Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Dear Democrats - about that 2018 House election - Here's your silver lining playbook.

UPDATED*: 18-August-2017 
Divided Government and GA 06
Democratic hopeful Jon Ossoff came close in his initial bid to win the reliably Republican Georgia 6th congressional district. He finished first in the April election with a large plurality over a fractured Republican field but failed to secure a majority. Ossoff will face faced and narrowly lost* to second place finisher Republican Karen Handel in a June 20 runoff. Promoted as a proxy for Democratic resistance to the Trump administration, the mixed results gave both parties plenty of "spin" space. Whether it was a victory, loss, moral victory, repudiation of President Donald Trump, bellwether for the 2018 midterms, GOP wakeup call, or some mix of all the above can and will be debated.

In the bigger scheme of things, it's just one district that should and probably will stayed* Republican. By itself GA-06 is not all that important. What is important - very important - is what happens in the 2018 midterms. Can Democrats can wrest majority control of the House of Representative from the GOP, restore divided government, and provide real oversight of the Trump administration?

On that score, the Dividist can show Democrats a silver lining around the dark cloud of 2016 and offer a ray of hope for 2018. But to explain it, we must first digress through a bit of history.

The 1888 election for the 51st Congress of United States coincided with the presidential election between incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland and Republican challenger Benjamin Harrison. Going into the election the government was divided. Republicans controlled a narrow 38-37 seat majority in the Senate. Democrats controlled the White House and a 167-154 seat majority in the House of Representatives. Benjamin Harrison won the Presidency, Republicans maintained their one seat majority in the Senate, and Republicans took control of the House by flipping the majority to 179-152 with a net gain of 25 seats. In 1888 the House majority flipped against a divided government. It's never happened again.

[**CORRECTION: Actually it did happen again. In 1948. See 8/18/17 update at the bottom of the this post.and correction linked here. Lets call it the exception that proves the rule.]

Combined--Control of the U.S. House of Representatives - Control of the U.S. Senate
Since  Benjamin Harrison became President in 1888, the House has flipped majorities in exactly twelve elections - 1890, 1894, 1910, 1918, 1930, 1946, 1948**, 1952, 1954, 1994, 2006 and 2010. In every single case, without exception**, there was a Unified One Party Government with President, Senate and House majorities in control of the opposite party before voters flipped the House majority. Let's repeat that: Every single instance where the United States House of Representative has flipped majorities in the last 129 years has only happened with an opposite party unified government controlling the House, Senate, and Presidency. Exactly like we have now.

This may be the most reliable rule of thumb in politics that no one knows. There are a lot of useful political aphorisms, rules of thumb, maxims, heuristics and old wives tales.The reason they're useful is because they are right most of the time. Except when they're not.

Old Rule Examples:
  • The Blue Wall represented reliably Democratic "rust belt" states that can be counted on to deliver electoral votes for Democrats, and they did from 1992 to 2012. But they did not in 2016 when Donald Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
  • The Solid South is a source of reliably Republican electoral votes and has been since Reagan won in 1980 through Trump in 2016. Except for 1992 and 1996 when a handful of southern states put Bill Clinton over the top.
  • "As goes Missouri, so goes the nation" was true because Missouri voted for the winner of almost all Presidential elections since 1904 including voting for Trump in 2016. Except Missouri did not go with the nation when in 1956 the state went for Stevenson, 2008 for McCain and 2012 for Romney.
  • "All Politics is local" is a famous Tip O'Neill aphorism that is generally used in the context of House Representative elections. And it is generally true, with Representative incumbents enjoying local support and 95%+ reelection rates, even when Congress itself is wildly unpopular as it is now. But the rule is only true until it is not. It was not true in 2006 and 2010 when Republican and Democratic nationalized wave elections made politics decidedly not local and flipped majorities in the House.
New Rule:
  •  We'll call it the Rule of Dividist Unified Flip Flophouse Sufficiency (Rule of DUFFS)*: The House majority never flips against a divided government. A unified one party government is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to flip majorities in the House of Representatives.  
* The Dividist discovered this rule so we get to name it. Okay, okay.  If you really hate the name "Rule of DUFFS", you can also call it "The O'Neill Exception". 
 This new rule is more reliable than all of those prior examples. It has a perfect 129 year record without a single failure. Democrats can take some small level of comfort in this. It is the one and only silver lining to come out of their catastrophic 2016 election performance.

I first discovered and posted this rule a year ago, when we had a divided government. Then I explained to both disheartened Republicans (fearing a disastrous Trump landslide dragging down the entire party), and delusional Democrats (fantasizing about the same outcome) that there was no possibility for the Democrats to wrest majority control of the House in the 2016 election cycle.

Because that was true, and because Trump won, and because the Democrats managed to snatch Senate defeat from the jaws of victory when the Senate playing field was slanted decidedly in their favor, we now have Unified One Party Republican Rule. And because we have Unified One Party Republican rule, the conditions now exist for Democrats to flip the House in 2018.

