Midterm Post-Mortem Grab Bag

Turnout

Midterm Post-Mortem Grab Bag

Photo by KimCarpenter NJ

The first thing to note is that turnout for the midterm was insanely high, and that makes this election unique in my lifetime, or at least to my recollection. This has gone largely unremarked, but for me this is the most important takeaway. That is, both parties are still competitive, in different places and with different candidate profiles, in an expanded electorate that we really haven’t seen before in midterm elections.

The Democrats were fueled by #Resistance-motivated enthusiasm from the beginning of the cycle. Then, either from the Kavanaugh drama or some other cause, the Republicans matched the Democrats’ determination to generate high turnout among their own voters, bringing the overall contest to a draw or at worst a competitive loss.

I don’t recall a thing like that ever happening before. In previous elections, based on current events or public opinion one side or the other has the advantage of enthusiasm or motivation, and that party leverages that advantage to make gains against the other party on Election Day. For the future, there’s no immediate partisan advantage to either side for this, at least not an obvious one. It could be that a certain sort of candidate who is less controversial and is routinely elected through keeping a low profile and not making enemies is less competitive than before. But even that isn’t certain. It depends on the 2018 turnout model being the New Normal as opposed to an aberration from prior elections.

But it does have important explanatory value for this cycle. The Democrats talked a big game for almost two years about how their energy and their anger and their enthusiasm were going to wipe any remotely vulnerable Republican up for election. And in at least in terms of premise, the Democrats were right. They did show up in unprecedented numbers. But for me at least, it’s not why they won. They won because of their conventional advantage relating to the unpopularity of Donald Trump, and maybe secondarily the declining value of incumbency. The turnout dynamics were basically a wash.

Issue Cleavage, Demographic Cleavage

For the last decade at least, the Democrats have liked to believe that, demographically speaking, the Republicans represent old white guys, and the Democrats represent everybody else, therefore likely to be politically more successful in the future than they are now. Whatever could be said about that before, it doesn’t hold water in the midterm electorate. This last was an election fought among white people. And to the extent that the Republicans weren’t successful, they lost among white people. The GOP lost #Resistance-minded white radicals with Abolish ICE and Medicare For All. They lost apolitical white people with health care and pre-existing conditions. They lost Romneyite white voters with Trump’s Twitter feed.

The liberals haven’t figured it out yet, but that’s an issue mix that helps the GOP, a lot. Climate change, transgender bathroom equality, Abolish ICE, defeating white supremacy, Russia, etc; those aren’t issues that motivate minorities, or the minority vote. To the the extent that the Democratic Party defines itself on those issues, they will become the party of white progressives and nobody else.

It has to be said that for this cycle, the Democratic Establishment executed very well. Whereas the liberal punditocracy was consumed by Kavanaugh, impeachment, impeachment of Kavanaugh, Stormy Daniels and the rest of it, the Democratic candidates and their campaigns were focused on bread-and-butter issues, most notably pre-existing conditions. I don’t necessarily expect this discipline to continue into future cycles, in a world where the donor money and the activist energy is concentrated elsewhere.

The Urgency of the Post-Trump GOP, Or Where Is The Republican Eric Swalwell

Midterm Post-Mortem Grab BagDonald Trump lives in a weird neverworld of American politics. Liberals think the whole idea that Donald Trump could be President is ridiculous on its face and the whole thing is a bad April Fools’ gag on America and never really existed in the first place. The populist Right thinks that Donald Trump is a hidden colossus of American politics who wins all the time. And whenever he doesn’t that just means that the media is either distorting or hiding information to their benefit and his loss.

They are both wrong. The reality is that Donald Trump has an agenda, a legitimate one, and in fact a pretty clear one by this point. And he has had a decent amount of success in pursuing it. But this is largely irrelevant for the moment at least. What is important is the delusion of my team, that this last election represents the vindication of Trump. That Trump is clearly on the road to reelection. That Trump is the unifying totem of Greater Red State America that will beat the Democrats in 2020.

That’s just not true, going by the results of the midterm. There are voters who are enthused by Trump, and having Trump as the figurehead of the GOP does gain the party some things that it wouldn’t have otherwise. He could win reelection. But net-net, he’s a loser and a big one at that. And for center-Right or even plain Right Americans, at this point I don’t think there’s any percentage trying to maneuver around that.

