Thursday, November 13, 2014

What 2014 means for Team Red and Team Blue

In my last post, I talked about what exactly happened on Election Day and why. In a nutshell, an electorate that was old, white, and very friendly to the GOP went to the polls last week and delivered a massive win for Republicans all over the country. As I wrote last week, the Republican Party hasn’t done a whole lot to improve its showing with minority voters, but as several key races from this cycle illustrate, the Democratic Party’s continued slide among white voters means that it’s not just the Republicans who will need to alter their strategy if they want to keep winning elections in the future.


Let’s take a look at the Senate race in Colorado, where Rep. Cory Gardner (my favorite candidate of the entire cycle) defeated incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall last week. I’m not alone in thinking Gardner was a fantastic candidate—the authors of The Fix blog at The Washington Post named Gardner the best candidate of the year—and there’s a reason for that. Basically, Cory Gardner was the exact opposite of the kind of crazy, firebrand culture warrior that Democrats love to run against. Try as they might, Sen. Udall’s campaign and their allies couldn’t convince the Colorado electorate that Gardner was anything other than the smiling, affable guy that he is. And that strategy not only failed but backfired on Udall, who is actually one of the nicer guys in politics himself. His relentless attacks on Gardner made him look like a cantankerous old incumbent who would rather smear his opponent than have a substantive debate about the issues.

In an attempt to replicate Sen. Michael Bennet’s upset win amid the 2010 GOP wave, Udall took the winning play out of Bennet’s playbook and used it relentlessly. Again and again, Udall’s campaign hammered away at Gardner’s stance on reproductive issues, arguing that he supported fetal personhood measures that would outlaw all abortion and certain kinds of contraception. But, very early on, Gardner made a decision that was brilliant in its simplicity—he completely reversed his position on personhood and said he didn’t support it anymore. And just like that, he eliminated the one avenue of attack around which the entire Udall campaign was built. And, on Tuesday, he won.

According to exit polls, Gardner only lost the female vote by eight points, 52%-44%. The margin among white women, while still in Udall’s favor, was even smaller at 50%-46%. This isn’t really much of a “gender gap,” especially if you compare it to Gardner’s margin of victory among men, which was a whopping 56%-39%. He won white men by over twenty points, 59%-36%. This is one of the many reasons why Gardner’s campaign this year should be a blueprint for future Republican efforts in competitive elections. He did what far too few Republican candidates do and not only refused to give his opponent cudgels to beat him with, but actively removed one that had previously existed. He didn’t double down on social issues and didn’t let Udall define him for the voters. As The Fix puts it, “He focused on energy, the economy and the idea of fresh-faced leadership who wouldn't be a supporter of most of President Obama's policies. Even when Democrats boasted that they had destroyed his candidacy in the summer with their attacks on his record on reproductive rights, he stayed totally focused on his own message and refused to bend to the whims of the political moment.” The result was that Gardner could make his case directly to the Colorado electorate and, it seems, they liked what they saw. He limited his losses among female voters and emerged as the first Republican candidate to win a top-of-the-ticket race in Colorado in a decade.


If there was a true shocker in the battle for the Senate last week, it was definitely the race in my home state. Sen. Mark Warner, repeatedly referred to as the most popular elected official in Virginia, was considered as close to a lock as any Democratic Senate candidate this year. Virtually no one expected his race against former RNC Chairman and sleazy beltway insider Ed Gillespie to be close. And yet, when the dust had settled, Warner won by less than a percentage point. This race, as much as any other on Tuesday, demonstrated just how poorly the Democratic Party is faring among white voters these days. Let’s compare Tuesday’s results with those of Warner’s two previous wins to get some perspective.

Here’s the county-by-county map of Warner’s successful gubernatorial run in 2001:

Note how strong his support was in predominantly rural Western and Southside Virginia. Warner ran a very blue-collar campaign that year, going to NASCAR races and running campaign ads with Appalachian folk music in the background. He won largely on the strength of his performance among the rural white electorate in what was a low-turnout, off-off-year election. You’ll note that he even lost the important Hampton Roads swing cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake, usually a key part to a Democratic win in The Old Dominion. But if you’ve won over the NASCAR voters, you can afford to lose a few suburbs.

