In politics, as in war, you have to fight with the army you have. But when it comes to this year's battle for the House of Representatives, Democrats are sending some extraordinarily green recruits to the front lines.
In New Jersey’s Third District, Democrats are running someone who has been unemployed for the past six years and has a checkered history of failed debt payments. They have a beekeeper with no elected experience taking on a powerful incumbent in the California 10th. The Democratic candidate in eastern Kansas, a commodities trader, only decided to launch his first political campaign a few months ago.
"Democrats have a lot of inexperienced candidates in some pretty crucial seats, particularly some utter nobodies in seats that might otherwise be key to a majority," says Stephen Wolf, who tracks congressional races for the Daily Kos, in an email.
But if this ragtag bunch lacks clout and experience, they've got one big advantage working for them: the general on the other side of the ramparts. Donald Trump has even less experience orchestrating a campaign than they do. He’s done basically nothing to build the kind of national infrastructure most presidential candidates create. He’s spending much of his time these days picking feuds with his top allies.
Trump’s recent implosion, both in the polls and against his own party, may prove a "Hindenburg-like event" in American political history. But in the short term, it’s also giving Democrats hope of taking back the House — something they had no business even daydreaming of until recently — in the face of a mountain of evidence still showing they have no chance of doing so.
"All of our models, and so much of what we know, suggest that the House Republicans should be fine," says Barry Burden, a political scientist at Wisconsin. "But all of the models also presume that parties operate the way parties have operated in the past. And the trouble with Trump is that he’s changing everything at once."
Without the Trump factor, House Democrats really would look screwed
Democrats need to gain back 30 seats this November to take back the House of Representatives. There have only been a handful of "wave elections" in modern American history in which a party wins that many seats or more — and they’re typically backlashes against an unpopular incumbent. Lyndon Johnson’s landslide reelection in 1964 is the only time since World War II that the incumbent president’s party gained as many House seats as Democrats need to secure a majority in 2016.
"Wave elections tend to be in midterms because voters who are unhappy with the presidential administration take it out on Congress by punishing the sitting party," Burden says. "For this to be enough of a wave, it’d have to be on the back of presidential coattails, and we just haven’t seen that in a long time."
Four of the best political science models built around the "fundamentals" in elections (things like GDP growth, the employment rate, the president’s approval rating) all suggest Democrats are only on track to pick up between five and 15 seats, according to Burden. That’s right about where the best House watchers, like the Cook Political Report and the Center for Politics, peg the race when looking district by district.
"I really don’t think we should jump the gun and say the House is in play," says David Wasserman, editor of the Cook Political Report, in an interview. "My best guess is that last week Republicans were on track to hold their losses in the House to under 10 seats."
And then there’s the most important obstacle for Democrats: gerrymandering. Because of the extraordinarily safe seats in districts drawn by Republican-controlled state legislatures in 2010, the GOP can receive millions fewer total House votes and still win a majority of seats.
"I still think a Democratic victory in the House is extremely unlikely," David Daley, author of a new book on gerrymandering called Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, tells me. "Everyone keeps mentioning the same suburban districts that have already been in play, but Democrats have to get beyond those. New pieces have to start moving on the board, and fast. And I haven’t heard where they’re going to come from."
Democrats aren’t nearly popular enough, there’s no war, and the economy is just pretty good
The GOP candidates are also better funded and more experienced. There’s been a lot of talk about how Clinton is clobbering Trump in ad spending, and she is. But Republican House candidates have spent $350 million on the 2016 election — compared with just $265 million spent by the Democrats.
The Republicans are also, to put it bluntly, fielding better politicians. Wolf, of Daily Kos, wasn’t exaggerating when he said Democrats are putting forward "nobodies" in some otherwise winnable races:
- Democratic candidate Frederick Lavergne, of the New Jersey Third, spent weeks not talking to the press and had only raised $600 for his campaign as of this summer. (His website is also filled with amazingly bizarre rants in Latin, and quotes 19th-century novelist Gustave Flaubert as saying, "You can calculate the worth of a man by the number of his enemies.") The seat might otherwise be winnable — Barack Obama won the district twice.
- Virginia's Second District could be competitive based on how it went in previous presidential elections. But Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the Center for Politics, notes that Democrats have a nominee whose top experience consists of failed bids for city council. (See here for how the party screwed up that race.)
- In a Clinton and Obama-friendly section of North Carolina, Republicans nominated a hardcore Ted Cruz–like politician. But Democrats have a little-known county commissioner who has barely raised any money, according to Wolf. (His website is broken.)
"Ambitious people are risk-averse," says Wolf. "So it’s not that surprising that Democrats would have poor recruits in 2016 when most analysts expected Republicans to maintain control."
Compounding the individual candidates’ shortcomings is the party’s much bigger image problem: National polling suggests voters don’t appear to have nearly enough love right now for House Democrats to force a wave election.
