Wipe Away Your Tears: Why Ossoff’s Loss Shouldn’t Be “Demoralizing”
Trigger Warning: Nov 8th 2016
Watching the returns come in Tuesday night from Georgia’s 6th Congressional District brought back bad memories of 2016. Early votes leaned Democrat but the returns slowly went down hill for the rest of the night. There was despair, social media tears, Conservative gloating, and Democrats blaming each other and offering up excuses. A lot of hope and emotion was poured into the election, not to mention time and money. And watching a young Democratic hopeful lose hurt, as it does every election, every time, regardless of whatever external considerations are riding on it.
Emotionally, Democrats will grieve and Republicans celebrate as we do when our team wins or loses. Emotion, or enthusiasm, is an essential aspect of politics where voter attention and engagement are key and the target of massive advertising budgets from campaigns. Advertising, however, has been demonstrated to only have small and short term effects outside of raising a candidates stature and enthusiasm is similar. But politics is not a game and emotion only goes so far. Emotions are significant, but if Democrats are going to retake the House of Representatives in 2018 a clearer view of the facts are in order to guide long term planning and voter retention over mere engagement. In pursuit of this goal we have three questions:
What was the outcome of the Georgia 6th election?
What challenges await Democrats in the 2018 election?
What lessons can be drawn moving forward?
Ossoff lost. Many people thought he would and could win and polling suggested a close race. In the end Karen Handel won by less than 10,000 votes. Emotionally this was surprising to many, but how does it compare with what data suggest was the probable outcome? Georgia’s 6th district has been a Republican stronghold since 1979 and in 2016 Tom Price (R) won the district by a whopping 23%. Special elections are a lot like midterm elections in terms of what sort of people vote in them so we will compare Ossoff’s performance to Democrats in past special elections in the district. Here are the percentage and total Democratic votes for the last 3 midterm elections:
2010–0%, 0 (No Democrat ran)
Compared with these Ossoff did very well at 48.1% and 124,893 votes, in fact he improved infinitely over the Democratic showing in the 2010 midterms. Ossoff managed to do about 6% better than pre-Trump voting habits suggest he would have. While some will point out that Ossoff actually received less votes than the Democratic candidate for the Congress is 2016 this raises inaccurate comparisons that get at the heart of some issues plaguing the Democratic party.
What Challenges Await Democrats in the 2018 Election?
Specific challenges unique to the 2018 midterm season are hard to predict this far out, there is a large systemic problem the Democrats have to overcome to do well in 2018 and it is the same reason we do not compare Ossoff’s totals to Presidential election years. Put bluntly Democrats are horrible at getting their base to show up during any election that is not also a Presidential one.
There are more people who say they are Democrat than Republican, 48% of all voters are registered Democrats, while 44% are Republican. Given this disparity Democrats should win in most if not all Presidential contests. And they do, Democrats have “won” (gotten more votes) in 5 of the 6 last Presidential elections. Maintaining control of Congress and the State Legislatures has proved to be more difficult.
Much of this difficulty comes from the fact that Republicans show up more in off year elections than Democrats do, 6% more when they control the White House and 17% when Democrats do. In the average Congressional district this means 126,232 votes for a Democratic candidate and 134,476 for a Republican or 48.5% and 51.5% (on average in the hypothetical Congressional district that does not actually exist anywhere). These numbers are almost exactly what we saw from the GA 6th of Tuesday.
BUT THE GA 6TH IS NOT AN AVERAGE CONGRESSIONAL DISTRICT.
What Lessons Can be Drawn Moving Forward?
The vote total was expected to be 42.5% (D) to 55.6% (R) given historical voting patterns. As the Cook Political Report points out, young Ossoff did about 6% better than expected in a district that has not been historically friendly to Democrats or their policies.
Bottom line is there are a lot of places Democrats cannot win, just as a Republican Congressman representing Manhattan is something I doubt we will see any time soon. Continuously better turnout, or the “enthusiasm gap” as it is also known, has been one of the cornerstones of Republican national strategy (helped along by gerrymandering) so any move to cut down on this consistent Republican edge by the Democratic electorate is serious business. To give you an idea here are the Congressional Districts this shift makes competitive. The Cook PVI is a measure of how much advantage a given party has in a district. With the 7% “Trump Bump” what seat controlled by Republicans gain enough of an advantage to flip in 2018?
We are not going to see 69 Congressional Districts flip from Republican to Democrat because there are other considerations at play. Running against an established candidate is hard as they have a huge advantage, but the data on the “incumbent bump” has been interesting lately. Up to 2008 that bump was worth 7 points which would make most of these challenges in the table above very difficult. However, as of 2008 that bump had declined to less than 3% in 2014 and around 4% in 2016. In case 4%-8% seems like a small number consider that it is enough to ensure that 98% of all incumbents were reelected in 2016.
Enough Numbers, What Does it Mean?
Ossoff did well given the uphill battle in the district he had to work with. Remember in 2010 no Democrat even bothered to challenge in the GA 6th because of how hard it would be to win. If the district had been competitive to begin with the Republicans never would have created the vacancy if it risked losing a seat. Ossoff had a shot at winning and people will debate why he did not for some time.
The Democratic anti-Trump message placed as an energizer on top of more traditional policies seems to be working well in exciting and turning out the base to donate money and vote. A massive course correct on a national level seems unwise given the outcomes we have seen so far. There is a worry that the emotional effect of the loss in the GA 6th will knock energy out of the new voters who have become much more engaged since the 2016 election. If their engagement was based on emotion rather than determination, however, some event other than the GA 6th election would come along and produced the same effect.
Statistics assume the future will resemble the past, and this is one of their greatest weaknesses. A great many unknowns remain heading into the 2018 midterms and new factors that pundits do not now consider will arise as influential. These elections will come down, as they always do, to the individual voters in each district and what they feel about the people and the government that serve them and represent them to the wider world.
The odds are in Democrats favor to significantly pressure Republicans on House seats in the 2018 midterm elections next year. Good candidates and a determined base can help cement these advantages, but in politics you never quite know what will happen on any given Tuesday.