Beware Kavanaugh Narratives, Final-Month Musings Unlikely to Change November Outcomes

During a brief period when I was working for the political unit of CBS News around the 2006 midterm elections, I attended a pre-election meeting run by Sean McManus and Paul Friedman. McManus was then president of CBS News, while Friedman was vice president.

I remember McManus, who made his mark running CBS Sports, saying he had bumped into a friend or acquaintance who told him the alleged Democratic midterm wave had crested and Republican prospects were rebounding.

Having just had conservations with campaign pollsters, party strategists and political consultants, I knew there was little or no evidence of a dramatic change in the trajectory of the election, and I said so in response to McManus’ anecdote. The midterm wave, including a Democratic takeover of both houses of Congress, was still intact, I observed. (Democrats won control of both chambers that year.)

I recall that my comment didn’t seem to please McManus, but the meeting quickly moved on to other matters. McManus almost certainly had no idea who I was. He never said a word to me.

I relate this memory as a warning about the final month before a national election.

The tendency to draw dramatic conclusions from fragments of data, whispers of alleged movement in polling or supposed anecdotes from a particular campaign is almost uncontrollable in the final few weeks before an election. Both experts and the casually involved are looking for any sign that things are changing, since change is bigger news than continuity.

In some respects, this “last month effect” now happens every day for two years during each election cycle. There are more polls, more airtime to fill on cable TV, and more political and election coverage in general than there ever has been, which has produced more chatter, more speculation and more amateurish analysis.

I’ve warned repeatedly about jumping to conclusions from the latest public poll — my Feb. 12 column “The Generic Is Falling! The Generic Is Falling!” correctly rebutted the widespread assessment that the 2018 midterm’s trajectory was changing — and I am doing so again.

Over the last week, we have seen a seemingly endless flood of stories about new Republican enthusiasm and how that could affect both turnout and election outcomes next month.

“Democrats’ advantage in recent polls may not bring the ‘blue wave’ they’re hoping for,” warned a piece on CNBC.com from an economics reporter, and plenty of talking heads and reporters warned the Kavanaugh Supreme Court fight was energizing Republicans and undercutting the Democratic midterm surge. Take all such assessments with a grain of salt.

My point is not that any single poll, article or talking head is wrong. It is simply a reminder that Republicans (and their media allies over at Fox News) have an interest in arguing that Kavanaugh has changed the midterm dynamics no matter whether or not it has. And even the major mainstream electronic and print media have an incentive to raise questions about a so-called Republican surge.

President Trump certainly is trying to use wedge issues to energize his supporters, and there may well be an uptick in GOP enthusiasm after the recent Supreme Court fight. But based on the past, I’m skeptical the Kavanaugh fight will fundamentally change next month’s outcomes.

Republicans won the Kavanaugh fight, and they now have complete control of the federal government. Traditionally, anger, frustration, disappointment and fear are stronger motivators than satisfaction, relief and euphoria. Democrats and liberals simply are more desperate than are conservatives and Republicans, which is one reason I doubt GOP turnout will match Democratic turnout.

But there are other reasons why the Democratic grassroots advantage should appear on Election Day.

First, while Trump turned out his voters two years ago, allowing him to fashion a narrow win while losing the popular vote, Hillary Clinton lost some Democrats and liberals who saw her as equally flawed. Those Democrats voted for the Green nominee or didn’t vote at all, but they are now likely to turn out to vote against Trump and the GOP next month.

Second, Trump and his party have alienated the single most important swing group: college-educated whites in the suburbs. Many of those voters backed Trump because of their general partisan bent, their hope that Trump would bring about change or their dislike of Clinton. But those voters now dislike Trump and are likely going to vote for Democratic candidates in the fall.

Third, in addition to differences in base turnout, electoral waves can be produced by dramatic swings among independent voters. Those voters could well be crucial in 2018, as I noted in my May 30 column “Why You Should Focus on Independents.” So far, most polls show independent voters swinging strongly to the Democrats.

Finally, polls taken during the Kavanaugh fight probably don’t reflect what the political situation will be like in November. Veteran pollsters always warn that surveys are mere snapshots of public opinion, and dramatic events often produce misleading poll data.

It’s certainly possible that events over the last two weeks have had — or over the next four weeks will have — an impact on voter enthusiasm and turnout. But rather than relying on Rasmussen and Investor’s Business Daily generic ballot polling, I’d wait to see what the NBC News/Wall Street Journal, New York Times/CBS, Washington Post/ABC, Pew, Gallup and CNN polls show.

