Friday, June 30, 2017

On Hamilton, Madison, the Origin of the Two Parties, Ted Kennedy and the GOP Health Care Bill

Tom reflects on 1790, 2010 and 2017.

Alexander Hamilton was not very happy.  Hamilton had just delivered his opus, a report on the credit situation of the United States, and what to do about it, to the very first Congress.  The report was requested by Congress not long after George Washington had appointed Hamilton to be the first Treasury Secretary, and was widely anticipated.  Hamilton, in typical fashion, went far beyond the assignment, and delivered, essentially, a blueprint for how to achieve his vision of a strong, centralized U.S. government, replacing the ineffectual government under the Articles of Confederation.  Among his principal recommendations was the assumption by the new government of all state debts, which then amounted to a whopping $25 million.

Hamilton was unhappy because his intellectual partner, James Madison, had just launched a broadside attack on Hamilton’s report, a critique that dumbfounded Hamilton.  Just two years before, the pair had written 80 of the 85 Federalist Papers that were so instrumental in securing passage of the Constitution, thereby replacing the Articles and setting our nation on its unified course.  Madison was the strongest voice in Congress, and his blessing, which Hamilton took for granted, was crucial to passing Hamilton’s plan.  But Madison, it turned out, was wary of a strong, centralized government, and he knew the assumption of states’ debts would irrevocably establish the federal government’s preeminence over the states. 

And so began the battle still being waged in Washington, DC, today over the power of the federal government.  Hamilton and Madison would become arch-enemies, Hamilton (and President Washington) favoring – to put it mildly -- a strong, centralized government, while Madison (joined by the new Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson), fearing the same, and favoring states’ rights instead.  The party names have changed since the time of the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, but the Dems and the GOP carry on the debate.

It is hard to find an issue that better exemplifies the two underlying party philosophies than the health care insurance debate.  The Dems believe in a strong role for the federal government, expressed through Obamacare, which sought to subsidize health insurance for the previously uninsured through an expansion of Medicaid, paid for by taxing the wealthy, and requiring a commitment of all Americans to enroll in health insurance program, the so-called mandate.  The GOP considers Obamacare to be yet another massive federal entitlement program, and for years argued for its repeal and a return to a market-driven system, with no “forced choices” such as the mandate.  Once in power, however, Trump realized that simply “repealing” the now-popular Obamacare would leave him and the GOP open to huge criticism, and thus announced a goal to “replace” it as well.

The divide reveals the effects of the two philosophies in ways rarely so starkly quantified    It is a pretty clear choice, and the CBO analysis makes the trade-off clearer still.  The new Senate bill will result in 22 million fewer Americans with health care coverage, and would save roughly $300 billion over ten years.  Under the GOP plan, the more limited government approach would give the wealthiest Americans a huge tax cut and deny coverage to poorer and older Americans, while eliminating the mandate of insurance coverage.

Which brings me to Ted Kennedy.  Perhaps no public official worked harder over his career than Kennedy to expand health care coverage (Kennedy’s and the Dem’s true goal was universal coverage via direct government insurance, essentially Medicare for all).  How thrilled Kennedy surely must have been in 2009 to see Obamacare moving through Congress; not universal care, perhaps, but strong enough to cut the number of uninsured in America from 50+ million to half that.  And success seemed assured, because the Democrats controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress, indeed they had 60 certain votes in the Senate, enough to pass the bill without a single GOP vote.

Fate would, of course, intervene, and Kennedy would die in August, 2009, before he could cast one of those 60 votes.  And a Republican, Scott Brown, would, shockingly, win his seat.  Obama would get his bill though, and the GOP House would go on to vote to repeal it 60 more times.  Obamacare in practice did reduce the number of uninsured by tens of millions, but the Supreme Court, while upholding (surprisingly) the constitutionality of the bill, made the states’ Medicaid expansion requirement optional.  Obamacare’s various flaws inhibited its effectiveness, and in a number of states the number of insurers remained low.

Kennedy would not have been surprised by Obamacare’s defects. He would have seen the bill in a clear-eyed manner – landmark legislation that went far in achieving far greater coverage, but with defects, in need of legislative improvement.  “Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good” he would intone; his legislative philosophy always favored passing a good-but-not-perfect bill and then fixing it over time.  In Ted Kennedy’s Senate, this was the way it was.

