The gun debate has shifted dramatically. Suddenly, it looks as if the issue will benefit Democrats in November, not Republicans.
The reason for the shift doesn’t rest primarily on the intelligence and commitment of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, although many of them have been articulate and persuasive.
Nor does the shift naturally follow from the decisions of large American corporations to stop selling assault weapons, or to end partnerships with the National Rifle Association, although those steps are a significant development.
And the shift in gun control politics isn’t happening because, after mass shootings in places like Orlando, Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs, San Bernardino and Newtown, the attack in Parkland finally was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
No, the reason why the gun control issue was a big advantage for the GOP for decades but now favors the Democrats can be traced to the shift in the electoral coalitions of the two parties.
A red shift
For years, the gun control debate benefited Republicans because their party was able to attract gun rights voters who were — or had been — reliably Democratic. Those voters initially aligned with the Democrats because of the party’s commitment to organized labor and its working-class agenda, and they constituted an important part of the party’s base vote in places like northeastern and western Pennsylvania, Minnesota’s Iron Range, upstate New York and working-class areas of Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
But as “cultural issues” — including abortion, school prayer, civil rights, gun control and ultimately gay rights and same-sex marriage — became increasingly salient from the late 1960s into the 1990s, a new fracture in American politics emerged.
Many cultural conservatives found themselves uncomfortable in the Democratic Party, and they started flirting with, and then shifting to, the GOP. Opponents of gun control — or advocates of gun owner rights, if you prefer — were among the most vocal party switchers.
By attracting former Democrats and swing voters who cared primarily about gun owner rights, the GOP was both adding to its numbers and subtracting supporters from the Democrats.
The gun issued changed the political arithmetic so completely in the Republicans’ favor that Democrats, increasingly located in the suburbs and in America’s cities, gave up on culturally conservative voters and decided the party should avoid talking about gun control if it hoped to woo any working-class whites.
A costly shift
But the shift of culturally conservative voters to the GOP has not been without its downside.
These voters, too often, helped make the party appear intolerant, mean-spirited and extreme, including on issues such as gun control. This eventually produced a new fracture in the electorate — and the emergence of a new crucial voting group, suburban voters.
The suburbs were, of course, once reliably Republican, whether they were in southeast Pennsylvania, in upscale counties outside New York City or in areas outside Washington, D.C.
The increasing cultural conservatism of the Republican Party made many suburban voters uncomfortable, but as long as the focus was on the liberalism of the Democrats (or the failures of Democratic incumbents), suburban voters usually stuck with the GOP.
But as Republicans moved right on cultural issues, many suburbs started to slide a bit more left.
Upscale Republican bastions, such as Montgomery County, Pennsylvania; Fairfield County, Connecticut; Nassau and Westchester counties in New York; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Fairfax County, Virginia, suddenly found themselves voting Democratic.
Now, suburban voters increasingly find that on guns they have more in common with their urban friends than with their rural ones. Some restrictions on guns, in particular, seem increasingly reasonable to swing voters after numerous mass shootings. As the issue has become more salient politically, it has also become potentially more effective for Democrats.
A winning shift
Of course, conservatives will point out that there are many pro-NRA voters, and “pro-gun” voters have tended to vote on one issue, guns, while supporters of gun control vote on a much broader range of issues.
The problem with that argument is that the party coalitions have changed.
Opponents of new gun controls are now so thoroughly integrated into the GOP that they are part of that party’s political base. Because they are no longer swing voters, they no longer have the electoral clout they once did.
Some Democrats from conservative, largely rural states or congressional districts will need pro-gun voters to win elections, and they will try to walk a fine line on the issue, as Conor Lamb is trying to do now in a western Pennsylvania House special election.
But in many states and districts, swing suburbanites — and particularly suburban women — are a much more important constituency than are NRA members because those suburban voters can decide which party wins — just the way anti-gun control voters once could.
This increased attention from suburbanites has changed the electoral equation for 2018, and that is why Democrats now should benefit from any focus on gun control issues.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on March 6, 2018.
If elections and national surveys over the past year have shown us anything, it is that suburban voters could well be the key to the 2018 midterm House elections.
Turnout among minority voters and younger voters could affect the result in a district here or there, but an increase in suburban turnout or a substantial shift by suburban voters (especially suburban women) from the Republicans to the Democrats could have a much broader impact on the fight for control of the House.
In Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial election, Democrat Ralph Northam ran ahead of 2013 Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe by 11 points in Fairfax County and 10 points in Loudoun County, two large suburban areas outside Washington, D.C. He also did 9 points better than McAuliffe in two Richmond-area suburban counties, Henrico and Chesterfield.
