2016’s Electoral Outcomes Show the Shifting Nature of American Politics

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton might be political old-hands (despite Trump claiming he is an outsider) but the results of their  2016 battle showcased how American electoral politics is changing.  Ground zero for this shift was heavily Mormon Utah.

Donald Trump won Utah, but he did so by a much smaller margin than Mitt Romney did four years earlier.  Indeed, where Romney won the state with over 70 percent of the vote Trump did not even win a majority as he garnered only 45 percent.  One could argue a lot of possible Trump voters in a two candidate race went to third party candidate Evan McMullin but either way McMullin won 21 percent.

The top-line numbers are not what signifies the shift though.  Rather, it is how different sub-groups voted.  Older Mormons, particularly those over 35, supported Donald Trump in large numbers.  By contract, younger Mormons were far more likely to support McMullin or even Gary Johnson.

Unlike younger voters overall, younger Mormons are not any less conservative than their parents.  For example, according to a 2011 survey of Mormons by Pew, Mormans 18-29 years old were least likely to identify as Democrats at 2 percent and most likely to describe themselves as very conservative or conservative.  However, compared to the 30-49 age group only 50 percent of young Mormons identified as Republican compared to 55 percent of older Mormons.  Despite their conservative heritage, younger Mormons were also least likely to identify with the Tea Party, support a government with fewer services and more supportive of the idea immigrants are a benefit to the US.  But, on gay marriage and abortion, younger Mormons were as adamant as their parents they were morally wrong and most likely to attend church services.

McMullin’s vote share among younger Mormons was a manifestation of the feeling the GOP does not represent younger Mormons.  Of course, Clinton only got 27 percent of all Utah voters so there was also a wide scale rejection of Democratic politics.  Trumpian secular politics does not appeal to younger Mormons leaving an ideological void Independents like McMullin can occupy.  But down-ballot, these voters are also likely to remain Republican.

The Mormon shift is hardly the only example we can look to.  Consider the votes of younger Evangelicals.  Exit polls show Trump won the votes of 83 percent of all Evangelicals and well over a majority of younger Evangelicals.  But in suburban areas his numbers among this sub-group were much smaller than in rural areas.

A 2017 Pew study showed Evangelical Millennials are just as likely to believe in the immorality of abortion as previous generations.  But, just as among younger Mormons, they have seen a decline in economic conservative yet are just a tad less likely to identify as Republican but less likely to identify as Democrats.  Unlike younger Mormons though, they are more accepting of gay marriage.  So, in some ways, Trump’s moderate tone on social issues like LBGT issues played better with them than younger Mormons.

These shifting attitudes do not mean Mormons and Evangelicals are any less likely to attend church.  Additionally, despite starting the home school movement Christian Millennials have earned college degrees at a faster rate than any prior generation.  It’s just education has not shifted their voting preferences notably as it has other groups.  College educated Christians are more likely to attend church weekly than those with lower levels of education: “68% of evangelicals with degrees attend church weekly vs 55% without, 45% of Catholics with degrees vs 37% for those without, 85% of Mormons with degrees vs 72% for those without.”  Further, despite believing science and religion are compatible Millennial Christians are actually more likely to say the Bible is the literal or inspired word of God than their parents.

These fractures are just among two groups.  And while they disproportionately impact strongly GOP groups the same thing is playing out in the Democratic Party.  College educated and single women are increasingly being drawn into one form of the Democratic Party (we’ll call it Universalists) while the youngest, college educated Democrats are drawn to Bernie Sanders populist mantra.

What these fractures expose is just how much harder it will be for two political parties to represent the interests of so many different voting groups.  This does not mean a viable third party will form.  Our system is biased and set up to favor only two major parties at one time.

That said, it also means that power will likely shift more constantly despite gerrymandering and other efforts to permanently lock in power.  Red and blue states will not disappear overnight but party registration may become less important and ideological self-identification more so.

Voters are more likely to feel dissatisfied with one party and if that occurs but they are very conservative or very liberal they are more likely to stay home than vote.  Turnout could dip significantly time and time again as a result as both parties attempt to find short-term messages that appeal to as many groups at once as possible.  One thing is for sure.  It won’t be boring to watch.

What Montana Tells Us

Yesterday, Greg “Bodyslam” Gianforte beat Democratic Rob “Folksinging” Quinn by six points for the open seat contest to replace Congressman Zinke.  Quist, a cowboy hat wearing Sanderista raised over $6 million dollars with Gianforte was a carpetbagger from New Jersey who lost a race for Governor last year.