But the GOP has, in seven years, refused to follow that dictum, choosing to repeal rather than engage in the needed fixes.  And thus, now, we have the ”repeal and replace” madness, with a Senate bill that is only slightly less “mean” (to use Donald Trump’s own words) than its House counterpart.  The fractured GOP hates the bill from both the far right and from the moderate center, and in reality, it is a garbage bill in all ways.

Hamilton could have predicted the folly of “repeal and replace”.  As he said, “Whoever considers the nature of our government with discernment will see that though obstacles and delays will frequently stand in the way of adoption of good measures, yet when once adopted, they are likely to be stable and permanent.  It will be far more difficult to undo than to do.”  Hamilton also decried smallminded legislators who followed their constituents rather than lead them.  He bemoaned, “The inquiry constantly is what will please, not what will benefit, the people.”

How did Madison’s Congress ultimately pass Hamilton’s program?  In the best political tradition, the way it has been practiced from 1790 until very recently, a deal was cut, the first major compromise in our legislative history.  Hamilton and Madison went to dinner at Jefferson’s house, in our young nation’s first capital in New York City.  And by the time dinner was over, Hamilton would have his bill, and Jefferson and Madison would have what they wanted, which was that the permanent site of the capital would border their beloved Virginia, right on the Potomac, in what would become – yes, Washington, DC.

The GOP of the 115th Congress (or its immediate predecessors) does not appear to be capable of doing what Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson and Kennedy would have done – reaching a compromise with the Dems and fixing the ACA, which would actually both please and benefit the people.   The undoing is exposing the GOP’s dysfunction, putting them in a lose/lose debacle, where passing the bill could very well be worse than failing to pass the bill.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

World's Worst Brand Spokesperson. Ever.

Steve used a vacation as an opportunity to investigate the European view of our new President, and his impact on the image and reputation of the United States.

America is the best country in the world at believing it is the best country in the world. 

In 2014, a Pew study found that only twelve percent of Americans thought that there were other countries were actually better than the United States. Fifty-eight percent of Americans charitably acknowledge that other countries may possibly be in the same general category of greatness, but 28% are absolutely convinced that the U.S. of A. is it. A survey found on Reddit using a different methodology found that the United States is the only country where over 40% of the people believe that their country is the absolute best in the world.

We’re number one!  

Perhaps one of the reasons that so many Americans think theirs is the best country in the world is because so few have ever actually traveled to other countries to find out whether their blind faith has any basis in reality. An analysis by Williams Chalmers in the Huffington Post that concludes that after factoring in business travel, multiple trips by the same individuals, and eliminating junkets to Mexico or Canada, the percentage of Americans who travel “overseas” purely for pleasure, learning, and exploration is only around 3.5%. Only about one percent make it to Europe, where this post was authored. Europe also happens to be a place where you find many of the countries that might contest our claim of singular greatness.

Indeed, while gliding on an impossibly smooth train cruising at 200 kilometers-per-hour from Vienna to Salzburg, one realizes that neither the internet nor embarrassingly uninformed personal biases should serve as the basis for ranking the world’s nations. People here read texts off their FitBits, the hotels that now flourish in buildings built in the 15th century have excellent wi-fi, the public restrooms in airports have both Dyson Airblades and abundant supplies of paper towels, Uber drivers are always four minutes away… and their personnel do not appear to be disproportionately misogynistic. Perhaps Austria is number one!

This journey afforded an opportunity to do original research on a question that worries American progressives: do our European allies believe that the election of Donald Trump represents a fundamental and long-term alteration of the American character, or do they view him to be an aberration that will be soon rejected – by hook, or by his being a crook. Has he preempted and redefined American brand, or is he merely sushi left out overnight and mistakenly consumed by a populace that will return to normal after an inevitable horrendous bout of food poisoning and projectile vomiting?

An obvious but important disclosure: no one is pretending that a small number of conversations over nine days with a decidedly non-random sample should serve as a basis for conclusions on this or any topic. Rather, consider this piece a sort of verbal Instagram post… a quick dispatch while traveling intended only to convey a singular image that captures the meaning you’ve found in your journey.

At first blush, the view of the United States from over here is a bit like the Christmas dinner where that cute cousin you haven’t seen in a while shows up in leather and ink, multiple piercings, and spewing the f-bomb so frequently that she actually wedges it between syllables in a single word. What the hell happened to sweet little Cathy, and when can we have the old one back? But this is a far too superficial rendering of a complicated topic.