Midterm Post-Mortem Grab Bag

From Pixabay

For example, there’s been some speculation recently that Trump, or Republicans in general, should dump Pence off the ticket and replace him with Nikki Haley. That’s probably a reasonable enough idea on its own terms, but still, it’s shooting at the wrong target. We can approve or blame Mike Pence for whatever, but his role has largely been insigificant in causing (or solving) the problems we have today. The problem with the GOP is the person of Donald Trump, emphasis on person. It’s not about Trumpism, or Trump ideas, or Trump nominees to the Supreme Court, or Trump voters, or Trump states, it’s Trump himself.

Obviously, in the fullness of time, the Republicans will move beyond Trump, just like it has moved beyond W, Reagan, or Abe Lincoln for that matter. But in the context of the 2020 Presidential cycle there is a window open now to contest and win the Republican nomination that may not be available later in the cycle. And to that end, we need a candidate now. It can’t be someone like David French, William Kristol, or Evan McMullin, ie an obvious spoiler. Optimally, it would be somebody like Brian Sandoval, Mike Lee, Tom Cotton, or Pat Toomey. It doesn’t matter that much who (and there’s lots of alternatives beyond what I mentioned), but we need at least one right away.

The Election That Will Not Die

Elizabeth Warren photo

Photo by Tim Pierce Midterm Post-Mortem Grab Bag

Given how much the campaign of 2016 has affected us, maybe it’s fair that the subsequent elections seem like reverberations from then. In the 2018 cycle, the Great Lakes/Big Ten states were an important but underreported story. (By the way, talking about the Big Ten, I’m excluding Indiana which fits the profile geographically but is more like a border state in terms of political demographics.) The Democrats were winning the entire region for the whole cycle. The Republicans were gaining near the end, but it didn’t look like it wouldn’t be enough. And contrary to 2016, it wasn’t.

(Related to this, the conventional wisdom of the Senate map wasn’t quite right. The map was a moderate disadvantage for the Democrats but not a huge one. The business about “ZOMG This Is The Worst Thing Since Direct Elections” was assuming that the Great Lakes were competitive, as they should have been. But they weren’t, and the map that was left over wasn’t that bad for the Democrats.)

In 2020, the there’s a decent chance that the Democrats are going to nominate Kamala Harris, who I think we’ll find out is a horribly unlikeable person. And I don’t think Gillibrand or Elizabeth Warren are much better. And unless the Republicans take my advice above, they will be renominating Donald Trump. And so there’s a good chance the 2020 election will be aesthetically similar to 2016, a contest to see who the voters want to get rid of more. At least one party (and maybe both) is going to be crying in desperation about the fickleness of the voters when either one could make life much easier for themselves by nominating someone people want to see on their TV screens.

Arizona Conundrum – Tick Tock

arizona photoI was substantially pessimistic for the Republicans in the last few days leading into the election and the actual results were better than I expected. For what it’s worth, my thinking was similar to Henry Olsen or Ross Douthat. But I was looking closely at Arizona in particular, and maybe there’s a couple things worth mentioning to illustrate some thoughts regarding the big picture of American elections.

Specifically, over the last say 2-3 cycles, I’ve learned to read the public polling in an idiosyncratic way that I believe is more accurate than what you see in the mainstream media. In particular, the public polling of a race expresses a ceiling for the support of the Democrat in a contested race in a way that does not reciprocally apply to his or her Republican counterpart. A Republican can, and often times does, show up on Election Day with 4 to 8 percentage points more than they polled (in terms of margin against the Democrat). This doesn’t happen every election, of course. But over the last few years it has tended to happen in several high profile races where the fundamental demographics of the jurisdiction are favorable or neutral towards the Republican, and there is small but clear and perceptible movement in polling and/or narrative towards the Republican.

I was especially confident of this phenomenon this cycle for a couple of reasons: first was the special elections between the cycles. The Democrats had a series of very good results there, which they correctly interpreted to mean a favorable cycle for them in the November elections. But for all the success the Democrats had in the specials, I can’t think of anywhere they outran their polling, which led me to think the public polls represented a ceiling for Democratic performance in the fall. Second, the nature of the voters involved in this cycle in particular led me to believe this as well. College-educated women of all races are perfectly willing to let it be known when they are not happy or their expectations have not been met; therefore they are more likely to tell pollsters of their intentions to vote against the Republican Party or various Republican candidates. By contrast, GOP-inclined voters are likely to be more reticent.