The race was always an uphill climb for Democrats.  But, a late breaking alleged assault a day before the election, Wednesday night, breathed new life into Quist’s campaign.  Polling pegged the race in the low single digits.  Turned out they were off by a few points.

So what are we to make of the results?  Democrats will argue they were competitive in a state Trump won by 20 points.  Combined with other contests the party is ripe for a great cycle next year.  On the other hand, Republicans held a seat with a weak nominee.

There are a couple clear takeaways.  First, Gianforte’s winning margin was unimpressive but it was hardly a narrow in.  Again, polls had pegged he race a dead heat.  In the end Gianforte apparently tied the Election Day Vote and easily won the Mail In Vote.

Secondly, voters distaste for both candidates showed through in the margin of support for Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks.  He garnered almost six percent while Gianforte barely edged above 50 percent.  Quist did not eclipse 45 percent.

Third, the idea that economic progressives can run in down-scale, white and largely rural areas and win is now 0-2.  Sure, they do better, but they still don’t win.  Let’s also keep in mind this race occurred under the shadow of the GOP passing the ACHA in the House, Trump leaking non-confidential secrets to Russia, leaks about the Manchester bombing coming to the press and the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the ruckus that followed.  It would be hard to find a better short-term environment for a Democrat to run in and Quist still lost.

Now, Montana is a decidedly red state.  But this ignores the fact the state has a purple hue in contests below the Presidential level.  For several decades the state has had two Democratic US Senators.  After a period of GOP dominance at the gubernatorial level Democrats have won four consecutive elections.  Only recently, in 2014, did the GOP win a Senate seat.

Further adding to the quirkiness of Montana is the fact it’s House district is an at-large district making every Congressional race statewide.  Republicans and Democrats at all levels are winning different kinds of voters to gain or hold office.  Put simply, the voters a Senator needs to win are the same a Congressional candidate needs.  Until as recently as 2014, Democrats were winning the same voters for Senate the GOP was to hold the at-large Congressional seat.

This seat should have been ripe to flip.  But, it is also true Democrats that win in these contests do well to distance themselves from the national party.  Quist didn’t.  Indeed, he cozied up to the progressive base while throwing cultural platitudes to Montana voters in his bid.  Didn’t work.

Ultimately, the special election map resembled 2016’s maps with a few twists.  Gianforte ran behind Trump statewide but short of light blue Lewis and Clark County and swing Gallatine County the vote preference was the same (minus the margins).  Ryan Zinke won reelection to Congress by 16 percent and his victories largely resembled Gianforte’s.  In his gubernatorial bid last year, Gianforte ran ahead in almost every county (even Missoula).

The result should prove a cautionary tale for both parties.  Democrats and Republicans need to both understand candidate quality still matters.  Secondly, the progressive grassroots needs to understand running died in the wool Sanders fan in blue-collar, fiscally liberal but socially conservative areas does not guarantee victory.

Lastly, the results in Kansas, Georgia and Montana should not be over-analyzed.  Right now Trump’s approval numbers say Democrats should do well next year.  But the Senate map is stacked against them (for that matter so is the House map) and voters tend to base their votes for Governor on things other than the national mood (see Montana last year).  So next year could resemble 1986 when Democrats did well in Congressional and Senate contests but struggled in state and local races.  We’ll see.

Should The GOP Be Worried About Montana Now

Democrats have come close three times now to rebuking President Trump. In KS-4 they turned a 27 point Trump district into a seven point nail biter. Last month, they almost won outright the primary for Tom Price’s old seat in Georgia.  Democrats had a shot in Omaha’s mayoral race until they engaged in political suicide over Heath Mello’s position on abortion.  But, in all cases the party fell short and in politics there is no medal for finishing second.

Now Democrats have turned their attention to the Montana at large house special election.  The seat became vacant after then Congressman Ryan Zinke was nominated by the President to be Secretary of the Interior.  Zinke first won election in 2014 with 15 percent and won reelection last year with a similar margin.

Democratic activists are excited to test the theory of whether a Bernie Sanders style progressive can win in deeply red territory.  Rob Quist, a folksy, cowboy hat wearing Bernie fan is running for the seat while Republicans nominated 2016 gubernatorial nominee Greg Gianforte.

Donald Trump won the largely rural and white state by 20 points and unlike in other statwide races Democrats have not won a statewide race for Congress since 1994.  Republican strength in the rural areas should make this seat safe.  But GA-6 and KS-4 showed in the right circumstances Democrats can do well and compete (but so far not win).

Two recent polls have shown Quist within spitting distance of Gianforte.  A Gravis survey from May 4th showed Gianforte ahead 45-37 percent while a Gary-Hart-Yang survey commissioned by the DCCC found Gianforte with a 49-43 lead.  Such polling suggests this special election will be competitive.

