Every election teaches those who approach elections from a scientific perspective a new lesson. It has taken a few days to sink in in my case, but I think I figured out what 2018 taught us. Let’s explore.
Political operatives have long known about coattails. A top of the ticket candidate wins by such a wide margin that they drag along several down ballot candidates on their ticket in the process. Although we didn’t realize it at first Barack Obama was such a candidate. One reason the 2018 Senate map was so unfavorable for Democrats is because a few Democratic incumbents had won in 2012 by riding Obama’s coattails.
Time will tell if this is applicable only in midterm elections but in 2018 several losing (or possibly losing) candidates seemed to increased turnout to the point that some down ballot candidates of their party were helped and possibly to the degree as to make the difference between victory and defeat.
The prime example is Beto O’Rourke in Texas. While Beto lost he tremendously increased Democratic turnout. In 2016 Hillary Clinton received 3,877,868 votes in Texas; in a midterm where historically Democratic turnout significantly diminishes Beto received 146,909 more. In normal political calculus hitting the 2016 number would be an unrealistic expectation. In the process the Democrats flipped several seats largely due to the increased turnout. It’s similar to the baseball term of taking one for the team. Beto may not have gotten “the post-game network interview” but he definitely helped his team win.
It appears we saw something similar happen in Georgia with Stacey Abrams and in Florida with Andrew Gillum. If Bill Nelson ends up winning reelection in Florida a strong case can be made that he owes his victory to Gillum.
The Democratic parties in Texas and to a lesser degree in Georgia lacked a sufficient infrastructure before O’Rourke and Abrams arrived on the scene. Both of them built ones albeit in somewhat different and untraditional ways. O’Rourke famously eschewed pollsters. He relied more on just old fashioned retail politics and hard work. Abrams built her campaign on several cause driven organizations she had been a part of for in some cases years. Hopefully both are leaving the knowledge and data behind for the Democrats’ future use. It’s a lot easier to cross the river if someone already built a bridge for you.
Beto in particular targeted young voters. I am among those who received the right to vote early by virtue of the 26th amendment. My first election was in 1972 and I am a super voter having missed only two primaries and one municipal election in my lifetime. Voting is a habit for me. By getting today’s young people to vote (and political scientists have long told us that American youth are disproportionately predisposed to vote Democratic) he has laid the groundwork for a future Democratic base in Texas. Senior citizens (who vote disproportionately Republican) vote at about twice the rate of young people. Many senior citizens voted in their last election in 2018 or certainly are nearing the end of the road. Young people have decades of elections before them. They are literally the electoral future. Beto went a long way toward having them make voting a habit not an afterthought.
Young people and infrequent voters are not motivated by Party. They are motivated by causes. Democratic candidates will be well served to stress policy and deemphasize Party when dealing with what I call the motivatables. The majority of motivatables are young adults and women. Here is the bonus with those two groups; not only can they be motivated to vote they are among the most likely to volunteer. The larger the turf a candidate runs in the more difficult it is for them to personally touch voters. As much as things change they stay the same and in my mind there is no substitute for personal contact be it by door knock, a surrogate appearance at a gathering or at least a personal non-scripted phone call.
As the political chieftains recruit future candidates especially challengers I think they need to keep in mind the utility of getting energetic candidates who can generate excitement at the top of the ticket. In my opinion that is the lesson of 2018.
Note: At this writing the final results in Georgia and Florida are still undecided.
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