Midterm Tea Leaves: This Chart Shows Why Shrugging Off the GOP's PA-18 Loss Would be a Mistake

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Posted: Mar 15, 2018 10:25 AM
Midterm Tea Leaves: This Chart Shows Why Shrugging Off the GOP's PA-18 Loss Would be a Mistake

In response to my analysis on Fox News Tuesday night, as well as this post from earlier, some conservatives and Trump supporters are upset with me for allegedly blowing the PA-18 outcome "out of proportion."  They make a number of points in pushing back:  First, special elections can be over-interpreted, so fixating on a single result amounts to needless hand-wringing -- especially since the party previously went 5-0 in Trump era House specials.  Second, Rick Saccone was a weak candidate, whereas other Republicans will be stronger.  Finally, Democrat Conor Lamb basically ran as a Republican, so this wasn't much of an ideological loss.  My responses:

(1) If double-digit swings toward Democrats had only occurred in one or two of the six House races we've seen over the past year, that would be one thing.  And it's certainly true that special elections involve unusual circumstances and can therefore be vastly over-analyzed.  But there's a very strong pattern here, as noted by Ben Shapiro.  There have now been seven such elections (Dems seeking to flip GOP seats in Congress) since Trump became president -- six in the House and one in the Senate.  On average, the pro-Democratic swing in vote percentage (compared to the previous contest over those seats) has been in the teens.  That is an inescapable fact.  Still not convinced?  A data-driven analysis from the Weekly Standard's electoral statistician delves even deeper:


That chart includes state legislative special elections (note: the Democrats' shockingly dominant performance in Virginia's regularly-scheduled elections are not included), with dark blue dots representing Democratic pick-ups: "Each point is an election. Points above the line --> D overperformance. R overperformance below the line. Color = result (pink is R hold, dark blue is D gain). Size is two-party total votes in the special. Chronologically reads left to right," Byler writes.  His conclusion:

In most special elections during the Trump era, Republicans have underperformed the Trump’s 2016 margin. Saccone is no exception—the election was essentially tied in a district that Trump won in a blowout...Trump partisans might want to write off these results as a fluke (Saccone was a bad candidate; special elections have weird turnout; Democrats have poured a lot of money into these races). But the numbers are a part of a broader pattern. President Trump is historically unpopular, and his bad poll numbers are hurting Republicans up and down the ballot. In recent elections, rank and file Republicans have failed to turn out and, in some cases, moved towards the Democratic party. In generic ballot polls (one of the best predictors we have of the eventual midterm result), Democrats lead Republicans by a solid margin. And Republican members of Congress have been retiring at a breakneck pace. Every single indicator suggests that agree that Trump’s unpopularity has hurt Republican candidates—including Saccone—and will continue to do so through November.

Those are not fun realities for Republicans to process, but they're realities nonetheless.  It's definitely true that tax reform will help the GOP in a lot of places (whereas the law was a net negative for the party in PA-18), and that outside events could shift the landscape ahead of November.  But as of this moment, the outlook is not good.  The intensity gap is real, and could actually look worse in the fall, as Republicans struggle to engage their lackadaisical base: 


(2) Underwhelming candidates exist in politics.  If there's a wave brewing, mediocre standard-bearers can benefit from the national climate and win.  Less-than-talented figures on the other side are highly vulnerable.  As I wrote earlier, candidates matter.  They may matter slightly less in an environment that is tilted strongly in one direction, but in close, marginal races, candidate quality is a make-or-break factor.

(3) Democrats were wise to run a young, charismatic military veteran with a moderate platform in this district.  In certain respects, Conor Lamb sounded more like a moderate Republican than a modern Democrat.  But let's not pretend he was basically a Righty.  He opposes the tax cuts, supports Big Labor, opposes Obamacare repeal, opposes mainstream abortion restrictions (despite his pro-life song and dance), and is strongly opposed to entitlement reform.  He'll be a fairly reliable vote for the Democrats on most issues, even if he was strategic about playing up certain cultural differences.  I'll leave you with my bottom line:


I would have voted for Saccone this week.  I do not revel in Republican losses (well, almost never).  But I refuse to look away from hard political truths in order to make myself feel better.  That's a form of self-delusion that accomplishes nothing -- and is a betrayal of my job, to boot.