Where the Democratic Party Lost It’s Way

Former Chair of the DNC, Howard Dean, pioneered the party’s successful “50 State Strategy” in 2006 and 2008.

The year was 2004 and Democrats had just lost 4 seats in the Senate, held a mere 202 seats in the House and had lost the popular vote to a Texan who pronounces nuclear “nuculear” by 2.5 million votes.  Dark times!   The party was unsure where to go and had an internal debate about the direction it wanted to take.

Fortunately, events favored them.  Bush went on to push Social Security and Immigration Reform which was opposed by Democrats and some in his own party.  But, Democrats also made a conscious choice to expand their efforts beyond the Northeast and Coast in an effort to woo conservative suburban and rural voters.  The result was the “50 State Strategy” that gave them massive majorities at the start of 2009.

Democrats have since squandered their massive majorities.  They ignored the issues and concerns of many suburban and rural voters and paid the price.  By going largely with the concerns of their urban base they have cost themselves the support of these once swing voters.

But, Democrats have also squandered a campaign apparatus in the 90’s that was second to none.  Today, the party’s get out the vote efforts are a shadow of what they once were.  The transition to micro targeting and identity politicking pioneered by the Obama administration has had damaging consequences for the party.

The Price of Ideological Hubris

Today, the Democratic Party’s political apparatus is in shambles.  The Clinton campaign’s reliance on TV ads and only a late get out the vote push clearly shows this.  Worse, the DCCC (the party’s Congressional campaign arm) invested only in a handful of competitive races until near the end of the campaign.  Districts where they invested the most money (VA-10, CO-6) represent significant expenditures for no return.  Considering the polarized nature of the electorate and number of competitive districts (it’s small) Democrats will need to win more than just suburban and moderate swing districts in diverse locales.

In the 80’s the DCCC and DSCC (Senatorial campaign arm) were at the top of their game.  They were outworking their GOP counterparts in polling, oppo research and targeting.  Southern Democrats pushed these campaign arms to hit on issues with broad appeal.  This led to a generation of up and coming campaign strategists who found success in dozens of races over the years.

In years past Democrats competed in dozens of contests that fell outside the term “competitive.”  Nowhere was this more apparent than 2006 when Democrats competed in conservative territory against long-term incumbents.  When many races became competitive in September and October the party and its nominees were ready due to investments in infrastructure (introductions to donors, labor groups, volunteers, etc.) and messaging.

Along with supporting nominees the party also went out of its way to recruit the best and most competitive candidates.  This led to rural districts having a gun supporting, pro-life Democrat run against a similar Republican.  At best, Democrats were successful.  At worse, the party forced the GOP to spend in what should be a safe seats. In the cases of 2006 and 2008, the party was ready to take advantage of a wave or a favorable national political environment.

One of the most notable examples was in 2006, when then DCCC Chair Rahm Emanuel recruited former NFL QB Heath Schuler to run in a North Carolina district held by a Republican incumbent for over 15 years.  Emanuel hammered home why Schuler needed to run, explained to him how to do it, the support he would receive and in the end he got Schuler and the party held the seat until Schuler retired in 2012.

Where Democrats Went Wrong

Of course, 10 years is a long time in politics (and not so long at the same time).  By 2016, the DCCC and DNC had lost much of its edge.  It ceded much of its campaign planning and infrastructure to the massive Clinton campaign.  They’re get out the vote efforts were added into the Clinton campaign’s.  The DNC largely became a puppet of the Clinton team.

The result was less than stellar.  The Clinton campaign only invested late in down-ballot races, made tactical and monetary mistakes and insulated individual candidates from outside support.  The DCCC and DNC in particular refused to do anything beyond what Manhattan dictated and the result was many “reach” contests candidates never receiving support.  We all know the result.

What accounts for this failure beyond Manhattan?  Part of it is the ideological nature the party has become beholden to.  Winning over voters who do not agree with the party on hot-button issues has dropped significantly as a priority.  Instead, an emphasis on demographics and goosing urban liberal turnout has increased.