Montana is a fairly unique red state.  While it has a Republican state legislature and its sole House member has been a Republican since 1994, Governor Steve Bullock and Senator Jon Tester are both Democrats and have managed to put together winning coalitions (twice).  So can Quist do the same?

Tester and Bullock (A Repeat of the 80’s and 90’s)

Both Bullock and Tester have found success in statewide races by replicating the political map of Dukakis in 1988.  For example, while Barack Obama struggled in urban and rural places alike, Tester managed to come fairly close to recreating Dukakis’s political coalition.  Hillary Clinton did even worse than Obama.

Tester managed to win by doing what Obama and Clinton could not.  He did not let the bottom fall out in rural areas.  He won around 40 percent of the rural vote and over 50 percent in small towns and big cities.  Further, he managed to run up the score in college towns in the Western part of the state.  By contrast, Clinton did not even manage to win 50 percent of the vote in large towns and she won less than 30 percent of the vote in small towns.

Tester’s map is similar to Dukakis’s 1988 bid.  For reference, Dukakis lost the state by six points while he lost nationally by eight points.  Republicans managed to run almost even in urban centers but were unable to build big margins in rural areas.

Of course, today is not 1988.  A lot has changed in the state and nationally.  Rural voters, particularly in the Eastern Plains, were more hospitable to Democrats in 1988 than they are now.  While population centers have gotten bluer Democrats have gotten the short end of this stick.

But Tester and most recently Bullock were able to turn back the clock on Montana’s political preferences.  So how did they do this?

All Politics Is Local

Voting is a complicated and personal process but one can draw a couple conclusions from Tester and Bullock’s victories.  First, they ran as Montana Democrats.  Not national Democrats!

Take Tester.  The Senator is openly pro-gun and campaigned heavily on cutting wasteful spending.  He has also vowed to reform the ACA (but not repeal it).  Bullock was one of the first Democratic Governors to call for a cautious approach to Syrian resettlement and supported the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Such positions mark them as moderates in an increasingly liberal party.

Secondly, both project Montana values (ie. not cultural cosmopolitanism).  Tester wears cowboy boots and proudly talks of hunting while Bullock first won election in 2012 running an ad featuring nothing but endorsements from police officers.

Such a strategy is reminiscent of Democratic successes in deeply red West Virginia where Joe Manchin has largely done something similar.  Now, Montana is a red state and Bullock and Tester are not going to appeal to every voter.  They tend to win reelection by narrow margins no matter how many culturally conservative and big town residents they convince.  But a win is a win.

I need to add a caveat here, the above is not always true.  Obama lost the Big Sky State by a mere three points in 2008 while winning nationally by seven points.  Obama was culturally and fiscally liberal and as a result he ran behind (but only somewhat) his national numbers in the state.  By 2012, his liberal agenda cost him the state by 14 points.

So Where Does This Leave Quist?

Quist obviously fits the cultural appeal of his state with his accent and cowboy boots.  But it is unclear whether he will or even can follow his party’s statewide winners paths.

For starters, Quist’s campaign is being fueled by the incredibly liberal grassroots.  The same grassroots that turned on Heath Mello in Nebraska over abortion and is divided between Clinton type feminists and Sanderistas.  Quist may find it hard to turn toward being pro-gun and/or being ambivalent about abortion.

Quist has already found himself in a bind because of this dynamic.  Quist hinted in an interview he was open to bringing back the assault weapons ban, a nod to his progressive fundraising base.  But, in turn, Gianforte pounced on him and is turning him into a cultural elite loyal to his base.

Further, the majority of Quist’s donations are coming from out of state unlike Bullock.  Again, this has made Quist fodder for being beholden to a political, liberal elite.

Now, Gianforte has his own issues.  He is a wealthy businessman and has been attacked for being too fiscally conservative and beholden to special interests.  Be he also has the cash to finance his campaign and name ID from his prior gubernatorial run.

A lot will depend on the shape of the electorate in three weeks.  If turnout in the cities is up Quist is sure to benefit.  But, even if it is lower and turnout in the rural areas is higher Quist still has a shot if he can distance himself from the national party.  Gianforte is already doing that with Republicans in regard to the AHCA.

A lot can change in three weeks but as of now the race looks competitive with the GOP maintaining an edge in the contest.

 

 

 

Moderate Wing of GOP Flexes Clout

Over the past several years the conservative wing of the GOP has flexed its considerable clout.  From Sequestration to the Fiscal Cliff to the Government Shutdown to pushing out Speaker Boehner, conservative members have pushed their party to take a hard right stance on many, many issues.