So for the Senate in particular, based on Kavanaugh and the sort of the states that were competitive, I was expecting the Republicans to do significantly better than their polling. And it worked out exactly as I expected for Indiana and Missouri, and to a lesser extent Florida and Tennessee. But I was watching Arizona, where Sinema remained competitive in spite of suffering the world’s greatest oppo dump three weeks before the election. I still don’t have an explanation that I like for what happened there. Matthew Yglesias had a speculative tweet soon after the election that the failures of liberal housing policy in California has forced a significant number of liberal voters to relocate to the suburbs of Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta. Maybe the same thing is happening for Phoenix as well. That’s probably as good an explanation as any; otherwise, it’s still a headscratcher for me.

Review And Wrap-Up

Ultimately the meaning of this election lies in how the parties and other players adapt to it going forward. The Republicans will be tempted toward Trumpish triumphalism. But that’s a loser, and as Republicans we should break away from the knee-jerk defensive mentality enough to see it.

If we can do that, the landscape is largely in our favor. Even in a year of tremendous Democratic motivation, we can match the Democrats for turnout, and we can, at least sometimes, outrun our polling. The other side is digging into a radical rabbit hole that only motivates a small portion of the voters they are hoping to win. Their leadership is old and stale, and their candidates are likely to present themselves in increasingly nasty ways in order to stay in the good graces of their base. The future is ours, if we’re smart enough to play well the hand we have.


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Koz is a regular commenter on Ordinary Times.

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16 thoughts on “Midterm Post-Mortem Grab Bag

  1. You need to expand your Arizona thoughts to pretty much the entire West. The West was the only reasonably bright regional light for the Democrats in 2016, and was even better in 2018 — won everything that could realistically be considered winnable, held everything that was already in hand. One interesting perspective, and an important one IMO, is the type of ballot initiatives that are winning even in red western states.

    The California Diaspora is a thing. Despite Texas’s propaganda, though, a sizeable majority of Californians who leave their state move to other western states. (For various good reasons, Texas should not be considered a western state, and the Census Bureau doesn’t.) But that Diaspora isn’t the only thing.

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      • Beto was born in and represents the part of Texas that most resembles a western state. I’m occasionally curious about whether El Paso would be happier if a bit of that corner of Texas were nipped off and attached to New Mexico. The city’s politics certainly look more like New Mexico’s than they do like Texas’s.

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        • This is probably a very good place to link to 538.com’s analysis of the electoral trends in Texas.

          https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-beto-orourke-shifted-the-map-in-texas/

          One of the most interesting items is that five counties in Texas (handsomely won by Beto) represent 43% of the voters. The other 57% is distributed among 249 counties. In Harris county (Houston), Dems won 100% of the races. Every.Single.One of them.All the way to Probate Judges or Justices of the Peace

          Divorce or war? How do Houston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, San Antonio, Austin, divorce from Texas? Please tell us, . We really want out.

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          • Obviously Texas is part of the demographic trends facing America as much as anything else but the idea that Texas is _this close_ to tipping is an illusion that has more to do with Ted Cruz than anything else.

            We’ve found out that, controlling for ideology, Ted Cruz is a uniquely repellent person. I actually find that’s kind of a shame really. Given how much we as Americans have abused God’s blessings, we could hardly complain if we ended up being ruled by a humorless scold like Ted Cruz. That said, it does seem pretty poor as a vote-getting strategy.

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          • Yeah, Texas is all sorts of its own thing. Houston is more like Atlanta geographically demographically, El Paso looks like Phoenix. Rural East Texas is full of small towns with their own Confederate monuments, far West Texas is about Hispanic families that were there before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts. The only prediction I make is that El Paso is already part of the Western Interconnect and will want to jump that way when the split occurs :^)

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          • One of the judges that lost threw a tantrum. Just let everyone go on their own recognizance and stopped showing up to work because “That’s clearly what the voters wanted by electing a Democrat”.

            Funny thing is, that’s a wonderful example as to why he should have been replaced — except there’s so many judges and other local races on the ballot in Harris county I’d be shocked if one voter in 200 knew a damn thing about this guy beyond his party.

            Which is where parties come in handy. If nothing else, you have a mental snapshot of someone’s likely politics and views.

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    • Sort of. The polling for the West is complicated by Nevada, which is the mirror image of what I was talking about in the OP. This is due the ground game of the Reid machine there (and may be getting weaker over time as legacy of Harry Reid fades further away) which doesn’t really exist anywhere else in America that I can see.

      In the bigger picture, it will be interesting to find out if the trend in the West against Republicans is the same as the suburbs turning against Republicans all over America or if there is some particular Western component to it.

