Data Did Not Catch Trump’s Rise: Might It Be Underestimating Republicans

Fresh off another humbling loss in GA-6, Democrats are left wondering what happened that their star pupil, Jon Ossoff, was defeated by a bumbling, Planned Parenthood hating Republican (I’m only being a little fececious here).

They point to the fact the district was historically Republican, that it took an all out effort by the GOP to win, and that national factors doomed Ossoff in the end.  But, worse, despite a majority of not just public but internal polls showing Ossoff ahead until the end the party now has to question the validity of its own data.

Public pollsters have widely acknowledge they have struggled to address their woes.  These struggles were laid bare in 2012 when national polls underestimate Obama’s victory by almost four points.  In 2014, the polls were off by so much in Democrats favor they might have swung a key Senate race or two to the left.  But after missing the mark in Kentucky’s 2015 gubernatorial contest the worst blow came in 2016.

Pollsters utterly blew the 2016 election.  Though the average of national polls were off only by about two percent, in the swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and the not so swing state of Texas they were massively off they were off by margins of 5+ percent on average.  To put this in contest, not a single poll in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin showed Trump ahead after June.

But the worse news was Democrats own data analytics team the Clinton camp spent millions on being significantly off.  The coalition they expected to show up was supplanted by the white working class collectively showing a middle finger to their ancestral political roots.

Supposedly, Democrats, just as public pollsters have, revamped their ways.  They tailored new techniques to target harder to reach downscale, white or immigrant voters.  These new techniques supposedly have heralded a new Democratic resurgence and the Congressional GOP’s weakness in the era of Trump.

Some of this is simple math in reality.  Republicans have a 24 seat edge in Congress but Clinton won 23 districts held by a Republican.  By default, some of these districts like VA-10 in Northern Virginia would be vulnerable.

The problem is GA-6 was supposed to be the ultimate test case.  The DCCC and Ossoff campaign spent almost $2 million on focus groups, testing messages.  They also spent millions on polling.  Their internals showed them ahead.  Public polls until the last day of the race showed Ossoff ahead or tied.  They even showed him with a massive lead in the early vote (which never panned out).

Worse, Democrats and public pollsters were visibly shocked that so many Republicans and Independents came out for Handel.  Their surveys failed to capture a dynamic GOP pollsters and focus groups did, Pelosi is toxic for Democrats.  Instead, the Ossoff campaign’s internals showed them ahead up to Election Day.  Handel and the GOP’s lack of return surveys showing her ahead supposedly was proof she would lose.

Yet, just as they did in 2016, in the closing days of the race, the Republican leaning Trafalgar Group came out with a survey closest to the actual result in the race (Handel up two points and wins by four).

The question has to be asked if public and Democratic pollsters are this flummoxed about recent results might their analysis and expectations about GOP weakness be wrong?  The obvious answer is you bet.

Much of the political analysis whether it be from data aggregate FiveThirtyEight, the Cook Report, or Realclearpolitics is based on past results in midterms.  However, it gives little credence to the fact Republicans ran ahead of Trump in many purple states and districts.

Certainly, midterms have not been historically kind to the party in power, but we have never had a President like Trump before.  Last year, Republicans showed they could tailor their brand to the unique needs/dynamic of their districts.  They did and it worked!  Midterms might be a different animal Presidential elections but let’s keep in mind two things.  First, Trump lost many suburban, educated Clinton districts by big margins (VA-10 and CO-6 being obvious examples).  Second, Republicans have not suffered a series of retirements in these swing districts as would be expected if the party thought it was going to lose big.

The lack of solid results from data raises questions about what to expect next year, especially as it pertains to the suburban, educated districts in the Sunbelt and Southwest/east that Democrats will target.  If the data cannot accurately capture even close to the results in GA-6, missing political patterns obvious to even ad designers, how can they accurately capture what moderate voters are thinking?

Add all this together and you have a perfect storm for the generic ballot to expect Democrats to be currently leading by six points and Trump’s approval mired in the low 40’s.  But, if the data is suspect the actual numbers we are seeing is thus likely wrong.  Until pollsters can get their act together it is very likely we will see a surprise in 2018 that benefits Republicans significantly.

What Virginia Should Tell The GOP

All the excitement was supposed to be on the Democratic side.  But, as seems to be becoming increasingly common, the conventional wisdom is wrong.  For all the talk of a competitive Democratic primary, Ralph Northam coalesced the party around his more moderate progressive leadership as opposed to Tom Perrellio’s more ardent Sanders like rhetoric.

The excitement was all on the GOP side.  Former Congressman and RNC Chair Ed Gillespie, should have cruised to victory.  Instead, he barely managed to win by 4,000 votes against a little known Prince William County Supervisor, Corey Stewart.