This is a narrow view.  Republicans might not have liked Trump but they embraced his candidacy and supporters when push came to shove.  They did not run around crowing about how these voters were racist and sexist.  The party did not believe it could not win over different voters.  Instead, the Republican coalition that elected Trump and their Congressional majorities was incredibly diverse (including many Clinton supporters).

For Democrats, they can no longer afford to be complacent.  Ideological surety is great until you lose election after election and find yourselves 60 seats in the minority.  You would have thought the Clinton campaign would have recognized this immediately because they won many McCain/Romney districts in their 2008 primary bid.  Not so much.

Worse, this ideological surety has infiltrated campaign arms.  The DCCC and DSCC threw their weight behind specific candidates and ignored many other (and perhaps better) prospects.  Candidates and volunteers could not reach high ranking staffers in the party.  Instead, Democratic staffers agreed with millions in spending on issues voters did not care about or character assassination ads.  There used to be a time when the party would hold focus groups on what people outside the Beltway care about.  Not anymore.

Part of this can be blamed on a lack of accountability.  To be fair, this extends beyond just the party’s campaign arms.  How else can one explain how Nancy Pelosi is still Speaker of the House?  Or how Ben Lujan is still head of the DCCC after a pathetic 2016 showing?  Staff have the loyalties of Democratic leadership which comes from predominately safe districts.  As a result, not only are staff and leadership ideologically out of step with the country but they have no idea what a competitive candidate needs to win in swing territory.

In the late 80’s and throughout the 90s the Democratic Party invested in training academies and policy think-thanks.  The Centrist Democratic Leadership Council trained hundreds of staffers.  Today, the DLC is defunct and much of the DCCC’s training efforts have been contracted out to organizations with strong ideological leanings (like Wellstone Action).

Ideological surety, lack of accountability and weak training have hurt the party.  But, so has near non-existent candidate recruitment.  In several competitive districts in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois the party did not field strong challengers before the filing deadline. In Texas, the party did not even field a candidate in a district Clinton won.

In many of the contests Democrats won they did it by recruiting either Legacy Candidates (Carol Shea Porter) or facing flawed incumbents (Scott Garrett, John Mica, Charlie Bass).  In many other cases, the party went with subpar candidates that passed the ideological test (but did not fit the district).

What Do You Have To Lose?

Today, Democrats are so far in the hole what do they have to lose?  They might as well try out new tactics and strategies.  It’s clear simply relying on their base won’t win them a majority or even a decent minority.  They should also go back to past strategies that worked out well.

Some of these include investing in key races early, focusing intensely on candidate recruitment, messaging tooling, introducing candidates to key local groups and more.  Races are not won in the final two months of a campaign.  A candidate has to have the ability to take advantage of changes in the race and they do this with the help of the national party investing in them, early and often.

Whether Democrats do this or not is an open question.  The party is currently embroiled in an ideological debate (as exemplified by the DNC Chair race) and is still struggling to understand its 2016 losses.

But, the answers are clear.  Recruit leaders who understand modern communications, campaigns and desire to see change within the party.  They need to reach outside the Beltway for messaging ideas and tips, listen to the concerns of average Americans and understand ideological surety does not guarantee success.

Most importantly, the party should invest in creating a new generation of strategists and campaign managers that span the ideological and cultural spectrum of America.  The party could rely on these strategists and managers now and in the future to build successful campaigns.  Much has been given to how Democrats need to build up a farm team of potential national candidates.  Well, they need the same thing for successful leadership.  For a party cannot be successful without them.


Revisiting the Marriage Gap

o-voting-facebookBallotpedia noted an interesting trend from the 2016 election among singles.  Specifically, they shifted strongly to Donald Trump relative to the 2012 and 2008 contests.  However, in my humble opinion, Ballotpedia’s analysis of why this occurred is lacking.

