The national narrative on the 2018 election goes something like this:
The first midterm election of a new president always goes strongly against the party in power. President Trump has been more unpopular in his first term than any in the modern age of polling, so this could get very bad for Republicans.
The national wave which swept in hundreds of Republicans in the last two mid-term election cycles added exactly zero Republicans in California statewide races or in congressional districts.
Already Democrats nationally have shown strength in special elections that predict a big Democratic wave. Activists and political observers are suggesting the most vulnerable of the Republican congressional delegation are those in districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, with seven of those right here in California.
But there are a couple arguments that suggest this isn’t going to be a cakewalk for Democrats.
First, the gerrymandering nationally of the 2011 redistricting cycle strongly favored Republicans and they drew themselves a lot of safe seats. This could provide them more insulation from a big wave than Democrats had in prior wave election cycles like 1994 and 2010.
Second, as I pointed out in a recent article, the national wave which swept in hundreds of Republicans in the last two mid-term election cycles added exactly zero Republicans in California’s statewide races or in its congressional districts. (In fact, California was the only state to gain a Democratic seat in its Legislature in the 2010 election cycle.)
In other states, there might be some prior wave-elected, low-hanging Republican fruit for Democrats to pick off.
But in California, Democrats will have to beat back Republicans who weren’t victors because of a wave election or a tricky gerrymander.
The 2017 elections in California do not appear to give us much in the way of signals for 2018.
The Republicans who are most vulnerable in California all survived huge Democratic advantage years in 2012 and 2016.
Nevertheless, depending on who you talk to, the basic numbers look something like this:
–There are seven vulnerable Republicans in California living in the districts Hillary Clinton won, or …
–There are 10 Republicans who are being targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or …
–Maybe the targeting is aimed at the three Republicans who are from the Central Valley districts with Democratic registration advantages, or …
–The four Republican seats in Orange County where Democrats won the presidential vote for the first time in 2016, or …
–Maybe it is just the two Republican in open seats after high-profile incumbents announced they wouldn’t seek re-election.
Capitol Weekly has been doing an ongoing poll throughout 2017 to look at the 14 Republican-held districts.
The 2017 elections in California do not appear to give us much in the way of signals for 2018. However, we can derive from the resignations of Reps. Ed Royce and Darrell Issa, two heavyweight Republican incumbents, there is something going on.
And whether it was fear of losing in 2018, or maybe the reality that even a win in 2018 would just be a setup for a much tougher re-election in 2020, the fact is this: Republicans in many California congressional districts are feeling the heat.
To help unpack these congressional seats, Capitol Weekly has been doing an ongoing poll throughout 2017 to look at the 14 Republican-held districts. The survey is examining policy positions and the views on Donald Trump. It also is intended to test a generic congressional ballot – asking respondents if the election were held today, would they likely vote for the Democratic or Republican candidate (without mentioning candidates or incumbent names).
This gives us a good, data-driven way to understand the differences between the sets of congressional districts, and to discern which ones are truly most vulnerable in 2018 or 2020.
The generic ballot vote has been getting a lot of attention nationally as Democrats have been as much as 18-points ahead in this measure
To break up these districts, we have divided them into a matrix – seats won by Clinton or Trump — and we have divided those into four geographic regions.
This takes the state’s 14 Republican-held seats and partitions them into five sets, each showing the opportunities and challenges for the 2018 election cycle.
To analyze these sets of districts we conducted polling in 2017 that included a set of questions probing political and policy viewpoints without diving into the specifics of any of these district contests. The four questions we used for this analysis were:
–“While it’s a long way off, in next year’s election for your member of the United States House of Representatives, do you think you will vote for the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate?”
–“For each of the following people on the list below, please indicate whether you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of each person” (with President Donald Trump as one of the options.)
–“For decades the country has battled over issues of Abortion. Where do you put yourself on the scale of Pro-Choice, meaning supporting access to abortion services, to Pro-Life, meaning opposing legal abortion?”
–“The President and Congress have been working to repeal sections of the current national healthcare law, including requirements for pre-existing conditions. Within this debate are you more supportive of maintaining / fixing the current structure, or repealing it?”
While the Central Valley districts that Clinton won look extremely vulnerable in these measures, those won by Trump appear to be the safest districts through this lens.
The generic ballot vote has been getting a lot of attention nationally as Democrats have been as much as 18-points ahead in this measure, which has been touted as a strong predictor of mid-term congressional gains and a sign of a coming wave election.
On the generic ballot vote in this study, we are looking at just Republican-held districts and only interviewing likely voters, not the overall electorate as is done with national generic ballot testing.
Yet, we can see that the districts that Clinton won, both in Orange County and the Central Valley, show the lowest Republican vote at 39% and 38% respectively, putting Republicans dead even or under-water in those seven districts.
These districts in 2016 also have a Trump unfavorable rating that exceeds 50%, with the highest Trump unfavorable coming in at 56% in CA49.
While the Central Valley districts that Clinton won look extremely vulnerable in these measures, those won by Trump appear to be the safest districts through this lens with a +5% Trump favorability and +15% Republican advantage.
One surprise in these sets is within the Northern California districts won by Trump.
These seats are as heavily Republican as the Central Valley set of districts and are 90% white. Yet they appear to be the most vulnerable of all the districts won by Trump.
On the policy front we can see a real separation between the Orange County seats and the rest of the clusters. While statewide there is very little support for repealing Obamacare, and the state is strongly pro-choice, we can use these positions to examine social issues where voters in these districts might be more susceptible to traditional Democratic messaging.
And in this measure, the Orange County districts, where less than 1-in-5 of the likely voters in the 2018 General Election are pro-life, less than a quarter of them would support a repeal of Obamacare.
While Republicans appear vulnerable in the Central Valley districts won by Clinton in 2016, on social policy issues they are more similar to the very conservative Northern California districts.
And, again, the Central Valley districts won by Trump, including that of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, appear most politically aligned to their incumbent Republican house members.
(A note on the relatively low pro-life numbers in these districts. In an Orange County online and phone survey demonstration project conducted by Jonathan Brown of Sextant Strategies, 41% of OC Republicans described themselves as very conservative in the phone sample, but only 28% in the internet sample. The methodology may be creating an issue in which the anti-choice position is underrepresented. However, the impact of this would be the same across all districts, meaning that the relative rates of pro-choice responses, which is the purposes of this analysis, should not be impacted.)
While this analysis can help political observers better understand the differences among the state’s 14 Republican held congressional seats, none of this specifically tells us if Democrats are going to win any of them.
The fact is that the generic ballot has predictive qualities – but that ability to predict outcomes is generally seen with a test done in September or August before the November general election — not a year before the election.
Much could change in Trump’s favorability and the generic ballot in the next nine months. A re-test of these same polling questions in late summer could be extremely telling.
Additionally, these metrics are blind to the candidate match-ups that will be presented to voters after the June primary election.
Two Republican incumbents have recently resigned, and it is possible that we will see more. Vacancies are traditionally much easier for the party out of power to pick-up in a mid-term election cycle, but these seats also have volatile primaries with extremely large fields of candidates. It is even possible in the two districts without incumbents we could see a fluke election of two Republicans advancing through the top-two primary, like we did in the 31st Congressional District in 2012, completely boxing out Democrats until 2020.
Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm.