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Democrats Aren’t As Screwed As You Think
The media rewards outrage and despair — and the ratings agencies feed it. But don’t buy it: there's too little focus on potential upsides for Democrats this fall.
The doomsayers make a few related arguments:
Gerrymandering is bad and getting worse with each successive bout of redistricting
Partisan polarization is at an all-time high
The president’s party usually loses in the midterms
Biden is unpopular
Each of these has elements of truth. But combined, they are nonsensical: if Americans are so deeply polarized — and gerrymandering so concrete — then how will there be a landslide? The president's party usually loses seats in midterms, but they also usually gain seats when taking the White House. That didn’t happen in 2020, when Democrats won the White House while losing seats in the House of Representatives. And if gerrymandering and polarization are so different now, then why focus on trends from decades ago?
Let’s take the first argument. If gerrymandering is so bad — and there are fewer competitive House districts as a result – there should be less volatility among the newly-drawn districts. With most districts now in the safe red and blue columns, there should be a relatively low ceiling on how many seats Democrats could possibly lose, even in a tough midterm cycle.
The same applies to the second argument on polarization. If voters are intensely polarized along partisan lines, they should be less volatile on election day and, again, Democrats should be spared the worst possible midterm outcomes.
Then there’s the issue of what the NYT’s Nate Cohn calls the electorate’s “reflexive instinct to check the party in power”. But that supposedly rigid law of history is a bit more malleable than it appears. As Jeff Greenfield explains POLITICO:
“Among the most frequently cited observations about politics… is this factoid about midterm elections: ‘Since World War II, the party holding the White House has suffered an average loss of 26 House seats and four Senate seats.’
… True, only two elections have seen the White House’s party actually gain seats, but there are several where the losses have been minimal, or non-existent, or where each house of Congress has produced different results.”
But that’s not all. Even if the historical trends were to take hold this year in a more intense way, Democrats are fortified, at least in part, by the weirdness of their 2020 performance. Joe Biden beat Donald Trump at the top of the ticket, but 2020 also featured a slew of Democratic losses that would traditionally be left for a midterm year. This means Democrats are far from being at a high watermark when it comes to the party in the White House’s control of Congress. Getting much of the losing out of the way in 2020 limits the extent of the damage this year.
Finally, there’s the issue of Biden’s unpopularity. Writing for National Journal, Natalie Jackson makes the case for why poor presidential approval ratings don’t mean quite as much as we assume they do:
“At first it seemed that chronically low approval ratings were a problem unique to former President Trump, but Joe Biden quickly wore out his honeymoon, and himself settled into Trump-level approvals. It now appears that partisans are simply less likely to admit liking anything about the president of the opposing party than they used to be. Indeed, as Ariel Edwards-Levy wrote, ‘expressive responding’ (respondents giving the answer that aligns with their partisanship regardless of what the question is asking) seems to be infiltrating all sorts of survey questions.”
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It Gets Better in the Senate
Then there’s the Senate, where things look even rosier. Blake Hounshell dove into why this week in the New York Times:
“A brighter picture is coming together for Democrats on the Senate side. There, Republicans are assembling what one top strategist laughingly described as an ‘island of misfit toys’ — a motley collection of candidates the Democratic Party hopes to portray as out of the mainstream on policy, personally compromised and too cozy with Donald Trump.”
We have seen this story before, as Republicans lost winnable Senate races in 2010 and 2012 in Nevada, Delaware, and Missouri. As Hounshell notes, the Senate seats up for grabs this year skew in favor of the Democrats. While Nate Silver says Republicans are favored to win the House, he’s clear about just how much of a toss-up the Senate is.
Take the Experts with a Grain of Salt
The pundit class agrees that Democrats are in trouble — and that agreement is bolstered by the ratings agencies (which, as we’ve covered before, drive expectations and investment in the political marketplace).
Unlike on Wall Street, however, the political ratings agencies are staffed with small teams that belie their big brand names. There’s basically no accountability across the ratings agency space — and plenty of disagreement across agencies.
Let’s look at a few specific examples:
Ohio’s 13th: Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Cook Political Report both have OH-13 rated as a Dem Toss Up district while FiveThirtyEight says there’s a 91% chance the district goes Republican
New York’s 4th: Sabato’s Crystal Ball, Cook Political Report, and Split Ticket all have NY-04 in the bluest column (“Likely Dem”) while Real Clear Politics labels it a toss-up
New York’s 19th: Cook Political report says NY-19 is a Dem Toss Up while Sabato’s Crystal Ball and Real Clear Politics say it Leans R and FiveThirtyEight gives it a 74% likelihood of going Republican. Meanwhile, Split Ticket says it’s a “Pure Toss-Up”.
Experts all seem to agree on the big-picture narrative that House Democrats will get wiped out. But with just a few dozen races at issue, getting more specific is warranted — and there are often differences across ratings agencies when it comes to particular races.
Aggregate those differences, and we see more volatility than the unanimous narrative suggests.
An Eye for the Upsides
Here’s another way to look at the midterms.
We are on the record noting that polarization is overrated, volatility is underrated, and (even after redistricting) there are more potentially competitive seats around than commonly believed.
More importantly, the doomsday pundits cannot be right on each aspect of their arguments: if we are so polarized, then the volatility required for a landslide would be impossible. The threshold for Democratic losses this fall could be much smaller than most think.
Here’s the bottom line: If volatility and competition are as high as we think they are, there are a wider array of possible outcomes than popular narratives imply. With so much volatility and uncertainty heading into the midterms, the goal for practitioners of politics is to maximize the chances of winning — even when the median outcome is a loss.
Slimness of Majorities Matters
Democrats have demonstrated vividly this year that there is a monumental difference between having a slim majority and a sizable one — something Kevin McCarthy may learn in January. Minimizing the number of Republicans it will take to scuttle an extreme action is meaningful, muddying the default binary mindset of a given party winning or losing Congress.
These dynamics mean that each individual seat is valuable in the 118th Congress – even in a scenario where Democrats lose the House. Not only will these seats be valuable over what is certain to be a treacherous next two years, but they’ll also matter come the 2024 cycle. The meaningful advantage that comes with incumbency means it’s much easier for a candidate to defend a seat they already hold than to flip one. For these reasons and more, each marginal House (and Senate) seat is worth a ton.
Now is no time to throw in the towel on 2022. Given the sheer breadth of possible outcomes — and the importance of minimizing losses even in defeat — Democrats have every reason to play for keeps this fall.
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