2018 Midterm Elections – New Jersey 11th Congressional District

Happy 2018! If the Democratic Party can take control of either the House or the Senate in this year’s midterm elections, it will have been a good year. There are a lot of interesting opportunities for Democratic candidates to beat Republican incumbents or pick up open seats. One is the district in which I grew up – now known as New Jersey’s 11th Congressional District.

The 11th is currently represented by Mr. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican who has held the seat since 1995. New Jersey has a total of 12 representatives. Congressman Frelinghuysen is one of five Republican representatives from New Jersey while the other seven are Democrats. Frelinghuysen has been a reliable vote for the Republican/Trump agenda, and 11th District voters need to send him home.

Successful efforts to unseat incumbents or to win in hostile districts usually require good candidates as a first step. Luckily for the 11th, Ms. Mikie Sherrill, Democrat, is an outstanding candidate. Her biography alone – Naval Academy graduate, Navy helicopter pilot, federal prosecutor, and mother of four – is powerful and will be attractive to the affluent white voters who dominate the district. She is also a strong supporter of most of the Democratic Party’s platform, which will be attractive to voters in the 11th who care about policy.

Winning candidates also usually need effective strategies. To that end, this year I aim to produce a series of maps that point candidates to areas in their districts where campaigning and “get out the vote” efforts can make a difference. The map below illustrates ample opportunity in the 11th:

NJ_11th_1

New Jersey’s statewide population is 68.1% white. The 11th is about 82.7% percent white. That makes it a challenge for Democratic candidates, but with indications that whites in the 11th may be ready to consider non-whites and women for elected office, the time may be ripe for a candidate of Ms. Sherrill’s caliber. Her strategy should focus on motivating people in the red, orange, and yellow areas indicated in the map above to register and then get out and vote. Ms. Sherrill can also make a strong play for affluent whites who feel betrayed by the Republican Party, but she should not risk alienating people of color and educated women by compromising her policy positions. If we know that voting for Republicans and Trump is mainly a function of white identity politics, and we should, Democratic Party candidates should prioritize mobilizing people of color in their districts.

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How to Build on Alabama

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Just a Democrat winning a Senate seat in Alabama, like a boss. By Digital Campaign Manager Doug Jones for Senate (Doug Jones for Senate Committee) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Last night, Democrat Doug Jones beat Republican Roy Moore and picked up an unlikely U.S. Senate seat for Democrats in Alabama. It was a close one – Jones won with 49.9% of the vote against 48.4% for Moore and 1.7% for write-ins. Before getting to the good news, though, it’s worth noting that the Republican Party came within 20,000 votes of putting a theocratic pedophile in the Senate. That’s awful, and we should not be confused about the awfulness of the current Republican Party at pretty much every level.

Jones won for a variety of reasons, not least of all the good fortune of drawing a terrible opponent. For Democrats, his victory is encouraging because he ran as a solid, unapologetic Democrat. He offered passionate arguments for Democratic policies. He refused to be ashamed of his support for minority rights or women’s reproductive freedom. The fact that Jones won without basing his candidacy on appeals to the “white-working class” proves that Democrats can win with or without these people. Indeed, it’s quite possibly the case that the Democratic Party is more likely to win races in Republican-leaning districts by motivating its own base to get out and vote. The exit polling suggests as much (all tables borrowed from CNN):

Table 1: does doug jones share your values?
jones
moore
no answer
yes

48%
96% 4% n/a
no

49%
6% 91% 3%
2387 respondents

Only 6% of people who said Jones did not share their values were willing to vote for him. He won because people who support him and the Democratic Party’s agenda were willing to go out and vote.

Table 2: vote by race and sex
jones
moore
no answer
white men

35%
26% 72% 2%
white women

31%
34% 63% 3%
black men

11%
93% 6% 1%
black women

17%
98% 2% n/a
latino men

1%
n/a n/a n/a
latino women

2%
n/a n/a n/a
all others

3%
n/a n/a n/a
2387 respondents

The savviest voters in the United States are black women, and it is not even close. Their 98% support for Jones follows their 96% support for Hillary Clinton in 2016. I interpret these numbers to mean that black women as a class are the most aware of their own interests and the public interest. Another way to think about it is they are the least confused about the consequences of their votes. Democrats need to step up their efforts to gain black women’s support, and that must be alongside a national fight to protect and reestablish voting rights for all Americans. Jones would have won more comfortably yesterday if more black Alabamians had been able to vote.

Table 3: vote by age
jones
moore
no answer
18-24

8%
59% 40% 1%
25-29

5%
62% 35% 3%
30-39

12%
66% 32% 2%
40-49

20%
53% 46% 1%
50-64

32%
46% 53% 1%
65 and older

23%
40% 59% 1%
2387 respondents

I wish CNN could have broken this table out by race, but perhaps it did not because of sample size issues. In any case, these numbers clearly show Democratic Party strength with Alabamians under the age of 50 and especially under the age of 40, a pattern I would bet exists in most other states. As an aside, I wonder if Democratic strength in my own 30-39 cohort has to do with our experience of the younger George Bush’s presidency and what an epic disaster that was. Americans tend to solidify our party loyalty in our 20s and 30s.

