The Sweep: Voting, Explained

Plus: Chris Stirewalt paints by numbers.

Campaign Quick Hits

Another Day, Another Memo: Congressional Leadership Fund President Dan Conston released a memo about how the GOP can win back the majority in 2022. The Kevin McCarthy-blessed Super PAC, which is the largest House super PAC in history (a bit of a chuckle since super PACs have only existed for 10 years), spent $140 million in 2020, helping Republicans flip 15 seats and reelect every incumbent “for the first time since 1994.” 

So what’s the plan for 2022? First up is candidate recruitment. The memo notes that “all 15 of the seats Republicans flipped were won by a woman, a minority or a veteran.” Conston also wants to prioritize fundraising, writing that the “single biggest threat to Republicans taking back the Majority is insufficient candidate fundraising.” Too few of their candidates invested in building sufficient fundraising programs, relying too heavily on outside groups to swoop in and rescue them. Redistricting is listed as a net plus for Republicans—as it no doubt will be with the GOP controlling more than 60 percent of state legislatures. CLF is bullish about its chances in the suburbs in 2022, noting that “Republicans won 18 of the 25 suburban districts CLF invested in” and that “19 out of those 25 GOP candidates” outperformed Trump, including 11 who outperformed him by “over 5 percent.” 

This is a memo geared toward reporters and potential donors, but if the GOP can be less like the carnival at CPAC last weekend and instead follow Conston’s lead—especially on candidate recruitment—I’m at least tentatively persuaded.

Downstream of Redistricting Delays: I noted earlier this month that states wouldn’t know how many congressional seats they would each have until April 30, per the Census Bureau. But in some ways, that’s the least of it. Now they’ve been told that they won’t have their block-level data—the information they actually need to be able to draw any new lines, which is data they normally have on March 31—until September 30. A 6-month delay has all sorts of domino effects. First, the March 31 deadline isn’t a suggestion: It’s in the law. Plucky Ohio just went ahead and filed a lawsuit demanding the data by the codified deadline. Second, several state constitutions—including those of Colorado and California—require maps to be drawn before states will even receive the data this year. Third, without even preliminary maps—let alone the completion of the litigation that inevitably follows—candidates are getting squeezed. Illinois, Texas and North Carolina usually have March primaries “and with Illinois on track to lose a seat, North Carolina gaining one and Texas slated to gain as many as three, all maps will change significantly, too.” Does everything move back six months except Election Day?

The Rise of the Politically Unaffiliated: Gallup has been asking Americans whether “you consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat or an independent” since 2004. While it wasn’t unusual in the bygone era of 2004-2006 to see the percentage of self-identified independents in the 20s, those days are long gone. The number has routinely hovered in the 30s as late as November of last year but had never hit above 47. As of this month, independents have hit an all time high—50 percent of those surveyed. Not surprisingly, Gallup also found another record breaker: 62 percent said the “parties do such a poor job representing the American people that a third party is needed.” No, this doesn’t mean that the Bull Mooses are coming back, but it may mean that candidate recruitment will matter just that much more when partisan affiliation is no longer a voting shortcut for half the country.

Stirewalt’s By The Numbers

$70,000: The share of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 2022 re-election fund of more than $16 million donated by longtime supporter Bernard Schwartz. But no more, at least for now. Schwartz was just one of the Cuomo backers who told CNBC that he was cutting the governor off unless and until the claims of sexual harassment against him were resolved. Said one finance bro of Cuomo’s bid for a fourth term: “Everything is on hold.” 

75: The estimated number of the 211 House Republicans who attended an immigration policy talk by former White House adviser Stephen Miller, according to Politico. The event was organized by Rep. Jim Banks, R-IN, the new chairman of the Republican Study Committee. Banks told Politico: “What I want to do with the RSC for the next couple of years is really make the Trump legacy and the Trump platform the platform of the Republican Party and the conservative movement of the future.”

123: The number of new, final regulations enacted by the executive branch in the previous week. According to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the administration is on track to issue 3,372 new regulations this year—only 19 more than in the final full year of the Trump administration. The Federal Register, which records all of the regulations, is on pace to shrink by more than 7,000 pages compared to 2020, tracking toward a svelte 80,034 page count. 