Northam even drew a larger percentage in those four suburban counties than Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The same trend held in the Alabama Senate special election in December, won in an upset by Democrat Doug Jones.
While Republican Roy Moore ran up large margins in rural areas, Jones won five of the state’s six largest counties. (Of course, Jones’s strong showing in those urban and suburban areas was undoubtedly due to the unique set of liabilities carried by his GOP opponent rather than President Donald Trump’s weaknesses.)
According to the 2016 exit poll, Trump carried rural areas comfortably, 61 percent to 34 percent, and most of those voters remain loyal to him. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since rural voters tend to be whiter and more traditional in their outlook than voters in urban America. (For a different view of defections from the Trump coalition, see Ron Brownstein’s Jan. 11 piece “The Voters Abandoning Donald Trump” in The Atlantic.)
Given that, House Republicans campaigning in heavily rural districts are less likely to suffer because of Trump’s standing. That should be good news for GOP lawmakers like Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin, whose district is 72 percent rural, and Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte, whose at-large district is 77 percent rural.
Non-rural voters are a different story.
Clinton carried urban voters by 26 points (60 percent to 34 percent), but Trump’s narrow 49 percent to 45 percent margin in the suburbs, which accounted for almost half of all voters, allowed him to win an Electoral College majority even while he was losing the popular vote by more than 2 points.
Indeed, Trump’s winning margins over Clinton among suburban voters in Michigan (53 percent to 42 percent), Pennsylvania (52 percent to 44 percent), Wisconsin (55 percent to 39 percent) and Florida (53 percent to 43 percent) produced that victory.
If there is a partisan shift in the suburbs in November, a couple of dozen House Republican seats should be among the first to feel the movement.
In New Jersey, Rep. Leonard Lance’s district is 92 percent suburban, while the districts of retiring Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen and Frank A. LoBiondo are 90 percent and 72 percent suburban respectively. Virginia Rep. Barbara Comstock’s district is 83 percent suburban. (All district breakdowns by suburban, urban and rural areas come from “The Almanac of American Politics, 2016.”)
In California, the districts of Reps. Steve Knight and Duncan Hunter are each 90 percent suburban, while retiring Rep. Darrell Issa’s open seat is 69 percent suburban.
Retiring Rep. Ed Royce’s district is evenly split between suburban and urban areas. In Michigan, departing Rep. Dave Trott’s seat is 99 percent suburban, while Rep. Mike Bishop’s is almost 78 percent suburban. Minnesota Rep. Jason Lewis’s district is 83 percent suburban, and Rep. Erik Paulsen’s is 66 percent suburban. Illinois Rep. Mike Bost’s district is 65 percent suburban.
Of course, all suburbs are not alike.
In some places, closer-in suburbs tend to be older and more moderate, while suburban areas farther out tend to be newer and more conservative.
Strongly conservative suburbs are less likely to be strongly anti-Trump, but even in those areas a shift to the Democrats could have a significant impact.
Not every Republican in a district that is at least 50 percent or 60 percent suburban is likely to lose, but many of them probably will if we have anything approaching a “normal” midterm election with an unpopular incumbent in the White House.
Looking for other names to watch? Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman’s district is 49 percent suburban and 1 percent rural. Illinois Rep. Peter Roskam’s district is 77 percent suburban and 0 percent rural. Texas Rep. Pete Sessions sits in a district that is 47 percent suburban and 0 percent rural. Kansas Rep. Kevin Yoder’s district is 79 percent suburban.
There are other GOP seats that are majority suburban — including Georgia’s 6th (Karen Handel), New York’s 24th (John Katko), Virginia’s 7th (David Brat) and Ohio’s open 12th (Pat Tiberi) — and I have not listed any Pennsylvania districts, which have only recently been redrawn.
But clearly, at least four GOP-held seats in southeast Pennsylvania — Rep. Ryan A. Costello’s, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick’s and those of retiring Reps. Pat Meehan and Charlie Dent — are at risk.
Finally, a handful of Republican-held seats in heavily urban districts that also have some suburban areas — Nebraska’s 2nd (Don Bacon), Florida’s 26th (Carlos Curbelo), Kentucky’s 6th (Andy Barr), North Carolina’s 9th (Robert Pittenger), California’s 44th (Mimi Walters) and Texas’ 7th (John Culberson) — could also be affected by movement in the suburbs, especially if combined with turnout and vote choice shifts in urban areas.
With Republican retirements and a new Pennsylvania map giving Democrats better House opportunities, the GOP needs to hold on to suburban voters who supported Trump in 2016. That won’t be easy, especially considering the president’s problems with more highly educated voters and suburban women.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 28, 2018.
