For Handicapping Midterm Races, Old Rules May No Longer Apply

Political handicapping is more than looking at polls and regurgitating who is ahead. Throughout an election cycle, there are signs political handicappers use to understand what is happening at a given moment and to project how races will play out in the weeks or months ahead.

During the endgame, one of the most reliable rules of handicapping is that for incumbents, “what you see is what you can get.” In other words, incumbents won’t get many undecided voters.

The underlying reasoning for that view is pretty simple: Incumbents tend to be better known than their challengers, in part because of the advantages of incumbency.

They traditionally raise more money and have every opportunity to ingratiate themselves with voters, building relationships that will ultimately pay off on Election Day.

Undecided voters late in an election cycle haven’t connected with the incumbent and aren’t even giving him or her the benefit of the doubt. For some reason, those voters are resisting supporting the incumbent.

Of course, some undecideds will be of the same party as the incumbent, and many of them will ultimately support the sitting lawmaker. But undecided voters late in a cycle probably have more reason to vote for the challenger — or not vote at all — than to support the incumbent.

Doing the math

Because undecideds break disproportionately to the challenger, any incumbent who is winning by a point or is in a dead heat in the final 10 days of a campaign ought to be an underdog in the election.

That’s why handicappers view incumbents who are ahead 44 percent to 43 percent or even 46 percent to 45 percent as being in terrible shape politically. (Incumbents who are running even or slightly ahead but are getting 48 or 49 percent of the vote have a better chance to eke out a win.)

So, when I see a New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll showing New Jersey Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur leading Democratic challenger Andy Kim 45 percent to 44 percent 10 days out from the election, I have to believe that MacArthur is in deep trouble.

That doesn’t mean he can’t win, of course. He could have a financial advantage in the final weeks, or the undecided voters could be disproportionally pro-Trump or Republican, which would improve MacArthur’s prospects. Or, the polls could be inaccurate.

But in the past, most incumbents in MacArthur’s situation would not win unless they had a strong political breeze at their backs.

The same goes even more for Republican incumbents like Peter Roskam of Illinois or Jeff Denham of California, both of whom narrowly trail their Democratic opponents in recent public polls.

Using the old “what you see is what you get” rule of thumb, both Roskam and Denham (and Colorado’s Mike Coffman and Virginia’s Barbara Comstock) are likely toast.

Into the unknown

This year, it’s hard to know whether that handicapping rule of thumb will hold.

President Donald Trump is an unusual political figure who has already violated multiple rules of handicapping, and only a fool would assume that all of the old political rules still apply.

Handicappers also look at mood and use it to project both turnout and voters’ preferences.

Normally, controversial presidents lose support over time and have trouble generating turnout. But Trump’s supporters appear to be unusually loyal to him and enthusiastic about voting in November. That could limit the upside of Democratic gains and the size of any Democratic wave.

On the other hand, unusual turnout patterns in next month’s midterm elections could obliterate the traditional electoral signposts.

Midterm electorates have tended to be more Republican than presidential years, but extraordinary enthusiasm among younger voters, minority voters and suburban women could produce an electorate that produces many more Democratic victories than now expected, turning a modest wave of 30-35 seats to one of 40-45 seats.

Handicappers also look at the electorate’s desire for change to understand how the public’s mood will impact midterm voting. Voters who are unhappy with the way things are going normally vote against the president’s party, especially when that party controls the House, the Senate and the White House, as is now the case.

Recent polls show that more Americans believe the country is headed off on the wrong track rather than in the right direction. But again, we aren’t certain how Trump changes the political equation.

Some “change” voters may take out their dissatisfaction on Trump and the GOP, seeing them as in charge and responsible for the direction of the country. But other “change” voters may be Trump loyalists who believe that the “Deep State” and the “establishment” are still in charge.

To those voters, Trump and his political allies are still agents of change, fighting the media and liberals who are still taking the country off on the wrong track.

The current political landscape is very different to the one we saw before 2015-2016. Voters are behaving differently (just look at the early voting), and the amount of money being spent in the midterms is astronomical. And, of course, the president is unlike other American presidents.

In a week, we’ll know whether any of the midterm and late cycle rules of political handicapping still apply.

This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 30, 2018.

Donald Trump’s Toughest Adversary? That Would Be Donald Trump

While President Trump complains about the national media, Democrats, Robert S. Mueller’s Russian “witch hunt” and the political establishment, none of those things is why the November House elections are a major headache for the Republican Party. Donald Trump’s biggest problem is Donald Trump.

Trump has turned what could have been a challenging midterm election environment into a potentially disastrous one. Through his tweets and statements, the president continues to make the 2018 midterm elections a referendum on his first two years in office.

Of course, that could be a good thing, since unemployment is down, economic growth is up and ISIS is in retreat.

But instead of running on those accomplishments, Trump prefers to stir the pot of grievance, drawing applause from his hard-core supporters for his attacks on individuals and institutions, and refusing to reach out to potential new supporters.

He goes after Republican officeholders, professional basketball stars, NFL players and members of Congress.

He whips up anger toward the media, undermines the FBI and criticizes America’s allies and NATO.

He imposes tariffs that hurt American agriculture.

That might not be a terrible strategy if Trump had won comfortably in 2016. But he lost the popular vote by more than 2 points and drew only 46.1 percent of the vote, so any leakage from his original coalition or increased turnout from anti-Trumpers could have a dramatic impact on the midterm’s results.

In fact, Republican self-identification seems to be slipping, while Democratic enthusiasm is up.

Typically, when a president is unpopular, candidates from the president’s party try to “localize” their races. They want voters to focus on the individual nominees — their records and qualifications — rather than on the performance of the president.

But that is difficult to accomplish when the president dominates the news and makes controversial comments daily.

Trump clearly loves rallies. As an entertainer, he enjoys (even craves) being the center of attention. He is energized by the applause and cheers. His success in swaying GOP primaries through his endorsements has also fed his ego, which in turn has increased his desire to do more events and to whip up his audiences with more and more outrageous assertions and charges.

Not surprisingly, the president recently promised that he will be on the stump almost continually for Republican nominees in the fall.

“I’ll go six or seven days a week when we’re 60 days out, and I will be campaigning for all of these great people that do have a difficult race, and we think we are going to bring them over the line,” he said during a recent interview with Sean Hannity.

That strategy may feed the president’s ego and reflect his view that he is his party’s best advocate, but it shows he misunderstands the midterm dynamic.

Trump’s national campaign blitz will no doubt generate effusive applause in Mississippi, rural West Virginia and northeastern Pennsylvania, but it is not helpful in suburban counties with college-educated voters, congressional districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 or even competitive Republican-leaning congressional districts.

It isn’t helpful for GOP Reps. Barbara Comstock of Virginia, Leonard Lance of New Jersey, Jason Lewis of Minnesota or Rod Blum of Iowa.

Trump’s campaign plan guarantees the November midterms will be a referendum on the president — not the “local” contests so many Republican nominees in swing districts prefer.

That could help Republican Senate nominees in Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota and West Virginia, but it increases the likelihood that the House will flip to the Democrats.

To be sure, given the president’s performance during his first two years in office, the Democrats were always going to make Trump the issue in the midterms. But by being so divisive and so active on the stump, the president has made it easier for the Democrats to nationalize the November elections and more difficult for those Republicans who are trying to swim against the midterm tide.

Because Trump thinks that everything is about him, he is simply incapable of receding into the background or allowing the midterms to be about anyone other than himself. And because he cannot acknowledge his own missteps and relies on caricatures and exaggeration to demonize his foes, he is incapable of reaching out to voters who are not already reliable members of the Trump base.

The combination of those flaws makes the president of the United States the biggest problem for the Republican Party this year. Donald Trump has met the enemy — and it is himself.

This column appeared originaly on August 7, 2018.

Can Democrats “Minnick” John Katko and Erik Paulsen?

New York Rep. John Katko and Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen have been very popular with voters. Unbeatable? Maybe not, but certainly well-entrenched and able to win in very challenging environments.

But even popular incumbents have been swept from office during partisan electoral waves, and Republicans Katko and Paulsen should be on your radar as potential canaries in the coal mine – early indicators of whether a big wave is building.

Katko, first elected in 2014 in New York’s 24th C.D., a Syracuse-area seat, and Paulsen, first elected in 2008 in Minnesota 3, a suburban Twin Cities seat, both sit in swing or Democratic leaning seats. Both of their districts went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for Barack Obama twice.

Katko, who defeated an incumbent Democrat by 20 points in 2014, was reelected with 61% of the vote last year even though Clinton was carrying the district by more than three points. Paulsen, who has been reelected repeatedly by double digits, won a fifth term with 57% in 2016 at the same time Clinton was carrying his district by nine points.

But wave elections have buried incumbents who were popular with grass roots voters and supposedly had personalized their districts. The most obvious example of this is Walter Minnick, whom I’ve pointed to repeatedly over the years.

A moderate Democrat, Minnick narrowly defeated Idaho 1st District GOP incumbent Bill Sali in 2008, the same year that Obama was elected president. John McCain carried the district by 28 points at the same time that Sali, a controversial conservative, was losing narrowly to Minnick.

While in the House, Minnick, a businessman who had worked in the Nixon Administration, joined the Blue Dog Caucus and often sided with Republicans on high profile issues. For example, he opposed Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, the House Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill and the Affordable Car Act (“Obamacare”).

Because of his voting record, Minnick was endorsed for a second term by the Tea Party Express, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Early polling showed the popular Minnick likely headed for reelection. A mid-July 2010 survey by GOP pollster Bob Moore found Minnick leading by double-digits, while a survey later that same month for the Idaho Hospital Association had the Democrat leading by more than 20 points.

The congressman’s Republican challenger, Raul Labrador, wasn’t regarded as a political heavyweight. Indeed, shortly before Minnick’s 2010 reelection bid ended in defeat, the New York Times ran a piece titled “A Democrat in Idaho Not Hindered by Incumbency.” 

If Minnick was so popular and had voted against the Democrats’ top three legislative agenda items, why did the Democratic congressman lose handily, by almost ten points, to Labrador?

The answer is obvious: the 2010 election was not about individual nominees or members of Congress. It was about partisan control of the United States House of Representatives.

Voters in Minnick’s district may well have liked him and appreciated his votes, but they wanted to put the brakes on the Obama presidency and fire Nancy Pelosi from the speakership. The only way to do that was to dump Minnick and elect Labrador. So, Republicans and Independents, both nationally and in Idaho’s 1st District, turned out to vote Republican.

There was nothing that Democrat Minnick could have done to survive in his conservative and Republican district.

The lesson of Walter Minnick surely is not lost on Democratic strategists preparing for 2018 or on the Republican consultants helping Katko and Paulsen try to survive in the current hostile environment.

To be sure, the Democrats need decent nominees in both districts to win. But if they get them, those challengers need only convince voters that the midterm election is about the need to check Trump and the GOP Congress’s agenda.

Of course, Katko and Paulsen will try to survive by insisting they’ve been independent and hard-working.

But while Paulsen voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act in 2013, his overall record is that of a generic GOP loyalist. Katko has more ammunition to document his independence, since he voted against his party’s efforts to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Car Act, against the repeal of a key environmental rule on energy company emissions and against the fiscal 2018 Budget Resolution.

But Walter Minnick found that casting a number of high-profile votes against his party was not – and is not — enough to save an incumbent from the “wrong” party in a wave election.