$44 million: The amount West Virginia expects to get from new Biden administration mine reclamation grants, according to Roll Call. The money is flowing through the Department of the Interior. The announcement came after West Virginia’s senior senator, Joe Manchin, withdrew a threat to kill the nomination of Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, to lead the department.

6,000: The estimated number of workers at an Amazon facility in Bessemer, Ala. who will vote on whether to organize as part of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. President Biden lent his support to the effort in a video on Sunday. They would be the first of Amazon’s approximately 400,000 American employees to be unionized.

4: The number of candidates who St. Louis voters can select for mayor in today’s municipal election. The city is trying out the nonpartisan “approval voting” format in which voters may select as many of the candidates they like, even all four names on the ballot. The top two finishers will face off in a general election later this year. St. Louis is only the second city to try the method—Fargo, North Dakota became the first last year. Proponents say it is a simplified version of the ranked-choice approach.

Lastly but bestly [Editor: We’ll let it pass this time], lots of y’all have asked for a deeper look at types of voting—ranked choice, multi-member districts, etc.—and we here at The Sweep are nothing if not obliging. Well, Charlotte is, at least. 

What If It Wasn’t A Binary Choice?

When New York City voters take to the polls in June’s mayoral primaries, they’ll be presented with the option of ranking their top five candidates to fill their party’s ticket. Ranked-choice voting, though more difficult to conceptualize than traditional plurality voting systems, has taken hold in municipalities across the country for its ability to—in theory—select the candidate backed by the broadest consensus. 

So how do different voting methods yield unique electoral outcomes? While the United States had traditionally relied on a winner-take-all vote, election experts have put forth a variety of strategies designed to mitigate unwanted election outcomes. Many have already been incorporated into our voting systems.

The likelihood of a bad outcome varies under different systems, but the inadvertent selection of an unpopular candidate by voters hoping to improve their preferred candidate’s chance is most likely to occur in voting systems with limited choices.

Let’s start with the norm. Nearly every state, with a few exceptions, selects the candidate with the greatest number of votes for most offices. Under the plurality vote, a voter’s second choice is taken into as much consideration as their tenth choice—which is to say, not at all. These races are the easiest for pollsters to gauge, but they’re also the most susceptible to tactical voting, which ups the likelihood of paradoxical outcomes. 

In the case of party primaries utilizing a plurality system, the “winner” in “winner-take-all” often skews far to the left or right as a result. Larry Diamond, former director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, explained to The Dispatch that low voter turnout combined with a “first-past-the-post” voting method creates a “perfect storm for polarization” as state primary outcomes are dictated by as little as 8 percent of the electorate and moderate voters are discouraged from voting third-party.

“The method doesn’t respect the voters’ second, third, and fourth-ranked candidates,” said Don Saari, author of Decisions and Elections and mathematics professor at the University of California, Irvine. Drawing an analogy to the academic world, Saari explained that the plurality system is akin to a situation in which universities quantified student success only by As received, not accounting for Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs. The failure of this algorithm is that it allows students with both several As and several Fs to outflank students with more consistent scholastic achievement. 

The same comparison applies to ranked-choice, in which plurality is the driving metric despite the voting system’s deference to preferential ballots. In the case of New York City, votes are first tallied by first choice. If no candidate wins a simple majority (highly likely in a field of at least a dozen serious Democratic contenders), the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. If your first choice is eliminated, your votes are then transferred to your second choice. The process continues until a candidate surpasses 50 percent of the vote.

The method is sometimes also referred to as “instant-runoff voting,” because like the two-round system, the election requires a certain threshold of votes to trigger a victory. Unlike the runoff system, the criteria necessary to get a candidate past that threshold are built into the first ballot voters complete. 

“The problem with a runoff election is it asks a lot of voters to come back later and vote all over again. Ranked-choice voting enables all votes to be counted right there at the same time,” Diamond explained. “You can program a voting machine very simply to do these ballot transfers if no one gets a majority.”

