The Road Back and Why it Won’t Be Taken

What is it like to be at the precipice of irrelevancy?

Is it losing an election that you had an 81 percent chance of winning, according to the man who correctly predicted the exact electoral college results in 2012?[1]

Is it being the minority party in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, where even if you regain every seat in the House and Senate won by Trump (a difficult feat at best) you’ll still be in the minority?

Yes, but perhaps controlling only 15 out of the 50 governorships in the United States most clearly suggests a trajectory towards irrelevancy. This — combined with the other factors — will keep the party on the precipice of irrelevancy for years to come unless it is corrected.

Perhaps I am being unfair to the Democrats. After all, President Donald Trump does have an approval rating of 37 percent, according to Gallup’s latest poll, the lowest of any president at this point in his presidency since at least Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953[2]. Yet, Donald Trump also had the lowest approval ratings of any candidate in history [3] and still won.

Yet the real question is not whether or not the Democrats have a favorable political climate heading into the 2018 midterms; the question is whether or not the Democratic Party is capable of taking advantage of the climate. To answer that question, the evidence neither lies in highly covered battleground Senate seats Arizona and Nevada nor in battleground House seats like in my own New Jersey district.[4] Rather, the answer lies in the 40 gubernatorial elections taking place over the next 13 months and, of course, the 2016 presidential election.

The common narrative about “Why Trump Won” is that he brought disgruntled white working-class voters to the polls. However, the troubling truth for Democrats as they work to regain[5] white working-class support is that statistically, that was not the case. In Michigan, Hillary Clinton received 300,000 fewer votes than Barack Obama did in 2012 — specifically 75,000 fewer in Detroit and Wayne County, predominantly black and urban areas that are solidly Democratic.[6] Only 10,000 of those 75,000 voted for Trump, meaning that 65,000 voters chose to stay home and not vote after voting in 2012 rather than vote for Hillary Clinton (or against Donald Trump depending on your psychological outlook). In Wisconsin, the story is more troubling. Hillary Clinton lost 230,000 voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2012, of which Trump gained a whopping NONE. That’s right… Donald Trump won the state of Wisconsin by receiving the same number of voters as Mitt Romney, who lost the state by 200,000 votes in 2012.[7] In addition, NPR argues that a lack of black voter turnout in North Carolina cost Hillary Clinton that state,[8] meaning that if she received Barack Obama’s African-American voter turnout in Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina, she would have won the presidency. Now, with their voting base proportionally younger and blacker than ever before, Democrats are forcing themselves to rely on groups that are half or nearly-half as likely to vote in a midterm than they are in a presidential election.[9]

This may not seem like an issue for someone that does not regard midterms as important. Yet, the truth is that midterms have significant consequences, both obviously and subtly. If 2010 and 2014 are any indication, a party that gains seats in the midterms can effectively promote its agenda, regardless of whether it controls the presidency or not. But the most significant result of gaining in midterms, especially true for this midterm, is the ability to draw congressional districts. In a majority of states, 37,[10] the state legislature and the governor have the authority to draw district lines. Thus, the party that controls the governorship, now overwhelmingly the Republican Party as previously mentioned, has a huge advantage. At minimum they can veto the recommendations of the legislature. At maximum, they can make districts as safe as possible for their own party.

Since the 2010 midterms, we have seen such a scenario become a reality. In 2012, only 14 percent of House seats were deemed competitive,[11] meaning that a candidate won the seat with 54 percent of the vote or less. 51 percent of Democrats elected in 2012 and 29 percent of Republicans elected in 2012 won with TWO-THIRDS of the vote, or more. Thus, if a party wants to create and safeguard its House seats, winning governorships is key, which it can only achieve by getting its voters to the polls.

