NOT a Russian agent.

    So, combine the end of that Mueller campaign with the now ongoing counter attack, the investigation into the spying on Team Trump, the FISA abuses, etc., and I suspect a reasonable portion of swing voters are going to vote for Trump and Trump allies, especially as Durham and Barr get indictments of the coup plotters and participants. It will be hard to overlook arrests, raids, trials, plea deals, etc., especially if they are spaced out for political benefit, just as Mueller did. I guess if weaponizing the DoJ is OK, then it’s OK now.

    Then there’s the wild card of the Julian Assange extradition that the UK just approved. I’d really love to be a fly on the wall to know what Trump plans to do with that.

  3. Tom in Lazybrook says:

    You forgot Benghazi and Jade Helm…but otherwise your response was a list of Alex Jones turrets as far as Im concerned.

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