Look at the "generic ballot," which asks voters which party they like more overall. This week, the RealClearPolitics polling average says that Democrats have somewhere in the range of a 5-point lead over the GOP. That would give them a several-million-vote advantage, which is a nice achievement but not nearly enough to win the House.
Many experts think Democrats will need that number to be much higher. Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory, thinks Democrats will have to be ahead in the "generic ballot" by about 13 points to do so, rather than 4 or 5.
These estimates roughly match what we’d normally expect historically. In the previous wave elections in 2006 and 2008, Democrats were up by twice what they are now in the generic ballot and still only won at most 31 House seats, says Kyle Kondik of the Center for Politics.
This is where House Democrats’ lofty ambitions appear to crash onto the hard shoals of electoral math. They really are beating the Republicans. But the Democrats can’t just win — they need to absolutely crush their opposition. And we don’t have a lot of reason to believe congressional Democrats are popular enough to do so.
Why I think a Democratic landslide isn’t off the table
But there are three numbers I keep coming back to again and again that make me think congressional Democrats really do have a shot at pulling this off.
The first is that just 1 percent of voters in presidential election years say they turn out to vote for the purpose of supporting a down-ballot candidate, according to Burden. The second is that turnout falls by a full 30 percent from a presidential election to a midterm year. And then there’s the third — fewer than 10 percent of voters "split" their ticket in 2012, meaning that very few people backed Democrats at the presidential level while also backing Republicans for Congress (and vice versa).
Put those facts together — voters are overwhelmingly driven to the polls in presidential years because of the presidential candidates, and they don’t split their ticket — and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a Trump catastrophe could make the ground-level, district-by-district facts largely irrelevant.
Consider Democrat Jay Sidie’s district in the Kansas Third. None of the experts really think it’s one Democrats are going to win. Most polls also show Sidie down by a substantial margin to his Republican rival. Rep. Kevin Yoder, Sidie’s opponent, won it by a massive 20 points in 2014 and has millions more in the bank. It’s listed as a safe Republican seat in the Cook Political Report and by the Center for Politics. The Kansas Democratic Party has been mocked as weak, leaderless, and without grassroots support.
But in the Kansas City suburbs Yoder represents, Clinton isn’t just beating Trump — she’s absolutely clobbering him. Some polls have put her ahead in Sidie’s district by as many as 11 points. If voters normally go to the polls to support their party’s presidential candidate, and this year they don’t, how does Yoder survive?
Sidie says the answer is that they don’t. In a state where voters are infuriated by Gov. Sam Brownback’s devastation of the education system, Sidie has said Trump’s vileness is helping shape the perceptions of local Republicans as well.
"It’s our No. 1 strategy: Make them realize that a vote for Kevin Yoder is a vote for Donald Trump," says Kerry Gooch, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party. "And I think it’s really helping the pendulum swing in our direction here."
How many districts that Clinton wins can congressional Republicans also hold on to?
How many House districts would a Clinton landslide put in play for long-shot Democratic candidates?
Geoffrey Skelley was able to look at the math. His projection is that a 6-point Clinton win would mean she would also take around 50 districts currently controlled by Republicans. If Clinton wins by as many as 8 points — still unlikely, but at least a possibility — that number would go up by even more. (That doesn’t mean Democratic House candidates would necessarily win those districts, but it suggests they’d have a shot.)
Then there are the other ways Trump is creating a fundamental asymmetry at the presidential level whose impact we can’t gauge on the down-ballot races. Some political scientists, for instance, have found that "field offices" can add several percentage points in the presidential election, according to Burden. (Trump has hardly set any up compared with Clinton.) They’ve found most presidential candidates bolster down-ballot races by encouraging their party’s voters to cast early ballots. (Trump isn’t really doing that.) Burden notes that in most presidential election years, campaigns deploy famous and well-liked surrogates to drum up support in certain states to get them to the polls. (Trump is mostly still arguing with them.)
And Burden notes that while Democrats might not be nationally popular enough right now to see a coming wave election, it’s still early. In 2006 and 2010, he says, the party that caught the landslide didn’t pull far ahead in the generic ballot until very late in the fall. (Indeed, one poll released Wednesday, though still an outlier, put Democrats ahead by 10 in the generic ballot.)
"The presidential campaign has been such a circus that most of voters’ attention has been focused on that," Burden says. "I’m not sure exactly if we know yet what voters want to do with Congress."
Michael Eggman, the Democratic beekeeper running an uphill battle in the California 10th, is optimistic. Last April, he and his campaign staff purchased a big billboard that stretches over Highway 99 in central Monaco. It showed Eggman’s opponent, Rep. Jeff Denham, standing next to Trump.
"I ran into a buddy last week from high school who spent years as a Republican staffer, and he’s just seen the video," Eggman says in an interview. "He was beside himself. And he told me he was ready to vote Democrat for the first time."