Such a result is an ominous sign for the GOP.  The national political mood clearly favors Democrats and while I have been skeptical of Democrats taking the House in 2018 (I still am) this seems to indicate statewide Republicans might have a tougher task in even red and definitely purple states.  I say this because if a moderate candidate like Gillespie cannot draw in rural, Trump supporting voters in a purple state it means the GOP base is deeply divided.

Gillespie’s strength in the NoVA suburbs should make moderate, suburban Republican members of Congress happy.  It means they have a shot to run decently if they can thread the needle between distancing themselves from Trump, focusing on local issues and hitting on standard, GOP issues.

But, it should also tell rural and downscale suburb representing Republicans running away from Trump is not a great idea.  Gillespie’s little known challenger, Corey Stewart, was a former Trump surrogate in Virginia, and he staked his campaign on backing Trump.  Apparently, it almost paid off.

It is entirely possible we are reading to much into this.  Rural voters could simply have been put off by Gillespie’s insider history and will rally around him in November after registering their displeasure in the primary.  But, then again, the fact a giant favorite like Gillespie struggled so much against an underwhelming opponent might indicate primary challengers are waiting right around the corner for many in Congress if they cannot make both sides of the party happy.

Also, Democratic turnout easily surpassed the GOP’s.  Most analysts will probably say this indicates a problem for the GOP.  But, the GOP race always looked noncompetitive and the Democratic primary appeared far more exciting so it is hard to tell how much this played in the turnout game.  Keep in mind Virginia is a blue trending state so it is not like special elections in red states.  Democrats now actually have a deeper base to draw from in the state further exacerbating the turnout gap.

The real news was the closer than expected GOP primary and what it hints at for the GOP going forward into GA-6 next week and the elections next November!

The Democrats Climb To Take The House Is Still Steep

Talk to a lot of political operatives and election handicappers and a general narrative emerges.  The GOP House majority is in jeopardy.  Ironically, many of these same individuals a mere few months ago were saying the GOP majority was safe due to redistricting and natural voter clustering.

Quite a 180, eh?  It’s hard to blame them.  They are taking their cues from polls like Quinnipiac (released last week) which showed Democrats ahead 54-38 percent on the question of which party voters would like to see control Congress.

Ed Kilgore, a long-time Democratic analysts (notably wrong about both 2014 and 2016, said of the poll, “A new poll shows the kind of numbers that if they become common could definitely portend not just a ‘wave’ but a veritable tsunami. Quinnipiac’s latest national poll mainly drew attention for showing some really terrible assessments of Donald Trump. But its congressional generic ballot was a shocker.  Quinnipiac stated the poll was five points better for Democrats than it was for Republicans at their high-water mark in 2013.

It’s not impossible Democrats can take control of the House.  Writing for the Washington Examiner back in February, Michael Barone stated the 24 seats Democrats need to gain a majority is not an impossible number.  Swings in 2006 and 2010 featured many more seats switching hands.  However, the increased level of partisanship makes these gains harder to achieve.

So, clearly such gains are not impossible to achieve.  Proponents of an emerging wave point to the generic ballot numbers and Trump’s popularity.  On the generic ballot question, Democrats lead by about six points 18 months out.  Republicans had a similar lead in October, 2010.

But, here’s the thing.  The generic ballot question has often overestimated Democratic support.  For example, in 2006, Democrats garnered 52.3 percent of the House vote while Republicans got a meager 44 percent and change.  Yet, the Realclearpolitics average of polls on the eve of the election showed Democrats with an 11.5 percent lead.  Last year, the same bias emerged, though to a much lesser extent.  The final generic ballot had Republicans up by a .1 percent.  They won by about a point.  So, the generic ballot question has tended to overestimate Democrats success than Republicans.

Geography is also an important factor here (as is redistricting).  Republicans won the popular vote by about 6 percent in 2010.  They won 63 new seats.  Along with their gains in the states they set about ensuring they had a durable majority via redistricting.  As a result, Democrats will need a bigger margin than Republicans in 2010 to gain a majority.

This is a factor a lot of analysts missed in 2010.  Republicans, even without redistricting, are better distributed across the country and that means Democrats start at a natural disadvantage.  It is why a Clinton popular vote victory of 2 million votes results in losing a majority of House districts and a 306-232 Electoral College loss.

Put by somebody else, “The way district lines are currently drawn benefits Republicans by distributing GOP voters more efficiently than Democratic voters. So, all else being equal, we would probably expect Republicans to win more seats than Trump’s approval rating alone indicates,” Harrey Enten notes at FiveThirtyEight.com.

Before 2010, all Democrats needed to do was win the popular vote to take the House.  But, after 2010, when Republicans locked in their gains, the party’s efforts became tougher.  Doing some quick math, and building off the Daily Kos’s median seat district average, to win 24 seats Democrats might need as much as a 9 percent victory nationally to marginally take the House.

