Why You Should Focus on Independents from Now to the Midterms

In my last column, I wrote about Donald Trump’s job approval ratings among Republicans, Democrats and Independents, noting that his standing among all groups is important. But my primary focus for 2018 should be on Independents, who are likely to be the canary in the coal mine for the midterm elections.

How Independents vote, either on the presidential ballot or the national House ballot (depending on whether it’s a presidential year or not), turns out to be a pretty good indicator of the type of election we are going to have.

Since 2000, Independents have sometimes broken evenly between the two parties (2000, 2004, 2012 and 2016), sometimes given one party a clear advantage (2008 and 2014) and sometimes showed an overwhelming preference toward one party (2006 and 2010), according to exit polls.

When Independents break roughly evenly between the two parties, net House gains/losses are small. But when those voters overwhelmingly prefer one party over the other – as they did in 2006 when Independents heavily preferred Democrats and 2010 when they preferred Republicans – a partisan wave developed.

Since 2000 (and excluding 2002, when the exit poll was tainted), there have been four elections – all of them in presidential years – when Independents split roughly evenly.

Republicans had a narrow four-point advantage among Independents in 2016 (46%-42%), a five-point advantage in 2012 (50%-45%) and a two-point advantage in 2000 (48%-46%). Democrats had a mere one-point advantage in 2004 (49%-48%).

Not surprisingly, all four of those presidential contests were very close. Donald Trump lost the popular vote by just over two points, and Barack Obama carried it by just under four points. George W. Bush won by 2.4 points in 2004. Four years earlier, the presidential race was a virtual popular vote dead heat.

In other words, the tight contests among Independents reflected the tight races nationally.

Two elections, both midterms, were clear blow-outs.

In 2006, Democrats gained 31 House seats, in part because they carried Independents by a stunning 18-points (57%-39%), according to the national House exit poll.

Four years later, a Republican tsunami produced a GOP gain of 63 House seats. Independents preferred Republicans by 19 points (56%-37%).

Part of the reason for the two waves is that Independents acted more like partisans than they normally do. Their strong preference for one party or the other contributed to the wave but also reflected broader sentiment among the larger electorate.

Two elections, 2008 and 2014, were neither waves nor close contests.

Independents went Democratic by eight points in 2008 (52%-44%), which produced Democratic House gains of 21 seats. In 2014, Independents preferred Republicans by twelve points (54%- 42%), which resulted in a GOP gain of 13 seats.

So, how does all this history play in 2018?

Democrats need to net at least 24 House seats to take back the chamber, which means that they will need something approaching a partisan wave because of the way congressional districts were drawn at the beginning of this decade.

If you see Independents breaking narrowly toward Democrats (for example, in national generic ballot tests), you’ll know that it’s unlikely the House will flip. But if Independents are going heavily Democratic, in the 15- to 20-point range, the House is much more likely to switch party control.

Midterms have tended to produce much wider swings among Independents than have presidential contests, and that trend is likely to hold again in 2018. But we don’t yet know how big the Democratic wave will be.

Independent voters’ attitudes should be an early warning sign for both parties about the midterms. With any luck, a major media organization or two will conduct national polls with an oversample of Independents to help us track their preferences and intentions.

Comparing Trump’s Job Ratings to Obama’s

Nine months into their respective terms, President Donald Trump’s job approval rating is substantially worse than Barack Obama’s was among both partisan groups and Independents, according to Gallup polls.

Trump’s average job approval numbers for the week of October 9 stood at 79 percent among Republicans, 8 percent among Democrats and 33 percent among Independents.

Obama’s approval numbers for the week of October 12, 2009 were 84 percent among Democrats, 16 percent among Republicans and 48 percent among Independents.

Obama’s approval among members of his own party was five points higher than was Trump’s support among his party, and Obama’s support among Republicans was eight points higher than was Trump’s support among Democrats.

More importantly, Obama’s approval among Independents was a substantial 15 points better than was Trump’s job approval among those same voters.

Obviously, Trump’s job approval could move considerably between now and the November midterms, just as Obama’s did.