Table 4: vote by party and ideology
jones
moore
write-ins
no answer
liberal democrats

16%
98% 2% n/a n/a
mod./conserv. democrats

20%
98% 2% n/a n/a
independents

21%
52% 43% 5% n/a
mod./liberal republicans

9%
21% 79% 0% n/a
conservative republicans

33%
5% 94% 2% n/a
2387 respondents

This table suggests that independents do not actually exist. Moore’s candidacy was the perfect experiment for trying to tease out whether “independents” are truly independent or are party loyalists with a self-proclaimed independent identity. All other things being equal, a true independent would be unlikely to vote for someone like Moore. He had been credibly accused of sexual assault and pedophilia, he refused to debate Jones, and he committed many other sins expected to offend independents. Yet only 52% of Alabamian independents went for Jones while 43% went for Moore. That’s nearly a coin flip. If independents were real they would be expected to skew heavily towards Jones, probably to the tune of 60-80%.

The moral of this story is to not fetishize independents. Democrats should not tailor messaging to this group because it is an ideological mess: independents are overwhelmingly loyal Democratic voters and loyal Republican voters, while some are simply uninformed about politics and make up their mind about whom to vote for the day of an election.

Conclusion

There are many reasons to think the Republican Party is in trouble for the 2018 midterm elections, but that does not mean Democratic victories are inevitable. To take back the House and/or the Senate, Democrats need to run strong candidates (Jones was a great candidate, especially for Alabama), they need to know who their voters really are, they need to make it easier for them to vote, and they need to motivate them to vote. Appealing to the better angels of Republican voters’ natures is a mug’s game.

 

Indiana Aftermath: Democratic Party Edition

hillary_rodham_clinton_dnc_2008
It’s unlikely Hillary Clinton gives the runner-up speech at this year’s convention. What is Bernie Sanders looking to do? Qqqqqq at en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump has officially secured the Republican Party’s nomination now that John Kasich, last man standing by a day, has suspended his campaign. Weirdly, that means it’s the Democratic Party’s nomination that is still up in the air, with Bernie Sanders claiming he will contest the nomination if Hillary Clinton needs superdelegates to get her over the top. Unfortunately for Clinton, it looks like she will in fact need superdelegates for a majority.

However, this requires some context. Just the word “superdelegates” riles people up and makes rational conversation difficult, so let’s try to clarify the situation before we look into the future. First, I’ve written before that the superdelegate system needs to be abolished and I stand by that. In addition, I explained the superdelegate math. Here’s the relevant passage:

The superdelegate system, which allows 712 Democratic Party insiders to vote for whomever they want at the convention, accounts for 15% of the 4,763 total delegates. Since a candidate needs 2,382 delegates to win an outright majority, superdelegates could provide as much as 30% of the votes needed to push a preferred candidate over the top.

While it’s unlikely that superdelegates are willing to risk breaking the Democratic Party in two in order to get their preferred candidate on the ballot, their votes would be required to form a majority if a candidate finishes with less than 58.8% of elected delegates. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight wrote a great piece about this in February. Flipping things around, there’s 41.2% – that’s the percentage of elected delegates a candidate could win the nomination with if 100% of superdelegates voted for him or her.

Silver reminded us that superdelegates, wary of going against the will of the voters, are likely to see which way the wind is blowing and support the candidate with a majority of elected delegates. This is exactly what happened in 2008, when Clinton again started the nomination process with a large superdelegate lead only to see that shrink and vanish as Obama won more and more elected delegates.

Superdelegates are part of the game and everyone who’s playing wants to win. Sanders supporters were outraged by the superdelegate system before voting began, and as I’ll explain, now the Sanders campaign is banking on superdelegates to save his candidacy. This might reek of hypocrisy, but I don’t remember Clinton and her campaign disavowing the system back when she had huge support from superdelegates before a single commoner had cast a vote. Now, the Clinton campaign is aghast that the Sanders campaign would try to win the nomination through manipulation of superdelegates. So, yeah, plenty of apparent hypocrisy for everyone.

The only fair way to resolve this issue is for both camps to agree that democratic legitimacy depends on winning a majority of pledged delegates. Every state and territory sends pledged delegates for candidates to the convention based proportionally on their primary or caucus results. Therefore, pledged delegate count is a reasonable proxy for the popular will. Superdelegates, in the imperfect world in which they still exist, should basically be honorary convention attendees, at least when it comes to voting on the nomination. Ideally, and as they did in 2008, superdelegates simply ratify the choice of the public.

At the moment, the Sanders campaign does not agree to these ground rules. Why not? Well, the simple answer is that Sanders is losing pledged delegates by a big and nearly insurmountable margin, so if he wants to win the game, he needs the superdelegates to be seen as a legitimate part of it and then he needs them to back him overwhelmingly. The hypocrisy is distasteful, but hey, you play to win the game.