For starters: Europeans are not the least bit naïve about the serious root causes of the newly Trumped-up United States. The gutting of manufacturing centers and the loss of jobs to immigrants is old news in Europe, and there was no sense of shock that the United States proved vulnerable to the same viruses as well. Europeans are also more able to see the United States as a subset of the broader global trend toward rightest extremism, anti-immigration, and isolationism. These winds are shape-shifting every European country, with widely divergent outcomes, particularly in the recent electoral tale of two cities in London and Paris. A sudden increase in the frequency of terrorist attacks in England makes debates about borders, surveillance, and internet control more concrete in Europe than in the U.S., where it remains largely charged rhetoric about Muslims, walls, and fear.

Europeans also have more highly developed radar for a dangerous surge of virulent, sneering, angry nationalism.  The concept of an ambitious tyrant seizing political clout by playing to national insecurities (“Yes, we are the greatest nation!”) is a recurring motif in European history. A grossly ill-informed, propaganda-spewing demagogue who whips huge crowds into emotional frenzy about returning the country to greatness by rooting out those who are "alien" by country of origin or religious belief?  Europe went to that party. Been there, Verdun that.

So, if anything, Europeans have a broader context in which to understand the Trump phenomenon than we do. That said, the specific circumstances in every country are inevitably different, and the politician who is the incarnation of the underlying belief system (Nigel Farage, Marie Le Pen, Norbert Hofer, or Donald Trump) is the wild card variable that is perhaps most difficult to compute.  Europeans appear stumped by Trump. How did that country end up with that leader?

If there is a single word to summarize the impression that the new President of the United States made upon the locals during his recent visit, it is probably belligerence. Les Macron-esians en Paris no doubt found it, well, galling that Trump would lecture NATO partners about paying their fair share for defense spending at the very moment European nations spend millions to deal with immigration and terrorism issues resulting from people fleeing the anarchy in the Middle East that was triggered by the United States’ shock and error in Iraq. Monsieur Trump, peut-être Les États-Unis should help pay for the shit storm your country whipped up in Europe?

The decision regarding the Paris Climate Accord, when viewed from the Parisian side of the ocean, is perhaps the most frightening indication that Trump does signal a fundamental change in American character. Where once the United States was the global champion of science, it is now the primitive. More pointedly, the United States was historically the first to see and seize the economic opportunity in tectonic societal change. That the world’s foremost economic superpower would stand on the sidelines of the next great global gold rush is difficult to dismiss as an ebb and flow of political cycles. It appears to be a mutation of the core DNA.

But policy debates aside, it is the overwhelming power of visual imagery and symbolism that shapes popular opinion. We have written many times about how the gaffes of politicians are only truly damaging if they are perceived to be a dramatic illustration of a broader narrative, a moment of synecdoche when a specific incident is a concentrated symbol of a truth about the candidate that is his or her most damaging liability. When Governor Rick Perry of Texas forgot the name of the third government agency that he would close, the meta-message – that the Texas governor was an intellectual flyweight in way over his head – came through at jumbo jet decibels. He dropped out of the Presidential race within days.

So it was that to Europeans, the single most powerful visual metaphor for Donald Trump’s recent visit to the Continent was the moment he rudely shoved Duško Marković, the Prime Minister of Montenegro, in order to take center stage for a photo op. Mind you, Trump had no shortage of unforced errors during his trip to the Middle East and the NATO summit, but those other moments did not have the impact on our European friends quite like the crude, insecure vulgarity of a large, pompous man shoving aside a slight, elegant, non-threatening colleague.

To Europeans, the visual of Trump shoving Marković was one of those moments when a specific incident fully illuminates the broader narrative: the United States is now a selfish, clumsy, bully that is not comfortable in the role of leader of the free world.

Like Rick Perry’s amnesia, the Marković incident was extremely powerful precisely because it illustrated a truth. Today, Europeans often encounter Americans either in the form of (1) the business emissaries from distant headquarters whose linguistic limitations force everyone to speak English and who nonetheless carry themselves with implicit arrogance of being the top dog, or (2) the tourists who travel in the safety of large, ill-mannered packs that roam from photo op to photo op with loud voices and still louder outfits. Make no mistake: in its Jungian collective subconscious, Europeans still seem to carry the image of brave and resourceful G.I.s who stormed beaches, braved winters, and hurtled forward to help free the continent from a despicable dictatorship. But that was then, and Trump is now. Trump, shoving a slight, decorous European gentleman, is the ugly American.