According to the New York Campaign Finance Board, “cities that have implemented Ranked Choice Voting have elected more women and more women of color, making their elected officials more representative of their communities.” In addition to promoting diversity in elected office, ranked-choice also seeks to minimize negative campaigning, lessen the spoiler effect, and broaden public approval of the elected candidate. 

Primarily for the latter two reasons, Maine became the first state to implement ranked choice in a statewide election after Republican Gov. Paul LePage twice won office with less than a majority of the vote. Alaska also adopted a form of preferential voting in a November voter initiative, eliminating the party primary in favor of a blanket primary that advances the top four finishers to the general election, which then uses ranked-choice voting to select a candidate. 

“There could be two Republicans, a Democrat, a Green Party candidate, a Libertarian, somebody from Mars, and somebody from Venus,” said Diamond, adding that the system afforded Sen. Lisa Murkowski the political flexibility to convict former President Trump because she no longer needs to beat out a Trump-endorsed candidate in the party primary (and is likely to have broader appeal in the ranked-choice general election).

Another alternative is to create multi-member districts. Proportional ranked-choice voting, introduced under the recent Fair Representation Act, is designed to lessen the effects of gerrymandering and diversify the geographical spread of political party representation. But by selectively upping the number of congressional seats in districts across the country, this system results in a very low percentage threshold necessary to be elected to federal office. 

“If you have a district size of one person, then you only need to win 50 percent plus one. If you have a district size of three members, then you only need logically to win 25 percent of the vote plus one,” Diamond said. So to be elected a five seat district, candidates only need to pull one-sixth of the vote plus one. While this could help moderate Republicans win office in deeply blue states and vice versa, it may also have the adverse effect of advancing radical candidates.

The method most effective at eliminating negative outcomes, Saari argues, is the largely untried Borda count. As with ranked-choice and proportional ranked-choice voting, voters list their candidates in order of preference. But instead of relying solely on plurality, the Borda method assigns value to candidates according to their places on each ballot.

The clearest parallel is to how colleges and universities calculate GPA. Candidates get 1 point for last place, 2 for next-to-last, and additional points in ascending order. The substantive outcome: voters select the least divisive and most widely-accepted candidate, allaying partisanship and infusing nuance into the picking process. “It captures the information from paired comparisons with less work and fewer things that can go wrong. It can be proved that it is the method that is the least likely to give you paradoxical outcomes,” said Saari, who worked on the mathematical proofs to back the method. 

“I think our worst villain is the voting system, because it throws away valued information about who the voters want,” Saari added. “I strongly believe in a ranked voting system to try to recapture what it is that the voters want, but if you’re using plurality at each stage in a ranked-choice voting system you’re throwing away valuable information.”

Correction, March 2, 2021: An earlier version of this newsletter misstated the name of the Congressional Leadership Fund.

The Sweep: Coast-to-Coast

From California’s recall effort against Governor Newsom to the race to succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio in New York.

Campaign Quick Hits

2024 FITN Drama: New Hampshire likes its ‘first in the nation’ status. In fact, New Hampshire state law requires that its primary take place at least one week before any “similar election” in another state. They have interpreted “similar” to include only other primaries and not caucuses, which is why civil war hasn’t broken out between Iowa and New Hampshire yet. But Nevada is about to throw down the gauntlet. A bill supported by Governor Steve Sisolak and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would “would convert the nominating system in the state to a primary election instead of caucuses” and would require the primary to be held on the Tuesday “immediately preceding the last Tuesday in January,” which would be January 23rd in 2024. New Hampshire, however, has been tested before by upstart states looking to make a name for themselves. Although they had always held their primary on Tuesdays in February or March, the state held their primary in January between 2004 and 2012 to keep their status, voting as early as January 8th in 2008. And, by God, they would surely do it again if they had to, but it’s actually up to the DNC. In an interview with Jennifer Medina at the New York Times, Reid acknowledged that they don’t have any commitments from party officials yet.