We can see if this analysis holds water by doing a simple analysis.  In 2006, Democrats won the House vote by 7.9 percent popular vote margin which translated into a 7.2 percent margin in the number of seats won (233-202).  In 2010, when Republicans won by 6.7 percent they held 11 percent more seats than Democrats (keep in mind these elections were fought under old lines.).  But fast forward to 2016 and a Republican win of a single percent led to them winning a whopping 55.4 percent of all seats.

Again, doing some quick math here, that means a GOP win of a single percent last year led to the GOP garnering an 11 percent advantage in the number of seats won.  Democrats would need a minimum of a six point victory nationally (all things being equal) to take the House as a result.

Historically, we have seen quite an influx of wave elections.  Supposedly, enthusiasm in these elections made the difference (or lack thereof).  So Democrats crashing town halls should matter right?  Well, anecdotally, if that were the case, then many party higher-ups would not be worried the party is failing to create a compelling message to draw back working class Millennials and older voters.

There are systemic disadvantages the party is facing.  Even in a wave election, no more than 10 to 15 percent of all House seats are really in play.  Splashing cold water on the idea dozens of seats can be in play even in a bad cycle for the incumbent party are these startling numbers from Ballotpedia.   In 2016, “380 of the 393 House incumbents seeking re-election won, resulting in an incumbency rate of 96.7%. The average margin of victory in U.S. House races was 37.1 percent.”   In 2014, the last midterm election, “[t]he average margin of victory was 35.8 percent in 2014, slightly higher than the average margin in 2012 of 31.8 percent,” Ballotpedia reported.  Further, 2014 saw only 49 out of 435 races were decided by margins of ten percent or less. while a whopping 318 seats were decided by 20 points or more.

Adding to the disadvantage Democrats face is the fact only 35 districts voted for the President of one party and a Congressional member of another.  There are 23 Clinton/GOP districts and 12 Trump/Democratic districts in America.  This means Democrats would need to hold all their Trump seats, flip every Clinton/GOP district and find another true red district to flip.  It is possible this could occur but the odds are against it.

We are long past the period when Democrats could flip dozens of Bush districts like they did in 2006.  Indeed, that year, Democrats won three districts that reelected Bush with over 60 percent of the vote (mostly in the South where Democrats are all but extinct).

Heading into 2006, 18 Republicans occupied seats in districts carried by John Kerry in 2004, and Democrats had to defend 42 of their own seats in districts carried by George W. Bush. Even so, Democrats were able to win back control of the House, making a net gain of 31 seats. In addition to winning 10 of the 18 Republican seats in districts carried by Kerry in 2004, Democrats won 20 Republican seats in districts carried by Bush and won an open seat previously held by then-Representative Bernie Sanders.  They even captured three districts in which Bush won at least 60 percent of the vote.  Of course, one also should not forget flipping seats costs money.

The RNC and NRCC are sitting on piles of dough.  Meanwhile, the DCCC and DNC are shadows of their former selves after relying so heavily on Clinton to fill their coffers.  For example, the RNC raised $9.6 million in April and had $41.4 million on hand while the DNC raised $4.7 million, had $8.8 million in the bank, but spent more than it raised.

All the above said, Trump’s weak approval ratings give Democrats hope.  If he keeps dropping his party may fracture and Democrats might be able to pick up the pieces.  Uh huh, does that not sound at all similar to 2016 when pollsters thought Trump had no shot with over 60 percent of voters disliking the candidate?

Trump’s approval started out at about 44 approving and 44 disapproving.  As of now, he sits around 40 percent for a drop of about four percent.  Even considering those strongly approving have dropped few voters have moved from approving to disapproving.  But consider that Obama, the last President to compare against, started out with 63 percent approval and 20 disapproving.  By the time of the midterms in 2010, he was underwater by four percent meaning his approval dropped by a whopping 25 percent.

The idea Trump is an albatross around Republican Congressional candidates necks has already been tested.  For example, while Democrats argue Kansas was about Trump the GOP candidate embraced Trump when polling showed the race neck and neck.  He won by seven points.  More recently, in Montana, Republican Greg Gianforte embraced Trump at virtually every turn and won by six points (outperforming his internal polling).

Democrats and pundits point to GA-6 as a bellwether for 2018.  But so much money has poured into the race is it really?  Right now, Democrats seem to lack the cash to turn all the suburban, red leaning districts like GA-6, into competitive contests.  Even if Democrats flip the district, the prohibitive cost of doing so would mean they would never be able to do something similar in 23 other districts.

Finally, there is one other factor to be considered.  Democratic weakness with the working class.  It is where the bulk of Trump’s support originated and continues to be found.  This is where the Democrats lack of a message matters.  Endlessly bashing trump while failing to put forth ideas that appeal to voters is not a recipe for a wave.

