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Should The GOP Move To The Middle To Keep The House?

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


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): For a special lean-and-mean chat team today, our topic is: What should the Republican Party’s strategy be going into the 2018 midterms?

This article from Politico, which led the site for a big chunk of Tuesday, got me thinking about this. The writer basically says there are two steps between where we are now and the GOP maintaining control of the House.

First:

“Republicans will have to embrace, fund and protect their blue-state colleagues, not to mention allowing them to get distance from the president and his policies. None of that will come naturally to the red-state dominated Republican Conference. It won’t be easy for the party to acknowledge its fate in the House might be tied to the Vichy Republicans of the Acela corridor.”

And second: “Democratic self-immolation. Naturally, it’s already underway.”

So I want to take those in order.

First, do you all buy the argument that Republicans need to basically tack to the center to keep the House?

Or, at the least, not make their Acela corridor members cast bad votes?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I don’t.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): What even is the center?

perry: Right, what does the center mean today? Is there any evidence that moving to the center helped anyone win in 2010, 2014 or 2016?

julia_azari: Exactly.

micah: Did Democrats try to move toward the center in 2010 and 2014?

perry: Several red-state Senate Democrats who voted against gun control in 2013 still lost in 2014. Many of the Democrats who voted against Obamacare in 2009 lost anyway in 2010. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was definitely trying to hit the center and bring in moderate Republicans, and she lost.

julia_azari: This is the thing: There is no center. There are consistent and inconsistent positions. But everything tends to revolve around the president — especially in a midterm year. Members of Congress can be more aligned with the president or less aligned with him. Sometimes we even see cross-pressured members embrace an openly antagonistic stance toward the president.

You asked about bad votes. Do you mean on possible gun legislation? Immigration?

micah: Yeah.

I mean, House Speaker Paul Ryan could bring gun control bills to the floor. (He probably won’t.)

Or he could bring more gun rights bills to the floor.

Which would help him keep the majority?

julia_azari: My best read of the evidence is that Republican voters in the Acela corridor either hold conservative positions on those issues and just don’t talk about them with their Democratic neighbors, or they don’t totally agree but have reconciled themselves to those positions because they prefer Republicans on defense or economic issues.

perry: Maybe others disagree, but if Ryan got President Trump to stop tweeting for the rest of the year, that would be way more helpful to Republicans than a DACA bill and a minor gun control bill being passed, even if both would be generally popular. The drag on Republican candidates in New York or California is Trump overall, not particular issues.

Right?

julia_azari: Yeah, I think that’s right

micah: Right … I don’t think we have much evidence that voters (or the media) are all that good at — or necessarily even interested in — separating out a president and his party politically.

julia_azari: Also the geography is a factor.

As you all mentioned on the podcast last week, there are big urban-rural splits on gun issues — rural voters are much more opposed to gun restrictions. And rural voters are a key part of the GOP’s electoral base.

perry: Right. If Trump moved to the center, in both tone and ideology, that could make a difference. So I agree that a move to the center could help Republicans, but not one led by the Hill.

micah: Interesting … yeah.

Well, OK, so in that sense we don’t really disagree with the spirit of this piece’s argument. (At least, in terms of part No. 1.) It’s just that Trump has to do it.

julia_azari: Well, I am still not super-confident that would make a huge difference.

Midterm losses for the president’s party are still pretty standard.

Can I say one more thing about policy issues?

micah: For sure.

julia_azari: The legislation that was likely to unite elements of the GOP coalition has already passed — the tax bill. That’s the one that I think would most appeal to reluctant Trump voters without pissing off Trump’s more hardcore base.

Immigration and guns, on the other hand, are both issues with the potential to divide both parties, and I think the risk is higher for Republicans. (Granted, I did just suggest that I think Northeastern Republicans have probably reconciled themselves to these issues in one way or another.) Moderate/liberal positions on DACA and some gun restrictions seem to be pretty broadly popular.

perry: Also, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are pretty standard politicians who would move to the middle for strategic reasons. I would have laughed out loud if the piece had said, “Republicans will do well in the midterms if Trump moves to the center on policy and tone,” because Trump won’t ever do that. So the piece is pretty off in the sense that the Republican brand is Trump.

I agree with Julia that the natural issues for Republicans to move to the center on right now, guns and immigration, might irritate the party base without necessarily addressing the problems: 1. It’s the midterm year for the incumbent party, and 2. Trump is very unpopular.

