One Year Until the Most Important Election in American History

While it feels as if we’ve all been watching the 2020 race for years, it’s still 12 months until voters decide whether or not to give President Donald Trump a second term.

Given the president’s performance during his first term and his opportunities to cement and then expand those changes in another four years, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the 2020 election is the most important one in our nation’s history. No wonder there is so much early attention on Trump’s reelection prospects.

Our friends at Moody’s Analytics have once again produced a presidential election model to tell us who is going to win the White House next year. Like virtually all nonpartisan professional handicappers (including myself), Moody’s predicted days before the 2016 election that Hillary Clinton would win comfortably.

Moody’s economists have tinkered with their methodology and produced a mixed bag of changes. Some of the changes are welcome, including multiple turnout models that reflect the importance of who actually votes and the difficulty pollsters have in gauging turnout.

Moody’s also now offers three different presidential election models, which presumably increases their chances of being right. Unfortunately, all three treat presidential elections as contests between two generic nominees, completely discounting noneconomic factors, to say nothing of the candidates’ personalities. That may have been a reasonable way to proceed in the days before Trump entered the White House, but, as the 2018 midterms demonstrated, it’s not always “the economy, stupid.”

The politics components in the models (as opposed to the economic components) strike me as strange.

Yes, past state electoral results are crucially important in predicting future state electoral behavior. But the models reward Trump because they assume “Democrats and Democrat-leaning independent voters are more likely to switch sides and vote for a Republican candidate than vice versa.” In other words, more Clinton voters are going to vote for Trump in 2020 than will Trump voters for the Democratic nominee. I see no reason to expect that to be the case next year.

In addition, instead of factoring presidential job approval into their analysis, the folks at Moody’s Analytics are concerned only with how much Trump’s job approval has fluctuated. As they write, “Trump’s approval rating has, at most, oscillated not much more than 10 percentage points. As a result, our approval rating variable does not penalize the president as much as it has previous candidates.” So, Trump’s job approval ratings — which have largely ranged from the mid-30s to the lower 40s — matter less than how much they change?

The fundamental problem with the analysis, which seems to have been directed by chief economist Mark Zandi, who always sounds thoughtful when I hear him talking about economics and business, is that it fails to acknowledge how our politics has changed since Trump started running for president.

Economics mattered less than usual in the 2018 midterms because Trump’s style, language and agenda have been so controversial. His policies and personal behavior turned off some voters who supported him in 2016, which is why the GOP suffered a stunning net loss of 40 seats during improving economic times. Swing voters cared less about the unemployment rate and stock market than about health care, gun control, global warming and Trump’s divisiveness, meanness, crudeness and mendaciousness.

Economic variables have been important predictors of presidential elections in the past (and will remain so in the future), but we have never had a president like Trump. Acting as though he won’t be a factor in 2020 is like ignoring the elephant in the room.

Oddly, the president has never sought to expand his electoral coalition. Instead, he plays solely to his political base in rural America, among white evangelicals, with self-identified conservatives, and with working-class whites without a college degree.

That coalition got him 46 percent of the vote in 2016, which was enough to win only because of demographic patterns in three Great Lakes states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — allowed him to squeak to an Electoral College victory.

Trump is once again limited to the states he won in 2016 (plus possibly Nevada, New Hampshire and Minnesota) to put together another winning coalition while losing the national popular vote. Meanwhile, he will be on the defensive in the three Great Lakes states he won narrowly, plus in North Carolina, Florida and Arizona, and possibly even Georgia, Iowa and Ohio.

Changes in key electoral groups between 2016 and 2019 also present problems for Trump. As the midterms showed — and polling conducted since then has confirmed — he has lost ground with younger voters, college-educated whites, suburbanites and especially white women with a college degree.

Finally, Trump’s prospects depend to a considerable extent on the Democrats — on whom they nominate, how united they are and how energized the party’s constituencies are. Some Democratic tickets would have a better chance of mobilizing the party base and reaching out to swing voters than others. In other words, candidates and campaigns still matter.

Trump’s path to a second term rests on larger losses in the popular vote and narrower victories in a few states with crucial electoral votes. That is a possible scenario, but hardly one that should leave Republicans brimming with confidence.