Democratic weaknesses with this voting group are compounded by the fact they are very efficiently distributed in many swing districts across the country.  As a result, many formerly Democratic districts such as in IA, MN, PA and OH, which could help anchor a Democratic majority, are out of reach for the party meaning they have to stretch their gains to even have a shot at controlling the House.

Therein lies the rub.  Democrats certainly cannot retake the House if they run 35 points behind with this group like they did in 2016.  Indeed, they may not even be able to take the House if they do as well with this group as they did in the wave election of 2006 (losing by 10 points).  Democrats did not even come close to this number in their best election in the last decade (2012).

These are formidable obstacles to overcome even in the best possible cycle for a political party.  If Democrats struggle in 2018, not only will they fail to have leverage in Congress, but in the states Republicans will likely remain strong and draw in another “safe” majority until 2030 (though keep in mind the “safe” GOP majority created by redistricting is now in “trouble”).  If Democrats don’ get the wave they expect in 2018, they could find themselves locked out of power for many years to come.

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.

 

 

 

Why Trump’s Poll Numbers Should Worry The GOP

Last week, Fivethirtyeight partnered with Survey Monkey to look at a very particular group of Trump voters, unenthusiastic Trump voters.  Surveying 7,000 adults who supported Trump, these voters comprised 15 percent of respondents and it is not a stretch to say they helped swing the election his way.

Per the survey, their are significant policy and demographic differences between this group and enthusiastic Trump supporters.  While unenthusiastic Trump supporters were strongly white and middle aged, 37 percent had college degrees compared to 25 percent of enthusiastic Trump backers.

More importantly for the GOP’s political health in the age of Trump, only 75 percent identify as Republican or Republican leaning compared to 91 percent of the other cohort.  The better news for the GOP is despite Trump’s early setbacks 74 percent of the group still approve of Trump.

What should worry Republicans about this group the most though is they have different policy priorities than the President.  It is important to keep in mind that Trump ran the most unorthodox GOP campaign for the Presidency in a generation.  As a result, some of the positions the President took run against traditional conservative views.

This could prove to be a problem going forward with unenthusiastic Trump voters.  For example, unenthusiastic Trump supporters rated healthcare as their highest policy priority while enthusiastic Trump supporters rated it fourth, well behind immigration and terrorism.  Both groups rated the economy as the highest priority by varying margins.

This has already played out in the policy arena.  When Trump and Congressional Republicans were trying to pass the AHCA they found little support among traditional conservative and moderate lawmakers (reflecting their constituencies).  This shows up in the survey among the two groups.  Unenthusiastic Trump supporters only approved of the President’s handling of the issue with 54 percent.  By contrast, 88 percent Trump’s strongest backers approved of his handling of the issue.

Trump might be maintaining the allegiance of his unenthusiastic backers by continuing to spend time focusing on traditional conservative causes like the Supreme Court.  Fully 86 percent of these voters approved of his pick of Neil Gorusch for the High Court.  Ominously for Democrats attempting to scandalize Trump to death, three-fourths of reluctant voters think the investigation into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is a distraction.

Again though, Republicans under Trump might struggle to hold these voters loyalties.  On his budget, 80 percent of enthusiastic Trump supporters approve.  But among the unenthusiastic group,  barely half do.  Trump’s budget significantly hikes defense spending and it is possible fiscal conservatives are objecting to this hike.

Combined with differing policy perspectives warning bells should be ringing in Republicans heads.  Trump ran as a law and order candidate promising an unorthodox set of policy positions.  This means some of Trump”s policy priorities (largely based on class and geographic appeal) might fall flat with this crucial group.

It may be starting to show.  The survey found 15 percent of reluctant Trump supporters plan to vote for the Democratic candidate for their district in 2018 though the caveat is a generic candidate can be whatever a voter wants.

Still, this explains why Republicans are so closely watching the results of GA-6.  The district is ripe with the kind of unenthusiastic voters the party needs to hold the district.  Unlike Montana or KS-4, the enthusiastic Trump vote in rural areas does not exist in GA-6.  As Kansas showed, Republicans are falling further in metro areas (see Witchita County returns) making their need to hold unenthusiastic Trump supporters more important than ever.

Now, here comes the caveat to the survey’s findings.  It is one poll and the results in GA-6 showed a majority of voters still backed Republicans.  Approval polls showing Trump in the low 40’s still have him well above water with his own party and Democrats might be overplaying their hand with pure opposition to everything he does.

Still, Trump’s approval ratings are not good to put it mildly.  The most endangered Republicans are the members sitting in districts full of the more educated, affluent Republicans that felt Trump was the less of two evils.  If Trump’s lagging poll numbers and this survey are any indication, Republicans should be pulling out all the stops to protect these members and their majority.