People in the United States may want to believe that the admirable stereotypes – that Americans are smart, hard-working, resourceful, team-oriented, and creative – are the dominant perception. But there is a second, darker set of stereotypes that exists in parallel: that many Americans are self-important déclassé clods who think they own the universe and can’t understand why, as Steve Martin once noted, the French need to have a different word for everything.

Trump’s election, therefore, is not going to be viewed as an aberration or something inauthentic; it is simply that this alternate truth about Americans now appears to be ascendant. To Europeans who have recently been whipsawed by 180 degree shifts in the dominant American persona with each change in executive leadership, Trump may have been elected, but in many ways, confusion reigns.

As the 21st century began, we were liberal, informed, charismatic Bill Clinton, but then we morphed into the untraveled, slow-witted George W. Bush. He, then, was tarnished and discarded, and our Presidency re-emerged from the cocoon as the soaring butterfly of Barack Obama: elegant, idealistic, and cerebral. However, on a grey day in November, this glam image crashes back to earth, replaced by a crude, lurid, orange-haired, old, grumpy Donald Trump.

How can we expect Europe to figure out our new national identity? We are the United Sybil of America.
Think, for a moment, of Donald Trump as the “brand spokesman” for the United States of America. Like William Shatner for PriceLine. Micheal Jordan for Hanes. Or Peyton Manning for, uh, everything. Perhaps a more pointed comparison would be Tiger Woods for Nike, Jared Fogle for Subway, or Lance Armstrong for… well, you get the point.

Companies who hire a spokesman to embody their brand are always taking an enormous chance. If it works – think Michael Jordan – the brand is able to graft the power, popularity, and personality of the celebrity onto the personality of their brand. But when these celebrity contracts go bad, it can be very, very bad. That’s why no major company signs a celebrity endorsement contract that does not include a huge morals clause that enables the brand to dump the celebrity in a heartbeat. 
The President of the United States is the face, the voice, the very global embodiment of the nation. The president’s image is flashed on screens globally billions of times every day. The President of the United States is the most powerful brand spokesman in the history of marketing. He is us. We are him. Being the brand spokesman of the United States of America is one of the most critical aspects of the job.

Now for some bad news: the United States of America hired Donald Trump to be our brand spokesperson for a four year contract that is pretty darn impossible to break. Can you imagine if Subway was obligated to continue to use Jared Fogle for three and a half years after he copped to child pornography charges? Or that Nike was legally required to use the mug-shot of a drugged-out Tiger Woods to sell their new putters? 

If you are the brand manager of the product called “The United States of America,” and one day you decide to change your brand spokesman from Barack Obama to Donald Trump, you can shove all the politics to the side because the first point to be made is that you have thoroughly and comprehensively confused your audience about who you are. But that is just the start of the problem.

The real question any experienced brand marketer asks when evaluating potential brand spokespersons is whether the celebrity under consideration truly embodies that meaning and values of the brand.  Is the spokesperson relevant to the brand, evocative of the brand, and credible to the message about the brand? Karl Malden hawked traveler’s checks because he played a tough, gritty cop who was savvy about criminals. Jennifer Aniston promotes cosmetics. And yes, Tiger Woods was once an immensely popular and spectacular golfer, and a helluva powerful spokesman for Nike.

America does have recognized values and beliefs. Marketers would call them “brand values.” They are widely known, deeply etched, and closely associated with our brand. And the true “brand values” about the “United States of America” brand are not about whether America “is great,” or is “greatest,” or needs to be made “great again.” 

What are the true “brand values” of the United States?  That democracy is great. Freedom is great. The rule of law is great. The right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness is great. Freedom from religious persecution is great. The right to free speech and an independent press are great. We are willing to fight to protect, defend, and perpetuate those ideals. When the United States enjoys broad admiration – yes, perhaps even the perception of greatness – it is when we were most actively advocating and living our brand values.

But when a President refuses to investigate a tainted election, does not respect the rule of law or the judicial branch of government, and urges religious persecution, he is not aligned with the brand values of the United States of America. 

