Neither Party Recognizes The Significance of Montana

Thursday, Republicans held an at large seat in Montana.  Republican Greg Gianforte, defeated Democrat Rob Quist by about 7 percent. Now the caveats before I hit the main points of this piece; every election is unique, so are the candidates and geography of the places they run. Likewise, special elections tend to hurt the incumbent party more and are bad proxies for predicting the next general election as parties focus more attention on the individual race/s and special elections always open seat contests (no power of incumbency).

That said, both parties are acting like this was a victory. Republicans in DC and on social media are proclaiming how unpopular the liberal agenda is. Democrats are rationalizing the loss being in deeply red territory as moral victory (we only lost by 7 this time).  No offense, but only political analysts could see a silver lining in a loss.

But, combined with other elections we’re seeing a pattern emerge. Political instability.

This might be a fairly new concept for most analysts. After all, it’s coming off an era where Democrats held the house for forty consecutive years (54-94) and the GOP for 18 of the last 22 (1995-2006 and 2011-current). Even Senate control has only flipped at the margins.

One could contend we saw instability in 06, 10 and 14. One would be right with such massive swings in one direction.. But that instability benefited one party vastly over the other.

Consider what we’ve seen so far. Trump winning the White House with 46 percent of the vote, 24 house districts supporting Clinton but a Republican congressperson. Three special elections where Democrats have done well but not won in red locales.

That was until Tuesday when two local districts in New Hampshire and New York that featured open Republican legislative seats voted Democrat. Both seats voted for Obama in 08 and 012 though. The volatility showed.

For their part, the GOP is the more worried party. They’re overexposed in Congress and in the states. They’re the “in” party and Trump is not very popular.  Republicans are hoping legislative success might save them.  They need to have legislative successes though for this to save them.

Democrats almost seem to assume the House is theirs.  They looking to Trump’s anemic approval numbers and generic ballot numbers. But history has been anything but stable. Remember all those polls about 2016? How’d that work out?

We’re entering an unprecedented period in America politics where the rules of the game ensure a two party system but the demographics and generational profile of voters does not fit well into this system.

We’ve seen signs of this for a decade. In 2008, turnout soared as a generation of new voters entered the electorate. In 2010, we saw that excitement fade, turnout drop, and the rise of the GOP house majority.

In 2012, some younger voters reentered the process, but the results were largely driven by older voters choosing an aristocratic president who at least gave voice to their worries. In 2014, a combination of Senate map randomness and the Democrats demographic base not showing up led to sweeping GOP gains.

Then we come to last year. Yes, we know Trump won, but he won older, white swing voters. Obama won them in 12. Yes, in elections you go for the low hanging fruit to get you a winning coalition and not the home run (somebody page Hillary). But, it was not uniform success.  Trump did this but he did worse than Romney in urban and suburban areas in many places.

These locales tell the story of instability and levels of swingyness in our politics. Take Texas. Romney won the state by 17 points in 2012. Trump won it by 9. Unlike in Midwestern states, Trump running up the margins in rural areas hurt more than helped him in suburban and urban Texas.

Just look at Houston and Dallas. Trump ran far behind Romney in these upscale and urban locales. But absolute turnout actually dropped below 2012 levels in many suburbs because REPUBLICANS stayed home. They didn’t vote for Clinton but they couldn’t support Trump either.

Here, I do think partisanship is locked in for many. But, it manifests itself in high and low, high and low, over and over election turnouts.  So much for consistency.

This same analysis could be replicated in Democratic areas across the nation where turnout was anemic.  In Cleveland and Philly, though Clinton outpaced Obama in absolute numbers in both, the increases were anemic and she lost both crucial states.

So bringing this back to Montana how does this relate? Montana is a case study in swingyness and it has a relatively racially homogeneous population.

Consider Democrats have now held the governorship for the last 16 years. Republicans held it for the prior 12. Republicans have held or shared power (08-09) in the legislature since 1990. Meanwhile, the GOP has held the state’s sole seat in Congress since 1996 all while voters were sending a US Senator from both parties to DC (minus 08-14).

If the same set of voters (every federal election is statewide) can opt to vote differently or opt out of voting altogether leading to mixed results in a racially harmonious state imagine what variables are at work nationally.

Most analysts and the party faithful tend to dumb elections down to a few factors. Presidential approval, the generic ballot, important issues all top the list. But, if that’s all there was to it Clinton would be in the White House and Republicans would probably be in the minority in the Senate.

Montana helps remind us not only of the current instability in our politics but also of the future instability to come. Wild swings are more likely to occur now but the odds they only benefit one side dramatically is much smaller after 2016.  That’s good and bad news for both parties.


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