July 21, 2019 📊 How Democrats' electoral college disadvantage could grow... or crumble

Plus, how many Americans share in wanting to "Send Her Back"? And Kamala Harris's polling bump

Welcome! I’m G. Elliott Morris, data journalist for The Economist and blogger of polls, elections, and political science. Happy Sunday! Here’s my weekly email with links to what I’ve been reading and writing that puts the news in context with public opinion polls, political science, other data (some “big,” some small) and looks briefly at the week ahead. Feedback? Drop me a line or just respond to this email. 


Dear Reader,

It’s easy to get depressed about politics in America. It’s easier even easier to do so if you, like me, think the electoral college in its current form is a stain on democratic responsiveness and needs to go. But I’m setting that aside and reviewing some numbers-crunching for this week’s newsletter. Exactly how could the Democrats escape from their electoral college doom loop?

Plus, I’ve got links on drug overdoses and racial/immigrant resentment in America.

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My best!

—Elliott


This Week's Big Question

How Democrats' electoral college disadvantage could grow... or crumble

Donald Trump’s electoral college strength stems from disproportionate support among white voters that don’t have college degrees. How are they leaning in 2019?

Image: Nate Cohn/NYT Upshot

It should surprise no one that the map above, which shows Donald Trump’s approval rating among 2018 voters, looks very much like the 2016 presidential election. In fact, the correlation between the two is a sky-high 0.9, according to my quick math. This means (a) that the 2020 presidential election is likely to be fought on the same literal and figurative ground that it was fought on in 2016 and (b) that Democrats will probably be hurt, not helped, by that.

Such are the conclusions drawn by Nate Cohn and Dave Wasserman in two terrifying columns this week. Crunching data from a variety of surveys, Cohn finds that Democrats’ 2016 electoral college disadvantage is alive and well, while Wasserman finds that growing Democratic margins in California and Texas could make the mismatch between the popular vote and electoral college result even larger next year.

It is worth noting (and Cohn goes to great lengths to do so) that these conclusions are not a sure bet. Such is the subject of this post.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Democrats made *huge* gains among white, rural voters—especially Midwesternersin the 2018 midterms. The swing from Clinton to various Senators and House Reps was so large that the electoral map, when summed up by state, looked a spitting image of the 2012 election:

“But”, Nate Silver wrote about this map days after the elections last Novembers, “all of this is a bit tautological: Of course the map looks good for you when you’ve had a good night.” He goes on to ask the question: “How about in an average year instead, when the overall vote is fairly close?”

This map fits my priors for the distribution of states in 2020 pretty well. Astute observers will notice that this is not a bold statement; it merely looks like a mix between the 2018 and 2016 map.

This map also makes clear that the 2020 election will be fought out in the Midwest and Florida. That is not a mind-blowing conclusion in and of itself, but highlights the demographic patterns underpinning Cohn, Wasserman and Silver’s analyses, and the future of short-term politics in America: How loyal will white working-class voters be to Donald Trump in 2020? More importantly, how will their shifting loyalties change electoral outcomes?

I can suggest an answer to this question. In my analysis for The Economist of vote intention and turnout patterns in the 2016 election, I found that Democrats have a big upside in increasing turnout wholesale if vote choice remains constant among demographic groups and if all groups experience uniform increases in their turnout. Conditional on universal turnout, we found that Hillary Clinton would have won the electoral college in 2016. But patterns of vote choice would not stay constant if all eligible voters turned out; instead, the parties would shift their messaging and compete for the new median voter. In our scenario, that new median is slightly less educated than today’s electorate, but also much younger and more non-white.

Except, Republicans don’t actually need to compete for this new median voter; they can do just fine by doubling down among uneducated whites.

Based on this analysis of 2016 voting intention and voter turnout, I found that Democrats’ turnout advantage means nothing if Republicans increase their margins among white working class voters by just four percentage points. This makes the difference between the GOP losing the electoral college by roughly 70 votes and winning it by a handful. The increase stems from them tipping margins in their favor in the Midwest and rural Northeast. So, in an election in the future when more people vote and when Republicans have to adjust their message to compensate for a diversifying election (2020, anyone??), a good electoral strategy for them is to win bigger among and turn out more non-college-educated whites.

If you were wondering at all about how Republican might do this, I advise you to go back and review the last week of events in American politics. You might also review the scholarly literature on vote-switching from 2012 to 2016 that found immigration and race politics to be the main driver of voters’ changing allegiances (IE: from Barack Obama to Donald Trump).

Conditional on all this information, it is not hard to see how Donald Trump wins an electoral college victory in 2016 again. I estimate that, so long as he is within ~3 percentage points of his Democratic opponent, he has a good shot at doing so.

But hey. Structural advantages in the electoral college wax and wane; the system benefited Democrats as recently as 2012. So who’s to say what will happen next year? But in talking about today’s politics, it’s clear that Trump’s relative strength with non-college whites is his key to success.


And now, the most notable stuff I read and wrote over the last week.


Posts for subscribers:


Political Data

Nate Cohn (NYT Upshot): “Huge Turnout Is Expected in 2020. So Which Party Would Benefit?”