When a President refuses to honor the nation’s prior commitments, insults our allies, and attempts to curtail free speech and an independent press by slandering those who disagree with him as "fake news," he is not aligned with the brand values of the United States of America.

And, yes, when a crude thug shoves the leader of another nation, he is not aligned with the brand values of the United States of America.

Donald Trump is presenting the United States as a backward nation that is so clumsy, insecure, and lacking in grace that we have to shove aside a small, nonthreatening country to push our way to the center.

Does Europe think that we have truly changed and become that country? Or that we are merely an imperfect union that strives for progress, but inevitably suffers one step back for every two steps forward?
In one of those moments of serendipity, this writer arrived back in the United States the day that the Pew Research Center announced the findings of a major global poll designed to understand how attitudes towards the United States have shifted as a result of the election of Donald Trump.

Here is, verbatim, the lead paragraph from that report:

"Although he has only been in office a few months, Donald Trump’s presidency has had a major impact on how the world sees the United States. Trump and many of his key policies are broadly unpopular around the globe, and ratings for the U.S. have declined steeply in many nations. According to a new Pew Research Center survey spanning 37 nations, a median of just 22% has confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs. This stands in contrast to the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when a median of 64% expressed confidence in Trump’s predecessor to direct America’s role in the world."  

As to our question about Europe?

"The sharp decline in how much global publics trust the U.S. president on the world stage is especially pronounced among some of America’s closest allies in Europe and Asia, as well as neighboring Mexico and Canada. Across the 37 nations polled, Trump gets higher marks than Obama in only two countries: Russia and Israel."

Finally, this paragraph speaks directly to the role that the U.S. President plays as the "brand spokesman" for the United States of America:

"In countries where confidence in the U.S. president fell most, America’s overall image has also tended to suffer more. In the closing years of the Obama presidency, a median of 64% had a positive view of the U.S. Today, just 49% are favorably inclined toward America." 
Here is the glimmer of hope.

The fact that the reputation of the United States does not fall in a direct, one-for-one relationship with the reputation of its President means that citizens of other nations are easily able to distinguish between and hold different views of the nation relative to those they hold of its President.

It seemed clear that Europeans see the disconnect between the brand values of the United States and of its current spokesperson, Donald Trump. The values of one do not add or help the values of the other. They compete, and each is weakened by the association: the United States looks bad to its audience, and Donald Trump is viewed as not being up to the standards of the United States. And yes, the longer is goes on, the more damage is done. But people do see a difference between the President of the United States and the nation, The United States of America.

The view from Europe?

Perhaps the question would be best answered on Instagram, where one could post a picture of a rotund, orange-haired jerk shoving a smaller, peaceful man so that he can take a more prominent place in a photo op. 

And the caption would read: “It is still a good and decent country, but they have the world’s worst brand spokesman... ever.”

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Friday, June 23, 2017

The Real Reason Mitch McConnell is Rushing the GOP Health Care Bill

Tom thinks Mitch is crafting a winning strategy.  By losing fast.

Mitch McConnell, as canny a pro on Capitol Hill as there is, has developed a novel strategy for the Senate version of the GOP health care bill – the long bomb. 

If you get football, here it is.  We’re in overtime after seven years of playing.  Mitch finally has the ball.  He takes over on his own 20-yard line and has decided he is going to run only one play, going for broke, the bomb.  No sustained drive for him.  He’s not even calling a huddle.  He’s hoping his team is on the same page and everything breaks correctly, and the Opposition is caught flatfooted.  If he wins, he wins, if he loses, he’s not even going to try another play.

If you don’t get football, here are the politics.  Draft the bill in private in a working group (13 white guys); spring it on the rest of the Senate as late as possible; don’t allow a committee to touch it and hold open hearings; and push for a vote in a week, that is, before the July 4 recess.  Assuming you can get your 50 votes, losing at most two of your own, then you use the summer to work out a compromise on the bill with the House, not lose anyone from either the Senate or the House in the process, and get a final bill on Trump’s desk for signing.

The presumed reason for such a process has been widely reported.  Everyone knows the bill is a dog, that 20+ million Americans will lose coverage under TrumpCare over time, that premiums will soar in the early years, and that the GOP would face, in 2018, ad after ad featuring real Americans who lost coverage with TrumpCare and were either economically ruined or died for lack of care.  Twenty million stories are a lot to choose from.  The McConnell process is based on the premise, the less said about it the better.  And more to the point, the less scrutiny, the fewer horrific headlines about the bill, and, if you avoid a hurricane of blowback, you just might entice enough Senators to sign on based on the notion of “promises kept.”

