No quick fix for Democrats to re­gain lost ground

The Washington Post Sunday - - NEWS - Dan.balz@wash­post.com

The Gallup or­ga­ni­za­tion reg­u­larly pub­lishes re­ports on the par­ti­san lean­ings of the states, snapshots of the ebb and flow of po­lit­i­cal self­i­den­ti­fi­ca­tions across the coun­try. The most re­cent com­pi­la­tion pro­vides one more piece of ev­i­dence of the de­gree to which Amer­i­cans have moved away from the Demo­cratic Party since for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama was first elected.

The story of the Democrats over the past eight years is well known. Obama twice won a ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­lar vote and left the White House with an ap­proval rat­ing in the high 50s. De­spite that, his party suf­fered mas­sive losses in Congress, among gover­nors and in state leg­is­la­tures. Hil­lary Clin­ton, his des­ig­nated suc­ces­sor, lost to Don­ald Trump in Novem­ber.

Pres­i­dent Trump has gen­er­ated anger and en­ergy across the coun­try among those who op­pose him and much of his agenda. Trump’s dis­ap­proval rat­ings are higher than for any new pres­i­dent. Repub­li­cans in Congress some­times ap­pear flum­moxed, even alarmed, by what Trump says and does. Democrats see all this as an op­por­tu­nity for re­cov­ery. But they start from a very deep hole.

Gallup’s most re­cent find­ings on party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in the states pro­vide one in­di­ca­tor, per­haps im­per­fect, for mea­sur­ing what was lost dur­ing Obama’s pres­i­dency and a bench­mark for gaug­ing whether Trump’s pres­i­dency moves the pen­du­lum in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

Par­ti­san iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as mea­sured in polls is in con­stant flux. Monthly sur­veys record oc­ca­sional spikes, de­pend­ing on what is in the news. If Democrats are hav­ing a bad week, fewer peo­ple want to iden­tify with them, and vice versa. Gallup’s re­port mea­sures changes based on an­nual av­er­ages of party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (not party reg­is­tra­tion).

The most telling head­line in the lat­est re­port, writ­ten by Jef­fery M. Jones, says, “All move­ment since 2008 in GOP’s di­rec­tion.”

For con­text, the year 2008 was a ban­ner year for the Democrats in terms of party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, thanks to Obama’s can­di­dacy. Grad­u­ally, things fell back to Earth. The ef­fect is the por­trait of a changed coun­try.

In 2008, Gallup found 35 states ei­ther solid or lean­ing Demo­crat in party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, com­pared with five for the Repub­li­cans. The re­main­ing 10 were listed as com­pet­i­tive, which meant the gap be­tween Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was fewer than five points. In 2016, there were 14 states that were ei­ther solid or lean­ing Demo­crat, com­pared with 21 for the Repub­li­cans. Gallup listed 15 as com­pet­i­tive.

Some of the change re­flects the decades-long ide­o­log­i­cal sort­ing-out of the two par­ties. Many South­ern­ers, for ex­am­ple, con­tin­ued to call them­selves Democrats long af­ter they had started vot­ing reg­u­larly for Repub­li­cans, first at the pres­i­den­tial level and later at the con­gres­sional level.

Two ex­am­ples of this are Arkansas and West Vir­ginia, two states Democrats have not car­ried pres­i­den­tially since 1996. From 2008 to 2016, adults in Arkansas shifted from a net plus of 12 points for the Democrats to a net plus of 14 points for Repub­li­cans. West Vir­ginia moved 28 points in the GOP’s di­rec­tion. In 2016, Trump car­ried Arkansas by 27 points and West Vir­ginia by 42 points.

More per­ti­nent to the elec­tion re­sults, Penn­syl­va­nia, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin — states that Trump won nar­rowly and that pro­vided him with his elec­toral col­lege ma­jor­ity — moved dur­ing the Obama years from a solid Demo­cratic rat­ing in 2008 to a com­pet­i­tive rat­ing in 2016.

Par­ti­san iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as mea­sured in sur­veys is not rigid or per­fectly cor­re­lated with vot­ing be­hav­ior. But the de­gree to which Gallup’s find­ings mesh with what hap­pened in 2016 are no­table. Trump won all 21 Repub­li­can states, and Clin­ton won all 14 Demo­cratic states. Trump car­ried nine of the 15 com­pet­i­tive states (some of which aren’t re­ally com­pet­i­tive pres­i­den­tially).