Republicans’ 2022 ‘Duh’ Strategy: Two weeks ago, I mocked the Democrats’ ‘the team that scores the most points is gonna win’ strategy message. But not to be outdone, Mitch McConnell gave an equally brilliant interview to the Wall Street Journal last week. Believe it or not, the Republicans’ strategy for taking back the senate in 2022 will turn on “getting candidates who can actually win in November,” according to McConnell. Good to know. But there was one noteworthy nugget in the interview if you can get past the awkward double negative. When asked what role former President Trump should play, McConnell responded, “I’m not assuming that, to the extent the former president wants to continue to be involved, he won’t be a constructive part of the process.” I wonder if McConnell would care to comment on the strategy Steve Bannon told Politico for one of those ‘must win’ Senate states: “Any candidate who wants to win in Pennsylvania in 2022 must be full Trump MAGA.”

Impeachment Blowback: Sen. Lisa Murkowski is the only one of the seven Republican senators who voted to convict former President Trump who is up for reelection in 2022. And now officials in her state of Alaska want Sarah Palin to run against her in the primary. In Ohio, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez was one of 10 GOP members who voted in favor of the article of impeachment. Now, Max Miller, who worked at the White House in a logistics and political role before moving over to the reelection campaign as deputy campaign manager, is set to throw his hat in the ring to challenge Gonzalez. A source familiar told Alex Isenstadt at Politico that Miller has “received six figures in commitments from donors, but that he would have the personal resources to provide self-financing if necessary.” We’ll see plenty more of these announcements in the weeks to come. Trump's Save America PAC still has $75 million cash on hand and at least one advisor told Mike Allen at Axios that “payback is his chief obsession.”

I spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about recall elections. And there was only one person whose take I really needed. So Sunday night I texted Chris to ask him what he thought about it, and here’s what he had to say...

Total Recall 

With a recall election effort against California Gov. Gavin Newsom gaining steam, Republicans are very much thinking about 2003. That was when Golden State voters recalled Democrat Gray Davis just a year into his second term and replaced him with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger would go on to win a full term in 2006, and despite some heartburn over his moves to the left, still represents the California GOP’s most recent statewide success.

But Republicans should spend some time thinking about another state and another recall effort: the 2012 bid to remove then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

First, let’s have some background on the anti-Newsom bid. Every California governor since Ronald Reagan has faced at least one recall effort. That’s all part of what makes the state so fundamentally ungovernable. Progressive Era direct-democracy provisions make it easy to try to recall officials and to pass referenda. Voters tend to prefer “someone else” and like contradictory policies, e.g. low tax caps and high spending. While 17 other states have recall provisions in their constitutions, California’s is the most permissive. Newsom’s foes need 1,495,709 verified signatures from voters – just 12 percent of the total vote in his 2018 victory – to force the election.

On Friday, the California Secretary of State’s office announced that it had received 668,202 valid signatures as of Feb. 5, but the effort has been growing even since then. Newsom’s epic blunder of attending a donor dinner at the super-swishy French Laundry while the state was under a pandemic lockdown certainly helped. So has overall frustration with the state’s coronavirus restrictions and struggles with vaccinations. The Republican National Committee and some major donors have anted in with some considerable cash. With three weeks to go until the St. Patrick’s Day filing deadline and 22 million registered voters in the state, it seems probable that there will be a recall election late this year.

It’s easy to see the appeal for California Republicans. Beating Newsom when he seeks re-election next year is a long shot. Republican gubernatorial candidates have pulled about 40 percent of the vote in 2010, 2014 and 2018. But in a low-turnout recall election that would feature dozens and dozens of candidates, the GOP might be able to win with a plurality. The ballot would feature two questions: whether to boot Newsom and, if so, with whom to replace him. Since big-time Democrats can’t seek to replace Newsom without at least tacitly backing his removal, it leaves Republicans with a major opportunity. The last recall election featured candidates like Gary Coleman, Larry Flynt and Arianna Huffington. The star of “Kindergarten Cop” seemed like a serious statesman by comparison. 

Things are quite different now. While Newsom’s popularity has certainly slipped since his early-pandemic highs, the most recent survey from the Public Policy Institute of California shows him with a 52 percent job approval rating among likely voters. It’s not as high as the 65 percent who gave President Biden passing grades, but it’s higher than when Newsom took office in 2019. At this point in 2003, the institute’s poll found just 24 percent of likely voters approved of Davis’ performance.