It’s cynical and appalling, but nobody ever mistook Mitch McConnell for Gandhi or King.  This is not about righteousness.  He is a sneaky bastard, and he wants to win.  Very badly.  And winning, for him, means:  1) winning reelection, 2) keeping his post as Majority Leader, which implies 3) holding on to the GOP majority in the Senate.  And he will craft precise legislative strategies to, in his cold assessment, maximize his odds of achieving these goals.

But there is another reason for the "going fast " strategy, that is not receiving any play, and that is, going fast is the best strategy for McConnell in the event the bill fails.

McConnell has said the vote will be by July 4, and if it fails, there will be no other attempt.  Because if he pursues this strategy and loses, then it’s all over.  McConnell can say the GOP gave it the good fight, and while the defeat stings, ultimately no one gets hurt by this monstrosity of a bill, and he still has 16 months to get tax reform and infrastructure reform done, and the GOP faithful will surely conclude two out of three ain’t bad.  He wants to get on to win/win legislation, and get away from lose/lose losers like health care has proven to be.

By moving fast, and cutting his losses, McConnell might win even if he loses.  In fact, knowing full well what a rotten bill this is, he may even prefer that outcome.  Here’s why.

In 2018, the GOP has an incredibly friendly Senate map.   They have 52 seats right now, and one might think they are at a huge risk of losing three or more seats and thus losing control to the Dems.  But actually it is not likely they are going to lose the Senate at all, even with a weak Trump.  There are only nine GOP Senators that are up for reelection in 2018 and, realistically, only two of them are truly vulnerable, Dean Heller of Nevada and Jeff Flake in Arizona.  The other seven won their last race by +17 or more points, and all are in Deep Red states.   Even if Heller and Flake lost, the Dems have to hold onto all of their seats (including 10 in states Trump won), and even then it would not be enough – that would result in a 50/50 split with Pence still the tiebreaking vote.  So it would take an utter catastrophe for the GOP to lose the Senate.

So, if you are McConnell, which health care bill scenario is more likely to result in catastrophe, among the two bad options?  Failing to pass the bill (very disappointing!) or passing the bill (20 million Americans actually lose health insurance!  Huge premium increases actually happen!  All those horrible ads get aired!)?  It is no contest.  The better option is to lose.

And that is why there will be no second play. The bill will be voted up or down before July 4.  If the GOP loses, then they will salvage the next 16 months and begin work on something – anything – that may hold more promise for a legislative win.  Because Mitch McConnell wants to be done with health care once and for all.  He wants to move on.  He does not want to tie up Senate time for months on end, for the balance of 2017, trying to solve a Rubik’s cube that has no answer. If he is going to lose, he wants to lose quickly.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Real Lesson From Georgia and the Special Elections

Tom goes to the numbers to take issue with the post-Georgia spin.

Anyone who thinks the mainstream media relentlessly charges after the anti-Trump/liberal version of any political story is mistaken.  To wit – the coverage of the Democrats’ loss in Georgia’s 6th District, and South Carolina’s 5th as well. The headlines have been all about the GOP’s clean sweep of the four special elections, the disarray of the Democratic Party, the inability to translate Trump’s unpopularity into seat flips.  And they have juicy quotes from the anti-Pelosi faction of the Democratic Party, a group who were already screaming for her head.

Now, the Dems may indeed need a coherent message; they certainly have to resolve their moderate/liberal-wing split; and perhaps Pelosi should step down as the too-San Francisco symbol of the Dems.  But none of those represent “lessons” of the special elections.

The real lesson of the special elections is this: the GOP is in big trouble in 2018, barring a dramatic turnaround in Trump’s performance or major legislative wins.

Why is that the true lesson?

Because the four districts in question were extremely Solid Red districts.  None was remotely contested last November.  The GOP candidate in November in each district won handily.  The real news was the dramatic narrowing of the margin in the special elections versus those November elections.

