Sunday Strategy: How Democrats Can Break The Midterm Curse
2022 Isn't A GOP Lock
There are two ways you win in politics: persuasion and turnout. You can either get more of your voters out to the polls, or you can flip some voters from the other side to your side. This isn't some revelatory point, but it's worth saying. It's also true that there are two different paths for how the GOP could flip the House in 2022 if that comes to pass - having a better turnout operation than Democrats, or getting moderate Biden supporters to vote for the GOP again as a form of check on his administration. 2010 and 2014 saw both factors come into play, which is why the GOP swept to landslides both times, and why most people assume the House is lost for Democrats in 18 months. It's not, and it's not that hard to see why it isn't.
We'll start with turnout, and Lak's estimates of what the recent past would have looked like if voters voted like they did in 2020, and all that changed was turnout effects. That 2014 GOP landslide turns into a mere GOP ripple, because educated, socially liberal whites have moved so far left in 6 years, and they made up such a bigger share of the electorate then - 39% of the electorate, per the 2014 Exits, down to 28% in 2020. While 2018 would be less blue than it was in reality, it would still be nearly a point more blue than 2020 was - the relevant point of comparison. Why? Low propensity Trump voters make up a smaller share of the electorate in midterms than general elections, which we know already.
If current trends hold, the GOP traded high propensity, educated, socially liberal voters for low propensity cultural conservatives who don't have a degree. You don't have to take my word for it, either - Dave Wasserman makes the same point here, despite the fact he's on the record thinking the GOP start 2022 as favourites to win the House. This is a non-controversial statement that can be made whether you're a 2022 Democratic optimist or someone who thinks Virginia is Lean D in November, and Lak's data shows it. If you're the Democratic Party, you start 2022 with a likely electorate that is slightly more Biden-favourable than 2020 was.
Now, does that mean that 2022 is a lock for Democrats? Of course not, turnout's only half the game. The GOP could persuade Biden supporters to vote for them at midterm, in the way many voters went Obama-House GOP-Obama in 2008/10/12. Well, they can try, but they run into the slight problem of rising polarization, which is making elections more competitive and massively decreasing the number of swing voters, so they'd need to convince Biden supporters not just to switch their vote one time, but start making the case for a full-fledged defection - or, in many cases, a return, given the large number of Romney-Biden voters. How hard would that be?
Well, if you take that Biden +5.3 electorate estimate from Lak and you want to make it D+2 - the point at which the GOP are probably breaking 220 House seats, at minimum - you'd need to turn college educated whites from their 54/46 Democratic lean in 2020 to a 51/49 GOP lead. To get a neutral political environment, you'd need a complete reversal of 2020 - an 8% GOP lead with these voters. That's assuming, of course, the GOP doesn't make substantial gains with Black voters or further gains with Hispanics - which, given everything we've said about turnout and propensity, is highly unlikely in 2022. So, how likely are these Romney-Biden voters to turn their backs to Democrats, then?
If you look at the international data, not very, at all. In Canada, the UK, and Australia, the main center-left party has made real gains with educated degree holders in urban and suburban areas, while bleeding ground with working class cultural conservatives. In Canada, traditionally swing suburban areas like Brampton and Mississauga are now home to Liberal MPs in safe seats, with margins routinely up above 20%. In Milton, down the road from Toronto, the seat of the then-Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party Of Canada went from Tory +5 to Liberal +15 in 4 years - and yes, she ran again in 2019, so it wasn't because of a retirement. In the UK, the London seat of Putney went from being a seat Labour could only win in landslides - a seat Blair won in 1997 and lost in 2005, even as he held a majority government - to a seat where Labour won it by nearly 10% on a night they barely broke 200 seats. In Australia, Tony Abbott's old seat of Warringah went from giving Abbott 65% of the two-candidate vote in 2013 to only giving him 43% in 2019 - and, even if you want to say that's only because of the independent who ran against him and beat him, he only got 52% in the notional two-party count against Labor, down 13% in six years. In a twist that will shock nobody, that seat voted 75% for Gay Marriage in the 2017 plebiscite, 14% above the national average.
Now, to be fair, I am skipping the 2016 Australian election here, and the Australian right did actually do better in suburban and urban areas that night, which should give the GOP confidence it can happen in the US, right? Well, not quite. They did so by nominating a pro-gay marriage, pro-action on climate, anti-culture war, anti-Murdoch press centrist in Malcolm Turnbull. I won't rule out entirely a GOP pivot to Charlie Baker-ism, I guess, but that seems highly unlikely at this point, doesn't it? And, for what it's worth, once Turnbull left the leadership in 2018, all those gains, and more, were lost, so that's not great news for the GOP.
Turnbull also shows what happens when the right pivots back to the center - big swings to the left in regional towns and small cities. The left gained Herbert, Longman, Braddon, and Lyons, four seats that could be described as working class, culturally conservative areas - and, unsurprisingly, three of those four flipped back to the right in 2019. (Lyons, the only one not to, was plagued by the Liberals having to disendorse their candidate during the campaign, and should be viewed as an exception for that reason.) Would the GOP be able to rely on their huge margins in regional Ohio, especially the parts south of the I-71, if they pivoted back to appeal to the Cincinnati suburbs, to take but one example? The Australian data suggests that would be a very real risk.
Okay, but what about the swings in white parts of Metro Atlanta to the right between November 2020 and January 2021? Doesn't that suggest that the GOP could be in for a better night with educated whites than they had in 2020? Maybe, and Perdue did do 6% better than Trump with those voters, but he only actually won those voters by 3% more than he himself had in November - meaning that there was no mass movement of straight down the line Democrats voting for David Perdue in January for the protection of split government, and if you want to talk about the nature of places being less partisan down ballot than they are at the top of the ticket, you also need to accept that that helps Democrats in places like Minnesota 1st, Wisconsin 3rd, and the two Iowa seats the GOP won in 2020 (if those seats are constructed similarly next year to how they were this past year).
So, what exactly is the path forward for the GOP in a midterm? The electorate they face will be less favourable to them than 2020 was, which means they have to reverse the Trump-era trends in the suburbs. They have to do that without moderating, though, because the Australian evidence suggests that moderating to win back the cities will cost you in all those areas you've put so much energy into gaining in the Trump era. They need to do that while the evidence from Canada, the UK, and Australia all suggests that culturally conservative stances are increasingly turning off socially liberal voters in conservative (and Conservative) areas, including a UK byelection where the Tory vote fell 20% in just two years not two weeks ago, and they need to do it while Donald Trump still looms over the whole party. Seems easy, right?
The GOP could obviously win the House in 2022, and this isn't a declaration of what will happen, but it is a (hopefully useful) antidote to the pages and pages of Democratic Doomerism that pervades the discourse these days. The GOP are not in an easy spot, and nobody should pretend they are considerable or sizable favourites to take the gavel in November of 2022. They very well might get to the majority, but this will not be the victory march so many think it is shaping up to be - and it may just end up leaving the GOP feeling cold and broken on November 8th, 2022.