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Is It Time For Republicans To Panic?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Our topic for today: PANIC!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ЁЯЪи ЁЯЪи ЁЯЪи

Namely, is it time for Republicans to panic (in the wake of Tuesday’s Democratic sweep)? And, as a subsidiary question, what should Republicans do now?

But let’s start with that first question … panic or no panic? You decide!

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): What’s the definition of panic?

micah: ЁЯШм

harry: LOL.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Panic. Losing control of the House would be huge. And it’s very much on the table.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Well, some House Republicans from Virginia are retiring after the state election, so they might well be panicking.

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): They should be moderately panicked. And they should have been before Tuesday. They might still be able to save the House, though.

harry: Yeah, Tuesday was simply a manifestation of what has been apparent in the national polls for a while. Heck, it’s also been apparent in the special-election results. I just don’t think people believed it before seeing it on a big stage like on Tuesday night. Make no mistake, this was in line with the fundamentals, and those are not good for Republicans. Bad enough to lose the House? We’ll see. The Democrats are certainly in position.

natesilver: “We’ll see.”

Give me a prediction!

micah: “We’ll see” doesn’t sound that panic-inducing.

clare.malone: I’m still not sure the Republicans are going to lose the House. That’s still a pretty big lift for Democrats. Tuesday’s results were a good sign for them, for sure. But it’s still a long haul.

micah: Yeah, so a Democrat won in New Jersey. A Democrat won in Virginia. Democrats won a bunch of districts in the Virginia House of Delegates that mostly leaned Democratic. What’s the big deal?

clare.malone: ha ha ha

micah: I mean, I’m only half trolling.

natesilver: It’s not a particularly big deal. It’s just confirmation of lots of evidence we already had that the political climate is good for Democrats.

It’s about what you’d expect when they’re up 8 to 10 points on the generic ballot. But the special elections earlier in the year were also about what you’d expect given those numbers.

(And given that the specials were held in very red districts.)

micah: But then why didn’t Democrats win more red districts in Virginia?

natesilver: They won the governorship by 9 points and flipped the House of Delegates from 2-1 GOP to roughly 50-50. They had a really good night.

micah: I’m not debating that.

natesilver: The focus on red districts is kinda dumb, IMO, because if you look at the totality of elections so far this year, Democrats have done well in some really red areas — Kansas and Montana and South Carolina — that aren’t upscale or suburban at all.

micah: Are you calling me dumb?

harry: Yes.


natesilver: I’m saying that analysts in general are chewing too much on not-especially-informative pieces of evidence.

The totality of evidence is good for Democrats. The individual data points aren’t that meaningful.

micah: So we don’t buy the thesis that “state/districts/etc. are snapping back to their default partisanship” — it explains Tuesday’s results but not all those special-election results.

natesilver: Yeah, it explains Virginia well, but there have been a lot of elections this year.

perry: Well, whether Democrats have a 70, 50 or 30 percent chance of winning the House, even 30 (which I think is a low estimate) is a really big panic number for Republicans. Barack Obama’s presidency, in terms of legislation, basically ended the day Republicans won the House in 2010. And Obama didn’t have a special prosecutor after him, with the potential of an impeachment in the House.

natesilver: I disagree that 30 is a big number, Perry. I mean, the majority always has some risk of being lost in the House, since every seat is up every two years. If the chances of losing the House were only 30 percent, I’d be pretty happy if I were Paul Ryan.

The problem for the GOP is that it’s not 30 percent. You could debate between 50 and 70.

perry: I don’t think in, say, 2014 that the Republicans had any real chance of losing the House. It would have been like 10 percent.

natesilver: I guess I should say — the majority party is always at risk if they also control the presidency.

Typically, parties do not control both the House and the presidency for very long.

