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Paying the Piper

April 19, 2017

The average margin of victory in all of the 2016 elections for the House of Representatives was just over 37 percent. At the extremes, 17 members of the House ran unopposed and won 100 percent of the vote, and 17 were elected by margins of five percent or less.

Mid-term elections usually favor the party that does not hold the White House. This is true even when the president is popular, and Donald Trump is not popular. Three months into his presidency, Trump has consistently posted historically low approval ratings. Gallup’s tracking poll measured a slight up-tick for the President this week – to 40 percent approval. That puts Trump’s approval about half-way between George W. Bush’s 35 percent after Hurricane Katrina and Ronald Reagan’s 46 percent after Iran-Contra.

There is no obvious reason that Trump’s approval ratings should go up all that much in the near term. Military action often raises presidential approval ratings, but neither Trump’s 59-missile strike on a Syrian airbase, nor his mother-of-all-bombings in the Afghan mountains, nor his trash-tweeting of North Korea has done the job. Trump’s key domestic initiatives – Obamacare repeal, tax reform, and infrastructure revitalization – all seem to be dead in the water. Trump’s own supporters are starting to ask when all that winning is going to begin.

Nate Silver at posted a graph correlating presidential approval ratings with mid-term House election results. A party whose president runs a 40 percent approval rating can expect to lose about 40 House seats, with a margin of error just over 30 seats. Although there is a distinct correlation between presidential approval and mid-term election results, the size of the margin of error indicates that the correlation is relatively loose. Lots of other factors come into play – including, obviously, the appeal of the individual candidates.

In February, I commented that four special elections this Spring for House seats vacated by Republicans appointed to Trump’s cabinet will collectively serve as an early indicator for the 2018 mid-terms. As of yesterday, we have results in two of those special elections, and the news for Republicans is bad.

On April 11, Republican Ron Estes beat Democrat James Thompson by less than seven percent of the vote in a special election in Kansas. How is that bad for Republicans? Estes’s predecessor, Mike Pompeo (now the director of the CIA) won the seat by more than 31 percent last November. That means the district voted 24 percent more Democratic than it did just last November.

Voter turn-out is always lower in special elections, and turn-out in the Kansas special election was down by 56 percent. But the decrease was not even across parties – Estes took 62 percent fewer votes than Pompeo did; Thompson’s total was 32 percent lower than Pompeo’s last opponent’s. This “enthusiasm gap” suggests that Democratic voters are much more eager to rein Donald Trump in than Republican voters are to support him.

It is unlikely that the Democrats’ strong showing in Kansas reflected an unusually strong Democratic candidate. Estes was the incumbent Kansas state treasurer, having won re-election in 2014 by a margin of more than 35 percent. Thompson was a first-time candidate.

Similarly, yesterday’s special election in Georgia was a Democratic blow-out. Democrat Jon Ossoff lead a field of 18 candidates with 48 percent of the vote. In second place, Republican Karen Handel came in just under 20 percent. Unfortunately, Georgia’s special election rules provide for a run-off if no candidate gets to 50 percent. Ossoff and Handel will face off on June 20.

The seat in question has been held by Republicans since 1979, when Newt Gingrich ended a Democratic run that began before the Civil War. Tom Price, now the secretary of health and human services, won every election from 2004 to 2016. The best any Democrat ever did against him was in 2016, when Price dropped to 61 percent to 38 percent for Ronald Stooksbury.

As in Kansas, the Democrat is a first-time candidate, all of 30 years old, and the Republican is a former state-wide elected official – in Handel’s case, the Georgia secretary of state.

Turnout was good for a special election, reflecting a high level of voter enthusiasm. More than 192,000 votes were cast, compared with 210,000 in 2014, a mid-term election. And as in Kansas, the Republican voter drop-off was substantially greater than the Democratic voter drop-off.

The run-off is likely to become a national cause. National Republicans were slow to see the vulnerability of this long-time Republican seat, and they won’t make that mistake again. National Democrats, on the other hand, funded Ossoff’s campaign exceptionally well, and will surely do the same for the run-off.

Some of my liberal friends and acquaintances are frustrated that Democrats didn’t actually win the seats in Kansas and Georgia. A typical comment was that losing these special elections  constitutes a “very telling failure” by Democrats, demonstrating a need for major changes in the party’s ideology and direction. I don’t see it that way.

When I started out on the subject of these special elections, I said that it was likely that Republicans would hold all four seats, “barring something extraordinary.” The importance of the special elections, I said, is not likely to be who wins them, but “is likely to be what they reveal about popular reaction to the Republican Party now headed by President Trump.”

The Kansas special election produced a 24-point shift from Republican to Democrat compared to the 2016 election. The Georgia special election produced an 11-point pro-Democratic shift. Shifts of that magnitude reflect a dramatically negative reaction to the Republican Party now headed by President Trump. And although Congressional districts are not fungible, it’s likely that the pro-Democratic movement in these two districts is mirrored in a lot of other districts around the country.

So there is no question that these two special elections are nationally meaningful – the question is how meaningful. There is no way to project precisely from these two special elections to the 2018 mid-terms. All we can do is hypothesize.

I’ll start my hypothesizing by observing that Republicans won a 241-194 majority in the House last November. Therefore, assuming Democrats win no special elections for House seats before the mid-terms, Democrats in 2018 will have to take 24 Republican seats to win a majority.

As it happens, 75 Republicans won election in 2016 by margins of 20 percent or less (the shift in Kansas); 15 Republicans won by margins of 10 percent or less (the shift in Georgia). Thirty-nine Republicans won by 15 percent or less – so if we pretend that Democrats nationally could achieve a shift of about 15 points in their direction, Democrats would win almost exactly the 40 seats that Nate Silver projects for a president at Trump’s level of approval – more than enough for a majority in the House. Of course there are a number of reasons that the two special elections won’t be replicated nationally, an important reason being that the two special elections were by definition for open seats, whereas most 2018 races will involve incumbents.

Still, if you watch closely, you’re going to start seeing some House Republicans try to hedge their 2018 bets by showing some distance from Donald Trump. You saw it this week, at a town hall held by Iowa’s Republican Senator Joni Ernst, a Tea Party favorite. Ernst called on Trump to release his tax returns, criticized him for his weekly trips to Mar-a-Lago, and laid a very public foundation for future disagreements with Trump’s policy initiatives. (NAFTA, just for instance, has been very good to Iowa corn famers.)

One of the many big political surprises of 2016 was how easily and completely mainstream Republicans caved in to Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of their party.  Republicans in Congress went along, in pursuit of power rather than principle, and now they have to live with the consequences: the Republican Party is run by a narcissistic neophyte who can’t find a balance between toadying up to a nuclear armed dictatorship in Russia and Twitter-taunting a nuclear armed dictatorship in North Korea.

Eventually, Republicans will have to pay their piper. Come next year’s mid-terms, Republicans may find that they can’t afford the bill.


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