More infrastructure spending — another potential move to the middle — appears to have been sidelined in part for this same reason: The base does not like it.

micah: Case in point: Trump is talking about arming teachers.

julia_azari: A solution aimed at addressing the problem on everyone’s mind while pleasing the base. And yet.

perry: Or Bob Corker basically being told, “We don’t really want you to run.” Or Michael Steele essentially being exiled from the party at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference over the weekend.

julia_azari: Or Mitt Romney possibly getting sidelined in Utah.

perry: It’s just hard for me to see many incentives for individual Republicans, even Trump, to push the party to the center, even if that might be strategically smarter overall.

julia_azari: Right. The elections are still fought in individual districts.

micah: I mean, as Politico has noted (and we have, too), the incentive is that they have a bunch of incumbents up for re-election in blue states and blue districts.

julia_azari: And the GOP’s activist base is still off-median (way further right than the middle of the electorate).

perry: I doubt even those members in the blue districts would vote for a gun control bill.

Do you think they would?

julia_azari: It might depend on the specifics of the bill.

perry: Let’s say there’s a gun control bill that has majority support in the House but with a majority of Republicans against it

Or like on DACA — if somehow Ryan ignored the Hastert rule and held a vote on renewing DACA — would most House Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton that won actually vote for it? I’m not sure.

julia_azari: So here’s where I think we’re at in the long arc of party history …

micah: Poli-sci rant!!! Go!

julia_azari: (I assume that’s why I’m here.) Parties have long been decentralized and varied in their views — like for most of U.S. history. And so you won elections by some combination of building a coalition of all different groups in society who could somehow coexist and unifying those groups under some kind of banner, some idea or issue they shared.

Over time, the idea of unifying the party around a core idea — limiting government or expanding the safety net or ending an unpopular war, for example — has become how parties win modern elections.

Party politics has become increasingly nationalized. As a result, we now have two parties that are 1. both nationally competitive and 2. pretty ideologically unified.

So I think that where we might be now is the beginning of a new inflection point toward decentralizing party politics a bit.

But the idea that making the party LESS unified is going to make it electorally competitive is a little strange. (A possible exception: a centrist movement in the Democratic Party in the 1980s and 1990s.) Maybe in 10 years it won’t seem so strange.

My rant is now done. I will be happy to take questions as soon as I chug some Gatorade.

micah: Let’s get to the second part of the Politico argument in a second, but are we basically saying that it’ll be really hard for the GOP to hold its current coalition together without a common enemy? (i.e. Obama.)

perry: The GOP coalition still has a common enemy: the left, multiculturalism, etc. I was at CPAC over the weekend, and I felt like the enemy was pretty clear: the culture of the left.

That seems like it could be quite unifying — opposing the various identity movements of the left. No?

julia_azari: I think that’s correct but not the whole story.

micah: Yeah, that seems correct but maybe only translates to 200 House seats?

julia_azari: I think so — but my point is that unifying and moving to the center are pretty unlikely simultaneously.

micah: Oh, right.

It’s one or the other.

perry: Interesting. That’s a “Trump at 40 percent” strategy? Perhaps that’s right.

To get to a majority, you need more?

micah: Maybe? I don’t know, tbh.

julia_azari: Yeah. Electoral geography being what it is, the GOP can win with a pretty slim vote share.

micah: That’s true. Part of what was weird about the Politico argument is that it made it seem like Republicans keeping the House was some long shot. But it’s not — because of the party’s built-in advantages (self-sorting, gerrymandering, etc.).

The GOP might (probably?) keep the House with a 44 percent strategy. Maybe (probably?) not with a 40 percent strategy.

julia_azari: Yeah. “Democrats will take the House” seems to have become the conventional wisdom after either the November elections or the Alabama Senate race.

micah: OK, so let’s talk quickly about the second part of that Politico piece…

Democratic immolation.

The basic argument was that Democrats are having all sorts of primary fights.