So if I knew nothing about the political landscape other than that the same party controlled both the presidency and the House, my default might be that the party had like a 30 percent chance of losing the House at the next midterm.

harry: What we’re fighting against here is that people almost always view things through the prism of the last election. Yes, Nathaniel, the political science says what you say, but people get caught in this mindset that this will be the time the science is wrong. (Sometimes it is wrong.) But usually what happens is you end up looking foolish by trying to guess the direction of the polling error.

micah: So, do the contours of Ralph Northam’s win in Virginia matter in judging how panicked the GOP should be?

Like, where did he do well and with whom?

clare.malone: They’ve lost some of the suburban white voters who voted for Trump, right? Which should worry them a bit.

natesilver: Yeah, I think all that shit is overrated.

micah: Wait, Nate, you wrote the other day that there are enough well-educated, relatively well-off suburban districts for Democrats to retake the House.

natesilver: There are enough suburban districts, yeah. So it happens to be true that doing well in the suburbs is more helpful for winning back the House than for winning back the presidency. That isn’t immaterial.

harry: It hurts me when people use bad language.

clare.malone: How much evidence is there, though, that Democrats made inroads with ye olde working class whites?

micah: Right.

clare.malone: Let’s hear it for George W. Bush’s Security/Soccer Moms.

perry: Did we agree with this piece by Nate Cohn of The New York Times that argued that the Democrats still have some problems with white working-class voters that could limit their pickup opportunities next year?

natesilver: I disagree with trying to extract too many signals from Virginia as opposed to the totality of all elections in the past several months.

But Democrats had a pretty “meh” performance earlier this year in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, which is very suburban and wealthy. Whereas what they did in Montana and Kansas and South Carolina is pretty impressive. Here’s a chart from earlier this week (before we had the Tuesday results):

clare.malone: Yeah, but wait, Nate — wasn’t the whole thing that they vastly outperformed there, even while losing?

natesilver: They outperformed more in Montana, Kansas and South Carolina than in Georgia.

I mean, it depends on what benchmark you look at. But the Georgia 6 result was probably the least impressive of any of them.

harry: To quote myself, “To understand the national political environment, it’s always better to look at an average of elections.”

clare.malone: Very Churchillian.

perry: Lol.

natesilver: At least Georgia was a federal race, though! State and local races can give you a sense of the overall political environment. But you should be very careful about getting too cute beyond that. The issues that are pertinent in voting for someone for the Virginia House of Delegates are not the same ones that are pertinent when you’re voting for the U.S. Congress.

micah: I guess, here’s why I would push back on your “overrated” take, Nate. It seems clear that winning back the House will be harder for Democrats than winning the Virginia House of Delegates. (Actually, is that true?) If that is true — or even if it it’s the same — it seems valuable to know the political/demographic/socio-economic makeup of potential pickups for Democrats in the House. What does that sample of seats look like? Isn’t that important given how polarized we are along rural-urban lines? Along racial lines? Etc.?

harry: Oh, I’m not sure that’s true at all.

natesilver: I’m telling you that extrapolating from the Virginia House of Delegates to the U.S. House is dumb.

Also, I don’t agree that winning the U.S. House is necessarily harder. The Virginia House of Delegates is way more gerrymandered than the U.S. House, even though the U.S. House is pretty gerrymandered.

perry: So I would say Panic 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. It sounds like others would rate the Republican panic levels lower?

micah: I’d say 6.8.

harry: I panic over the Buffalo Bills and Columbia Lions. I don’t panic over politics.

natesilver: I’m a 7.8 or something. Not far from Perry.

micah: We’re not interested in how panicked you are, Harry. We’re asking how panicked Republicans should be.

natesilver: But if I’m a 7.8 today, I was a 7.5 on Monday.

clare.malone: I hate how we have to apply numbers to everything.

It’s a 6.

harry: I’ll say 8 is fine.

micah: OK, so now let’s talk: What should Republicans do?!?!?!?

clare.malone: I’m wondering what candidates need to do out in the field. For example, did Ed Gillespie do something weird in not “reading the room” in Virginia — should he have been playing more to those suburban voters?

micah: Gillespie, former head of the Republican National Committee, tried to adopt some Trumpian trappings.

In general, should Republicans just hug Trump close knowing they’re tied to him anyway?