It is no secret that the Republican strategy to keep the House in 2018 includes running against Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Both the National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC have run television ads during special elections this cycle linking Democratic nominees to Pelosi, and GOP strategists are gleeful when they talk about the Democratic leader’s baggage and their intention to use her in their TV ads.
The strategy is a reasonable one. After all, when a president is as unpopular as Donald Trump, the best strategy for the president’s party is to try to make the election a referendum on someone or something else. Moreover, it’s usually easier to motivate voters to turn out against a villain than it is to generate enthusiasm about your own incumbent’s accomplishments and promises.
Pelosi isn’t the first House speaker to become the target of the political opposition.
In 1980, congressional Republicans ran a now-famous television ad that argued “the Democrats are out of gas. Vote Republican for a change.” The spot featured an actor who looked like House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Less than two decades later, Democrats were running against Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Pelosi’s poll numbers are mediocre at best, with anywhere from one-quarter to one-third of voters saying that they have a favorable view of her. In contrast, about half of respondents have an unfavorable view.
For some, Pelosi is a “San Francisco liberal” who represents everything wrong with the left, from culture and values to taxes and government spending.
But Pelosi’s ideology and longevity are not the only reasons her poll numbers are bad. In an article last June, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted that the poll numbers of other legislative leaders, including John A. Boehner, Paul D. Ryan and Mitch McConnell, were also terrible. He explained that their ratings tanked when they moved into the congressional leadership.
Will it work?
Still, it is far from clear that running against Pelosi this year will be effective among voters who matter, no matter how bad her numbers are and no matter what a handful of special elections showed in 2017.
Pelosi is the House minority leader at a time when Republicans control the House, Senate and White House. She is a public figure, certainly, but her role is not particularly high profile now, and she has little power on Capitol Hill. Trump, in contrast, dominates the political stage and occupies the most powerful position in the government. Given that, it will be challenging for Republican nominees around the country to make the midterm elections “about” Pelosi.
Trump’s ratings generally are no better than Pelosi’s. In the Jan. 13-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 36 percent of respondents said they had positive feelings for Trump, while 56 percent had negative feelings. (Obama’s ratings were 57 percent positive and 29 percent negative.)
Moreover, it’s surely the case that the voters with the strongest dislike for Pelosi are conservative Republicans, who have disagreed with her on politics and policy for decades and who are among the president’s strongest supporters. They are likely to turn out and vote Republican whether or not Republican campaigns feature Pelosi in TV spots.
Weaker partisans, swing voters and less ideological voters are less likely to be strongly anti-Pelosi, and it is difficult to believe that they will see the midterm election as a choice between Trump and Pelosi rather than as a referendum on the president and his party.
Who’s being judged?
History, after all, strongly suggests that midterms tend to be referenda on the man in the White House, not on House minority leaders.
In the last 80 years, the president’s party has gained seats twice in midterms — once after the Sept. 11 attacks and once in 1998, when Republican legislators invited a backlash by ignoring public opinion and doggedly pursuing Bill Clinton’s impeachment even though most voters had a very favorable view of the president’s job performance and opposed impeachment.
Instead of gaining a handful of House seats, as was expected, the GOP lost a handful of seats during Clinton’s second midterm, when the president was on the defensive because of the Lewinsky scandal. Republicans unwisely made the midterms about impeachment.
Republicans’ best chance for maintaining control of the House this November rests on a combination of events and circumstances, including nasty Democratic primaries that produce weaker nominees, Republican candidates’ efforts to localize their races, and developments that energize the GOP or depress Democratic turnout.
Running against Pelosi could fit into that equation, but it is difficult to imagine that it would move the needle significantly.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 21, 2018.
I hear it all the time these days. The Democratic electoral wave is petering out. The generic ballot shows the Democrats’ advantage is cratering. President Donald Trump’s job approval ratings are up. Voters are giving the president more and more credit for the economy’s strength. Lighten up, political junkies, the election is not until November. Today’s generic may not be tomorrow’s.
Moreover, the Democrats remain well-positioned to benefit from an electoral wave. This column focuses on the generic ballot, as reported and averaged by RealClearPolitics.
Although various surveys report different results, the generic ballot probably now sits in the mid-single digits, in the 5- to 8-point range.
There was a point in mid-December when a series of polls showed Democrats with a big advantage in the generic ballot.
Consecutive polls released by Quinnipiac (+15 points, +12 points), CNN (+18 points), NBC News/Wall Street Journal (+11 points), PPP (+11 points) and Marist (+13 points) showed Democrats with a double-digit lead on the question.