But it’s timing that may be the biggest problem for the GOP. If the petition drive is successful, the election would be held late this year—perhaps just weeks before the start of 2022, when Newsom is up for re-election anyway. The argument in 2003 was that three years was too long to wait. But this time first-termer Newsom will have a strong argument to make that he should be allowed to finish his four years. If voters don’t approve, they can give him the heave-ho in just a matter of months. And if he survives the recall, Newsom will likely be stronger when he faces re-election in November of next year.

In 2012, Wisconsin Democrats tried a similar maneuver on Walker, who had been elected to his first term two years prior. The states’ labor groups, furious over Walker’s rollback of public sector unions’ bargaining power, went big on the recall and for Democratic nominee Tom Barrett. But Walker’s policies proved popular enough, and he easily defeated his challenger. When he ran again in 2014, Democrats felt snakebit about Walker. Party leaders struggled to find a serious candidate to take him on.

California Republicans are understandably desperate to find a way back to power, and they have happy memories of 2003. But if they force an unpopular, expensive and annoying recall vote for a still-popular governor with just months to go in his term, California voters may punish the GOP in 2022. That means bad vibes not just for Republicans on the state level but perhaps also in the battleground congressional districts of Southern California that may decide the next House majority.

The other race I am most interested in right now is obviously New York. The race for mayor is always interesting, but this is also about what it means to be in the Biden Democratic Party. Charlotte talked to some of the best people in the business to hear how they see the race taking shape.

History is Happening in Manhattan

It’s a rarity that local elections attract nonstop national media coverage and a jam-packed field of qualified candidates. But to secure the “second-toughest job in America,” more than 40 contenders have emerged to compete in the high-stakes race for New York City mayor. With them comes a tremendous influx of cash, as private donors and super PACs throw their support behind candidates representing different points along the ideological spectrum.

Given the city’s political party makeup—registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 6 to 1—the race’s front runners tend to skew left of center. Technology entrepreneur Andrew Yang, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former Citigroup executive Raymond McGuire, former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales, former Obama administration official Shaun Donovan, and former counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio Maya Wiley have all announced their bid for the Democratic nomination.

When elected, de Blasio’s replacement will inherit a city battered by the coronavirus pandemic, economic disrepair, and surges in violent crime and homelessness. The outgoing mayor isn’t permitted to run for reelection this year because of term limits, but his chances of securing office for a third time would be slim regardless. De Blasio’s approval rating dropped under 50 percent amid COVID-19 lockdowns and an ongoing feud with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who offered up a scathing critique of the city’s leadership and declined to endorse a mayoral candidate last week.

By sole virtue of his name recognition among the city’s Democratic voters, 2020 presidential hopeful Andrew Yang surfaced as the race’s top contender shortly after announcing his candidacy last month. The entrepreneur, best known for advancing a universal basic income, became the fourth Democrat to qualify for New York’s matching-funds campaign finance program in mid-February. But as the race heats up, Yang’s path to victory is far from secure.

“With the bulk of the advertising not yet on TV or in mailboxes, Yang’s poll numbers are a pure reflection of early name recognition from his presidential campaign. That edge disappears when advertising starts in earnest and when other candidates emerge from their Zoom hibernations,” Eric Phillips, former spokesperson for de Blasio, told The Dispatch. “Yang could win, but we’re only in the second or third inning of a nine-inning game at this point.”

Neal Kwatra, a New York City-based Democratic strategist, concurred. “It’s still very early and the race is fluid. Yang, Adams and Stringer have emerged as the early top tier of the field, but Wiley, McGuire and Donovan also bring real assets to the race that could allow them to vault into that top tier ultimately,” Kwatra said. “And Dianne Morales has been an energetic and compelling upstart in this race.”

Another factor muddling the race’s predictability is the introduction of ranked-choice voting in the primary. In a 2019 ballot referendum, New York residents elected to give voters the option to rank up to five candidates in primary elections for mayor. If no candidate secures at least a majority of the vote in the first count, the following choices on the ballot are taken into consideration until one candidate reaches fifty percent or more. 