How is the Sanders campaign rationalizing this about-face? There seem to be two key arguments: 1) contests that Sanders wins are worth more when they come in a row or later in the election season, so superdelegates should reflect those different weights, and 2) Sanders matches up better against Trump in general election polling so superdelegates should get behind the candidate with the best chance of winning in November.

The first argument is stupid and delegitimizing of Clinton voters. Before we hear protests that only Sanders fanatics are saying this, no actually, Sanders’s top strategist, Tad Devine, is making this case. If we really want to get into weighing the different contests based on their perceived legitimacy, well, Sanders has racked up pledged delegates in caucuses, the least democratic process for selecting delegates. Caucuses result in abysmal voter turnout and tend to privilege wealthier people with the ability to spend time at a caucus. This is a cake that the Sanders campaign can’t have and eat, too.

Leaving aside the toxicity of the first argument for the moment, the second argument is the one that deserves serious consideration and is why the superdelegate system exists in the first place. No Democrat wants to lose a winnable election, which 2016 most certainly is even if the Republican opponent weren’t Trump. Both Clinton and Sanders beat Trump in head-to-head polls, but Sanders leads by significantly larger margins. The Sanders camp would argue that Clinton has negative favorability ratings and therefore is the riskier candidate. The Clinton camp would argue that Clinton is a known quantity and she still beats Trump, most voters don’t really know who Sanders is and wait til Trump calls him a communist, and anyway general election polls this far out historically don’t correlate very well with November results.

That superdelegates exist to guide the Democratic Party to its most viable nominee is a compelling argument. If we accept it, then we are putting a close contest in the hands of 712 unelected party insiders who are free to assess each candidate’s case and vote according to their conscience. Though it’s self-serving for the Sanders campaign to now embrace this argument, again it’s part of the game. I maintain that superdelegates should simply ratify the will of the majority, and after they do that this year, the Democratic Party should eliminate the superdelegate system.

That brings us to the state of the race after Indiana. If you take my position and agree that the 4,051 pledged delegates should determine the nomination, it looks like this:

  • Hillary Clinton has 1,701 pledged delegates, which is 325 shy of the minimum 2,026 needed for a majority.
  • Bernie Sanders has 1,417, which is 609 shy of the majority threshold.

With 933 pledged delegates still remaining, Clinton needs to win 34.8% to reach a majority and Sanders needs to win 65.2%. Clinton has won 54.6% of pledged delegates awarded so far, while Sanders has won 45.4%.

For the sake of argument, say they maintain the same pace, which is somewhat reasonable since Clinton is expected to do well in California and New Jersey and Sanders is expected to do well in the smaller states such as West Virginia and Oregon. That means Clinton wins 509 more delegates, giving her a total of 2,210, and Sanders wins 424, giving him a total of 1,841. Contest over.

Now, let’s entertain the Sanders campaign contention that the 712 superdelegates should have the final say. A candidate needs 2,382 total delegates for a majority. Clinton would need 172 superdelegates (24%) to put her over the top, while Sanders would need 541 (76%). Are 76% of superdelegates going to find Sanders’s electability argument persuasive? And this isn’t a vacuum; remember, many Democratic Party members are wary of Sanders’s tenuous links with the Party, both rhetorically and financially.

Like in Michigan before, Sanders just pulled off a surprising victory in Indiana. Maybe more surprising victories await, but it’s hard to see him winning substantial majorities in California and New Jersey, which look and behave a lot more like New York where Clinton won big, than they do Washington state, where Sanders won big.

The takeaway? Superdelegates are not going to entertain Sanders’s electability argument unless he wins a majority of pledged delegates. Many are already ambivalent towards him. Also, there’s the precedent of 2008 when superdelegates supported Clinton by a wide margin but many switched to Barack Obama when it became clear he would win the majority of pledged delegates. That contest was even closer than this one and the candidate behind was the one many of the superdelegates preferred, yet they still refused to put her over the top. No way they do that for Sanders. If his campaign wants to win, it’s going to have to do something it hasn’t managed to do yet, which is carry large diverse states with more than 65% of the vote.

This makes one wonder what exactly Sanders is after, and calls back to mind the first argument we identified that his campaign is using to woo superdelegates. Sanders wants to win, of course, and I respect that and am genuinely happy about the good influence he’s already had on Clinton’s campaign. But what exactly does he gain by suggesting that primary votes in the South don’t really count because they happened early and those states never go for the Democrat, when he’s relying on states like Idaho and Kansas that held contests over a month ago and never vote for the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate either? Or what good does it do when his strategist says that contests count more when a candidate wins a lot of them in a row or they come later in the process, like Clinton didn’t just win five out of six primaries in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast?

Do Sanders and his campaign staff actually believe this stuff? Are they just undisciplined? Or are they actually trying to tear the Democratic Party apart? These aren’t rhetorical questions.