Right now, the House still looks poised to flip party control, while the Senate does not. That’s the way things have looked for months.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 9, 2018.

House GOP Moving Right, Democratic Direction Less Clear

We don’t know exactly how many House seats Democrats will gain in November, though Democratic control of the chamber next year looks almost inevitable. But even now it is clear that the midterm results will move Republicans further to the right. Where the Democrats will stand is less clear.

In the House, GOP losses will be disproportionately large in the suburbs and among members of the Republican Main Street Partnership, the House GOP group that puts “country over party” and values “compromise over conflict,” according to its website.

Not all the 70-plus members of the group are pragmatists or generally seek to defuse partisanship, but many are endangered this election cycle.

GOP casualty list?

Reps. Barbara Comstock of Virginia and Mike Coffman of Colorado are headed for defeat, and Democrats are likely to flip the seats of retiring pragmatists such as Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Pennsylvania’s Ryan A. Costello, and New Jersey’s Frank A. LoBiondo and Rodney Frelinghuysen, as well as the seats of former Pennsylvania Reps. Charlie Dent and Patrick Meehan.

Reps. Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, Kevin Yoder of Kansas and Peter Roskam of Illinois are running even or behind their Democratic challengers, as are Mimi Walters of California and Leonard Lance of New Jersey. (Roskam is not listed as a member on the Main Street website.)

Some Republican pragmatists and advocates of increased cooperation with Democrats, including Reps. Will Hurd of Texas and John Katko of New York, are likely to survive the wave. They are the exceptions to the general rule.

But at least 30 of the House members listed on the Main Street website are now at risk in the midterms, and when Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan starts to crawl on to some endangered Republican lists, you know that most of the remaining GOP pragmatists on Capitol Hill have reason to be nervous.

Not every Republican incumbent in a tough race, though, is a pragmatist who at least talks about changing the tone on Capitol Hill.

A handful of Freedom Caucus members are at risk — including Iowa’s Rod Blum, Virginia’s Dave Brat, North Carolina’s Ted Budd and California’s Dana Rohrabacher — and a number of conservatives are retiring or running for governor, including former Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida (who left Congress last month to focus on his gubernatorial bid) and Steve Pearce of New Mexico.

Rep. Jason Lewis, a Minnesota conservative, will likely lose, and the GOP’s California delegation will take a significant hit.

This isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of Republican losses, but it does demonstrate that while there will be House losses across the party’s ideological spectrum, the biggest losses — relatively speaking — will be among party members for whom “compromise” is not a dirty word and Donald Trump is a liability.

The House Republican Conference next year will be smaller but also more conservative and presumably more belligerent being in the minority.

Democratic divisions

The effect on the Democrats is more complicated and less certain.

On one hand, Democrats are likely to add a number of more pragmatic members to their caucus. These members won’t be “conservatives,” but they are less likely to see everything in knee-jerk ideological and partisan terms.

Among the likely winners in November are Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, who won a special election this cycle and is a solid favorite over GOP incumbent Keith Rothfus in a newly drawn district. Former Navy helicopter pilot and prosecutor Mikie Sherrill looks likely to win Frelinghuysen’s open seat, and state Sen. Jeff Van Drew appears an easy winner in the district LoBiondo is vacating.

If they win, Democrats from upscale suburban areas — e.g., Virginia’s 10th, Kansas’ 2nd and 3rd, Minnesota’s 2nd and 3rd, New Jersey’s 3rd, 7th and 11th, and a handful of California seats — will be well aware of the “swing” nature of their districts, and they will be less likely to be robotic followers of their party’s liberal agenda, particularly on economic issues.

But while the House Democratic Caucus will add more pragmatic members who represent competitive districts, it will also see an influx of progressives who say the party has been too timid when it comes to proposing and defending liberal proposals.

All of the energy on the Democratic side is on the left, and progressives surely will demand an unapologetically confrontational approach to Trump nationally and on Capitol Hill.

The fight over the direction of the party is likely to play out first when House Democrats choose their leadership after the midterms.

In mid-August, NBC News identified more than four dozen Democratic incumbents and candidates who’ve indicated they won’t support Nancy Pelosi for speaker next year if the party takes the House.

Not all of the candidates on that list will win, and Pelosi’s opponents come from both the more moderate and the more progressive wings of the party.

While much of the opposition to Pelosi obviously is generational, not ideological, it’s notable that Lamb, Sherrill, North Carolina’s Dan McCready and Kathy Manning, Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, Michigan’s Elissa Slotkin and Kansas’ Paul Davis are among those who have said the party needs new leadership.