According to Gallup, Obama’s job approval rating for the week of October 25, 2010 was considerably worse than it had been the previous October among both Republicans and Independents.

While 83 percent of Democrats continued to approve of Obama’s performance, the president’s job approval among both Republicans and Independents fell by 7 points — to 9 percent among Republicans and 41 percent among Independents.

These numbers suggested growing problems for Obama as the midterms approached, and that is exactly what happened.

The current Trump approval numbers should raise concerns among GOP strategists about both turnout and voter behavior in 2018.

After all, if 20 percent of Republicans disapprove of the president’s performance, they are more likely to stay home next November. Conversely, Trump’s worse job numbers among Democrats could mean key demographic groups that didn’t turn out as expected in 2016 – blacks, Hispanics and younger voters – might have a greater incentive to go to the polls next year.

Trump’s job approval numbers among Independents, a crucial swing group, has the potential to be a huge problem for his party in the midterms.

Almost half of Independent voters approved of Obama’s performance nine months into his presidency, while only about one-third of Independents approved of Trump’s performance at the same point.

While many Independents are less engaged in politics and therefore more casual in their voting habits, those who do turn out next year are more likely to see the midterm election as a referendum on the direction of the country and on Trump’s performance – and therefore as an opportunity to express their displeasure with the president and his party.

Of course, Republicans will try to make 2018 another referendum on Obama and Hillary Clinton, insisting that Democrats drove the economy into a ditch and left Trump with a mountain of problems. And Trump surely will talk about all of the great progress the country has made since his election and all of the great things he has done. That’s what sitting presidents invariably do when their first midterm election approaches.

But while those arguments will resonate with his most enthusiastic supporters, they may not be greeted as favorably by voters who do not approve of the president’s performance. And that’s where the Gallup job approval numbers come into play.

The president’s approval numbers could inch up next year, improving the political climate for his party. Even if they don’t, it’s possible that his job numbers won’t presage a terrible Republican year.

Trump’s numbers have never been very good, and since the midterms are a series of individual contests rather than a single national election, the president’s weaker approval ratings don’t automatically translate into Democratic gains. For example, his approval numbers could have dropped disproportionately in states and districts he lost in 2016, limiting the impact of the change.

But Trump’s current job approval, especially compared to Obama’s, at the very least raises questions about partisan turnout levels and Independent voters’ preferences in 2018. And for the moment, the preliminary answers continue to suggest a relatively dangerous political environment for Republicans next year.

What will Democratic Wins in NJ and Virginia Mean?

It’s increasingly likely that Democratic gubernatorial nominees Phil Murphy in New Jersey and Ralph Northam in Virginia will win their elections next month.

Murphy has a huge lead over GOP nominee Kim Guadagno and is a slam dunk for November. Northam has a more narrow but consistent advantage over Republican Ed Gillespie, an establishment Republican who is echoing some of Trump’s messages about culture and crime.

Unlike New Jersey, the Virginia contest is not over. But given President Donald Trump’s job approval, late-deciding “mood” voters in both states are unlikely to break toward the Republican nominees. That’s part of the reason why midterms are often challenging environments for the president’s party.

But will the two states’ results mean anything, even if the GOP wins both?

Democrats are likely to see their victories as evidence of Republican problems in the 2018 midterms. Many journalists will draw the same conclusion, especially if Gillespie ends up losing by a larger than expected margin.

The White House and many other Republicans, on the other hand, will dismiss the outcomes, arguing that Trump did not carry either state in 2016 and that Republican defeats are to be expected. And they will likely insist that the results may say something about politics in New Jersey and Virginia, or the candidates involved, but nothing more. (They may also argue many Northern Virginians work in “the swamp” and are part of the problem.)

In the case of New Jersey, Republicans surely are correct. Outgoing governor Chris Christie (R) is wildly unpopular, Trump received only 41 percent of the vote in the state, and the Garden State’s partisan bent work strongly against Lt. Gov. Guadagno. The GOP has zero chance of retaining the New Jersey’s governorship.