“In theory, the ranked-choice voting in a field with this many candidates will put a premium on each candidate laying out their vision and credentialing themselves with voters. It's not enough to just win your narrow slice of voters, but you need to be the 2nd and 3rd choice for everyone else,” Jesse Ferguson, the former deputy national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, told The Dispatch. “The ranked-choice system will also make it harder for campaigns to figure out a negative campaign strategy, because they can't predict whether the voters you peel off one candidate will go to you or go to one of your rivals. The premium will be in contrast—demonstrating your unique value and contrasting it with the field of others.”

Several Republicans have also launched campaigns, but the odds are stacked against them. Billionaire John Catsimatidis—tapped as the right’s best bet at winning the mayor’s office—considered switching parties to improve his chances.

“The Democratic primary is the whole ballgame. It would take a rare-breed centrist Republican to pull off what Rudy did in the 90s or the coalition Michael Bloomberg assembled after 9/11. Let's remember that Bloomberg had to spend $100 million to get elected—it’s that hard in New York City, even for a moderate,” said Phillips. “The city’s appetite for a corporatist is small and for a conservative it’s non-existent.”

“The New York Mayoral race will be the first, large-scale, post-Trump test of what Democrats want going forward. New Yorkers have faced years of Trump, hardships of the pandemic, and concerns about existing city leadership, so people are going to want someone who shares their values and someone who can get results,” said Ferguson. “My guess is, the candidate who wins will be the one who shows they can do both.”

The Sweep: Watching the Weathervanes

Reading the tea leaves on where the GOP is heading.

Campaign Quick Hits

Revisiting Hidden Trump Voter Theory: Patrick Ruffini, co-founder at Echelon Insights, lays out his case for why there were no “hidden Trump voters”—the theory that there was support for Trump that wasn’t being reflected in the polls because his voters were uniquely unwilling to talk to pollsters or lying to pollsters when they did—in Georgia in 2020. Looking at actual turnout compared to expected turnout, he argues that “any ‘hidden’ Trump vote would be contained among non-party whites in low-education precincts” and that “their relative turnout score (98.1%) mirrors the state number (98.0%) almost exactly,” which puts the final nail in the coffin for HTV Theory. Ruffini also walks through other demographics that over- or under- performed expectations leading to the shocking red-to-blue transformation of Georgia for the first time since 1992. 

This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: As far back as I can remember, people across the political spectrum have thought we should have more viable, robust third (or fourth or fifth) parties. Never-Trump Republicans want to start their own party. Pro-Trump Republicans want to start one too. And yet it never happens. There are lots of reasons for this, including what I’ll call the principle of systems of equilibrium: It’s hard for a third party to get off the ground because one of the major two parties has an incentive to gobble it up before it can grow large enough to fend for itself. See for example Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party, which was re-absorbed into the Republican Party after a 1912 election in which it fractured support on the right, allowing Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency with only 40 percent of the popular vote. But that’s not the only issue, as Geoffrey Skelley lays out in his very helpful piece here: There’s a lot that’s baked into the system with winner-take-all elections and the Electoral College. And there’s also quite a bit of incumbent protection going on where, for example, the two parties have pushed for onerous ballot access laws.

The Money Comes Rolling In: There had been some speculation—including in this newsletter—that Sen. Rick Scott, now the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, could have trouble raising money for the 2022 cycle. After all, the GOP had just lost two very winnable seats in Georgia after Republicans spent a quarter billion dollars (with a B, folks) on those seats. And then companies like AT&T, Nike, Comcast, Dow, Marriott, Walmart, and Verizon vowed not to donate to any Republican senator who voted to object to the electoral slates on January 6th. But never fear, the NRSC reported bringing in over 50 percent more than they had by this time in 2019. They raised over $8 million in January—$6.8 million of which was donated after the Georgia losses—from 89,000 people. Close to 10,000 of those were first-time donors too, which is always a big sign of health if a campaign committee is bringing in new folks who they can hit up multiple times over the cycle. We’re still waiting on the DSCC’s numbers.

Like this new fad of snacking chocolate that I am totally on board with, Chris Stirewalt will be sending over political snacks for us on a regular basis. And like their chocolate cousins, their size will vary, the quality will be high, and you’ll wonder how you ever did without them.