Republicans will surely call next year’s House Democratic agenda “extreme,” “radical” and “socialist.”

But those labels reflect the GOP’s knee-jerk ideological approach and beliefs as much as the Democrats’ positioning, and the Democratic Party will need to work out its agenda during the next two years, when its voters will pick a presidential standard-bearer.

That nominee will, to a large degree, define the positioning of the Democratic Party just as the 2020 Republican nominee will make a statement about the GOP’s values and direction.

Note: This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 4, 2018.

How Will Kavanaugh Shape the Midterms?

Assuming the FBI investigation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh doesn’t uncover some startling new information, the Senate is likely to confirm him to the Supreme Court and the political effects on the midterms could go in two different directions.

Democratic lawmakers will complain, of course, that the inquiry wasn’t thorough enough, that Kavanaugh lacks a judicial temperament, that he is too partisan to sit on the land’s highest court, and that he wasn’t completely honest with the Senate Judiciary Committee about his drinking.

Still, if all 51 Republican senators are looking for a way to confirm Kavanaugh, Democrats are powerless to derail the nomination.

Open House?

The impact on the fight for the House is likely to be minimal.

There probably will be about a month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Nov. 6, which should give many voters an opportunity to refocus on other issues, be they health care, immigration or President Donald Trump’s performance.

Of course, in states with early/absentee/mail voting, the confirmation fight will still be on some people’s minds. But the Kavanaugh fight has not redrawn the electoral battle lines during the final six weeks of the election.

Democrats were already energized when Kavanaugh was nominated, and Trump’s strongest supporters have remained loyal to him no matter what he says or does.

Republican primary turnout was good, though it didn’t match — and isn’t likely to match — Democratic turnout or enthusiasm.

Recently, some pollsters have argued that heightened Republican enthusiasm could eat into the Democrats’ expected turnout advantage in November. But if and when Kavanaugh is confirmed, that event will give the GOP “control” of the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, and that will remove some of the urgency about the midterms for Republican voters.

Democrats, on the other hand, will see the midterms as their only opportunity to check Trump and his party. During the month between Kavanaugh’s confirmation and Election Day, the president is likely to return to his combative mode.

He will interject himself back into every House race, as he has been for months, thereby reminding voters that the midterms are about him.

The 2018 election’s crucial swing group — college-educated whites/white women — will be at least as energized after the Kavanaugh fight as they were before his nomination.

Polls have shown for months that swing voters (particularly women) have been preparing to send a loud message to Trump and the Republican Party, and the accusations about Kavanaugh will only further motivate college-educated women who live in the suburbs.

Both national polls and district surveys conducted by the media and by campaigns, as well as campaign spending decisions by the parties and PACs, show at least a modest Democratic wave developing.

According to national media reports, influential Republican political action committees have pulled out of Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th District (Mike Coffman) and Michigan’s 8th District (Mike Bishop).

Those districts are telling, since Coffman and Comstock were able to win even while Democratic presidential nominees were carrying their districts, and Bishop represents a district carried by both Trump in 2016 and Mitt Romney in 2012.

All three are politically competitive suburban districts. District-level polling also shows significant Republican problems — again, primarily in the suburbs — in New Jersey, Iowa, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and California, and Republican funds are now flowing into districts not initially regarded as even competitive in the past.

Democratic gains of at least 30-35 seats currently appear likely, and there is little reason to believe that the Kavanaugh confirmation fight will change that outcome.

Indeed, if it does have any impact, it will probably be to the Democrats’ advantage.

Meanwhile, in the Senate

The Supreme Court battle could have quite a different effect on the race for the Senate. Instead of college-educated, suburban whites being the key swing demographic group, self-identified Republicans, rural voters and Trump voters are crucial in these contests.

Democratic incumbents in North Dakota and West Virginia certainly need to win some of those voters to have any chance of surviving (as do Democratic incumbents in three or four other states).

So Democratic senators in difficult races have a complicated calculation to make.

On one hand, if Republicans are going to confirm Kavanaugh with 50 or 51 votes anyway, endangered Democratic senators could boost their chances by casting meaningless votes in favor of the nominee — thus proving their political independence to swing voters and Republican voters in pro-Trump states such as North Dakota, West Virginia and Indiana.

On the other hand, the intensity of the Kavanaugh fight makes it more difficult for Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Manchin III and Joe Donnelly to support confirmation because Democratic base voters are so outraged at Trump and Senate Republicans.

Voting for Kavanaugh — even if it has no impact on his confirmation — could anger and alienate those voters, which could well be fatal to the Democratic incumbents.

