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:
In 2017-18, we had several signs of a big leftward thermostatic move: 1) policy & values polls 2) mass protests 3) candidate & org mobilization 4) special elections I don’t see much sign any of these are continuing to move left into 2019; looks more like stasis
— Matt Grossman (@mattgrossman) 3:33 PM – 1 June 2019
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.