Democrats need to pick up a net 24 seats. Less than the 25 seats Republicans gained in that 1888 election described at the top of this post.  Less than the net 31 seats Democrats picked up when they flipped the House in 2006. Less than the net 63 seats Republicans picked up when they flipped the House in 2010. Unlike 2016, it could happen in 2018. But the new rule is a necessary, not sufficient condition. Other elements must also be in place to nationalize the election and flip the House. As I explained then:
"The interpretation of this phenomena is pretty clear. A nationalized  i.e. - not politics is local - election requires a national focus to energize the voters. A sufficient "wave" election needs an organizing principle to power the kind of tsunami that can flip the House. Focused anger/blame on a unified party in power does the trick. A divided government distributes the blame and blurs the electoral focus.  A divided government cannot drive a sufficient nationalized election groundswell to overcome local favorites and local politics. 
We conclude that, as we've stated repeatedly, a one party unified government is a necessary but not sufficient condition to flip the House majority.  Still, a unified government can remain in place for many years without a reaction against the concentrated one party rule. Additional factors, above and beyond one party unified government rule, must come into play to precipitate a wave election.  In general it takes an additional combination of corruption, overreach and/or arrogance on the part of the unified party in power to align voters in opposition and nationalize the House election."
So there you have it. Here are the additional requirements for Democrats to flip the House in 2018:
  1. Republicans have to cooperate by demonstrating some combination of egregious legislative overreach, blatant corruption, and/or arrogant abuse of power between now and the election. This is the Trump One Party Rule Unified Republican Government - so no problem.
  2. Democrats have to cooperate by not running a brain dead, electorate fracturing, identity politics campaign. To capitalize on the opportunity for a successful wave election in 2018, Democrats must forge a nationalized campaign organized around a unifying message in opposition to Trump administration overreach. Just like they did successfully in 2006 against the Bush/Cheney administration. To be absolutely crystal clear, lecturing working class whites struggling to pay bills and support their families on the evils of white privilege is not the way to run an organized, unifying, nationalized campaign.
  3. The limits of identity politics should have been learned by the outcome of 2016.  Some Liberal Democrats understand the problem running national campaigns with a primary focus on identity politics. Pay attention to them. Identity Politics did not play a significant role in the 2006 wave election. Democrats should try emulate 2006 and not screw this up like 2016. 
You're welcome.

* UPDATE: 20-June-2017
The most expensive U.S. congressional race ever is now history. Democrat Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel in the Georgia 6th Congressional District. The outcome in this historically strong Republican district was predictable. In fact we predicted it in top of this post two months ago:
 "In the bigger scheme of things, it's just one district that should and probably will stay Republican." 
But Ossoff led in polls as recently as ten days ago, and many Democrats had high hopes that a win would foreshadow a Democratic congressional sweep in a 2018 wave election.

A wave election, with Democrats taking the House in 2018, is still a distinct possibility. Democrats, despite their disappointment,  can legitimately find a silver lining, in this and the other three special House elections in South Carolina, Kansas, and Montana. In each election the gap between GOP and Democratic candidates closed dramatically over the margin of victory Republicans enjoyed historically and as recently as last November. But while Democrats can only claim a moral victory, Republicans are perfectly happy with the much more satisfying actual victory - and retaining all four seats.  The legitimate fear for Democrats and Dividists, is that this election foreshadows another distinct possibility for 2018 - Democrats taking a significant number of seats in the House, but still leaving Paul Ryan and Republicans in majority control for the balance of Trump's first term.

As outlined in this post, the 2018 playing field is tilted for a big Democratic win, but they have to find the right strategy and execute a winning game plan.  Democratic strategists and pundits already have the Georgia 06 corpse on the autopsy table and busily throwing body parts all over the room - Ossoff was "too civil" - He didn't have a "substantive agenda"  - He wasn't like Bernie Sanders. - There are "deep divisions" in the Democratic Party - The fragmentation of "identity politics". - I don't know. It's a wake up call for Democrats. But then, so was 2016. I just hope they get their act together before 2018.

** UPDATE II: 18-August-2017
This is embarrassing. There is an error in my historical timeline and representations about "The O'Neill Exception" rule. I was caught out by Sean Trende of RCP on twitter:
Dewey defeats Truman
Sean is right. There was an additional election in that time frame where the House flipped against a divided government. Specifically the 1948 election where Dewey defeated Truman... I mean Truman defeated Dewey.  I'll consider this to be "the exception that proves the rule". There was a lot of confusion about that election, and the electorate might have been anticipating the Dewey victory, as was the Chicago Daily Tribune,  but I'll still need to rewrite this post. I'll post a link to the new post here as soon as I get around to writing it.

UPDATE: Corrected post linked HERE.

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