With control of all levers of government they are not letting up.  The so called Freedom Caucus, a group of about 30 conservative lawmakers, killed the first version of the AHCA when they decided  the bill did not repeal and replace Obamacare.

Depending on how you look at it, the revised AHCA is a victory for the Freedom Caucus and its power.  The only reason the bill came back up was because Paul Ryan and President Trump gave into many of the Caucus’s demands.  Most significantly, the new bill would let states opt out of many of the ACA’s most significant requirements.

But, this caused another headache for leadership and reflected the power of a rising group of Republicans, the Centrist/Moderate wing of the party.  When leadership gave into Freedom Caucus demands they lost a dozen fence sitting moderates.  The bill was unacceptable to members who wanted to protect the least fortunate.

As a result, leadership and conservatives had to huddle with moderates to carve out concessions for a number of them (including $8 billion in new funding to support coverage for people with preexisting conditions).  If the House was just the teaser for moderates power, the Senate is where they will determine the future of the law.

The bill is still more conservative than not.  Medicaid Expansion is repealed in two years (unless states can fund it), mandatory coverage for preexisting conditions is gone and moderates could only get a billion dollar slush fund in concession.  That said, moderates made sure states had to apply for a waiver to opt out of the ACA’s essential coverage requirements and they also were instrumental in passing the law.  Moderate Republicans are not fans of the law, but they made sure their voices were heard in the process.  Ultimately, they might have shaved some of the roughest edges off the law for the Senate.

Moderates did not just show clout on healthcare recently.  On the budget deal, moderates took the lead in negotiations and eliminated poison pills out of the final package.  They sidelined contentious issues like cuts to HUD and building a border wall and instead focused on increased spending for the military and border security.  Quietly, moderate leadership told the White House a lot of what they wanted to do to Sanctuary Cities and Planned Parenthood could be done administratively.

Moderates might have had their biggest success on Trump’s Religious Liberty Executive Order.  The initial draft of the bill would have allowed organizations to “discriminate” (according to some) in hiring and other decisions based on sexual orientation.  The EO released last Thursday simply makes it easier for religious institutions to engage in political activity (hint, they already do).

Already, in the Senate moderates are flexing their power.  As soon as the AHCA passed in the House word spread the Senate would not vote on the House bill.  Instead, a working group which has been in contact with House Leadership is crafting their own plan.  This is not surprising considering statewide races in which Senators run are a different beast than smaller and more homogeneous Congressional districts.

Moderate concerns over the bill in the Senate reflect those of moderates in the House.  Repealing Medicaid Expansion might cut off insurance access to those who are 138 percent or below the poverty line.  That is huge because more than half of the people that did not have coverage before the ACA fell below that income level.  While a majority of those still without insurance today are young and healthy, fully 30 percent have ongoing medical issues.  Repealing Medicaid Expansion would only make it tougher for them to gain access to care, let alone insurance.

The uninsured are largely poor and young.  Gaps in the law and court decisions have removed coverage requirements for millions of individuals.  For example, millions reside in states that have not expanded Medicaid (my home state of Idaho being one).  Additionally, the Supreme Court’s decision in 2012 to let states decide to expand Medicaid left millions in limbo and threw out the stick arm of the law.

This is not even including the millions who remain uninsured even with the ACA.  Of course, the government says a majority can afford coverage (20 percent out of 29 million) but I doubt the government really knows what affordable is to a single guy living on $25K a year in a city.

Considering these factors, it is not surprising to see why moderates in the House and several GOP Senators balk at the House bill.  By cutting back federal involvement in health insurance so sharply millions will likely lose coverage.  It is easy to see why members would be concerned.

There is also the electoral component.  The Daily Kos, the liberal cheer-leading arm, led off with a piece the other day about how so many moderates were endangered voting for the law.  Of the Republicans sitting in Clinton districts, 14 voted yes to 9 who voted no.  In fact, more Republicans sitting in Trump districts (11) voted no than Republicans in Clinton districts.  Considering the impacts of this bill it is little wonder why liberals are cheering.

But, moderates might have/will save the day for their party.  By changing the House bill the Senate might give the GOP a fighting chance to argue the bill does in some form protect the least fortunate.  Additionally, the Senate crafting a different and revised version might be just enough to allow the party to win over more of the public and piece together a conservative/moderate majority in the House/Senate on the piece of legislation.

Time will tell, but right now moderates are increasingly showing their clout on healthcare and other issues.  Who says centrism* is dead?

Note: Centrism today is a lot different from past electoral cycles.