Without further ado, here’s your Stirewalt tidbit:

Covering politics is kind of like a children’s soccer game: Everybody forms a shrieking clump and then chases the ball until somebody kicks it in their own goal. The secret is to not watch the clump, but instead to watch intently to see when the ball squirts out like a seed from a delicious navel orange slice carefully cut by a loving mother.

Here’s the clump-think these days: The Republican Party remains under the thrall of Donald Trump despite his efforts to steal the 2020 election that led to the sacking of the Capitol. The Senate GOP’s success in sparing him conviction points to an ever-Trump future.

But look, there goes the ball: Elected officials are lagging indicators of popular sentiment, not thought leaders. And popular sentiment toward Trump on the right is cooling.

The most recent survey from the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life made lots of news for the finding that, as one headline put it, “4 in 10 Republicans say political violence may be necessary.” First, that’s a little overcooked. The question asked, “if elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent actions.” It’s possible for one to answer “yes” but not believe that we are in such a moment. Lexington and Concord and all that jazz.

But certainly it’s true that the poll found lots of radical right-wingers. Two thirds of self-identified Republicans declared President Joe Biden’s election illegitimate. A third of all respondents blamed left-wing groups for the violence at the Capitol. Twenty-one percent were either angry or frightened by Biden’s win. And so on … If you are looking for a narrative that says the GOP is permanently stuck in the carnival of Trumpism, the survey has lots to make the case.

How about this one, though? While 46 percent of Democrats said they believed the 2020 election was the most important of their lifetime, only 26 percent of Republicans said the same thing. That’s a pretty chill way to think about an election that most people in the party say was illegitimate. This is an important tell for GOP voters. Plenty of folks who won’t admit Trump’s wrongdoing or may even partly believe his claims don’t buy his central claim that this was the do or die moment for America.

Here’s an even more interesting kick out of the backfield: Republicans are increasingly party-loyal instead of Trump-loyal. The survey replicated a question asked in recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls that asked, “Do you consider yourself to be more of a supporter of Donald Trump or more of a supporter of the Republican Party?” In October, 56 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners said they were more about Trump than the GOP. In early January, it was down to an even split at 46 percent for each. When AEI asked the same question for the new poll, it was 38 percent for Trump and 61 percent for the GOP.

This doesn’t mean that what comes next will be more populist or less populist, nationalist or conservative, angry or optimistic. That will depend on where ever-fickle primary voters go looking for a win next time and which candidates those voters believe can deliver. But it does mean that there will be a “next time,” and that Republicans most of all will be looking to forget about the closing months of the Trump administration. The refusal on the part of many of the former president’s defenders to admit wrongdoing is more about forgetting the past than imagining the future.

If The GOP Is Dead, Why Is No One Fleeing the Sinking Ship?

Headlines about collapsing approval ratings and falling voter registration numbers create more confusion than clarity.  

There are some statesmen left—politicians who do the right thing for the right reasons without regard for the consequences to their careers. But can we agree there aren’t that many of them? And of those more craven elected officials, can we agree that they aren’t all stupid? 

So if that is that case, we should be able to watch these clever, principle-free types to determine which way the party is headed. They will be watching which way the wind is blowing and then heading that direction. There go my voters. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

And so I was left to ponder two headlines that came out last week:

‘There’s Nothing Left’: Why Thousands of Republicans Are Leaving the Party

GOP Image Slides Giving Democrats Strong Advantage

In the first, the New York Times reported that “nearly 140,000 Republicans had quit the party in 25 states that had readily available data.” To start, that is a lot of people, although compared to the 74 million who voted for Donald Trump in November, it’s not that many—less than 0.2 percent. But still! A sign of things to come perhaps? The answer is kinda sorta maybe not really.

First, 33,000 of those voters came from California. If the question is whether there is some shift going on at the national level, California Republicans aren’t exactly bellwethers. Second, according to the Times, the data includes states that “remove inactive voters, deceased voters or those who moved out of state from all parties, and lump those people together with voters who changed their own registrations,” meaning that some real chunk of those voters didn’t intentionally change their registrations after January 6 at all. 