According to Ballotpedia, the “Marriage Gap” shrunk significantly from 2012 to 2016.  In 2012, the marriage gap was a whopping 41 points (Romney won the married 56-42).  The article posits that the institution of marriage might lead people to be less dependent on government (certainly plausible) and that single men and women might have become less trusting of government after 8 years of Obama (also plausible).

Hillary Clinton did not just run as Obama’s 3rd term but she also ran as the most progressive candidate in history.  Meanwhile, her husband ran as the most centrist Democrat in a generation, well, a generation ago.

But, let me posit some more likely reasons for why the marriage gap shrunk in 2016.  It has little to do with ideology and more to do with education, income and electoral geography.  Afterall, from the 2016 election we have seen the parties somewhat resort themselves away from their traditional coalitions.

Share of electorate 2012/2016 Marriage status Obama ’12 /Clinton ’16 Romney ’12 /Trump ’16 Independent ’16 GOP margin
58% / 60% Yes 42% / 43% 53% / 53% 3% +14 / +10
42% / 40% No 62% / 55% 35% / 38% 6% -27 / -17
29% / 29% Men Yes 38% / 37% 60% / 58% 4% +22 / +21
30% / 31% Women Yes 46%/ 49% 53% / 47% 3% +7 / -2
19% / 18% Men No 56% / 46% 40% / 45% 8% -16 / -1
23% / 23% Women No 67% / 62% 31% / 33% 3% -36 / -29

First-off, let’s start with the table above.  It is clear from national exit polls that Trump did slightly worse than Romney among the married and significantly better among single men.  Trump even did better among single women.  Again, what probably drove this was education and geography.

Trump’s victory was fueled by his surge in the Midwest.  He captured dozens of counties the GOP had not won in a generation and held down Clinton’s margins in many other ancestrally blue areas.  This is what fueled his surge among singles, especially single men.

The proof can be found in statewide exit polls for many of these states.  In Michigan, Trump performed better than Romney, losing singles only by 23 points compared to Romney’s 34 points.  Notably, Trump did better among single men than women by 11 points.  In Wisconsin and Iowa the same trend shows itself.  In Iowa, Romney lost singles by 28 percent, Trump  a mere 11 percent.  In Wisconsin, Romney lost singles by 24 percent, Trump a mere 8.  Again, Trump did better among single men than women.

These states are not unique among the Blue Wall states Trump captured.  He managed to garner bigger margins among singles than Romney virtually everywhere in this Democratic leaning region.  In downscale regions of many states, including those Trump lost, he ran better than Romney according to county level results.

Now, in politics, for every reaction there is at least an opposite reaction.  That reaction was Trump doing worse than Romney among married voters.  Trump ran 4 points behind Romney nationally among these voters and there are a few reasons we can hypothesize for this shift.

First, Trump’s coalition was primarily down-scale and Trump did much better among younger voters than Romney.  Both down-scale and younger voters are much less likely to be married.

Secondly, Trump’s entire candidacy was based on shock politics.  He said crass things, attacked people, etc.  To a married voter ensconced in a relationship this might rub them the wrong way.  Additionally, a thrice-married candidate might not have the same curb appeal to traditional, socially conservative married families (Utah being a prime example of this).

Thirdly, Trump did better among blacks and Latinos and worse among Asians compared to Romney.  Asians are much more likely to be married than blacks and Hispanics.  So, those small differences (according to exit polls) could have had an impact at the margins.

Lastly, education was highly correlated with the results of this election.  Marriage and education also are highly correlated.  Married couples tend to have higher education levels than singles.  As a result, Trump performed marginally worse among married individuals.

The last point might not continue to carry over however.  Some debate whether marriage will continue to alleviate social ills and ensure educational and economic progress for individuals.  Additionally, demographers have found the number of singles who are simply cohabitating has dropped over the last decade (to say nothing of married couples).

Admittedly, this is all very, very preliminary analysis.  Until more Voter File Data becomes available we will not know the exact characteristics of many voters.  Exit polls are good to a degree but self-reporting tends to have its own built-in biases.  Still, for now it will have to do.