Or should they distance themselves from him?

harry: Why the heck would you embrace a president whose approval rating is in the 30s?

clare.malone: Is it a state-by-state thing — i.e., some states are “Trumpy” and some are not?

natesilver: But what if Republicans not embracing Trump makes his approval rating even lower?

micah: And also you get dinged for having an R next to your name anyway?

Does distancing ever work?

natesilver: Maybe that’s why so many members are retiring. They’re sort of screwed either way.

harry: I guess it depends on whether you’ve cultivated an image of your own brand. In waves, oftentimes it doesn’t work.

I was somewhat surprised Gillespie didn’t try that given he had run before statewide. But he probably had polling that his campaign thought showed they should run hardline on immigration.

perry: Distancing can work. Rob Portman and John McCain ran ahead of Trump in 2016.

micah: But Gillespie’s hardline immigration rhetoric didn’t lead to a rural surge like it did for Trump, right?

natesilver: I think you could say it was more high turnout in blue areas than low turnout in red areas.

clare.malone: Maybe voters found that stuff inauthentic coming from Gillespie? If you were a hardcore Trump voter, you sensed that Gillespie was not your guy. That he stank of the establishment, the past.

harry: I thought it was inauthentic.

micah: Yeah. That’s a good point. It’s possible a lot of Republicans will take away from Virginia that the Trumpian immigration stuff hurts more than it helps, but maybe that was just the messenger.

perry: I do think that sanctuary cities is an issue where Democrats are a bit confused. And maybe Republicans should hit that issue, even if other things Gillespie did will not work.

clare.malone: Yeah, interesting point

natesilver: We did have that interesting test of Trumpian personality versus Trump’s endorsement in Alabama, too.

perry: This is a hard question. If I were running against Sen. Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, I would run on the Trump immigration/populism issues. If I’m Barbara Comstock, in a Virginia district just outside of D.C., I would distance.

natesilver: By the way, the fact that Democrats are running somewhat competitively in Alabama, depending on what poll you believe — even before allegations surfaced that GOP nominee Roy Moore initiated sexual encounters with underage girls — is another reason not to take the “this is only happening in blue areas” talking point all that seriously.

micah: That’s why my panic number wasn’t that high — if Democrats win Alabama, then we’ll see real panic!

clare.malone: Yeah, that race — could be a December to remember, people!

harry: I mean, even the worst public polls have Doug Jones down only 11 percentage points. It’ll be interesting to see what occurs there.

micah: Panic-ember

perry: Roy Moore is uniquely something that I think most Republican candidates are not.

micah: Very uniquely something.

clare.malone: Even before The Washington Post report on Thursday, Moore had a lot of baggage in Alabama — enough that I think a lot more moderate Republicans there would not be enthused to cast a ballot for him.

micah: OK, before we turn to policy, it seems like one of our takeaways from Virginia is that voters aren’t stupid — you can’t distance yourself from Trump if you’re really Trumpy, and you can’t run an anti-establishment campaign if you used to run the RNC.

perry: That wasn’t my takeaway. I don’t think Corey Stewart would have won either. He might have lost by more. I don’t think a Trumpy person will win statewide in Virginia.

natesilver: Trump ran, quite successfully, as a populist, even though he’s a rich real estate developer from New York City. So authenticity is always somewhat in the eye of the beholder.

But yeah — Politics 101 if you’re Gillespie is that you want to localize that race, and Northam’s the one who should have tried to nationalize it.

clare.malone: Hey, Harry, what’s that new poll that has Democrat Kyrsten Sinema up by a healthy margin in Arizona’s Senate race against Trumpy Republican Kelli Ward?

harry: Here it is, Clare.

clare.malone: I think the Trumpy thing doesn’t always work outside the primaries for … non-Trumps?

perry: I think Gillespie was trying to do something that I think is smart: Try to hit the Trumpy Republicans with one message, the more white-collar ones with another. Gillespie’s speeches and campaign appearances were not Trumpy. His ads were. He was campaigning with Susana Martinez and Marco Rubio a few days before the election. I actually think increased Trumpiness without full-Trump is probably where most GOP candidates land in 2018.

micah: Interesting …

clare.malone: Not to be very American, but … doesn’t TV often matter more, at least in state races? Not everyone’s going to be seeing you in person.

perry: Of course.