The president has damaged himself by alienating large chunks of the country, and his behavior over the next year is likely to give Democrats more ammunition to use against him. The only question is whether the Democrats will find a nominee who can take advantage of Trump’s fundamental weaknesses.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on November 5, 2019.

Iowa and Kansas and Pennsylvania, Oh My — Split Midterm Decision Likely I Spy

Predictions? Not from me. But I do have expectations as Election Day approaches, and I am happy to share them.

I expect Republicans to hold on to their Senate majority, quite possibly even adding a seat or two.

In the House, I’d be surprised if Democrats don’t win control Tuesday. I still expect Democratic gains in the chamber to be in the 30- to 40-seat range, though larger gains are possible.

Has there been movement over the past couple of months? Sure, there was a little movement one way, followed by a little movement the other way. But at the end of the day, there wasn’t much net movement from early September to late October.

Of course, there is still almost a week to go, and recent events could have an impact on late deciders. If voters have had enough chaos and disruption for a while and are looking for at least a brief pause, they could turn to the Democrats in the final days of the election cycle. And Republican enthusiasm could wane at the margins as memories of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings fade and President Donald Trump overplays the immigration card.

Don’t dismiss those possibilities out of hand. The map continues to be the main reason why the Democrats aren’t likely to flip the Senate. It’s the worst map for one party I have ever seen.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected two years ago, Republicans would have been poised to hold both Nevada and Arizona, and Democrats would be preparing to lose at least six seats — North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana, Florida and Montana — and as many as a dozen (New Jersey, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan).

In other words, while Trump has been an asset for Republican nominees in some states, he has been a liability elsewhere — just like in the House.

But unlike the House, where swing congressional districts will determine the chamber’s control, the fate of Senate control rests with very Republican/pro-Trump states.

North Dakota seems like a certain Republican pickup as conservative rural voters stick with their party.

Missouri and Indiana are the Democrats’ next biggest headaches. Even splitting those two races would be a plus for them.

Handicappers generally see Arizona, Nevada and Florida as Toss-ups, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Democrats sweep all three. In fact, I am expecting it.

Democrats also have an edge in West Virginia and Montana, though both states offer a challenging electoral landscape for them. Republicans certainly believe those races are still in play, and Democrats aren’t close to believing that those contests are already in the bag.

Tennessee and Texas both look more competitive than they usually are, but I don’t know a single dispassionate analyst or handicapper who thinks Democrats will win either race. A win by Phil Bredesen or Beto O’Rourke would be a significant upset.

Another wild card is New Jersey, where Democrat Robert Menendez is facing a tougher race than expected from Republican Bob Hugin. The contest looks close, but I still find it difficult to believe Menendez will lose during a midterm election about Trump.

Meanwhile, in the House

Over in the House, Democrats continue to perform well in competitive and even GOP-leaning districts.

If public polls are correct, Democrats could win two of four districts in Kansas and two additional seats in Iowa, giving them three of the Hawkeye State’s four districts.

Just as a reminder, Trump carried Iowa by 10 points and Kansas by 20 points.

Pennsylvania looks like a bloodbath for the GOP, with eye-popping Democratic gains almost certain, and California and New Jersey look equally challenging for Republicans.

Democrats have been able to widen the playing field, forcing the national GOP to play defense in districts where they never expected to devote resources.

That development increases the chances of a late-breaking larger wave.

Few observers expected the Republican-friendly confines of Utah’s 4th (Mia Love), Florida’s 15th (Dennis A. Ross, open), California’s 10th (Jeff Denham) or New Mexico’s 2nd (Steve Pearce, open) to be competitive this late in the cycle. But polls show they are, and veteran handicappers see all of those districts as in play now.

The danger for Republicans is that election waves build right up to Election Day because more casual voters — that is, those who vote only occasionally and more on mood and personality than ideology — make up their minds and opt for “change.”

That tends to produce larger losses for the president’s party on election night, including a true long-shot race or two.

I am not expecting an electoral tsunami close to the magnitude of the elections of 1994 and 2010. But Democratic House gains of at least 30-40 seats surely would constitute an electoral wave and a clear message of dissatisfaction with the president and his party.

I’ll be watching for surprises on election night. I am expecting we’ll have some. Trump continues to disrupt our politics, so the only real surprise on Tuesday would be if we have no surprises.