Democrats Need More Than An Unpopular Trump Next Year and After

Senator-Elect Maggie Hassan (D-NH), was one of the party’s top recruits this cycle and one of their few successes.

Democrats want to forget this year and who can blame them.  They blew a winnable Presdential election, gave up 2 Governorships  and gained few Senate and House seats.  They did not gain legislative seats and even gave up blue Vermont to a Republican Governor.  Today, Republicans have total control in 25 states compared to Democrats 5.

The 2016 election was the first time in recent memory where not a single D/R Senate candidate won in a state the opposite party’s presidential nominee took.  But, Governorships did not follow suit.  Indeed, of the 12 Governorships up in 2016 almost half (5) were won by D/R candidates not of the victorious Presidential candidate’s ilk.  Republicans took Vermont and New Hampshire while Democrats won West Virginia, Montana and North Carolina.

If you compile the margins between gubernatorial and Presidential results the difference was a whopping 17 points.  Compare that to the difference between President and Senate in the 13 most competitive states being 5 points.

If you read an article talking about the lean of one state or another there is no way you’d be able to guess the results of many state’s gubernatorial contests.  Jim Justice won West Virginia by 7 points while Trump won it by 42 points.  Republican Phil Scott won Vermont by 7 points in a state Trump lost by 26 points.  Steve Bullock won by 4 points in a state Trump won by 20.

These big margin differences did not just occur in states where a D/R gubernatorial candidate won while the opposite party’s Presidential candidate carried it.  In Missouri and Indiana, Trump won both states by about 20 points.  Republican gubernatorial candidates carried them by only 6.

While polarization has increased at all levels of voting, especially the federal level, state level results are not tied as closely to Presidential results.  For example, in 2014, 76 percent of states that had voted for the Republican or Democratic nominee in 2012 backed a similar party’s Senate candidate.  But, that number was just 12 percent for Governors.

There is quite a bit of literature on why gubernatorial results are not tied to the partisan lean of a state.  Senators and Congressmen/women serve in DC with the President.  Governors, on the other hand, govern in their respective states, deal with different issues and often have more time to personally get to know voters (just ask Phil Scott in Vermont).

On the surface this looks good for Democrats coming into 2018.  States that voted for Trump might be willing to throw their lot in with local Democrats if they hit on the right issues.  Afterall, voters in North Carolina responded to Roy Cooper’s campaign to end toll roads and repeal HB-2.

But, it might be good news for Republicans too.  If Trump is unpopular it suggests that Republicans could outrun Trump and insulate themselves by campaigning on local issues. Not only could Republicans hold purple states in the Midwest and South like Florida, but states like Massachusetts and Maryland might stay red due to the popularity of their GOP Governors.

Democrats have ample reasons for wanting to capture at least some Governorships in 2018.  First, a majority of legislation is crafted at the state level.  We have seen the political results of this via Scott Walker’s Collective Bargaining Reform, Rick Snyder’s Right to Work law in Michigan or Sam Brownback’s elimination of income taxes in Kansas.

Secondly, Governors and the legislatures draw congressional and legislative lines after the 2020 census.  If Republicans hold onto blue and purple states they could lock in their majorities for another decade or more.  This has legislative repercussions as well for obvious reasons.

Lastly, parties have to have a bench to draw rising stars from.  Obama has cost the Democratic Party 12 Senate seats, 63 House seats, and over 900 legislative seats (including 2016).  The Democratic bench has been reduced to a shell of itself and many times the parties look to their Governors for policy ideas and candidates for President.  Part of the reason why Clinton faced such weak competition for the Presidency is because Democrats lacked a bench to draw from.  Republicans had so many choices they could not even fit every candidate on a single debate stage.

Democrats fielded few strong candidates this cycle.  In top-tier races in Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Indiana the party either went with second-tier candidates or legacy candidates (Ohio and Indiana).  In every case, Democrats lost.

