Friday, October 12, 2018

The red non-wave


IN THE WAKE of the divisive confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to be a justice on the Supreme Court, the emerging pre-election Republican catechism has it that conservatives and the Republican base are “energized,” “awakened” or (borrowing a phrase that originated with President Obama) “fired up” and ready for the vote 26 days from today.

That renewed sense of the possible is reinforced by new polling that shows the storied “enthusiasm gap” — that ephemeral snapshot of voter passion, rather than voter conviction — has narrowed, with more Republican voters now champing at the bit to go to the polls in November.

But several things complicate that rosy picture for the GOP. The first is that rhetoric from conservative analysts and pundits suggests a course of action that would play out even if Republican voters weren’t “energized” about the midterms. As a rule, Republican voters don’t stay at home on Election Day. It’s one of their defining characteristics.

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An internal survey conducted in September for the Republican National Committee, and obtained by Bloomberg Businessweek, came to that conclusion: “Republicans don’t have a ‘base problem.’ Those voters who strongly approve of the President and those who support both his policies and leadership style are genuinely passionate about voting in the election and are voting GOP lock, stock and barrel.”

Consider the more antecedent research of Karl Rove, Bush 43 senior adviser, writing in 2015 in The Wall Street Journal: “The number of self-identified conservative voters rose to about 45.2 million in 2012 from 30.6 million in 2000. And the number of conservatives voting for the Republican presidential candidate rose to about 37.1 million in 2012 from 25.1 million in 2000.”

It’s an American political truism: Republican voters show up. GOP voters tend to be older, whiter, wealthier and more traditional by every conventional metric. For them, voting is a civic reflex; not voting is not an option.

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THAT UNDERCUTS the building narrative of a red wave of apparently undiscovered voters in November. Republican strategists are talking about the same body of voters that presumably wasn’t “fired up” before. Those GOP voters were going to show up anyway, “fired up” or not. They always have and probably always will.

So the talk that these newly galvanized conservative voters are somehow separate and distinct from less impassioned voters already planning to vote is to conjure a distinction without a difference. The narrowed “enthusiasm gap” between Dems and Republicans is a hollow measurement because it buys into the idea of there being a difference between one group of Republican voters and another, when in fact it’s the same cohort of voters.

The second thing complicating the red-wave vision is the long-time imbalance between registered Democrats and registered Republicans, a numerical fact of our politics that’s endured for years. To go by party registration, there are more Democrats in the electorate than Republicans, and as many or more independent voters than either Democrats or Republicans. And a party affiliation study the Pew Research Center released last month found that Democrats enjoyed an advantage, by a lot or a little, among independent voters asked to describe which way they “lean.”

A similar Pew survey in September 2016 found much the same thing. “Overall, 48% of all registered voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic compared with 44% who identify as Republican or lean toward the GOP.” The Pew report found favorable associations with Democrats and the Democratic cause among women, college graduates, millennials, Gen-Xers, minority voters, Jewish voters, the religiously unaffiliated, and white voters with post-graduate experience.

It’s contrarian, to say the least, to assume that this ongoing trend will reverse or mitigate itself for the midterm elections.

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THIRD: DESPITE how politically inflamed and culturally combustible the Republican base might be, that base isn’t growing appreciably in size, not getting bigger or wider in the numbers it needs to sustain itself. Various Republican seers have couched this as an election that's “neck and neck,” a characterization that ignores not just the numbers and the politics of the moment, but also the reality of the nation, on the broader scale of the national time.

With every election cycle, midterm or general, the Republicans are doubling down on a population of voters that’s shrinking as older voters die and younger voters less committed to (or more alienated from) the Republican agenda drift away — either to join the Democrats or to share the status of independent voters.

The Brookings Institution observed this in June: “A political party that can’t attract young people, especially in a generation that is as big as the Millennial generation—America’s largest demographic group—is not a party with a very bright future. So although Trump, while focusing on the base, has made the Republican Party his, come November it may not be as much of an advantage.”

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The fourth matter is specific to this election cycle, and may be the most important. The outcome of the Kavanaugh exercise in naked political greed has left women voters raw and righteously angry. It’s a safe bet that if rank & file Republicans are energized, vast numbers of women across the demographic spectrum are even more so: dismayed at how their life stories, their collective histories could be so blithely ignored by a Republican president many of them helped to elect, and a Republican congressional leadership they supported by association.

There’s not a reason on earth to expect them to forget what’s just happened with the Kavanaugh affair. And with a multitude of female candidates (many of them Democrats) mounting serious bids for a variety of offices, including House and Senate, those woman voters have choices now that they didn’t have before. They’ve got the option to vote for candidates that reflect and share their struggles and experiences.

Sure as the sunrise, they’ll be exercising that option in droves less than four weeks from today.

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The latest polling bears these points out. CNN’s newest poll results, released on Tuesday, find the Democrats holding a 30-point advantage with women voters, with 63 percent of women planning to vote for Democratic candidates. When asked their impression of the newest Supreme Court justice, only 29 percent of women voters in the survey had a positive impression of Kavanaugh, compared to a 53 percent negative impression.

Disdain for the Republicans isn’t gender specific. That same CNN survey finds Democrats of either gender with a 13-point bulge over Republicans in a generic House ballot. And the “enthusiasm gap”? If you believe in it, there’s other polling that shows how durably granular, state by state, that disdain has been so far.

According to the latest Marist Poll for Wisconsin, a battleground for real, “three in four registered voters statewide, including 87% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans, say they consider this year’s midterm elections to be very important.”

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IT'S MUCH the same in Nevada. Marist’s new (Oct. 10) survey for the state found sentiment that’s demographically panoramic in a way that should give Republicans pause. “Voters under the age of 45 (60%), women, (60%), and white voters with a college degree (52%) are among those most likely to say they plan to send a message that more Democrats are needed to balance the power of President Trump.”

This election season has had its share of prognosticators debating the likelihood of waves red and blue, but few have the gravitas of Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and a longtime veteran of many an election. Sabato said it plain this week on MSNBC.

“I think they know that even if the Republicans hold the senate, given the very pro-Republican map that exists, President Trump is in trouble in some of these states,” Sabato said. “He’s fallen considerably in approval, and the Midwest as a whole seems to be flipping in the midterm year. The states that he carried are getting ready, it appears to either elect Democratic senators or Democratic governors, or both.”

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“Those tariffs seem to be hurting people in the Midwest more than other regions,” Sabato said Tuesday. “The Midwesterners may not react as well to some of the things President Trump says and does. ... This also reminds us that 2016 was a choice. It wasn’t simply that people decided to vote for Donald Trump in a vacuum. Many of them were voting against Hillary Clinton. Maybe you dispute the premise of it, but essentially it’s a two-pronged decision. ...

“If there’s ever been an abnormal presidency, we’re in it. Trump has violated so many of the rules of politics and so many of the norms of politics, that we hesitate to say, ‘well, history shows us that X will happen, therefore it will happen under Trump ...

“But ... a red wave ain’t gonna happen. It’s just a question of how big the blue wave is. It could be a tsunami, it could be a middle-sized wave, it could be a small wave but there’s going to be a blue wave ...”

Image credits: Party affiliation chart and logo: © 2018 Pew Research Center.  Kavanaugh: tk.  CNN logo" © 2018 CNN. Marist Poll logo: © 2018 Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

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