This is the county-by-county map of Warner’s first run for the Senate in 2008:

Obviously, he destroyed his opponent in this race. There were several reasons for this, but basically that sea of blue is the result of an extremely popular former governor running for the Senate in a year in which his party is experiencing a national wave. There’s not really much else to talk about here.

But take a look at the map for Warner’s squeaker of a win last week:

This is radically different from his wins in 2001 and 2008. His support in Southside and especially Western Virginia eroded considerably, with only a smattering of counties voting for him in those areas. He significantly underperformed compared to Tim Kaine’s performance two years ago, when he managed to sweep Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. Warner lost in population-rich Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Loudoun County. This meant that his narrow victory came almost entirely at the mercy of voters in a few Northern Virginia counties and Richmond. Basically, he won like a generic Democrat would win in Virginia, not like a well-respected and popular moderate. Indeed, this map is almost indistinguishable from Terry McAuliffe’s win in the gubernatorial race last year. That’s not the kind of company Mark Warner should be keeping.

The exit polls for this race provide a pretty simple answer as to why this happened—Warner lost the white vote by an astonishing 60%-37% margin. That’s almost unthinkable for a candidate who won the white vote 56%-43% in his first Senate run six years ago. White men, who backed Warner 53%-45% in 2008, abandoned him for Ed Gillespie to the tune of a 63%-33% whooping last week. That means only one in three white males voted for Mark Warner last Tuesday. Gillespie even won white women by an impressive 57%-41% margin, again illustrating that the GOP’s struggles among women voters are mostly a symptom of their poor showing among minorities. Basically, Mark Warner’s standing among white Virginians, once the backbone of his winning coalition, had deteriorated to the point that he nearly lost his seat last week. It seems that any Democrat, even one with a reputation as a moderate and who isn’t associated with the unpopular Democrat in the White House, still has a significant uphill climb in capturing the white vote.


In a nutshell, I think the Colorado and Virginia races illustrate two factors that are bright spots for Republicans: the GOP has the ability to win in blue states if they run good, savvy candidates and the white vote is continuing to abandon the Democratic Party in droves. Cory Gardner proved that if the Republican Party is smart enough to nominate non-crazy people as its nominees, then they can actually win elections on their own terms and with their own message. Too often Republican candidates double down in the face of criticism and allow Democrats to paint them as extremists. But if a candidate reaches out to the electorate with a friendly, down-to-earth message, it’s hard for that label to stick. And the key is to get that message out early. Even non-crazy candidates can lose winnable races if they allow their opponent to define them. (I’m looking at you, Mitt Romney.)

And then there’s the matter of the white vote. Although Cory Gardner lost white women last week, many Republican candidates did not. Some of them, like Ed Gillespie, won them quite handily. The so-called “gender gap” that is said to favor Democrats doesn’t really exist, as I’ve said many times before. The performance of Republican candidates among white women goes a long way toward closing that gap and, in many cases, eliminates it entirely. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor whose entire claim to fame was as a women’s rights advocate, lost the overall female vote in that race by a 54%-45% margin. If anything, the Democrats’ growing deficit among male voters is more of a factor in who is winning and losing.

Now, I would be remiss if I made all of these points and didn’t emphasize that all of this data is coming from a midterm electorate. Although the Republican Party is doing remarkably well among old and white voters, those demographic groups will make up a smaller slice of the electorate in the 2016 presidential election. Basically, I think the turnout factor provides both a bonus and a warning for each party. The Republicans have a motivated and reliable base that can be counted upon to show up and vote in every election, be it presidential or midterm. This gives them a distinct advantage in midterms because the Democratic coalition is so very unreliable. Obviously, this gives the Democrats a built-in advantage in presidential years, when their voters actually tend to show up. Moreover, their coalition continues to grow as a share of the electorate each year, just as the Republicans’ gets smaller and smaller.

Nevertheless, those factors mean that while the Democrats can feel bullish about the next presidential election, they should very seriously consider retooling their strategy for midterms. After all, dominating on the presidential front doesn’t do much good if you never have majorities in Congress to go along with it. Just as there are talks of a “permanent Democratic majority” at the presidential level, one could just as easily call the Republicans a lock for Congressional majorities until 2020. (Both of these claims would be bogus.) And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the Republicans’ utter dominance in governorships and state legislatures, which are the building blocks for a strong national party.