Of course, Democrats have time to retool and test their messages.  Nowhere will this be more important than the Virginia gubernatorial election in 2017.  Until 2013, the state had elected Governors not of the incumbent President’s party.  However, 2013 might be an outlier only because the GOP nominated a deeply flawed and ideological nominee.

Democrats will probably pick up some Governorships and legislative seats in 2018.  They should be considered heavy favorites in New Jersey next year and a slight favorite in Virginia.  But, Democrats will need more than an unpopular Trump to carry them if 2016 is any indication of a trend.





The GOP’s Northeastern Resurgence

Vermont Governor-Elect Phil Scott captured a state Clinton won by 27 percent over Donald Trump

In 2001, Jim Jeffords, the Republican Senator from Vermont announced his intentions to break from his party and become an Independent.  He cited the party’s rightward shift on social and fiscal issues for his switch.  Nearly 7 years later, Northeastern Republicans would practically be an extinct species at every level; federal,  statewide executive offices and legislatures.  The Northeast, the ancestral home of the GOP, had become a no-man’s land for the party by the time Obama was elected President.

The numbers were startling.  Republicans did not control a single legislature in the Northeast at the start of 2009, they held a meager single US Senate seat (New Hampshire) and less than half a dozen Congressional seats in a region with over 60.

It did not always use to be this way.  The Northeast, combined with the Midwest, used to be the base of the modern GOP.  Without the Northeast Richard Nixon would not have been elected President in 1968.  Ronald Reagan in 1980 would have struggled to win the popular vote without its margins and of course there is Abraham Lincoln.

But as the parties shifted their ideological and geographical allegiances starting in the 60s so have voters.  The result has been the Northeast becoming a solid shade of blue not just for President but also in Congressional and legislative delegations as moderate Republicans have left the party while the South has become solidly red.

But starting in 2010 the GOP has seen a resurgence in the region.  Fueled by the Tea Party wave Republicans captured both chambers in New Hampshire and Maine and made gains in many others.  They even broke Democratic rule in New York State by winning enough state senate seats to force legislative Democrats to agree to a power-sharing arrangement in the upper chamber.

It was not just at the legislative level where Republicans made gains.  The party gained both Congressional seats in New Hampshire, a whopping 4 seats in New Hampshire and 5 seats in Pennsylvania.  Still, the party failed to make significant inroads at the state and Congressional level in deep blue states like Maryland, Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Barack Obama’s reelection thinned the GOP herd’s numbers in the region.  New Hampshire flipped back congressionally and several Republicans disappeared in New York due to Romney’s anemic performance.

The 2014 midterms changed that.  For the first time since 2002 Republicans captured the Maryland Governor’s mansion, deep blue Massachusetts and (not in the Northeast) Illinois.  The party very nearly captured Connecticut as well (for the second time in a row).

Republicans did this by performing even better in the suburbs than they did in 2010.  For example, in Maryland, Larry Hogan ran far ahead of prior Republicans performances in suburban Baltimore and Howard counties.  He won Howard with 51 percent and Baltimore with 59 percent.  Despite the drop in turnout from 2010 he gained a combined 23,000 additional votes from the counties.  In exurban Carroll County he garnered 7,000 additional votes relative to 2010.   In Massachusetts, Charlie Baker improved on his 2010 performance by thousands of votes in conservative friendly Hampden and Bristol counties.  These bedroom counties gave him his narrow 40,000 vote margin.

Now, joining the mix after 2016 are John Sununu and Phil Scott.  Sununu captured New Hampshire’s Governorship, the first time the party has held it since 2002.  Phil Scott had arguably the bigger challenge.  He triumphed by 9 points in deep blue Vermont.  The same Vermont Clinton carried with 57 percent of the vote.

Republicans also made inroads in state legislatures.  For the first time since 2004 the party did not lose a legislative seat in Massachusetts and they even tied the Connecticut state senate (though Democrats still control the chamber due to the Lt. Governor’s partisan affiliation).