Of course, Democratic senators such as Donnelly now have new arguments to explain a vote against confirmation — the alleged unfairness of the process, questionable statements from Kavanaugh and the unanswered questions raised during the testimony of his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford.

While Democrats would love to kill the Kavanaugh nomination, dragging out the process to fill the court’s vacancy would only add to the concerns of Democratic senators running in heavily pro-Trump states by elevating the importance of partisanship, ideology and the Supreme Court.

That is less of a problem for Democrats in the House than it is for this cycle’s Senate class. Given the unexpected twists and turns of our politics these days — and of the Kavanaugh confirmation process — it’s probably wise not to rule out a few more twists and turns before November.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on October 2, 2018.

 

I’m Just Tired of All of It

I’m tired of all the noise and hype. I’m tired of the daily crises. I’m tired of the drama that is produced by President Donald Trump. I’m tired of the suffocating coverage by the national media of the chaos that swirls around the administration. I’m tired of the obvious partisanship on Capitol Hill. I wish it would all stop, but I know it won’t.

I’m tired of the stupid tweets from the president of the United States that wouldn’t be appropriate for a 12-year-old school yard bully, let alone someone who is supposed to be a world leader.

I’m tired of the lies and efforts to misdirect that come from Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other members of the White House and friends of the president.

I’m tired of Trump’s ridiculous rallies — his attacks on the media and the “deep state,” his misstatements about the economy, and his efforts to undermine important institutions such as the Department of Justice and the FBI.

I’m tired of all of those people standing behind him, wearing their MAGA hats and waving signs, and cheering mindlessly when he mocks his adversaries, attacks America’s allies and brags about his alleged accomplishments.

I’m tired of much of the media coverage. While I agree with most critics of the president and Republicans on Capitol Hill, I wonder why the major cable networks can’t take a break once in a while from talking Trump (or more recently, Judge Brett Kavanaugh) and instead give me some other news.

Something else MUST be going on around the world.

Could we get some more coverage of Venezuela? The nationalist regimes in Poland and Hungary? The change in leadership in Australia? China’s economy and foreign policy efforts? Africa? Something must be happening there.

I’d even like to see or read pieces on how the states are dealing with health care or economic issues.

I’m unbearably tired of the endless panels on CNN and MSNBC going over the same topics all day. And I’m tired of cable television guests who talk about the midterms but know as much about elections as I do about nuclear physics.

I’m tired of the cable shows that feature panels/guests who are only on one side of the argument, and I’m tired of cable shows that have two guests from different parties yelling at each other rather than trying to be analytical.

I’m tired of Capitol Hill Republicans who refuse to comment on and criticize stupid things the president says or does.

Nobody can ever answer a question with “yes” or “no.” I’m tired of that, too.

I’m tired — really, really tired — of the hypocrisy. I’m tired of Republicans expressing shock that Democrats are trying to delay the confirmation of Kavanaugh and apparently forgetting that they wouldn’t take up the nomination of Merrick Garland, for no other reason than Barack Obama nominated him.

I’m tired of Democrats acting as if they wouldn’t do the same thing that Republicans are now doing if they were in the majority.

You see, I watched Democrats avoid criticizing Bill Clinton when he had his scandal, and I saw former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid begin the slippery slope of undermining the filibuster.

Oh, and I’m seriously tired of people complaining about “false equivalence.”

Sure, I’ll admit that I’m not equally tired of everything.

I’m most tired about Trump’s misstatements about the 2016 campaign, his complete lack of understanding about trade and deficits, his ignorance of American history, and his bragging and narcissism.

And, of course, I’m really tired of his lies and misstatements — and his constant efforts to accuse people of doing things of which he is guilty.

By now, you certainly want to know why I’m still writing about politics if I’m so tired of it all.

That’s a fair question.

Part of the answer is that I’m not certain what else I would do.

Part of it, I’m sure, is force of habit.

I have been watching the evening news since I was a child.

We were a Huntley-Brinkley family. And my family got two newspapers delivered each day — The New York Times in the morning and the Journal-American in the afternoon.

I’ve been watching and reading about politics for at least 60 years. I still remember how excited I was right before the 1960 election and how I enjoyed watching the national convention coverage when it was on broadcast TV.

I loved watching Frank McGee and John Chancellor and Bruce Morton.

So you can say that, in part, I’m addicted.

But I also remain fascinated and entertained by the game of politics.

Maybe I will get so tired of all the tumult associated with Trump that I’ll simply walk away.

But not today.