Democrats have the better argument about Virginia. But the true meaning of that state’s election will depend in part on the details of the results, not merely on who wins and who loses. Here are a number of things to consider as the results come in from the Old Dominion:

Democratic Percentage and Margin

The two parties have split the last six Virginia gubernatorial elections – the GOP winning in 2009, 1997 and 1993, while the Democrats won in 2013, 2005 and 2001 – but that is the extent of the similarities.

The Democratic victory margins were 2.6 points, 5.7 points and 5.2 points. The Republican margins were 17.3 points, 13.2 points and 17.4 points. The largest Democratic percentage of the vote won was by Mark Warner in 2001, when he drew 52.2 percent of the vote. The biggest Democratic margin was Tim Kaine’s 5.7 points.

In last year’s presidential contest, Hillary Clinton drew 49.7 percent of the vote and carried the Commonwealth by 5.3 points. Four years earlier, Barack Obama drew 51.2 percent of the vote in carrying Virginia by just under four points.

The overall picture is difficult to miss. In the best of years, Democrats win Virginia narrowly, with a 5-point victory being about as good as they can do. A Northam victory of about five points would be good for Democrats but should not set off bells and whistles about 2018.

That kind of win would suggest Virginia is about where it was in 2016 and would raise questions about whether Trump voters are losing enthusiasm for their president.

On the other hand, a Northam victory of double-digits (or anything approaching it) would be noteworthy – and worrisome for Republicans. It would suggest either a GOP enthusiasm gap or possibly defections of Trump voters to Northam, either or both an ominous sign for 2018.

Partisan and Demographic Group Turnout

Since elections are often about motivation, Republican and Democratic turnout levels among key demographic groups will be important. For Democrats, black, Hispanic and younger voter turnout should demonstrate whether key demographic groups that underperformed in 2016 are now energized because of the president’s agenda.

These groups won’t turn out at presidential year levels, of course, but comparing their turnout to 2013 numbers and to GOP turnout numbers should tell us something about enthusiasm in both parties.

Geography is also important, so turnout in Northern Virginia – and in all of the state’s counties with suburban swing voters – and rural Virginia should offer possible clues about the mood of usually Republican voters and of Democratic enthusiasm.

Independents

While partisan turnout is one side of the electoral equation, turnout by Independents is the other part.

Independent voters are usually less likely to vote in an off- off-year election than are strong partisans, but a dramatic shift in Independent voter preferences can have a substantial impact on both an election’s result and our understanding of Independent voters’ attitudes as the midterms approach.

Independent voters’ turnout and how Independents cast their votes next month could well tell us something more generally about Independent voters across the country.

Regardless of who wins in Virginia, the exit poll is likely to have plenty of nuggets of information about Trump’s standing with key voting groups, Republican and Democratic enthusiasm and why voters are behaving as they do. But you’ll probably need to get into the weeds to get the clearest picture of what is happening and what isn’t.

Are the Alabama & Tennessee Senate Races for Real?

Democratic strategists have been searching for ways to put a third GOP-held Senate seat – after Nevada and Arizona – into play in the hope of winning back the Senate next year. Now, some activists think Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker’s retirement and a special election in two months to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Alabama open seat are providing surprising opportunities.

No, Nevada and Arizona are not sure bets as takeovers, and there are plenty of Democratic senators up next year who could lose their seats to a GOP challenger.

But putting a third Republican-held seat into play would at least give Democrats a theoretical chance of wresting control of the Senate away from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Donald Trump next year.

But veteran Democratic strategists remain cautious – and skeptical – about Alabama and Tennessee, worrying that a high profile national Democratic role in the contests would be self-defeating.

Past election results don’t offer much reason for Democratic optimism.

Trump won Alabama last year with 62.1% to 34.4% for Hillary Clinton, and he carried Tennessee 60.8% to her 34.7%. In other words, Trump’s margins in Tennessee (26.1%) and Alabama (27.7%) were both large.

Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that Alabama was solidly Democratic and Tennessee was politically competitive.