This column appeared initially in Roll Call on November 1, 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.

Can a President Preaching Change Lead a Party of Incumbents?

I have long argued that on the most fundamental level, all elections are choices between continuity and change.

The “in” party needs voters to believe that things are going well — or at least improving — while the “out” party needs to sell its message of change.

On rare occasions, when things are obviously not going well, the in party acknowledges the discontent and responds that the out party is still responsible for the mess or would only make things worse. This leads to the question of how someone like Donald Trump, whose entire message is built on disrupting the status quo and bringing dramatic change, can lead his party as an incumbent.

At least during the campaign leading up to his first midterm election, a new president can argue that while he has brought change, his job isn’t yet done — in part because the opposition has blocked him from achieving everything he promised. In other words, more disruption is necessary. (This argument is much more difficult to make after four or six years in office.)

Trump, of course, has been making that claim for months, complaining about “the swamp” in Washington, Democratic “obstruction,” “arcane rules” that paralyze the Senate (such as the filibuster), the media’s hostility, and even the alleged “deep state,” which some Trump supporters insist is trying to stop the president from succeeding.

Since he entered the presidential race almost three years ago, Trump has argued that only he can jump-start the economy, successfully renegotiate trade agreements and military arrangements, get rid of Obamacare, and protect our borders and achieve immigration reform.

If he comes up short on anything, it can’t possibly be his fault. Other forces must be conspiring against him.

History repeats

To be sure, Trump is not alone in believing this.

Incumbents always look to blame someone for their failings, and they rarely look in the mirror to find the person at fault. Moreover, this president does have adversaries who are fighting him and his agenda.

Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama used a genteel version of the “blame game” strategy during their first midterms, as has virtually every other sitting president who had a rocky first two years in office.

Reagan and Obama argued that their respective predecessors, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, left them with messes to clean up (stagflation in the case of Carter, and the meltdown of the financial services sector under Bush), and insisted that they had made a good start reviving the economy and strengthening America’s standing in the world.

They had stopped the bleeding, they asserted, and just needed a couple of more years to achieve their goals.

The problem for Trump is that when both Reagan and Obama tried this strategy, it failed miserably.

Republicans lost 26 House seats in the 1982 midterms even though the party began with a mere 192 seats, and in 2010 Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the chamber. (Two years later, when circumstances improved, both Reagan and Obama were re-elected.)

The 1982 results were particularly noteworthy since there was every reason to believe that Republicans would avoid the midterm jinx that year.

After all, Democrats held a large majority in the House and had controlled the chamber uninterrupted for thirty years. Clearly, there was no quick fix to the combination of inflation, high interest rates, growing unemployment and little economic growth that Reagan inherited, so blaming Carter and his party for the nation’s problems — and thereby minimizing GOP midterm House losses — should have been easy. But it wasn’t.

Bill Clinton’s experience also doesn’t offer much reason for optimism for the GOP. Clinton ran as a candidate of generational change in 1992, but his first midterm was a disaster for House Democrats, who lost 54 seats and the majority in the balloting. Voters apparently didn’t like the kind of change he was delivering.

Election exceptions

The other two presidents since Reagan who had to survive “first midterms,” George H.W. Bush in 1990 and George W. Bush in 2002, don’t offer much guidance to Trump. After eight years of Reagan, George H.W. Bush was the candidate of continuity when he ran for president in 1988, and his son was not a “disruptive” force 12 years later.

Moreover, George W. Bush’s first midterm occurred a little more than one year after the 9/11 attacks, which caused voters to value continuity and rally around the White House.

In November 2002, Gallup found roughly equal percentages of registered voters saying they were “satisfied” and “dissatisfied” with the direction of the country. But during the first week of March this year, only 28 percent said they were satisfied, while 68 percent were dissatisfied.

Those numbers demonstrate how different the political environment was in 2002, and how dissatisfied voters are now.

Given that, the question is: As the midterms approach, can Republicans reclaim the banner of disruption (without creating voter fatigue), or is the GOP, which controls the House, the Senate and the White House, automatically the party of continuity, even with Trump in the Oval Office and leading his party?

