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Democrats Are Not Doomed, But They Face Significant Challenges

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GA-6 has consistently sent liberals to Congress — what’s wrong with Democrats now?

I have a radical policy of agreeing with pundits when I agree with them and disagreeing with them when I disagree with them. With this Jon Chait post, I can do both! First, where he’s right:

It’s certainly true that Jon Ossoff’s underperformance of the polls (he was nearly tied in the polling average, and is losing by almost 4 points) should incrementally adjust one’s view of the Democrats’ prospects. But the reason the party has lost all four special elections is glaringly simple. It is not some deep and fatal malady afflicting its messaging, platform, consultants, or ad spending allocation methods. Republicans have won the special elections because they’ve all been held in heavily Republican districts.

The special elections exist because Donald Trump appointed Republicans in Congress to his administration, carefully selecting ones whose vacancy would not give Democrats a potential opening. It feels like Democrats somehow can’t win, but that is entirely because every contest has been held on heavily Republican turf.

The overall measure of Democrats’ standing at the moment is not whether they have won, but how they have performed relative to the partisan composition of the districts in which they are running. That gauge remains quite positive. As Dave Wasserman points out, in the four special elections, they have overperformed the partisan baseline in their districts by an average of 8 percentage points…

[…]

On the other hand, Trump’s standing could well deteriorate between now and then, given that the only crises he has faced so far are ones he’s created, and his managerial prowess has not exactly inspired confidence. In 2009, Democrats not only won four straight special elections to replace departing House Democrats, they also flipped a House seats from a retiring Republican. Imagine how despondent Democrats would feel if they lost a Democratic seat with Trump in office. At the time, Democrats saw the victory as evidence that they were safe from a midterm wave. “This election represents a double blow for national Republicans and their hopes of translating this summer’s ‘tea party’ energy into victories at the ballot box,” crowed the Democrats’ House campaign chairman. As it turned out, the situation deteriorated pretty badly over the next year.

DEMOCRATS ARE DOOMED takes these special elections are very silly. Republicans won them because they’re districts mostly consisting of conservative white Republicans, which allowed them to overcome the negative headwinds created by Trump. The same headwinds on a national scale would be a serious problem for them in 2018.

On the other hand, this take is not good:

Matthew Ygelsias’s take on Ossoff’s defeat urges Democrats to change course, citing, among other models, “Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly strong showing.” Corbyn, of course, lost his race, just as Ossoff did. And Corbyn, unlike Ossoff, ran nationally (rather than in a heavily conservative district) and faced a deeply discredited incumbent. An average Labour nominee not encumbered by Corbyn’s left-wing baggage would probably have won a clear victory. But since Corbyn did lose by less than he had been expected to a few weeks before, momentum transmuted his narrow defeat into a galvanizing victory, just as it transmuted Ossoff’s narrow defeat into a debacle.

As I’ve said before, this counterfactual is inherently useless because 1)the generic alternative Labour candidate doesn’t exist, and 2)we don’t have any idea whether they would have done better. But given that Labour’s comeback accelerated after the release of the manifestos, citing Corbyn’s ideology as a net negative isn’t very persuasive. It’s true that people are conflating structural limitations on the Labour vote with low expectations of Corbyn, but still he exceeded any reasonable ex ante expectation.

I do largely disagree with the underlying Yglesias claim that Corbyn can be repeated in the U.S., but for different reasons. First of all, the national British electorate is rather different than the electorate in suburban Atlanta. And second, and more importantly, I don’t buy at all the idea there’s One Magic Trick that can get the American media to cover policy rather than trivia. The British media was at least as hostile to Corbyn as the American media was to Clinton, but still it covered and discussed the party manifestos rather than writing an endless series of stories about Corbyn’s email management practices in the final weeks of the campaign. Clinton had a coherent, popular agenda she talked about a lot — it didn’t matter. We’re seeing this again under Trump. The media has been pretty hostile to Trump, but it’s focused on Russia, not the AHCA, although Democratic elected officials are talking about the latter plenty.

The Democrats could have favorable enough conditions to win in 2018 anyway. But policy messaging is only going to get you so far with a media that has consistently preferred to discussed personality trivia to discussing policy, and seems convinced its coverage of the 2016 elections was just great. I’m all for working the refs and trying to change things, and clear policy messages can’t hurt, but we also have to deal with the actually existing media environment rather than assuming a better one.

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