If the midterm election is a referendum on Trump, Paul Ryan and GOP control of the House, as now appears likely, both Katko and Paulsen will be in serious trouble. They are, after all, Republicans in Clinton districts. And if Virginia is any indication of turnout in 2018, both Republicans, no matter how successful they’ve been so far, could find themselves “Minnicked” next year.

Back to the Future in American Politics

For years, I have been writing and speaking about the country’s changing demographics and how that will affect the two parties. The GOP’s long-term prospects were not good, I argued, as a new wave of tolerant voters who valued diversity over tradition appeared poised to change the electorate’s make-up and our politics.

The 2016 elections seemed to prove me wrong, with Trump’s nationalist, culturally conservative message energizing whites, older voters and rural America. But last night’s results, particularly in Virginia, suggest that that demographic evolution is still underway. And those voters produced a Democratic wave that ought to scare GOP campaign strategists.

Younger voters showed that they can be drawn to the polls.

Four years ago, voters age 18-29 constituted 13 percent of the electorate. This year, they were 14 percent of all voters. More importantly, while Democrat Terry McAuliffe carried the group in 2013 by five points (45%-40%), this time those 18-29-year-olds went for Democrat Ralph Northam by 35 points (67%-32%). Greater turnout among voters age 25-29 and 30-39 – and bigger majorities for Northam among those categories – are part of the reason for the huge Democratic win.

White voters constituted a mere 67% of the electorate yesterday in Virginia, a dramatic drop from four years earlier, when whites were 72% of all voters. Yesterday’s white percentage matched the number from last year, when Hillary Clinton carried the state by five points over Donald Trump.

Republican Ed Gillespie drew 57% of whites, a point better than Ken Cuccinelli (R) did in 2013 and two points worse than Trump did last year. That small change, combined with the change in the racial make-up of the electorate and Northam’s 80% support among non-whites, was decisive.

A stunning 41% of yesterday’s voters identified as Democrats. Four years earlier the number was 37% and last year, when Clinton carried the state, only 40% identified as Democrats. Not surprisingly, a Democratic electorate voted more heavily Democratic.

Obviously, much of the Democratic wave showed up in the larger suburban counties, which include many swing voters.

In the D.C. suburbs, Northam won Loudoun County by 20 points and Fairfax County by over 36 points. Four years earlier, McAuliffe carried Loudoun by just over 4 points and Fairfax by 22 points. And the turnout in both counties was massive this time.

The same thing happened in the Richmond area. Northam won Henrico County by 23 points, while McAuliffe won it by 13. Four years ago, Cuccinelli carried Chesterfield County by 8 points, but this year the county was a virtual dead heat.

While all that was happening, Trump’s core supporters stayed loyal to Gillespie.

Trump won 80% of white born-again Christians last year, and Gillespie won 79% of them this time. Gillespie also did well with white men and white women without a college degree – a core Trump group.

Rural Virginia stuck with the Republican. Gillespie rolled up huge percentages in places like Tazewell County (83%), in southwest Virginia, and Smyth County (78%), in south-central Virginia, winning them by bigger margins than Cuccinelli did four years earlier. But those rural counties are not growing and have small populations.

Unexpected Democratic gains down the ballot had a wave-like quality. Democrats won two other statewide offices and more than a dozen seats in the House of Delegates. No wonder most observers are looking at the result as, at least in part, a referendum on the president.

Two days ago, there was uncertainty about Democratic turnout. Northam isn’t the most charismatic politician around, and he defeated a more progressive Democrat for his party’s nomination for governor — raising questions about whether supporters of Bernie Sanders would go to the polls for Northam. Clearly, they did.

Virginia is only one state, and while there is additional anecdotal evidence that Tuesday was an anti-Trump day, there is still a year until the midterms. Things could change – for better or for worse for the president and his party. But it is very possible that yesterday’s results gave us evidence that a midterm partisan wave is building. And that will have an impact on members of Congress, the president and the two parties starting today.

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.