During the debate over the No Child Left Behind Act, then-President George W. Bush talked of “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” a phenomenon wherein teachers didn’t expect much out of children from low-income and minority families, and thus they didn’t achieve much. Today, I’d like to add a new phrase to the political lexicon: “the irrational exuberance of high expectations.”
Since Donald Trump ascended to the Presidency in January, there have been five special elections in the House of Representatives to fill seats that were left vacant by political appointments. The only Democratic win so far has been in California’s 34th, where two Democrats faced each other in the general election after finishing in the top two slots in an all-party primary. Since then, Democrats lost in Kansas’s 4th, Montana at-large, and were expected to lose South Carolina’s 5th district, which Donald Trump won by a huge margin. So all eyes turned to the election in Georgia’s 6th district, a previous Republican stronghold that Trump only carried by a point and a half and that I happen to live in. It turned into the most expensive House race in history, with over $20M spent by both sides blanketing the airwaves with ads and the neighborhoods with canvassers. And yet, Democrats came up short yet again, as Jon Ossoff lost to Republican Karen Handel by 3.9 points.
Liberal activists the country over lambasted Democrats’ strategy in the wake of the election, saying that given the enthusiasm generated by protests and town hall meetings in a district that was trending Democratic, they should’ve easily won. The Democratic brand was in shambles, and there was no way they would take the House now. Also, no Democrat should run as a centrist ever again.
And this is what I mean by irrational exuberance. Because this was the only election going on in the country at the time, and the only one that could be characterized as competitive, both sides attached a lot of importance to it. Importance that, I believe, wasn’t warranted. The fact is, this was one election in one Congressional district for one House seat out of 435. Let’s stop with the frenzied hot takes, take a deep breath, and unpack a few points from this election.
First, the notion that this district should’ve been an easy win for Democrats is dubious at best. Hillary Clinton nearly won it, sure, but any scientist or statistician will tell you that basing an argument on one data point is dumb at best, and dangerous at worst. Mitt Romney won the district by 23 points in 2012, and John McCain by 25 points in 2008. The district’s previous Congressman, Tom Price, was routinely reelected by similar margins (now, some of those races were against token opposition, so those numbers are probably a little skewed). There’s no doubt that this district has gotten more diverse and thus more Democratic since 2012, when I moved here, but the notion that this is a district Democrats should’ve won easily isn’t supported by the evidence. Because of the wild swing between the 2012 and 2016 results, it’s hard to know exactly what the baseline for Democratic performance in the district should’ve been. FiveThirtyEight, my most trusted source for political news, said that the expected result could’ve been anywhere from Handel+7.8 to Ossoff+3.3 depending on what inputs you use. Nate Silver also appropriate said in that piece, “The ‘takes’ you’ll read about the Georgia special election are probably going to be dumb.” I think we can all agree that Nate hit that nail on the head.
Second, the wailing and gnashing of teeth over Democrats’ chances in the 2018 midterms needs to stop too. Let’s take a minute and look at the big picture. Democrats have been overperforming their benchmarks in almost every special election this year, some by substantial margins. Not only is this trend showing up in federal elections, but it also showing up in state legislative special elections, where Democrats are outperforming previous results by an average of 14 points. This, plus a roughly seven-point lead in generic ballot polls, points to a national environment that will be quite favorable to Democrats in 2018.
In fact, that table looks a lot like special election results in 2006, where Democrats went 1-for-4 on wins but ended up gaining 30 seats and retaking control of the House. Now, this doesn’t mean a Democratic landslide in 2018 is guaranteed… special election results can be wildly inconsistent. But a relatively consistent trend of Democratic overperformance is a good indicator. Again, drawing wild conclusions based on one data point is a good way to look foolish.
Finally, the notion that centrist Democrats never win and the party should abandon this strategy is also rather dangerous. The candidacy of Bernie Sanders lit a new populist fire in many Democrats’ bellies, moving the Overton Window to the left and putting issues such as single-payer health care and a $15 minimum wage into the national conversation. But many of these same activists now seem to think every single candidate should make these issues the forefront of their campaign since those issues are most important to them. In my opinion, this is a good way to lose more elections. Jon Ossoff had his flaws as a candidate. He was too stiff, missed an opportunity to attack Karen Handel on obvious gaffes or tie her to an unpopular Republican health care bill, and was excessively risk-averse. But the notion that he could’ve won in this district by suddenly morphing into an aggressive Democratic populist reflects a flawed understanding of the politics of this Congressional district. Any time a party has a good election cycle, it usually happens because they run the right candidates for the environments in which they are running. Republicans do this too… it’s how they were able to get Republican governors elected in states like Maryland and Massachusetts, and how many of their Congressmen (like Dave Reichert in Washington) hang on in Democratic-friendly districts. Democrats need to focus on good candidate recruitment and make the playing field as large as possible. That is how we won before, and that is how we will win again. That said, I do think we should run more populist candidates, more as a test case for 2020 to see how the message plays. We could do so in districts that lean Democratic and even some swing districts, especially in the Rust Belt.
In sum, liberals need to stop cannibalizing each other and keep our eyes on the goal. I’m not saying there aren’t things we can do to improve our messaging and brand. I think we should consider hiring a Frank Luntz-style consultant that can help us frame issue discussions in an appealing way, for instance. We also need to be more willing to aggressively defend our accomplishments (like the Affordable Care Act) and stand up for those people (such as Nancy Pelosi) that were instrumental in those accomplishments. But I’ve written on here before about the dangers of a liberal Tea Party emerging. The Tea Party may have helped Republicans rebrand, for sure, but it straight up cost them control of Congress at least once, and liberals will be out of power longer if we continue to walk down that path.