What has driven this shift at the state level is the increasing proclivity of some voters to base their votes for Governors or legislature on a separate criteria than federal contests.  This is not just a Northeastern, or until 2016, Midwestern phenomenon.  In 2015, Louisiana elected a Medicaid Expansion supporting Democrat over a died in the wool conservative Republican.  This year, while New Hampshire and Vermont backed Clinton they elected GOP Governors, red West Virginia, Montana and North Carolina elected Democratic Governors even as they gave Trump massive margins.

Perhaps most surprising is how popular many of these Governors are.   Both Baker and Hogan have stratospheric approval ratings in the 70s while Steve Bullock never dipped below 50 percent approval in his reelection battle in Montana.

Manifesting the partisan realignment that has occurred at the Congressional level many Congressional Republicans won reelection in Obama/Trump districts in the Northeast.  Standout examples of this include Brian Poliquin in ME-2 and John Katko in NY-24, Elise Stephanik in NY-21.

Part of the GOP resurgence in the Northeast has been being able to field strong candidates (see Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan) and facing weak opponents (see Martha Coakley in Massachusetts).  But, part of it has also been voters preferring a check on Democratic legislatures.  Likewise, some voters prefer a Democratic Governor to be a check on GOP legislatures outside the Northeast.

Not everybody shares this view however.  Former RGA Executive Director Michael Cox, a Massachusetts native who ran New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s Presidential super PAC, sees this as more an outlier than a trend.

While Cox acknowledges the GOP does well when they run on “kitchen-table” issues, he is hesitant to say this represents a permanent resurgence for the party.  Rather, he describes “Our party’s success is situational.  It has more to do with great candidates, campaigns and a favorable political environment than an overarching trend.”

Certainly to some degree this is true.  But 2016 was not the best political environment for the party and successful candidates still outran Trump.

If 2009 represented the low-point for Northeastern Republicans 2017 might represent their high-point.  It’s clear many of the voters in the region lean clearly left and in the near future the GOP will always be swimming upstream to win in the area.  But, for now, the GOP’s resurgence in the region, compared to where it was in 2009, is nothing short of remarkable!

Of Democratic Dreams and 2018

Heidi Heitkamp, (D-ND) is one of those 2018 Senators up for reelection in a ruby red, Trump state.  As a result, she has said she would work with Trump on areas they agree on.

Chuck Schumer incensed his base last week when he said he could work with Trump.  The liberal blogosphere went crazy, particularly here, arguing that working with Trump is a recipe for disaster for Senate Democrats.

Of course, if you look at the Senate map for 2018 the map is downright horrific.  Ten Democrats sit in states Trump won and only a single Republican sits in a Clinton state.  By default, you would think this means some of these Democrats, particularly in MO, MT, WV, IN and ND would want to distance themselves from the party’s national brand.

Running counter to this belief is Democratic dominance from the 50s to the 90s in Congress.  For the most part Republicans worked with moderate GOP Presidents and a Democratic Congress to pass major legislation.  The result was permanent minority status.  But, as soon as Newt Gingrich and his “revolutionaries” came around in the early 90s the GOP gained continual power power in Congress for a decade.  Indeed, since 94 the GOP has held the House in 9 of the last elections and the Senate 6-11.

This cycle for the first time in modern electoral politics, not a single Senate D/R candidate won a state of the opposite party’s Presidential nominee.  Democrats came up short in Indiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Florida (just to name a few) while Republicans lost in Nevada and an agonizingly close race in New Hampshire.

It is the New Hampshire race that stands out though and shows how electoral history can be made by a few hundred votes.  Flip 250 votes in New Hampshire and Ayotte would have won reelection and a state Trump lost.  So despite the argument politics is increasingly polarized there are signs a good candidate can still win or at least be competitive.