But there is an easy way to determine whether this number is real: look at the equivalent Democratic number. As they reported, around 80,000 Democrats have left the party since January. 

So if we take that as the baseline turbulence level and subtract it, that means that 60,000 more Republicans changed their registration than we would expect. It ain’t nothin’... but it ain’t much. And after Republicans saw huge surges in voter registration in swing states in the months leading up to the 2020 election, the 60,000 number starts looking smaller and smaller. 

As Josh Holmes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s former top political guy, told the New York Times, “Today’s receding support really pales in comparison to the challenges of a decade ago, however, when Republicans went from absolute irrelevance to a House majority within 18 months.”

Which explains why those non-statesmen just aren’t feeling much breeze on their wetted fingers.  

Ok, but what about the fact that everyone hates the GOP now? 

Gallup consistently tracks the favorability of the two parties. (I find polls that ask the same questions over and over again reliable—not because I think the raw number is probably all that accurate but because the delta in the changes over time almost certainly are.)

And so when Gallup said that “Americans’ opinions of the Republican Party have worsened in recent months,” I pricked up my ears.

This statistic in particular was striking: “the GOP’s image has suffered the most among Republican Party identifiers, from 90% favorable to 78%. Independents’ and Democrats’ opinions are essentially unchanged.” (That’s always something to look for in tracking polls like this: If the change is all with people who already aren’t relevant to your question—what Democrats think about a potential Republican presidential candidate in the 2024 primaries, for example—then it’s pretty useless.) Meanwhile, Democrats’ favorability has edged up largely because of “independents, who show a seven-percentage-point jump in favorability since November, 41% to 48%.”

How can this possibly not be bad news for Republicans, you ask? Well, it’s not good news, but whether it’s bad news is all a matter of perspective. It turns out that lower approval ratings for the Republican Party aren’t new—they aren’t even unusual. Gallup has asked this question for nearly 3 decades, and the lowest GOP favorability in all of that time was 28 percent in October of 2013. And in 2014, Republicans picked up nine Senate seats, 13 House seats, and two governships. Meanwhile, the party’s highest favorability in the last 15 years was in January 2020 at 51 percent. So clearly favorability isn’t everything when it comes to predicting elections.

There’s also an interesting divide between the two parties. The Democratic Party’s favorability tends to hover in the mid- to high- 40s while the Republican Party’s tends to hover in the 30s. In fact, the GOP has only had a net favorability twice in the last 15 years: November 2014 and January 2020. And yet they’ve certainly won plenty of elections up and down the ballot at other times. 

Oh, and if you’re wondering why Democratic favorability can so consistently beat Republicans and not correlate to election outcomes, it’s easy: More Americans identify as Democrats than as Republicans, skewing comparative favorability numbers. That is also why political operatives are always watching independents like the proverbial hawk—the GOP can’t win without them. (Unless they can also drive down turnout, but that’s another newsletter altogether.)

And so we arrive at our point. Headline after headline suggests that the GOP is in serious trouble post-Trump. And maybe it is. The party’s current coalition isn’t a winning one at the presidential level because it’s bleeding independents. But if the party alienates pro-Trump Republicans to win back independents, it will certainly lose more voters in the short term. 

In major league sports, losing teams face two choices: they can keep their lineup and keep losing or they can rebuild, which often means losing a lot more games in the short term in the hopes of putting together a championship team in a few years. But political parties don’t have an all-powerful general manager, and long term strategic thinking is all but impossible because everyone thinks in two- and four- year cycles.

Thus, here we are. The media is treating the GOP as a sort of Monty Python, ‘I’m not dead yet’ political party that is missing both its arms and legs and telling us that it is only a flesh wound. It’s a black and white narrative where everything is going wrong for the losing team and it’s hard to imagine why they haven’t thrown up their hands and begged for mercy in the next election. 

But as I hope I’ve persuaded you, things in politics are rarely so clear cut. The most dire headlines out there actually aren’t all that compelling. And that means our craven non-statesmen aren’t tacking because they don’t see any need to yet. 

And that’s why 43 Republican senators were able to keep a straight face when they voted that Donald Trump did not commit an impeachable offense on January 6.

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