Is a Democratic Wave Building for 2020?

 Like other handicappers, I have noted that there are few signs that the national political divide, so apparent over the last three years, has started to crumble.

Trump voters are sticking with the president, while those who opposed him in 2016 generally have become even more vociferous in their opposition.

Given the closeness of the last presidential contest — and subsequent big Democratic gains in the House two years later — it’s hard to see 2020 producing a House wave for either party.

After all, only three House Republicans sit in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, and most of the seats that flipped to the Democrats last year are in the suburbs, where Trump and the GOP are having serious problems.

In other words, there are few “easy” opportunities in the House for either party. But while electoral “waves” almost always refer to large changes in the House, the term can also apply to Senate and presidential outcomes where there are dramatic shifts.

In fact, the extreme partisanship we see, especially combined with the way our House districts are now drawn, limit the number of seats in the chamber that can conceivably flip, even in a partisan wave.

At some point, a competitive Senate seat becomes more likely to flip than an uncompetitive House race. We may be at that tipping point in this cycle.

How a wave begins

Electoral waves generally happen under at least one of two circumstances.

They occur when turnout in one party drops precipitously, producing an electorate that dramatically favors the other party. Or, they can occur when swing voters, who normally divide evenly between the two parties, swing dramatically to one side, thereby producing an electorate that once again disproportionately favors one party over the other.

In 2004, for example, self-identified independents in the national exit poll split evenly, 49 percent for John Kerry and 48 percent for George W. Bush.

Bush won the presidential election narrowly at the same time the GOP gained a modest three seats in the House. But two years later, in a wave election during Bush’s second midterm, the national exit poll showed self-identified independents breaking to the Democrats, 57 percent to 39 percent.

Democrats gained 31 House seats that year. Four years later, during Barack Obama’s first midterm election, which produced a GOP electoral wave, the national exit poll showed independents breaking toward Republicans, 56 percent to 39 percent.

When both partisan turnout and independent/swing voter preferences change at the same time (and in the same direction, of course), we tend to see larger electoral waves, as we did in 2010, when Republicans made large House (63 seats) and Senate (6 seats) gains.

Large gains are also possible (even likely) when the party on the defensive holds an abnormally large number of House and/or Senate seats that traditionally favor the other party.

What the polls say

While the 2020 election is still more than a year off, Republicans ought to be concerned about some early signs, both at the national and state levels.

Trump carried self-described independents in 2016, 46 percent to 42 percent, according to that year’s national exit polls, but the GOP lost them, 54 percent to 42 percent, two years later in the midterms.

Even more concerning, the Oct. 6-8 Fox News poll found the president’s approval among independents at 36 percent, with 61 percent disapproving of his performance.

In Minnesota, which Hillary Clinton won by only 1.5 points and where Trump’s campaign is likely to make a major effort, an Oct. 14-16 Star Tribune poll found the president losing to the three top Democrats anywhere from 9 points to 12 points in hypothetical ballot tests.

In Wisconsin, which Trump carried in 2016 by less than eight-tenths of a point, an Oct. 13-17 Marquette Law School poll found former Vice President Joe Biden leading him by 6 points, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was up by 2 and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren led by a single point.

Fox News poll conducted Sept. 29-Oct. 2 in Wisconsin found Biden leading by 9 points, Sanders by 5 and Warren by 4.

In Florida, an Oct. 14-20 University of North Florida poll found Trump stuck at 43 percent or 44 percent against four top Democratic contenders.

He trailed Biden by 5 points and Warren by 3. Trump won 49 percent of the vote in Florida in 2016, carrying the state by only 1.2 points.

In Iowa, an Oct. 13-16 Emerson College poll showed Trump essentially tied with Biden, Sanders and Warren in a state that he carried by 9 points, a serious problem for the president’s team if — and it is a big “if — the Emerson results reflect the actual strength of the candidates in hypothetical ballot tests.

It’s certainly possible that these national and state polls are misleading or flat-out wrong. Circumstances could change, either helping or hurting Trump, and both parties’ prospects won’t become clearer until the Democrats actually have a nominee.

But it’s equally unwise to be wedded to an assumption — e.g., we are headed for another squeaker in 2020 because the Trump and anti-Trump coalitions are largely immovable — that may ignore the possibility that modest defections from Trump combined with a significant change in the behavior of independents/swing voters (including suburban whites with a college degree) could produce substantial changes in the 2020 presidential vote and surprisingly substantial Democratic gains in the Senate.

Note: This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 29, 2019.

House Midterm Outlook: Look for a Democratic Flip

Are we still headed for a Democratic wave in the House next month? That all depends on how you define a wave. But one thing is clear: Democrats are still likely to flip the chamber even after all the buzz about a post-Kavanaugh Republican bounce.