But I’m just saying that Ed was not going around saying “build the wall” in his speeches.

clare.malone: Yeah, fair.

I just think even in the D.C. ‘burbs, those ads hurt him.

perry: I agree.

micah: OK …

Last thing: Policy.

Should Republicans stay full-steam ahead on taxes?

What should they do? Go more bipartisan?

natesilver: I don’t think they should go full-steam on their tax bill, no. Because it’s a fairly toxic bill, politically.

A Bush-style tax cut would have been much smarter politically.

perry: They should write a tax plan that Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Joe Donnelly and maybe eight to 10 other Democrats can vote for. A bill with 60 Senate votes would be huge.

harry: I like Perry’s thinking.

perry: So I’m saying what Nate said. The Bush tax cuts got some Democratic votes because they were not written in this way that was bound to draw heavy Democratic opposition.

I have been shocked by how many people’s taxes would increase in a REPUBLICAN tax plan.

harry: How many times have they rewritten that tax plan in the past couple of weeks?

clare.malone: But … how likely are Republicans to make that play for Democratic support?

perry: 0 percent.

harry: As Nate said, this stuff is really unpopular. It’s not good for Republicans.

natesilver: Some people’s taxes would increase — most people’s wouldn’t — but moreover, the benefits of the bill aren’t obvious to taxpayers. Maybe you come out ahead, and maybe you don’t, but you have to do the math to find out how — and a lot of popular deductions are removed, all in the name of lowering corporate taxes.

perry: The realistic path for Republicans is to pass this tax bill somewhat quickly. Don’t spend till March debating it. Get this done. It will not be very popular. But cast this as a sign that you are getting things done. Then, get more things done. Find bills that can pass. You tried on Obamacare. You did taxes. Now, find issues where you can pass a bill and it benefits you electorally. Infrastructure. Dreamers?

I think a bug in my plan is I’m struggling to think of issues that have popular support and on which Republicans agree internally.

micah: I guess I don’t really get why it seems like both 1. Republicans are very likely on track to lose a bunch of seats and maybe the House majority, and 2. Republicans are very unlikely to change anything they’re doing policy-wise.

clare.malone: I mean, Republicans are doing this tax bill thing so they can get money from donors — so that they can even run their races in the first place.

natesilver: Well, they failed to do anything on health care — for a lot of reasons — but you can argue that reflects a responsiveness toward public opinion.


perry: Saying this out loud is not smart.

harry: What a performance.

natesilver: On taxes, the donor base likes the bill, but I don’t know that the voter base has any particular reason to.

micah: Final thoughts?

perry: Final thought: The Republicans should have been worried about 2018 before Tuesday, and Tuesday should make them even more worried.

But I actually don’t know how realistic it is to expect them to change course. Trump is going to Trump. They have a voter base that likes Trumpism. They have members in Congress and a donor base that likes unpopular policies. And they are internally divided on politics and policy, making it hard to shift course.

harry: Republicans have got to figure out something because what they’re doing right now isn’t working. Even if they don’t lose the House, their majority will probably be greatly diminished. That, of course, will only make it more difficult to pass legislation.

natesilver: I think the most important decisions that Republicans made already happened: The approach they took to health care, the approach they’re taking toward taxes, their failure to do anything on infrastructure, etc.

I’m not saying the cake is necessarily baked — there’s a lot of uncertainty, and there are going to be new things to react to all the time, since the president is Donald Trump. But I don’t think there’s any magic plan to avoid a Democratic wave. It may be out of their control. They just have to hope Trump matures a bit in his second year in office, the economy stays pretty good, Democrats give them an opening or two, etc.

But they’re running into the wind, as parties almost are when they’re trying to defend Congress and their president is unpopular.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.