Not more than 4 years ago we witnessed a Presidential contest that featured plenty of ticket-splitting.  Democrats won Senate contests in Missouri, West Virginia, Montana, Indiana and North Dakota.  All states Romney won by hefty margins.  Republicans won an open Nevada Senate seat.  A state Obama won.

These candidates all had things in common.  They ran away from their national party’s worst tendencies and showcased their best.  Admittedly, many of these candidates had the luxury of running against flawed opponents but still.

All this is a round-about way of saying that having a party leader who stresses pragmatism, as Reid once did, and Schumer does now, is not necessarily a bad thing for a party facing a daunting Senate map.  If Trump is popular come 2018 at least vulnerable Democrats can say they worked to make the system better.  If Trump is not, they are sure to benefit from voters turning out against him.  They might even get a few 2016 Trump voters to boot.

Contrary to the belief that undying opposition to the incumbent party in the White House stands the Democrats of 2006 and 2008.  Believe it or not, Democrats worked with Bush in 05 to pass immigration reform.  It was Republicans who derailed it.  Meanwhile, Democrats were smart and attacked Bush on corruption and reforming Social Security.  In 2007 and 2008 Democrats, even while in control of Congress, again worked with Bush to provide funding for the War in Iraq and domestic programs.

Ironically, this might be the only route available for Democrats to avoid losing seats in 2018.  Undying opposition to a Trump Presidency might make liberal voters swoon and GOP voters sour on Trump but if you are sitting in a Trump +20 state you need a lot of liberals to vote and a lot of sour Republicans not to.  And I hate to break it to Democrats but the odds of that happening are really, really small.


Minnesota: The One Midwestern State Where Democrats Outran The Trump Wave

minnesota_2016_presidential_election_results_by_congressional_district_-_twitterDonald Trump came closer than any modern Republican to winning Minnesota’s 10 Electoral College votes.  He fell a mere 45,000 votes short out of almost 3 million cast.  Still, Republicans did retake the state senate and add to their then narrow house majority.  But, it was Congressional Democrats that found the greatest success.

Not a single Congressional seat switched parties in the state, though 5 contests were close.  The GOP narrowly held the suburban Minneapolis based 2nd CD and by a larger margin the 3rd while Democrats managed to hold the rural 1st, 7th and 8th districts.

Despite losing the state Trump actually managed to win 5 of the state’s 8 Congressional districts (3 of them held by Democrats) by wide margins.  Trump won the 1st by 15 points, the 7th by a whopping 30 points and the 8th by 15 points.  Clinton actually won the 3rd by about 9 points.

What Minnesota gives Democrats is hope that they can outrun the GOP tide in the future.  This is the second election in a row Tim Walz has held his 1st district by a point in a GOP wave.  Rick Nolan in the 8th fended off another stiff challenge from a repeat opponent.  Collin Peterson, an institution in the 7th district, won a district by 7 points that Trump won by 30.

It is not just that these Democrats outran the Trump wave but they have consistently outrun GOP waves over and over again.  If anything, these Congressman offer Democrats a route forward to winning competitive districts in unfriendly territory.

Even if you discount the fact the GOP did not target the 1st or the 7th this year and only the 8th it is clear that Minnesota stands as an aberration to the rest of the Midwest (and the nation for that matter)  Out of the 100 or so districts the Daily Kos has compiled final numbers for only 8 have split their ticket for Congress and President.  Half of them can be found in Minnesota and none showed such stark margin differences as Minnesota (indeed, the C/P results have all been within 2-5 points of each other).

It will likely only get harder for Democrats to replicate this kind of success in the future however.  It takes long-time Congressmen with strong connections to their districts to outrun their party’s nominees over and over again.  Once a Walz or Peterson retire odds are good Democrats will lose these increasingly red, non gerrymandered districts.

Worse, the increasingly young and urban coalition fueling Democrats makes it even harder for their party to find successors to a Walz or Peterson.  As the party drifts left it remains unlikely a new candidate will be able to distance him/herself from the national brand.