A wave occurs when a large number of one party’s seats flip to the other party, invariably because of a national political figure (the president, usually) or a national issue. Many competitive seats change hands, and at least a few entrenched incumbents suddenly find themselves in trouble.

How many seats need to flip to constitute a wave? 20 seats? 30? 50?

The best way to answer that unanswerable question is to look at history.

During the 17 midterm elections that have occurred since 1950, five have produced single-digit changes, while another four have been in the teens and low double digits. Three elections have produced net changes from 26 to 30 seats, while five more have produced gains of 48 to 63 seats.

The single-digit changes — in 1962, 1986, 1990, 1998 and 2002 — clearly were not waves. One party cherry-picked enough seats to make a net gain, but there was no sign of national political momentum.

The teens/low double-digit change elections — in 1954, 1970, 1978 and 2014 — may have reflected one party’s advantage, but for me, the net changes don’t constitute a substantial enough surge for one side to be defined as a wave election.

Not a science

I’ve always used 20 seats or even 25 seats as the minimum number of seats that a party needs to gain before calling an election a wave, though I don’t think there is a magic number.

In part, the number of seats that need to switch depends on where the two parties start.

Moreover, not all waves are alike. There are smaller waves (20-30 seats) and larger ones (48 seats each in 1958, 1966 and 1974) — and there are tsunamis, including 1994, when Republicans gained 54 seats, and 2010, when they gained 63 seats.

This cycle, a modest wave has been developing for months. President Donald Trump’s job approval has been low, and voters have told pollsters they want a Democratic Congress as a check on him.

Trump’s job approval climbed in the Oct. 14-17 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, but that survey also gave Democrats a 9-point advantage (50 percent to 41 percent) in the generic ballot among likely midterm voters. And while Republican enthusiasm has grown over the last month, it fails to match Democratic enthusiasm.

Women and college-educated whites have moved strongly toward the Democrats, and younger and minority voters appear unusually energized.

More important at this point of the election cycle, surveys in individual congressional districts show GOP-held suburban districts like Virginia’s 10th District (Barbara Comstock), Colorado’s 6th (Mike Coffman), New Jersey’s 11th (retiring Rodney Frelinghuysen’s open seat) and Kansas’ 3rd (Kevin Yoder) poised to flip.

Incumbents in these and similar districts have proved that they can win even in difficult political environments, but a wave is an entirely different matter since it makes the election about someone else (in this case, Trump and Republican control of the House), not the individual Republican nominee or member of Congress.

Of course, not all seats behave the same way even during a political wave. Not even all suburban seats behave the same way.

Candidates and their campaigns matter. Strategists from both parties have very different views of the current House playing field and how it has changed.

GOP strategists generally express confidence that the party’s “worst case” scenario has been avoided, thanks to the confirmation fight surrounding Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

They once feared losses of 40 to 50 seats, but now generally expect somewhat fewer losses, probably in the 30-40 seat range.

A veteran Democrat I spoke with laughed at the prospect that Democrats were ever going to win 50 seats, insisting that 30 or 35 seats was always a more reasonable number.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales has projected Democratic gains of 25-35 seats, a “Category 1” hurricane that would produce a wave that would cost Republicans the House but wouldn’t produce anything close to a 1994 or 2010 tsunami.

Holding steady

In an early September column, I found Democrats heading for a gain of about 30 seats, with larger gains very possible, though I have generally been saying that I expect Democratic gains in the 30-40 seat range. I see no reason to alter that expectation.

Others, of course, have suggested that Democratic prospects in the House were much greater a month ago and have dimmed of late.

Some districts do look worse for Democrats, while others suddenly look intriguing, but that is the nature of campaigns — and of political handicapping.

Moreover, it is quite possible that some of those who once expected greater Republican losses were overly optimistic about Democratic prospects.

Pennsylvania, California and New Jersey continue to be prime Democratic targets, but there are many races that are still competitive, including Kansas’ 2nd District, Maine’s 2nd, Kentucky’s 6th, Florida’s 15th and 26th, New Mexico’s 2nd, Virginia’s 2nd and Iowa’s 3rd.

Republicans, on the other hand, will win a Pennsylvania open seat and are likely to swipe one or two pro-Trump districts in Minnesota.

Although I have watched House campaigns and elections closely for almost four decades, I’m less confident I know how this cycle will end.

Trump, after all, is an untraditional figure, and that makes his impact uncertain. But for now, just two weeks before Election Day, the contours of the 2018 midterm elections haven’t changed dramatically in the House.

The focus remains primarily on suburban districts, college-educated whites, younger voters and minorities, not on rural and evangelical voters or whites without a college education. The House is still poised to flip party control.