Right now, the answer doesn’t look like a close call, which is why Trump and the Republicans are in such deep trouble in the fight for the House.

Note: This column first appeared in Roll Call on April 10, 2018.

A Political Tactic I’ve Never Seen Before

I’ve spent more than three decades watching campaigns for Congress, but I never encountered a situation like the one I experienced last week, when I attended what amounted to a campaign event in my neighborhood’s clubhouse.

Maryland Democrat David Trone, who is running for Congress in the 6th Congressional District, came to my Potomac community to talk about his candidacy – and he brought plenty of wine for residents to sample while they chatted with neighbors before turning their attention to the candidate.

Trone, who owns Total Wine & More, a large beer, wine and spirits national retail chain, spent over $13 million of his own money during his unsuccessful primary run for Congress in Maryland’s 8th District. Now, he is again running for the House, this time in the neighboring 6th, which is being left open by retiring Democrat John Delaney.

What made all the politicking odd is that my community is not in the 6th District but rather in the 8th, currently represented by Democrat Jamie Raskin, who beat Trone in the Democratic primary last year. In other words, Trone touted his credentials, talked about his views and supplied wine to a roomful of people who could not vote for him next year.

Before Trone spoke, I asked a young campaign staffer whether he was sure the community was in the 6th C.D. After saying he certainly thought it was, his expression changed from confidence to hesitation.

Trone’s mistake is understandable, of course. In the last round of redistricting, Maryland Democrats chopped up a Republican district in the northwest part of the state, diluting the Republican vote by distributing it among two districts (the 6th and the 8th) dominated by the D.C. suburbs.

Potomac was split. While part of that suburb was placed in the western district (the 6th), which includes North Potomac, Gaithersburg and Poolesville, my neighborhood ended up in the 8th, which encompasses cities and towns further east (Bethesda, Rockville, Silver Spring and Wheaton).

Still, it’s relatively rare that a candidate for Congress spends his time campaigning for votes among voters who live outside his district – to say nothing about supplying attendees with free wine. (I’m not opposed to other candidates from around the country underwriting my neighborhood’s wine parties, though I do wonder about the ethics of it.)

Anyway, during the Q-and-A period after Trone’s speech, I asked two questions.

First, did the candidate think that Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers and Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken should resign form Congress?

“Yes,” Trone shot back enthusiastically. No hesitation. No obfuscation. No mealy-mouthed response to avoid alienating anyone. It was as refreshing as it was unequivocal. Of course, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi had already called for Conyers’ resignation, so Trone was not really breaking from the party. (Earlier today, Conyers announced he will resign from the House.)

The second question involved my doubts that he is suited to being a lowly freshman who would have little influence. I noted his self-funding and his previous race, as well as the fact that he had flirted with running for county executive before deciding on a second race for Congress. I also noted that his earlier comments about leadership, about the county government and about his experiences in the private sector suggested he would be more effective in an executive position.

Trone seemed to dislike the question. He turned away from me and addressed others in the audience, insisting that his wealth was an asset not a liability, emphasizing that he would be politically independent, and promising that he could bring change. He was passionate, certainly, but he didn’t address my concerns about his temperament, district-shopping and suitability for a legislative office.

Trone took another question but suddenly had to run. He never stressed his Democratic label, instead embracing the “no labels” movement in response to a question and talking about his pro-business bent.

Oddly, that was not the only time I encountered Trone last week. Two days earlier, I saw him at a Suburban Hospital event in Bethesda. Trone and his wife received an award recognizing their family foundation’s $2.5 million gift to the hospital. He spoke briefly after receiving the award, giving what sounded a lot like a campaign speech.

Trone is one of a handful of Democrats who have already entered the June 2018 Democratic primary in Maryland’s 6th C.D. State Sen. Roger Manno and state Delegate Aruna Miler have also announced they are running.

On the GOP side, Amie Hoeber, who drew 40 percent of the vote against Delaney in the 2016 general election, is running again. But given Donald Trump’s performance in the White House and the Republican Party’s standing, it’s difficult to believe that Hoeber or any Republican will have much of a chance in this district next year.

So, the Democratic nomination will be hugely valuable. Trone’s previous run and his personal wealth automatically make him a serious contender. His odds will improve if he campaigns among voters who actually live in the district where he is running.