Which will split the party and harm its 2018 prospects.

perry: So the specifics of what is happening in California could be a problem for Democrats. I have not followed that story closely. But in California, the top two candidates in a primary move to the general (regardless of party). And some districts have few Republicans but many, many Democrats. So, theoretically, Democratic candidates could split the vote enough so that two Republicans advance to the general even in a blue district. That’s a real problem for Democrats. And a self-inflicted one.

micah: Yeah, that seems real — and separate from competitive primaries more generally, which don’t seem like a bad thing?

perry: Right. I broadly reject the idea that having a lot of contested primaries is a problem. Again, see the GOP of 2010, 2014, 2016.

micah: Right.

julia_azari: Yeah, that was the critique I was making earlier.

micah: Julia, have poli-sci types looked at whether competitive primaries hurt a nominee’s general election performance?

julia_azari: Yes. I wrote a piece about it during the 2016 primaries.

I was writing about studies that focus on presidential primaries. But 2010 and 2014 would suggest that a party can still do OK despite hard-fought primaries.

Where primaries seem to hurt a party in congressional races is when they result in a bad candidate — Todd Akin, Christine O’Donnell, Roy Moore. And sometimes you know if a candidate is bad at the outset, but sometimes you don’t.

perry: I don’t see Democrats having a candidate problem writ large, although it’s very early.

julia_azari: Here, I’d like to rant very briefly about Wisconsin’s 1st District (Ryan’s district).

I don’t live in this district, but it’s not very far from me, and I come into contact with people who grew up there or have ties to the area pretty regularly. (So that’s my Wisconsin cred.) But more importantly:

  1. I think the Politico article overstates the tenor of the fight between Cathy Myers and Randy Bryce. Local Democrats seem to be lining up behind Bryce, the iron worker who had the ad that went viral on Twitter.
  2. By political science definitions, though, they are of about equal “candidate quality,” without much electoral experience. She is a member of a school board, so she has some local elective experience that way. Bryce has never held elective office. Both have some qualities that should make them appealing to Democratic voters in the district, and neither has any major gaffes or scandals that I know of that are public at this time.

If one of them were the Wisconsin equivalent of Christine O’Donnell, this would be a different conversation.

micah: That seems like good advice: Pay attention to the result (strong nominee vs. weak nominee) more than the process that produced him or her.

perry: Democrats might have a different problem. It seems to me that their voters are mainly frustrated with Trump, full-stop, so Democrats should run an anti-Trump campaign in the midterms. But many powerful voices in the party, still reeling from 2016, seem to think Democrats should argue that Trump’s policies are bad for the country. I think that’s a hard argument to make with the economy booming. I also think Democrats should basically not roll out any interesting policy ideas and should just make the election about Trump. But parties always get pushed to have some kind of agenda, even though I think there is little evidence that voters care what parties in the minority in Congress are proposing.

julia_azari: So Perry, are you saying that Democrats, from a strategy perspective, should roll out policies in the presidential and go anti-Trump in the midterms?

perry: Yes.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is having a hard time talking about the tax cuts and the bonuses people are getting from their employers — she has referred to that money as “crumbs,” leading even fellow Democrats to criticize her — because it sounds like her consultants have told her that she must talk about the economy and pocketbook issues.

And I think that’s probably wrong

julia_azari: Yeah, not if the economy is good.

perry: Or even if the economy’s strength is being overstated, she can’t convince people it’s not great while the news is all about companies giving bonuses.

micah: It’ll be interesting to see if Democratic messaging is nimble enough to pull off that two-step dance — all anti-Trump through the midterms, then build out a platform.

julia_azari: I’ve said this before and I will say it again: The Democrats have lots of audiences, and a strategic approach is to engage with them in different ways. There’s research (this book by Matt Grossmann and Dave Hopkins, for example) to suggest this is more the case for them than for Republicans, whose coalition is more focused on ideology and purity.

perry: That’s a good point. (And a great book. Really helpful to covering and understanding politics today.)

julia_azari: Yeah. I think it has some really useful things to say.

And I think in that sense, the lessons for Democrats from 2010 and 2014 have some caveats and limits.

perry: Democrats may not win the midterms. But whether they do will likely be more about structural reasons (how districts are drawn, who lives in them, power of incumbency, the president’s popularity) than their tactics, other than what looks to be a mess in California and a few other primaries. In terms of the GOP, I just don’t even know what a shift to the center would look like right now.

CORRECTION (March 2, 5:25 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the place that a Democratic congressional candidate in Texas said she didn’t want to live. Laura Moser suggested in an essay that she didn’t want to live in the Texas town of Paris, not the state of Texas.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s managing editor.

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