This column appeared initially in Roll Call on October 23, 2018.

A Back-of-the-Envelope Look at How the House Could Flip

Count the House races, and you’ll get a pretty good idea of whether the House will flip in the fall. No, you can’t be entirely certain how an individual toss-up contest is going to turn out in November. But you can arrive at a ballpark assessment of House changes right now by looking at three baskets of districts and how similar ones behaved in previous midterms.

There are 25 Republican House members representing districts carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 (up from 23 before Pennsylvania drew a new congressional map). Almost one-third of those members, eight, are retiring. Given the current political polarization, the normal midterm dynamic (which punishes the president’s party) and the added risk of losing open seats, it’s likely that most of those 25 GOP districts will flip party control.

There are, of course, differences in district fundamentals and the campaign skills of individual candidates, to say nothing of challenger quality, which can vary dramatically.

California Rep. David Valadao and New York Rep. John Katko each represent a district that went comfortably for Clinton two years ago, but most handicappers now expect both Republicans to survive in the fall.

But taken as a group, and considering House midterms over the past few decades, it’s reasonable to estimate 70-75 percent of those Clinton/House Republican seats will flip, including all the open seats in that category. That would give Democrats 18 seats.

The next basket of Democratic targets includes a dozen seats in districts that Trump carried — but with less than 50 percent of the vote.

Again, some of these seats don’t look very vulnerable — Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s, for example — but other incumbents, including Rep. Jason Lewis in Minnesota and Iowa Reps. Rod Blum and David Young, are in terrible shape.

Democrats won’t sweep these opportunities, but they could well win six of the 12 seats in this category.

A third category of races includes seats carried by Trump with more than 50 percent of the vote but which look at considerable risk. Again, some of these targets are more uphill for the Democratic nominees (Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the House Republican Conference chairwoman, for example), while other incumbents (Reps. Andy Barr of Kentucky, Dave Brat of Virginia and John J. Faso of New York, for example) clearly are vulnerable.

Democrats ought to be able to win more than a third but less than half of the 14 seats in this category, so let’s give them six seats.

Finally, when a wave develops, often a couple of upsets occur. Surprises are rarer these days than when I handicapped races 25 years ago, because the media coverage is more extensive and more polls are being conducted. But stunning upsets in a wave year still happen, so I’ll give the Democrats two additional “surprises.”

I have no idea where those seats may be, which is one of the benefits of adding up baskets of races rather than trying to pick winners race by race.

That adds up to GOP losses of 32 seats.

But the arithmetic doesn’t end there. Republicans are likely to offset some of those losses by picking up an open seat in western Pennsylvania (the result of the state’s new map).

Moreover, they have two prime targets of their own in Minnesota (where Democratic Reps. Tim Walz and Rick Nolan are not seeking re-election). Let’s assume they pick up one of those Minnesota seats.

Adding up all the numbers, my back-of-the-envelope assessment gives Democrats a ballpark net gain of 30 seats, seven more than they need for control of the next House.

Obviously, this could change over the next two months, since some candidates will stumble while others will surprise to the upside.

Public opinion could well change, even in a time of polarization. If some longer-shot races become more competitive, larger Democratic gains are possible.

A net change of 30 seats wouldn’t be out of sync with historical trends, though it would be at the low end of electoral waves.

Since 1950, there have been 17 midterm elections, of which eight were “wave elections” during which an unpopular president’s party lost at least 25 seats.

Three of the “waves” — 1950, 1982 and 2006 — were relatively modest, with the president’s party losing “only” between 26 and 30 seats.

In the other five — 1958, 1966, 1974, 1994 and 2010 — the waves were tsunamis, ranging from 48 seats to 63 seats.

Recent responses to the “generic ballot” poll questions suggest that at least a modest Democratic wave is likely in the House.

The August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Democrats with an 8-point advantage on that question, while CNN and Fox News put it at 11 points, Quinnipiac had Democrats with a 9-point lead, and The Economist/YouGov had the margin at 6 points. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll had it at 14 points.

The way districts were drawn after the last census and the polarization of our politics combine to make a small partisan wave more likely than a larger one.

But waves can be unpredictable, building dramatically in the final two months.

If Republicans do hold on to their House majority in November, it will be because of the districts they drew and their success in turning out their voters.

The 2016 election told us that not all of the old political rules still apply. That should make observers — and handicappers — cautious about the upcoming midterms.

But even assuming that Trump voters remain loyal to the president’s party, district-level and national data suggest that considerable Democratic gains are likely and the party has about a 75 percent chance of winning the House in November.

I’ll come back to these baskets again before November, but for now they show Democrats likely to gain about 30 seats — which would give them a narrow but clear majority in the next House.

This column appeared originally in Roll Call on September 6, 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.