The 2016 elec­tion was an­other ex­am­ple of the de­gree to which red-blue par­ti­san­ship has hard­ened and now af­fects vot­ing up and down the bal­lot. There are sug­ges­tions that, be­cause Trump’s views cut across tra­di­tional ide­o­log­i­cal lines, his pres­i­dency could roil the coali­tions of both par­ties. Even­tu­ally that might be the case, but for now there’s no bet­ter in­di­ca­tor of how some­one will vote than how they align by party.

In Novem­ber, about 9 in 10 Repub­li­cans voted for Trump and about 9 in 10 Democrats voted for Clin­ton. That’s been true for a num­ber of elec­tion cy­cles. More sig­nif­i­cantly, ticket split­ting was, again, a rar­ity, de­spite ear­lier spec­u­la­tion that Trump might scram­ble vot­ing pat­terns in down-bal­lot races. Trump and Clin­ton al­tered re­cent vot­ing pat­terns in some coun­ties. But over­all, the 2016 elec­tion pro­duced a con­sis­tent out­come up and down the bal­lot.

As Democrats look to re­build their strength in the House and Sen­ate, the im­pli­ca­tions of all of these threads are prob­lem­atic. Ge­og­ra­phy and party-line vot­ing are work­ing against them. Ger­ry­man­der­ing is cer­tainly a fac­tor, but the prob­lem is not lim­ited to that.

The Cook Po­lit­i­cal Re­port’s David Wasser­man and Amy Wal­ter have re­cently high­lighted the con­tin­u­ing shrink­age in the num­ber of House seats held by the party that lost the pres­i­den­tial vote in those dis­tricts. Eight years ago, there were 83 con­gres­sional dis­tricts held by the “op­po­site” party. At the start of this Congress, there were 35 — 12 Trump-won dis­tricts in Demo­cratic hands and 23 Clin­ton-won dis­tricts held by Repub­li­cans.

The party that holds the White House gen­er­ally loses seats in midterm elec­tions, but that is in part be­cause pres­i­dents of­ten sweep in House can­di­dates from dis­tricts where they oth­er­wise would lose. The ab­sence of seats that are out of or­der means there are fewer easy tar­gets for Demo­cratic pick­ups in 2018 than has of­ten been the case.

Gary Ja­cob­son, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Diego, of­fered his anal­y­sis of this pat­tern in the draft of a re­cently schol­arly pa­per. “Vic­to­ries against the par­ti­san grain have be­come ex­ceed­ingly rare in this decade and now ac­count for only 2 per­cent of House seats,” he said. “Con­sis­tent party-line vot­ing has mag­ni­fied the ad­van­tage Repub­li­cans en­joy from the more ef­fi­cient dis­tri­bu­tion of their reg­u­lar vot­ers across dis­tricts.”

Democrats are al­ready at a big dis­ad­van­tage in the 2018 Sen­ate elec­tions, hav­ing to de­fend 25 seats to eight for Repub­li­cans. Ten of those Democrats sit in states won by Trump, with five of them in what would be con­sid­ered truly red states. In­cum­bency is of­ten a strong shield against shift­ing par­ti­san­ship within a state, but it wasn’t enough, for ex­am­ple, to pro­tect Mark Pryor in Arkansas in 2014. Elected twice be­fore (and un­op­posed by a Repub­li­can in 2008), he lost to Sen. Tom Cot­ton by 17 points af­ter Obama lost the state by 24 points in 2012.

The Gallup re­port notes that be­cause Demo­cratic states tend to be more pop­u­lous, na­tion­ally more peo­ple still iden­tify as Democrats than Repub­li­cans. That helps ex­plain why Clin­ton won the pop­u­lar vote and lost the elec­toral col­lege and the pres­i­dency, and it points to the dis­ad­van­tage for Democrats in House and Sen­ate races.

Much ob­vi­ously de­pends on how the pub­lic re­acts to Trump’s pres­i­dency. In 2002, Gallup found that more states iden­ti­fied as Repub­li­can than Demo­cratic. The later years of Ge­orge W. Bush’s pres­i­dency caused many peo­ple to iden­tify as Democrats. But at the start of Trump’s pres­i­dency, the coun­try is aligned geo­graph­i­cally in a way that re­mains ad­van­ta­geous to Repub­li­cans. As a re­sult, Democrats should not un­der­es­ti­mate the chal­lenges they face re­gain­ing ground lost.

In 2008, Gallup found 35 states ei­ther solid or lean­ing Demo­crat in party iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. … In 2016, there were 14.

Dan Balz THE SUN­DAY TAKE

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