Not at least until after the midterms, when we see more winners and losers, and when the truly bizarre story we are all now following may show signs of coming to an end.

This column appeared originally in Roll Call on September 26, 2018.

Why It’s NOT the Economy, Stupid

Last week, the National Republican Congressional Committee released a web video entitled “Better Off Now.” According to NRCC communications director Matt Gorman, who was quoted in the accompanying press release, “November comes down to one question: Are Americans better off now than they were two years ago?” That might be what Republicans want, but it is not likely to be voters’ sole motivation as they cast their ballots.

According to Gorman, voters will “keep Republicans in the majority.” The economy certainly is good, and there is no reason to believe that will change before November.

Unemployment is down. Economic growth and consumer confidence are up. Even wages are starting to show some gains. But if the economy and the public’s satisfaction with it automatically translated into strong presidential approval numbers and gains for the president’s party, Donald Trump’s job approval would be well over 50 percent and House Republicans would be poised to gain seats.

That’s obviously not the case.

Republicans are going to lose House seats — likely two dozen or more — and Trump’s job approval sits in the 38 to 42 percent range, a reflection of his controversial presidency, style and character.

Although it is true that a bad economy is always fatal for the president’s party, a healthy economy doesn’t always translate into success for the party controlling the White House.

Plus, Trump’s agenda guarantees strong opposition from the left, which is now energized. More importantly, his style and behavior in office have cost him support among college-educated whites primarily because — rightly or wrongly — they see him as vulgar, untruthful, petty, mean-spirited, narcissistic and more interested in his own interests than in the country’s.

Unintended consequences

But there is another reason why the upbeat economic news isn’t boosting the president’s numbers: The public’s attention has turned elsewhere because most people are not nearly as worried about the economy as they once were.

If you think there is a touch of irony in this, you are correct.

The good economic numbers have allowed voters to turn their focus elsewhere, to issues that don’t benefit the Republicans as much as GOP strategists — and the NRCC — would like.

But don’t take my word for it.

Here is what the Pew Research Center concluded in January about the public’s priorities.

“The public’s improving economic outlook is reflected in its policy agenda for President Trump and Congress in the coming year. Economic issues — improving the job situation, strengthening the economy and reducing the budget deficit — are viewed as less important policy priorities than they were just a few years ago. “Other issues, which had been less prominent public priorities in the past, have grown in importance. The share of Americans saying that protecting the environment should be a top policy priority has increased 18 percentage points since 2010 (from 44% to 62%), and seven points in the past year alone.“Also in the past year, the shares saying that improving the nation’s transportation system and dealing with drug addiction should be top priorities have increased 13 points each (both from 36% to 49%).”

Proof in the polls

And there is more evidence. In the June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies (Question No. 11) registered voters were given a handful of issues and asked to select two that they thought “will be the most important factor in deciding your vote.”

The most frequent response was “health care,” followed closely by “the economy and jobs,” “guns,” “taxes and spending” and “immigration.”

Two things stand out.

First, health care, not the economy, was the top response.

And second, no single response got even a quarter of all the responses as the top issue.

If the economy were poor, “the economy and jobs” would stand out dramatically as the top issue of concern. But because the economy is good, registered voters had a variety of concerns.

Finally, a third survey — this one at the district level — confirms the national numbers from Pew and NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

Take a Sept. 5-9 Monmouth University poll of Pennsylvania’s 7th District, a competitive, redrawn Lehigh Valley (Allentown) seat.

The top issue of the 401 voters questioned? Health care (30 percent), followed by immigration (21 percent). Job creation came in third (14 percent), followed by a resurgent “gun control” (13 percent).

Their best shot

Republicans from the White House to the Capitol can and should run on the economy since it is the best issue they have.

Voters who like the president can and will cite jobs, economic growth and the economy to explain their vote. But a majority of midterm voters are likely to view the election as about other things, from guns and health care to the president’s deep character flaws.

James Carville was correct in 1992 when he argued that Democrats should focus on “the economy, stupid.”

The United States had just passed through a short-lived but significant recession in 1990-91, and voters were worried about rising unemployment and weak economic growth. But that’s not the case today.

It is now apparent that Trump and the GOP will be punished in November in spite of the generally good economy, which is why I suggest modifying Carville’s comment to “It’s the economy, stupid — except when it isn’t.”

And it isn’t this year, because the economy is not a problem, which gives a majority of Americans the freedom to have other things on their minds. And many of those things have to do with Trump’s personal behavior, performance in office and broader agenda.

This column originally appeared in Roll Call on September 18, 2018.