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%.

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