For those using those polls as a starting point, the generic has tightened.
But the evidence is more complicated, and the warnings of the Democrats’ weakening position overblown.
There were 15 polls conducted between early December and early February that showed a double-digit advantage for Democrats — almost half of them, seven, came from Quinnipiac.
Quinnipiac’s generic advantage numbers have been relatively consistent (and within the margin of error) over the last two months.
Just as important, they have almost always showed a much larger Democratic advantage than other nonpartisan surveys:
- Nov. 29-Dec. 4, Democrats +14
- Dec. 6-11, Democrats +12
- Dec. 12-18, Democrats +15
- Jan. 5-9, Democrats +17
- Jan. 12-16, Democrats +11
- Jan. 19-23, Democrats +13
- Feb. 2-5, Democrats +9
The February number was certainly down a few points, especially from early January. But given margins of error and the impact of news and short-term events on the public, the general direction of Quinnipiac’s polling is clear and consistent.
According to Quinnipiac, Democrats have had and continue to have a considerable advantage in the generic ballot (if the numbers accurately reflect the sentiments of registered voters, of course).
Let’s compare the Quinnipiac numbers to those from Monmouth University.
Monmouth released two surveys between early December and early February. The December survey (Dec. 10-12) found Democrats with a 15-point advantage in the generic ballot, while the late January survey (Jan. 28-30) showed the party holding a mere 2-point edge.
You can conclude either that the Democrats’ generic advantage has collapsed or, alternatively, that one or both of the numbers did not accurately reflect where registered voters stood at that time.
For me, the choice isn’t close. I’ll select the second alternative. Public opinion rarely moves so dramatically in seven weeks.
Let’s look at the generic ballot questions in the Economist/YouGov online surveys from late November to early February. Five additional surveys during that same period showed the same trend. (The Economist Group is the parent company of Roll Call.)
- Nov. 26-28, Democrats +6
- Dec. 10-12, Democrats +8
- Dec. 17-19, Democrats +9
- Jan. 8-9, Democrats +7
- Jan. 14-16, Democrats +6
- Jan. 28-30, Democrats +5
- Feb. 4-6, Democrats +6
No wild swings. No dramatic movement. Just a consistent mid- to high-single-digit advantage.
The narrow range doesn’t prove that the numbers are correct, but at the very least they raise questions about the “sky is falling” assessment.
Let’s compare the Economist/YouGov surveys to CNN’s, which asked the generic three times between October and January, a slightly earlier period than the other polls I’ve been discussing.
An Oct. 12-15 CNN poll found the Democrats with a 16-point advantage in the generic (54 percent to 38 percent).
In mid-December, the Democrats’ advantage grew to 18 points (56 percent to 38 percent).
And in the most recent poll (Jan. 14-18), the Democratic advantage plunged to 5 points (49 percent to 44 percent).
Again, you can believe the Democrats’ position in the generic has absolutely cratered, or you can be skeptical — as I am — that the mid- to high-teens advantages accurately portrayed where the cycle was.
Finally, let me turn to my favorite survey over the years, the one from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.
An Oct. 23-26 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had the Democrats with a 7-point generic ballot advantage.
In mid-December, that advantage spiked to 11 points. And in mid-January, it was back down to a modest 6 points.
Do those three surveys show movement, or, given that they all were well within the margin of error, is the difference just noise? I don’t think we can know for sure without looking at them in the larger context.
The sky is not falling
After examining all of the data on RealClearPolitics, including individual surveys from various organizations, I’m inclined to conclude that the Democrats’ advantage in the generic has generally been in the middle to upper single digits except, possibly, for a short-lived spike in mid-December.
I would not be surprised if we see another spike or two (in one direction or the other), but count me as skeptical that the sky is falling for Democrats.
The warnings that Democrats can’t take a wave for granted and don’t have the House locked up in November strike me as wise. It is still early.
But waves usually don’t develop until the midterm year, so the fact that the Democratic advantage isn’t in the double digits now is not especially important.
During 2005, the year before the Democratic midterm wave, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot favored the Democrats by anywhere from 5 to 11 points.
In January 2006, the survey showed Democrats with a 9-point advantage.
In March, the party’s advantage grew to 13 points, but one month later, it fell to a mere 6 points (45 percent to 39 percent).
I expect that at that point some Democrats and many journalists were issuing dire warnings about the party’s prospects.
As we know, the Democratic generic ballot advantage in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll jumped back up to double digits in June 2006, and the Democrats eventually won the House in November, with the last NBC News/Wall Street Journal generic ballot showing a lead in the mid-teens.
So what should you take from all of this?