As late as Election Day 1994, both of Alabama’s sitting senators were Democrats. Howell Heflin was re-elected in 1990, while Richard Shelby was reelected in 1992. But the day after the 1994 elections, Shelby changed parties, and two years later Heflin retired. His seat was won, 53%-46%, by Sessions. Since then, no Democrat has drawn as much as 40% of the vote in an Alabama Senate race.

The last Democratic governor of Alabama was Don Siegelman, who was elected in 1998. He narrowly lost his bid for reelection four years later, and in 2006 he lost a bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Bill Clinton and Al Gore carried Tennessee in 1992 and 1996, but then the bottom fell out for Democrats in presidential contests. Gore lost his home state by more than three points in 2000, and since then the Democratic percentage of the vote in the Volunteer State has shrunk every election.

But Tennessee has seen some competitive high profile general elections over the past decade or two.

Democrat Phil Bredesen was elected governor in 2002 and reelected in a landslide four years later. He carried every county in the state. And in the 2006 Tennessee Senate race, Democrat Harold Ford lost the open seat contest to Republican Bob Corker, who is retiring next year, by less than three points. Admittedly, 2006 was a terrible year for Democrats nationally.

The Democratic case for making either of these races competitive relies on two pillars: (1) Donald Trump and (2) what you might call the “crackpot factor.”  (For a thoughtful argument that the Alabama race is worth watching, see Zac McCrary’s and John Anzalone’s piece here.)

Midterm voting trends tend to favor the party not controlling the White House, and the President Trump’s unusual style and behavior could in some states be a considerable liability for Republican candidates. If Democrats have any chance in the South, it would be in year when a Republican president is embattled and voters are unhappy.

Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore’s views and his behavior while a judge on the Alabama Supreme Court – including his refusal to accept the legitimacy of United States Supreme Court decisions and his view that God’s Law overrides civil law – could turn off some more moderate and less partisan voters. That could boost the prospects of the Democratic nominee, former U.S. attorney Doug Jones.

If Jones can avoid the national Democratic label and keep the focus on Moore, argue some Democrats, Jones might actually have a path to victory.

In Tennessee, the Democratic scenario is based on the crowded Republican primary field producing a Senate nominee who is also at the extreme end of his or her party. If that happens, and if Democrats can find a credible nominee who can raise money and appeal to a broad swath of Tennessee voters, they could have a chance to win. (In the past, Tennessee has had a history of producing pragmatic nominees rather than anti-establishment bomb-throwers.)

In other words, the Democratic scenarios are mostly wishful thinking at this point. That could change, of course, and there are polls in Alabama that show a Moore-Jones race starts out surprisingly close in the single digits. (See here and here.)

But Trump’s national problems are not likely to be so serious in Alabama, where he is still popular and whites have deserted the Democratic Party.

Smart Democratic strategists are playing it very low-key in both the Alabama and Tennessee races. They will wait to see whether a strong candidate emerges in Tennessee and are conducting polling to see whether they have a serious path to victory in Alabama, but they understand how difficult both of those races are.

If Democratic groups jump in too early and commit major resources, they will essentially “nationalize” the two Senate races, which would undermine the party’s chances in both states. Whatever Alabama Republicans think of Moore and even Trump, they do not want to turn the Senate over to Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

While it is difficult to “sneak up” on an opponent these days because of the money and media attention that races can attract, Democratic insiders wisely believe that making either race a cause celebre for the national party or national Democratic figures will actually harm the party’s chances in the two campaigns.

As one Democrat told me, he had no desire to re-play the Georgia 6 special election, which became a partisan fight and was eventually won narrowly by the GOP nominee. “Getting close” in one or both of those races would not be good enough.

We’ll know soon whether Moore is so radioactive that he has turned a Republican landslide into a competitive race, and whether Democrats can find a formidable candidate in Tennessee. For now, the burden is on the Democrats to prove that either Senate race is really winnable.

At this point, both Alabama and Tennessee appear to be too Republican, too conservative and too pro-Trump to elect a Democrat to the Senate.