State/ Dist.
Nov. 2016 Winner
Nov. 2016 Outcome
Spring  2017 Winner
Spring 2017 Outcome
Margin Difference
Pompeo (R)
R + 31
Estes (R)
R + 7
Zinke (R)
R + 15
Gianforte (R)
R + 6
GA 6
Price (R)
R + 24
Handel (R)
R + 4
SC 5
Mulvaney (R)
R + 20
Norman (R)
R + 3

R + 23

R + 5

As you can see, the GOP won those four elections in November by an average of +23 points.  No one was targeting those elections for flips; these races did not occupy one second of Chuck Todd’s or John King’s coverage; no model was run at BTRTN or FiveThirtyEight to determine who was going to win; and no one had to stay up late to learn the outcome.

But in the special elections, the margin of victory dropped to single digits in each race, an average of only +5 points.  This means the gap narrowed by a full 18 percentage points, and each of these elections was, indeed, a contested race.  The fact that the GOP won them all is not the story.  The story is the margin.

How significant is that 18-point narrowing of the gap?  We all know that a great deal can happen in the next 16 months, before the midterms.  But things better improve for the GOP, because if that 18-point improvement holds for the Dems, they would pick up 49 seats and easily retake the House.  Yes, 49 GOP members won their elections by less than 18 points.  That is more than double the number of flips the Dems need.

As it happens, that number of flips – 49 -- is not far off what our models suggest based on the current generic ballot polling.  The most recent polls have the Dems up +6 over the GOP, and our model suggests this gap, if it is still +6 at midterm time, would result in a pickup of +45 seats for the Dems.  And this also is consistent with the lessons of history; unpopular first-term presidents have a tendency to get crushed in their first midterms:  Bill Clinton, with a 46% approval rating, lost 54 seats in 1994; Barack Obama, with a 45% approval rating, lost 63.  Note:  Donald Trump’s approval rating (using Gallup, for consistency), is now 37%.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Georgia on My Mind: Can the Dems Finally Flip a Special Election Seat?

The last two of five special elections in the House of Representatives will occur tomorrow, June 20, the very high visibility race for Georgia’s 6th District and the less publicized (and likely one-sided) contest for South Carolina’s 5th District.  To refresh, these elections are required because Trump named four House members to his Cabinet, and a fifth, a California Democrat, was named that state’s Attorney General.  Many eyes are focused on these races as referendums on the state of the Trump presidency (and this is a legitimate thought) and also as a predictor of the 2018 midterms (this perhaps far less so given we have 16+ months to go).  Here are the five in chart form:

State/ Dist.
Nov. 2016          Outcome
Trump vs   Clinton
General Election
Opponents                     (D versus R exc Cal)
Pompeo (R)
R + 31
R + 27
Apr 11
Thompson - Estes
R + 7
Zinke (R)
R + 15
R + 20
May 25
Quist  - Gianforte
R+ 6
CAL 34
Bacerra (D)
D + 100
D + 73
Jun 6
Gomez (D) - Ahn (D)
D +100
GA 6
Price (R)
R + 24
R + 1
Jun 20
Ossoff - Handel
SC 5
Mulvaney (R)
R + 20
R + 18
Jun 20
Parnell - Norman

The GOP has managed to hang on thus far, but the races in Kansas and Montana were far closer than their November counterparts.  Republican Ron Estes won Kansas’ 4th District by a mere +7 points, just six months after Mike Pompeo won the same seat by +31 and Donald Trump took the district by +27.  And in a race notable mainly for the winning candidate body slamming a reporter the night before Election Day, Republican Greg Gianforte managed to beat the less-than-optimal Democratic challenger Rob Quist by only +6 points, far closer than Ryan Zinke’s +15 point win and Donald Trump’s +20 margin in November.  Clearly, the GOP is on the defensive; both of those seats were considered “Solid Red” and would not have typically hit the radar screen as contested, “flippable” seats.

California’s 34th was truly uncontested, as two Democrats finished 1-2 in the primary and thus claimed 100% of the votes in the run-off election.  Jimmy Gomez beat fellow Democrat Robert Lee Ahn to succeed Xavier Bacerra.

On to tomorrow’s races where virtually all of the national focus will be on Georgia.

South Carolina’s 5th District

Let’s start (and quickly dispense with) South Carolina’s 5th district, which does not appear to be following the Kansas/Montana pattern, though we will see on Election Day.  Mark Mulvaney vacated this district when he was named Trump’s director of the OMB.  It will be a contest between Republican Ralph Norman and Democrat Archie Parnell.

Norman is a former GOP state representative who had a doozie of a primary season with Tommy Pope, another former GOP state rep.  In the first primary, Pope finished ahead of Norman 30.4% to 30.1%, with neither coming close to hitting the 50% mark, thereby necessitating a run-off primary.  In that contest, Norman turned the tables and won 50.3% to 49.7%, a razor-thin 221-vote margin that required a recount to confirm.  Parnell, a tax attorney, handily won the Democratic primary with 71% of the vote.

Like the Kansas and Montana races, this is Solid Red country.  Mulvaney won his race by +20 points, and Trump carried the district by +18 in November, 2016.  But unlike those races, this one seems to be heading toward an easy win for Norman and the GOP.  There has been only one recent poll, and it had Norman up by +17 over Parnell.

Georgia’s 6th District

This is the heavyweight battle, featuring Democratic hopeful Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel in a race that has been both remarkably well-funded and exceptionally tight.

This was Tom Price’s seat, Trump’s director of Health and Human Services (yes, the same guy who has apparently yet to see the Senate’s version of the health care bill, even though he is allegedly the expert as well as the person responsible for national health care policy – but I digress).  Price won the seat in November by a comfortable +24 points margin.

But the Democrat’s initial optimism, and the reason it drew so much attention in the primary in April, was due to Hillary Clinton’s strong showing in the district in 2016 relative to that of Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.  She lost to Trump by only a single point, 48/47.  Obama, on the other hand, was defeated by +18 points by John McCain in 2008 and +23 points by Mitt Romney in 2012. 

And even though Price won comfortably in November 2016, by +23 points, that margin was slightly tighter than his wins in 2014 (+32) and 2012 (+29).  All of this, plus the rather disastrous start to the Trump administration and Price’s own failure as a key player in the “replace and repeal Obamacare” debacle, led to initial Dem optimism that they could win here.

And how close Ossoff, a political neophyte who had been a Hill staffer and more recently a film documentarian, came to pulling it off in the April primary!  With the nation watching, he easily outpaced a bloated 18-person field, winning 48% of the vote, just shy of the 50% required to have taken the seat outright and obviate the need for a runoff.

Thus he and Handel, who came in second with a mere 20% of the vote, will go head-to-head tomorrow in the runoff.  Remarkably, the other Democrats in the primary won only a single other point collectively, while the GOP candidates after Handel garnered 31%, so the total GOP vote was 51% to the Dems 49%.  Hence Handel’s challenge is to unify the GOP voters and hold on to that edge.  Handel served as Georgia’s Secretary of State from 2007 to 2010 (please do not ask me to explain what a state Secretary of State actually does).

Georgia’s 6th is comprised primarily of northern Atlanta suburbs, which have higher median incomes than the state as a whole as well as greater educational attainment.  It also has a reasonably significant minority population, roughly 25%.  An astonishing $50+ million has been spent on the race, with Ossoff having the advantage, having directly raised $23 million overall this year to Handel’s $4 million, though Handel has a slight edge in outside money.

Polling has been extensive.  There have been nine polls since mid-May and Ossoff has led in eight of them, and the other was a tie. On average the margin is Ossoff by about +2-3 points.  Three of those polls have been in the last week and they are remarkably consistent, with Ossoff leading in each, 50-49, 50-48 and 50-47.  It is notable that he achieved the 50% mark in each.  Also worth noting is that 140,000 ballots have already been cast; there were 326, 000 votes cast in total in November.

BTRTN believes that Ossoff will win the Georgia 6th election by a nose, 51/49, and that Norman will win the South Carolina 5th election by a healthy 58/42 margin.  The Georgia outcome will be viewed as an important victory for the Dems, and will reduce the GOP margin in the House to 240-195, meaning the Dems will have to flip 23 more seats to regain control of the House in 2018.

While the Dems will do cartwheels over a Georgia win, caution must be taken with respect to 2018.  As mentioned, the midterms are still 16 ½ months away, as our countdown clock shows, more than 500 days of tweets, investigations, potential legislation and unknown earthshaking events.  There is plenty of time for all outcomes to emerge, from a startling Trump comeback to a somber Pence presidency.

Having said that, the Dems are in the driver’s seat right now.  They hold a +6 lead in the generic ballot, which, according to our proprietary BTRTN model, would translate to a gain of 45 seats for the Dems, about double what they would need to regain the House.