To Win the House, Democrats Need to Change Their Message

Appealing to more moderate voters, not changing district lines, is the path to controlling the lower chamber.

Hillary Clinton speaks to volunteers at a campaign office in Seattle on Oct. 14.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Oct. 23, 2016, 6 a.m.

One of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s biggest pri­or­it­ies after this elec­tion is to re­draw con­gres­sion­al lines in states where Re­pub­lic­ans have cre­ated bound­ar­ies to their polit­ic­al ad­vant­age. The ef­fort shouldn’t be a sur­prise, even as the party over­states the num­ber of seats that could change hands by changes in polit­ic­al geo­graphy. But it’s a telling peek at how the Demo­crats would rather make sys­tem­ic changes so they can main­tain their lib­er­al ideo­logy than nudge the party to the middle so it can com­pete in dozens of GOP-lean­ing seats.

The Demo­crats’ dis­ad­vant­age in the House isn’t primar­ily a res­ult of re­dis­trict­ing. It’s be­cause non­white and lib­er­al voters tend to cluster in dense urb­an areas, di­lut­ing their polit­ic­al im­pact. Re­pub­lic­ans cur­rently hold 246 seats in the House, the highest level of rep­res­ent­a­tion since the Hoover ad­min­is­tra­tion. Even if Demo­crats sweep in­to power in or­der to re­draw state maps after the 2020 elec­tions, they’ll make only a small dent in the GOP’s fun­da­ment­al ad­vant­ages. (And that’s not even tak­ing in­to ac­count that Demo­crats already have drawn con­gres­sion­al dis­trict lines in a par­tis­an man­ner in Illinois and Mary­land.)

As the Demo­crat­ic Party un­der Pres­id­ent Obama has veered to the left, its ap­peal has been muted out­side lib­er­al urb­an areas. On top of that, the party is in­creas­ingly de­pend­ent on voters who don’t reg­u­larly show up in non-pres­id­en­tial-elec­tion years. Re­dis­trict­ing would have done very little to sal­vage Demo­crat­ic seats in the last two land­slide midterm elec­tions. And even in an elec­tion in which Don­ald Trump has poisoned the GOP brand, the party has re­mained re­mark­ably re­si­li­ent in the battle for Con­gress. Demo­crats hold just a 4-point gen­er­ic bal­lot ad­vant­age, ac­cord­ing to Real­Clear­Polit­ics av­er­ages, and are pre­dicted to win only 5 to 20 House seats, ac­cord­ing to The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port.

The Demo­crats’ base-first strategy in pres­id­en­tial races has been a sure­fire loser in the battle for the House, where the bal­ance of power is still de­term­ined by per­suad­able mod­er­ate voters in swing dis­tricts. It’s why Rahm Emanuel cor­rectly un­der­stood that the party needed to re­cruit can­did­ates with more-con­ser­vat­ive views on im­mig­ra­tion and abor­tion to win con­trol of Con­gress in 2006. Without this ideo­lo­gic­al di­versity in its re­cruit­ing, Demo­crats would have struggled to cap­ture their first beach­head of con­trol in George W. Bush’s fad­ing pres­id­ency.

In a telling Wash­ing­ton Post pro­file on the cam­paign trail with Joe Biden, Paul Kane writes that the vice pres­id­ent fears “Demo­crats are turn­ing in­to a party con­trolled by in­tel­lec­tu­al elites who don’t know how to re­late to people like those from his ho­met­own.” This is not a prob­lem that will be fixed by ger­ry­man­der­ing.

If she’s elec­ted, Hil­lary Clin­ton’s biggest test will be choos­ing wheth­er to fol­low Obama’s em­phas­is on the party base or try to re­cal­ib­rate Demo­crat­ic mes­saging to woo more cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive voters. It’s a di­lemma she’ll be con­front­ing reg­u­larly: Her path to win­ning con­gres­sion­al ma­jor­it­ies runs through red states and dis­tricts even as the en­ergy of her party is drift­ing fur­ther to the left.


1. Demo­crats may not be spend­ing much money in the Flor­ida Sen­ate race, but they’re not rul­ing out a sur­prise up­set of Sen. Marco Ru­bio. Their think­ing: If Trump con­tin­ues to struggle and tra­di­tion­al GOP voters don’t turn out, Demo­crats may not need to keep pace fin­an­cially to win. Obama’s acid­ic at­tacks against Ru­bio in Miami on Thursday were de­signed to un­der­mine his back­ing among Cuban-Amer­ic­an voters who loathe the GOP pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee but sup­port their sen­at­or. If they stay home, that could make the dif­fer­ence in a close race.

Sev­er­al new pub­lic polls show that Ru­bio is lead­ing Demo­crat­ic Rep. Patrick Murphy by fairly slim mar­gins. As Na­tion­al Journ­al re­por­ted, private Re­pub­lic­an polling con­duc­ted earli­er this week showed Ru­bio lead­ing by only 3 points.

2. Over­looked polling nug­get: In two new na­tion­al polls, both re­leased be­fore the third de­bate, Clin­ton’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings have reached re­spect­able levels. Bloomberg’s latest sur­vey showed that 47 per­cent of re­gistered voters view her fa­vor­ably, with 52 per­cent hold­ing a neg­at­ive opin­ion. That -5 spread is about as good as it’s been for Clin­ton since the be­gin­ning of the year. The Fox News poll found sim­il­ar res­ults, with Clin­ton’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity reach­ing 45 per­cent, while 53 per­cent held un­fa­vor­able views.

That nor­mally wouldn’t be con­sidered good news, but when Trump’s net fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings in the same polls are -19 (Fox) and -25 (Bloomberg), it demon­strates why this elec­tion is all but over.

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