Republicans would be smart to note these shifts and run candidates accordingly.  The GOP threw millions into the 8th but their candidate, Stewart Mills, was a Romney in a younger skin competing in a district with a strong union, populist voting base.  Republicans did not throw any money into the 7th and 8th this cycle.  Perhaps they should in 2018.

Economic Populism Won’t Necessarily Save Democrats

Russ Feingold, one of the original Midwestern, populist Democrats was defeated by a traditional, conservative Republican.
Russ Feingold, one of the original Midwestern, populist Democrats was defeated by a traditional, conservative Republican.

To hear Democrats tell it they lost in 2016 because they simply did not discuss the economy enoigh.  After witnessing Donald Trump’s stunning economically populist pitch succeed some Democrats are echoing the party needs to follow suit.  The party simply cannot cobble together an electoral majority without a stronger economic pitch that protects the interests of the average American from the power of big corporations and the wealthy.

This is music to the ears of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.  Sanders, afterall, found strong success in his primary challenge to Clinton by parroting populist themes such as debt-free college, higher taxes on the wealthy and universal health care.  But, short of Sanders and Warren the number of populist wielding figures in the Democratic Party is virtually zilch.  Worse, the party has moved ideologically away from populist pitches and become more friendly to big business and big government.

Still, some in the party wonder if a more economically populist candidate like Sanders or Biden would have feared better in 2016.  Well, we can take a look at a few examples to answer this question.  We can do this by looking at how Democratic Senate candidates did compared to Clinton in 10 states widely considered to be competitive (see the table below).


From the table we can see that there was little variation between Clinton’s vote total and Democratic Senate candidates.  But, most notable of all were how Midwestern Senate Democrats did compared to Clinton.  In 4 of the 5 states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois), Senate Democratic candidates ran worse than Clinton.  The exception being Evan Bayh who ran on his father’s record and name ID.

The two Democrats that ran the hardest on populist appeals, Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland, actually did worse than Clinton in their states by decent sized margins.  Even Kate McGinty and Tammy Duckworth who ran on more traditional, progressive platforms did better.  If a populist theme would benefit Democrats you would think it would show up in Senate races where the former senior Senator from Wisconsin and former Governor of Ohio were running.

In fact, the candidates who did the best relative to Clinton in their states presented a moderate image.  Jason Kander ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, Midwestern Democrat in the mold of other successful Missouri Democrats.  Bayh tried to thread the needle in his home state but was done in by the GOP wave and being hit by allegations of being out of touch with Indiana voters.

The Senate is not the only example we can look at.  A number of Governor’s races were also decided and they present a more nuanced view than the Senate contests.  For example, Governor Steve Bullock ran 15 percent ahead of Clinton in Montana and was reelected.  His pitch was not exactly populist but it was a far cry from parading around the idea of debt-free college.  Likewise, Jim Justice in West Virginia ran as a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who used some populist themes like defending coal jobs from clean energy businesses and regulators.  He outran Clinton by a massive 21 percent margin.  Again, like in the Senate contests, Indiana’s and Missouri’s Democratic candidates for Governor outperformed Clinton.  But, they also lost despite presenting a moderate image.

Now, every state and race is different.  Democrats have a track record of winning state contests in Montana and West Virginia.  Likewise, Democrats have been able to be competitive in federal elections in Missouri and Indiana despite the increasingly progressive inclinations of their party.  It is possible a better candidate than Clinton would have been able to run circles around Trump and appeal to Midwestern voters.  But we will never know.  All we can do is look at these and other examples and judge from there.

Still, these examples fall far short of proving Democrats would be better served by going full populist in the next few election cycles.  Odds are good their base of increasingly white collar men and women, minorities and technocrats would not show up in droves to support the party.  Further, it is possible at this point, short of a few isolated states (WV, Montana, etc.) voters do not buy that Democrats are the party of populists anymore.  I mean, when Russ Feingold, who advocated for single payer health care and campaign finance reform is defeated by a traditional conservative Republican, it says a lot.