Dems are confident about House despite painful 2016 memories
Democrats’ growing confidence heading into Election Day bears echoes of 2016, leaving some liberals fretting that party leaders took no lessons from their drubbing that year — and are now measuring the drapes before the Speaker’s office is secured.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made her boldest forecast of the year on Tuesday, vowing the Democrats will seize the lower chamber in the Nov. 6 elections — a shift from earlier sentiments that such a concrete prediction was premature.
“What now I’m saying is, ‘We will win,’ ” Pelosi said on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
The bullish message — being reinforced by other party leaders — is reminiscent of that emanating from Democrats two years ago, when they stormed into the polls with promises of big wins across the board, largely on the coattails of their presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Pelosi predicted Democrats would gain at least 25 House seats in 2016, only to see Clinton fall in stunning fashion to President Trump, while Republicans lost just six seats.
In the post-mortem that followed, some Democrats attributed the lackluster performance, at least in part, to an overconfidence that landslide wins were assured, dampening turnout among would-be Democratic voters. Two years later, some voices are warning that renewed promises of inevitable victory could similarly backfire at the polls.
“It’s like, ‘My God.’ That’s what happened in 2016. Everybody was throwing the party for Hillary before the election. And I think some people stayed home,” Michael Moore, the filmmaker and liberal activist, said Thursday on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” referring to Pelosi’s recent forecast. “You have to quit this kind of predicting nonsense and you just got to do your job as a citizen. Everybody has to get off the bench this time.”
At the same time, the factors shaping this year’s election landscape are vastly different from those of 2016, and the winds have shifted almost exclusively in the Democrats’ favor. On top of historical trends predicting big midterm gains for the party not in the White House, Trump’s approval rating is deep underwater; Democratic candidates have a stark fundraising advantage over their GOP opponents; polls suggest Democratic voters are more energized than Republicans; and dozens of GOP incumbents are retiring, creating new pickup opportunities for Democrats where they otherwise would not have existed.
“The reality is that the political situations in the two elections are radically different,” David Rohde, a political scientist at Duke University, said in an email. “No sane analyst thought that the Democrats were likely to take the House in 2016. The same people (me included) will be utterly shocked if they do not take it this time.”
“The important matter will be what actually occurs, not what Pelosi (or anyone else) has predicted,” he added.
Democratic strategists agree that there is, to a certain degree, a disconnect between the message coming from national leaders and the on-the-ground workings of individual campaigns. Doug Thornell, managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, a public affairs firm, praised the victory promises from party leaders as a projection of the Democrats’ eleventh-hour momentum. “But,” he added, “campaigns should be operating as though they’re 15 points behind.”
“That type of mentality makes it so you don’t take anything for granted and you don’t rest on your laurels. And I’m not seeing that anywhere,” he said. “Right now if you call most Democratic operatives, they’re not sitting comfortably because the polling looks good.”
“We all lived through 2016,” he added, “and no one wants to go through that again.”
A second Democratic strategist acknowledged certain “dangers” in making bold victory promises just days ahead of the elections. But that, the strategist quickly added, is part of Pelosi’s job as party leader.
“Even though you and I know it’s always best to say, ‘We’re cautiously optimistic,’ the base does not want to hear ‘cautiously optimistic.’ Everybody wants to follow a winner,” the strategist said. “She has to be the one to say, ‘Absolutely.’ ”
“She’s in a bad spot, but she has to be the cheerleader,” the strategist added.
A Washington Post/Schar School poll, released Thursday, has given Democrats a late reason to be optimistic. The survey found that among likely voters across 69 battleground districts, 50 percent support the Democratic candidate, versus 46 percent for the Republican — a dramatic shift from 2016, when voters in the same districts favored Republicans by 15 points. Of those 69 seats, 63 are held by the GOP.
Still, many of the same polls predicting a blue wave this year forecasted a Clinton victory in 2016. And several other underlying ingredients of the current terrain have given Republicans some hope they can retain the Speaker’s gavel.
Trump, for instance, has been stumping ceaselessly in Republican strongholds, firing up the GOP’s conservative base. Republican super PACs are dumping millions of dollars into races late in the cycle. The congressional district map is gerrymandered in a way that heavily favors the Republicans. And the economy, which created 250,000 new jobs in October, has seen unemployment at its lowest point since 1969.
Writing in The Washington Post, the author Paul Theroux cautioned Democrats not to underestimate the populist power of Trump’s message.
“A blue wave is predicted for the midterms. I’m not convinced of it,” he wrote. “Trump proved most polls wrong for a reason.”
The combination of factors has led many Democrats, still stinging from the harrowing losses of 2016, to approach Tuesday’s elections with the utmost caution.
“We are not taking anything for granted,” said Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), a leader of the Democrats’ messaging arm. “The American people spoke loud and clear in 2016 that they were not happy with the direction Washington was headed. We heard them.”
Sarah Binder, political scientist at George Washington University, said the economy in particular could throw a wildcard into the Democrats’ buoyant projections.
“In good economies, the president’s party can usually mitigate the losses [and] withstand that sort of natural decline in the number of seats they hold,” she said. “It’s a little unusual to have such an unpopular president while the economy’s doing so well.”
Even so, Binder said Trump’s constant campaigning — and the emotions he incites from his critics of all stripes — could drown out the economic factors and boost the Democrats.
“Even if the Democrats were to dampen turnout — which I don’t really think they are — you’ve got Trump, the president, reminding Democrats, multiple times a day, what it is that so frustrates them about his presidency,” Binder said. “So it’s not just the Democrats howling in the wind; it’s really Trump quite purposely putting pretty polarizing issues, daily, on the agenda.”
Some operatives said the last-minute messaging drives will prove largely inconsequential in any event.
“The arguments have been made, the money’s been spent, the ads have been made, the polling’s been done. It’s now up to voters,” said Thornell. “That’s all the next four days are going to be about.”