And so, heading into 2016, there are good and bad signs for both parties. Just as the Republicans need to improve their standing among minority voters to bolster their performance in presidential elections, the Democrats need to focus on putting together a more reliable coalition that can come through for them in off-year elections. These are very real challenges that neither party can truly afford to ignore—and how they deal with them will have a profound impact on who sits in Congress and the White House in just a few short years. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

So, what exactly happened on Tuesday?

Brace yourselves, folks. This is probably going to be a very long blog post. Nevertheless, I hope you are as excited as I am because this is only the second opportunity I’ve had to talk about a major election since I started this blog and I’m eager to say quite a few things about what happened at the polls earlier this week.

What Happened

Partisan control of state legislatures, pre-2014
(Photo courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislatures)
Going into Election Day, the consensus among the experts was that the Republicans were likely to capture the Senate, if for no other reason than because of the incredibly favorable map. With Democratic incumbents up for reelection in deep red states like Alaska, Arkansas, and Louisiana and with Democrats retiring in equally red Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia, the Republicans had an inherent advantage from the get-go.

Partisan control of state legislatures, post-2014
(Photo courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislatures)
The polls weren’t showing particularly strong evidence of a GOP wave, with the Republicans only holding a 2.4 percentage point lead in the generic congressional ballot average as of Tuesday. On top of that, polling still showed very tight races in states like Kansas, Alaska, North Carolina, and even Georgia as the election drew near. In fact, conventional wisdom held that the Republicans would probably have to wait a while for their majority to materialize, as they were expected to lose the race in North Carolina and Georgia was widely assumed to be headed for a January runoff. What’s more, many incumbent Republican governors were assumed to be in very real peril earlier this week, with the statehouses in Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Florida, Georgia, and Alaska up for grabs. Sam Brownback, the Republican governor of Kansas, was considered almost a sure loser in his reelection bid.

But, as you probably already know, that’s not how things turned out after the polls closed on Tuesday night. Indeed, I knew something was up when the race for Kentucky’s Senate seat, where polls had shown Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell with a consistent but modest lead over his opponent, was called immediately after the polls closed at 7 PM. McConnell was definitely expected to win that race, but it wasn’t supposed to be a blowout. But that’s exactly what it turned out to be—his 7-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of polls morphed into a 15.5-point election night win.

And that opening volley turned out to be an accurate indicator of what was to come. There is no way around it—Tuesday night was a wave election. Call it whatever you want: a disaster, a triumph, a rout, a bloodbath, a sure sign of the apocalypse, but it was undeniably a wave. The Republicans nearly ran the table on competitive Senate elections, winning in Georgia, Arkansas, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, and even North Carolina. They picked up the open seats in Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia and forced the Louisiana race into a runoff. As of today, the Republican candidate also leads in Alaska. That makes for a net pickup of seven seats as of right now—with two more that could very possibly be added within the next month. That translates to a Republican majority of at least 52 seats starting next term, with the final tally more likely to be 53 and maybe even 54.

Meanwhile, the Republican incumbents in gubernatorial races managed a near sweep as well, which I found to be even more miraculous than the Senate results. Republican candidates won bitterly contested races in Michigan and Maine, while the incumbent in Ohio cruised to a massive win. Rick Scott, one of the nation’s most unpopular governors, nevertheless eked out a win in Florida. And Scott Walker, the polarizing governor of Wisconsin, won this third election for that office in four years. But even more astounding was the performance of Republican gubernatorial candidates in deep blue states. In Illinois, first-time candidate Bruce Rauner defeated incumbent Governor Pat Quinn, while Charlie Baker defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in a close race for Massachusetts governor. And, in what I consider to be the most astonishing upset of the night, Larry Hogan defeated Lt. Governor Anthony Brown for the Maryland governorship—just the second GOP candidate to win a gubernatorial election in Maryland since Spiro Agnew. You know, Nixon’s first Vice President? Simply amazing.