The abundance of polls has not made our political crystal balls clearer. We have more data, but they often seem contradictory.
We still have to figure out which numbers are accurate and what they mean.
There are now so many polls asking the generic ballot question that even people who should know better end up making comparisons across surveys.
The most recent poll gets all of the hype, no matter whether it seems to fit comfortably with other data and real news events.
And the generic ballot is just one measure of the two parties’ strengths during the cycle, which is why any analysis should look at multiple indicators, including multiple poll questions, fundraising numbers, measures of enthusiasm, candidate recruitment and district-level survey data in competitive seats.
So watch the generic ballot, but don’t become a prisoner to it.
Democratic prospects of taking over the House are not measurably worse than they were a month or two ago. Indeed, there are plenty of reasons to believe that they are better and improving.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 12, 2018.
Even if you think Republican leaders in Congress have shown no spine in responding to President Donald Trump’s more outrageous and inappropriate comments, you ought to be willing to acknowledge that GOP legislators are caught in a no-win situation.
It’s always tempting to tell incumbents of an unpopular president’s party to criticize their own party leader as a way to survive a midterm wave. But that strategy rarely works in competitive congressional districts when the political environment is as bad as it is for Republicans today.
Repeatedly criticizing your own party’s president undermines him, makes his party look divided and ineffective, and risks alienating the party’s grass roots, many of whom still support him.
At the same time, appearing to be an apologist for an unpopular president, particularly one as unhinged as Trump, also isn’t a winning strategy for most vulnerable Republicans.
A numbers game
Democrats faced a similar — but not identical — quandary in the late 1990s, when President Bill Clinton was being less than truthful about his behavior in the Oval Office.
Few Democrats rushed to criticize him because he remained relatively popular and they didn’t want to undermine him or their party’s prospects in the 1998 midterms.
Of course, Trump is no Clinton. Bill Clinton, that is.
Clinton’s job approval ratings stood at 59 percent in a Jan. 6-7, 1998, Gallup survey and at 66 percent in the same poll from Feb. 13 to 15, 1998.
Among independents, a remarkable 60 percent approved of his job performance in that early January poll and a stunning 67 percent in the mid-February survey.
Trump wishes he had those numbers.
Instead, his approval rating now stands at 40 percent, according to Gallup’s most recent weekly average.
In most reputable national surveys, he stands somewhere between 37 percent and 42 percent, depending on the day and the pollster, and his numbers among independents are terrible.
To be sure, comparisons between Trump and Bill Clinton only go so far.
Since the birth of the party system, congressional leaders and White Houses have cajoled, promised, threatened and even punished members of Congress who failed to toe the party line.
But Trump has gone well beyond that in publicly humiliating critics, especially those from his own party.
Given all of that, and the GOP base’s continued strong support for the president, it’s easy to understand why many Republican members of Congress would rather not talk about Trump’s daily controversies, even if it means running away from reporters. But that tactic doesn’t change their electoral equations.
Most congressional Republicans in tough districts won’t be able to survive merely by laying low. At least not if and when an electoral wave hits.
Some, like Reps. Lee Zeldin and John J. Faso of New York and Leonard Lance of New Jersey, surely hope their votes against the GOP tax bill will inoculate them. After all, they can demonstrate they sided with their constituents and against the president in opposing the legislation, which punishes voters from high-tax states.
But voters may have a different perspective. They may realize those “no” votes by Zeldin, Faso and Lance did not stop the tax bill from passing and the only way to stop future Republican mistakes would be to turn the chamber over to the Democrats. And the only way to achieve that is to vote against House Republicans.
So here is the GOP’s Catch-22.
Had Zeldin, Faso and Lance made a bigger stink about the bill and Trump’s overall behavior, they would have risked alienating base GOP voters. But since they didn’t raise a ruckus about Trump’s overall performance, they will be viewed by Trump’s critics as defenders of the president.
GOP insiders believe that some Republicans from competitive districts — Reps. David Valadao of California and John Katko of New York, for example — are doing enough to swim against the wave. But for others, the challenge will be too great.
While voters bemoan partisanship, most members of Congress have spent their entire lives in one party and see American politics through a partisan lens.
They are comfortable with that perspective, and with the personal relationships built with colleagues over the years.
This helps explain why members of Congress prefer to stick with their party — and their president.
None of this is meant to excuse the deafening silence coming from most House and Senate Republicans at the all-too-frequent lunacy emanating from the White House and from the president’s allies.
Nor does it alter the political reality that the fine line that some GOP members are trying to walk this midterm year is so narrow and tricky that it is essentially unwalkable.
Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 7, 2018.