In the Times/Siena-based estimates, Democrats appeared to be at a turnout advantage in the Rust Belt in the midterms but at a disadvantage in the Sun Belt. The difference between the groups of states might seem small, but it is not. A hypothetical full-turnout election among registered voters would cut this difference in half, and a full-turnout election among all eligible voters might eliminate it entirely.

This is consistent with state-by-state surveys of adults, like a 2019 compilation of Gallup polling data that showed the president’s approval ratings in Florida, Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania all crowded together between 41 percent and 43 percent, a few points higher than the 40 percent he held nationwide in the poll. 

The danger for Democrats is that higher turnout would do little to help them in the Electoral College if it did not improve their position in the crucial Midwestern battlegrounds. Higher turnout could even help the president there, where an outsize number of white working-class voters who back the president stayed home in 2018, potentially creating a larger split between the national vote and the Electoral College in 2020 than in 2016. 

There’s nothing about the composition of nonvoters that means a higher-turnout election would invariably make it easier for Democrats to win the presidency, or for Republicans to keep it.

Michael Tesler (The Monkey Cage): “It’s not just Trump. Many whites view people of color as less American.”

This view that African Americans are insufficiently patriotic fits well with classic conceptions of modern prejudice, which argue that contemporary racial resentment is characterized by “moral feelings that blacks violate … traditional American values.” In fact, one of the questions that Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher used to measure racial resentment for the Obama campaign in 2008 was: “I often feel that African Americans aren’t as proud and patriotic about this country as I am.”

The widespread belief that people of color are insufficiently American and patriotic also helps explain why some individuals — and not others — have their nationality and patriotism questioned if they criticize U.S. government policies. Trump said that those four members of Congress “hate our country” and should leave if they’re “not happy” with his administration.

But when Trump was writing about “Crippled America” and speaking of American carnage, no one called for him to go back to his ancestral homelands in Scotland or Germany.

Aaron Blake (The Washington Post): “Trump just backed down on the census citizenship question. But what if the damage is already done?”

While 30 percent of all respondents were “extremely likely” to respond, just 23 percent of Hispanics were.

While 68 percent of people who were proficient in English were at least “very likely” to respond, just 55 percent of nonproficient people were. Just 13 percent of those without English proficiency were “extremely likely” to respond.

While 68 percent of nonimmigrants were at least “very likely” to respond, 63 percent of immigrants were. Here again, very few were “extremely” likely to respond, at 19.5 percent.

These groups were also more likely to be worried about census data being shared with other government agencies — possibly including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — and about it being used against them.


Other Data and Cool Stuff:

Quoctrung Bui, Claire Cain Millter and Margot Sanger-Katz (NYT Upshot): “Where Roe v. Wade Has the Biggest Effect”

Today, there is at least one abortion clinic in every state, and most women of childbearing age live within an hour’s drive or so of one, the new analysis found. In more than half of states, including the entire West Coast and Northeast, that would still be true without Roe. In other states, like Missouri and Mississippi, with one clinic each, some women are effectively already living without Roe’s protections, because the driving distance to the nearest clinic is prohibitively long.

Without Roe, significantly more women -- concentrated in the South and Midwest -- would be living without an abortion clinic nearby: Eight states have passed trigger laws that would ban abortion almost immediately, and at least 13 more states would probably ban it, legal experts say.

Abby Goodnough, Josh Katz and Margot Sanger-Katz (NYT Upshot): “Drug Overdose Deaths Drop in U.S. for First Time Since 1990”

The overall reduction, reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggests some possible relief from an epidemic so severe that it has reduced life expectancy in the country. But the decline was slight enough that experts were questioning whether it would be the start of a trend.

“It looks like there's a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of opioid policy research at Brandeis University. But he added, “There’s nothing to celebrate, because the death toll is still very high.”

Even with the shift, the number of overdose deaths in 2018, more than 68,000, still exceeded the nation’s peak annual deaths from car crashes, AIDS or guns.


Political Science, Survey Research, and Other Nerdy Things

Joshua Kalla and Ethan Porter: “Correcting Bias in Perceptions of Public OpinionAmong American Elected Officials: Results from TwoField Experiments”

While concerns about the public’s receptivity to factual information are widespread, muchless attention has been paid to the factual receptivity, or lack thereof, of elected officials. Re-cent survey research has made clear that U.S. legislators and legislative staff systematicallymisperceive their constituents’ opinions on salient public policies. We report results from twofield experiments designed to correct misperceptions of sitting U.S. legislators. The legislators(n=2,346) were invited to access a dashboard of constituent opinion generated using the 2016Cooperative Congressional Election Study. Here we show that despite extensive outreach ef-forts, only 11% accessed the information. More troubling for democratic norms, legislatorswho accessed constituent opinion data were no more accurate at perceiving their constituents’opinions. Our findings underscore the challenges confronting efforts to improve the accuracyof elected officials’ perceptions and suggest that elected officials may be more resistant tofactual information than the mass public.

Matt Grossman on Twitter: Harris’s Polling and Media Bump (My commentary)


What I'm Reading and Working On

I am knowledge-seeking. I read a lot of books for this reason. But often, the ones I read—for work or for pleasure—don’t leave me with a sense of attachment or, frankly, love. But right now I’m reading Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project about Nobel Prize-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and I’ve simply fallen in love with it. I am engrossed in reading it.


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