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      • Start from this point (and I know this is offensive to some degree) — there are no western states where African-Americans are the largest minority group. There are some western states where they’re not even the second largest minority group. Arguably, from the edge of the Great Plains east*, US states are currently refighting Reconstruction. There have been claims put forward this past year — east of the Great Plains — that black women are the difference between Democrats winning and losing. That simply can’t be true on the west side of the Great Plains because there aren’t enough black women to make that much difference.

        Anyone who thinks that all minority groups are in this together needs to read the clearly racist statements that Chicago black aldermen have made about Hispanics moving into that area.

        * The Great Plains are a convenient geographic marker for certain historical patterns. They aren’t the cause of said patterns.

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        • On this part I completely agree with you. In fact that’s what I was trying to get at in the OP talking about how this was an election lost by the GOP among white people.

          I don’t think Democrats have any idea how much trouble they are in with minorities (relative to prior elections and their expectations). The thing is, it won’t make any difference if the GOP can’t get their suburbs back.

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      • The polling for the West is complicated by Nevada… is due the ground game of the Reid machine there…

        Ignoring that Nevada is not one of the Big 5 states for population in the West, let’s look at this year outside Nevada. NM governor. CO state senate. US Senator in AZ. Tester held his seat in MT. US House seats in NM, CO, AZ, WA, maybe UT, and looks like six in CA. Medicaid expansion in UT and ID. Medical marijuana in UT, with the LDS Church now retreating to “let’s have a special session and regulate the use a bit more than the initiative, but not try to overrule it.” I would argue that on policy, Pruitt/Zinke/Perry have been at least a small disaster for the Republicans. WY is the last holdout, but can be bought — they export a metric sh*t-ton of electricity, and as their customers have said, “Not interested in coal, willing to pay a premium for wind,” WY is changing accordingly. Given all that, NV looks much less like the Reid machine and more like the general trend.

        Maybe it’s a one-time thing with the suburbs. Having watched things for the last 30 or so years, that’s not how I would bet.

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        • You’re conflating a few different things that might not be related.

          The point of the Reid machine in Nevada is to explain why the Democrats there have, more than once in recent significant elections, outperformed their polling. That’s the only place in America where I think that’s happened, and certainly the most prominent. Democrats have done well in other places in the West (especially relative to say, 20 years ago) but they were polling well in those places too, so there wasn’t very much surprise in their favor on Election Day.

          Separately, there is the fact that the GOP did very poorly in the suburbs this cycle. They also did poorly in various places in the West. My inclination is to think that the latter is a special case of the former. There also may be special regional issues working against the GOP as well. If so, you surely understand those better than I do.

          Related to that, but not the same at all, is whether the suburbs can or will be recovered by the GOP in subsequent cycles. I think they will, because they have been a core part, maybe the core part of the GOP for many many years, and to a large extent the reason they broke against the GOP this time was because of Trump, specifically his Twitter feed and the like. (That and the fact that the Democrats have hated the suburbs for at least as long, and still do.)

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  2. In 2020, the there’s a decent chance that the Democrats are going to nominate Kamala Harris, who I think we’ll find out is a horribly unlikeable person

    She is. But she’s horrible in ways the GOP will find difficult to exploit. Her tenure as AG included things like arguing prisons should be kept full for slave labor, bringing bogus lawsuits against Backpage and opposing prosecutor accountability. She’s a prosecutor, through and through, always defending the power of the state. But I don’t see how the GOP will exploit that, given that they’re worse on many of the issues she is bad on.

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    • That’s part of the reason she won’t do well with Bernie-ish type voters, and there was a stubborn cohort of them who didn’t move to Clinton for the general election. I don’t know how many of them intend to stay true to their complaints against the Democrats for this cycle though.

      I was thinking more of the Kavanaugh drama and the like. More than most of the other Demo Senators on the Committee, I think that’s the sort of well she’s going to back to over and over again. From our side, the bad news is that she doesn’t have a long profile in national politics unlike Mrs Clinton, who had built up substantial stores of revulsion wide and deep among American voters, and not just conservatives or Republicans. Even if apolitical voters are disfavorable toward Kamala Harris, they’ll be much more motivated to getting rid of Trump (assuming his favorability stays about where it is now).

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  3. “Liberals think the whole idea that Donald Trump could be President is ridiculous on its face and the whole thing is a bad April Fools’ gag on America and never really existed in the first place.”

    This is extremely true (except, in fairness to a group I drag a lot, to a pretty decent portion of the liberal establishment), and what’s more (though it kinda follows from the same fact), they’re not reckoning with that failure to update at all. That’s why they seem to stay constantly a step or two behind him politically (though not morally).

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