The historical trend combined with the makeup of the Democratic Party guarantees no assurances in 2018. According to Larry Sabato in his latest 2018 gubernatorial election projection, even if the Democratic Party were to win every seat that currently leans Democratic or Toss-Up, they would still only have 21 seats, compared to the Republican Party’s 28 states[12] (Alaska is held by an Independent Democrat). And that’s only the best case scenario; in 2016, the Democrats lost every Toss-Up Senate seat and two states that leaned Democratic (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Even my home state of New Jersey is not secure for the Democratic Party in the upcoming November election, an election declared safe by Larry Sabato is by no means safe.

This election should be one of the easiest victories possible for Democrats. Chris Christie, the incumbent, is not only the most unpopular sitting governor in the country, but he is closely tied with Donald Trump, who lost New Jersey by nine points in 2016.[13] The Republican nominee is Kim Guadagno, Christie’s Lieutenant Governor and therefore linked closely to Christie’s unpopular administration, while the Democratic nominee, former ambassador Phil Murphy, has already funneled $15 million of his own money into the race as of August.[14]  Yet, no election is safe when most polls show that at least 10 percent of potential voters, usually more, are undecided. Despite all the money being used by the Murphy campaign and all the negative connotations of Kim Guadagno, most residents still do not know who Phil Murphy is or what he does. As the undecided percentage decreases, Kim Guadagno gains, not Murphy, a troubling sign for the latter because it demonstrates an eroding lead for Murphy. Although in polls – which requires little effort to answer– Democrats say they will vote for him, will young Democrats and minority Democrats actually make the effort to go out and vote for a relatively unknown Phil Murphy this November when their swing-state compatriots did not mobilize in this past presidential election for the known Hillary Clinton? All in all, Phil Murphy should easily be the next governor of New Jersey, but his victory is by no means secure. The voting behaviors of black voters and young voters are so hard to ascertain that come midterms, despite being such an integral part of the Democratic Party, anything is possible.

2018 can mark the beginning of the Democratic Party reclaiming their lost power. But unless they can reverse this disastrous trend of party apathy toward midterms, Democrats will fall off the precipice and be stuck in irrelevancy forever.

 

 

[1] McCarthy, Tom. “Hillary Clinton Has 81% Chance of Defeating Trump, Nate Silver Predicts.” The Guardian, 29 June 2016

[2] Gallup. “President Trump Approval Ratings.”

[3] Enten, Harry. “Americans’ Distaste For Both Trump And Clinton Is Record-Breaking. ”FiveThirtyEight, FiveThirtyEight, 5 May 2016.

[4] Greenman, Justin. “Tumultuous Town Halls.” Penn Political Review, vol. 14, no. 1, Sept. 2017.

[5] da Costa, Pedro Nicolaci. “The Democrats’ New Economic Plan Exposes the Party’s Existential Crisis.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 26 July 2017.

[6] Ben-Shahar, Omri. “The Non-Voters Who Decided The Election: Trump Won Because Of Lower Democratic Turnout.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 Nov. 2016.

[7] Ben-Shahar, Omri. “The Non-Voters Who Decided The Election: Trump Won Because Of Lower Democratic Turnout.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 17 Nov. 2016.

[8] Montanaro, Domenico. “7 Reasons Donald Trump Won The Presidential Election.” NPR, NPR, 12 Nov. 2016.

[9] Blake, Aaron. “The Democrats’ Midterm Turnout Problem — in 6 Charts.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Oct. 2014.

[10] Levitt, Justin. All About Redistricting

[11] Mataconis, Doug. “38% Of Congressmen Represent ‘Safe’ Districts.” Outside the Beltway, 7 Oct. 2013.

[12] Sabato, Larry. “2017-2018 Gubernatorial Race Listings.” University of Virginia , 20 Sept. 2017.

[13] NJ Elections. “2016 Presidential Election Report.” 6 Dec. 2016.

[14] Friedman, Matt. “Three against One: Democratic Rivals Pile on Murphy during Second Debate.”Politico New Jersey Playbook, Politico, 11 May 2017.