Of course, it didn’t end there. In the House of Representatives, the Republicans added a net of at least nine seats to their majority, with a few more likely on the way (plenty of recounts are still pending). Congressional Republicans are now on the cusp of achieving their largest majority since Herbert Hoover was president. This majority includes gains in Democratic strongholds like California, New York, Illinois, Maine, and New Hampshire. And in the world of state legislatures, Republicans built on their successes of 2010 and flipped 10 state legislative chambers (either the state house or state senate) to GOP control. After Tuesday’s results rolled in, Democrats were left in control of both houses of just 11 state legislatures. They control the governorship as well as the legislature (known as a “trifecta”) in 7 states. That’s single digits, folks. National Journal quotes Tim Storey of the National Conference of State Legislatures as saying that Democrats are now “at their lowest point in state legislatures in nearly a century.”

Why it happened

Basically, the short answer as to why this shellacking occurred is contained in one word: turnout. According to early exit poll data, the electorate that showed up to vote on Tuesday was older and whiter than that of a presidential year, as is always the case in a midterm year. The national exit poll shows an electorate where 43% of the voters were between the ages of 45 and 64 and 22% of them were 65 or older. Compare that to 2012, where those demographics comprised 38% and 16% of the electorate, respectively. There was a corresponding drop-off among younger voters, with the 18-to-29-year-old demographic shrinking from 19% in 2012 to 13% this year. Similarly, voters aged 30-44 dropped to 22% from 27% two years ago.

Not surprisingly, minority turnout was also muted on Tuesday. This was particularly the case with Hispanic voters, whose numbers dropped from 10% of the electorate in 2012 to 8%. That two point drop somewhat understates the drop-off; looking at individual states makes for a more illuminating comparison. In Florida, for instance, Barack Obama carried the state in his reelection bid with an electorate that was 17% Hispanic. In this week’s midterms, only 13% of Florida’s voters identified as Hispanic. That four point drop likely made all the difference for Gov. Scott, as Hispanic voters favored his opponent by 20 points (58-38), essentially the same margin by which they backed Obama two years ago (60-39).

Really, though, the drop-off among young voters was the single largest factor separating this year’s electorate from that of 2012. Although many Hispanic voters seem to have sat out the midterms, turnout among the African American community was quite strong compared to two years ago. Nationally, they only dropped one percentage point, from 13% then to 12% now. And even though the Republicans narrowed the gap among minority voters somewhat, they still lost those demographics to the Democrats rather handily. The national exit poll shows black voters favoring Democrats 89%-10%, only a slight improvement from the 93%-6% margin in the 2012 presidential race. Plus, one could argue that not having President Obama at the top of the ticket was the only real factor contributing to even that small shift.

Similarly, Hispanics favored Democrats by a 26-point margin (62%-36%) this week. Granted, this is indeed a significant improvement from the 44-point drubbing Mitt Romney endured among that same demographic in 2012, but it’s actually slightly worse than the GOP’s performance with Hispanic voters in 2010, who backed Democrats by a 60%-38% margin. I think that particular comparison is even more illuminating than looking at 2012 data, since I’m comparing votes for House candidates in both years. Putting exit poll numbers for a presidential contest side-by-side with those for House races is quite a bit less precise. (If I could have found more detailed crosstabs for the 2012 House race data, I would have used that instead). So, basically, we’re still looking at a Republican Party that is struggling mightily among minorities, but took advantage of an electorate that was much older and three points whiter (75%-72%) than it was two years ago.

What’s really interesting, though, is the fact that Republicans were not only able to win in states like Florida, where the drop-off in young and minority voters made all the difference, but also in states where the electorate is almost entirely white and usually quite Democratic. Essentially, this signifies a continuing of racial polarization in voting, with more and more white voters gravitating toward the Republican Party. Nowhere is this truer than West Virginia, a state that had a 96% white electorate this year. This week’s midterm marked the end of decades of Democratic dominance in West Virginia politics—Rep. Shelley Moore Capito became the first Republican to be elected senator from that state since 1956, just as both houses of the state legislature flipped to GOP control for the first time since 1928 and 19-term Rep. Nick Rahall, the last Democrat in the state’s Congressional delegation, lost by over 10 points. Granted, West Virginia had leaned heavily toward Republican candidates in presidential elections for some time, but the continuing disappearance of split-ticket voters in red states is a bad sign for Democratic prospects of maintaining Congressional majorities. Losses by Sen. Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Rep. John Barrow in Georgia are further examples of the realignment among white voters that continued this year.

Now, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What does all this mean?” Well, this blog post has already been long enough, so tune in again soon for the answer.


Why do we do this to ourselves?

Why do we do this to ourselves?