With about 100 days to go until the 2018 elections, I spoke by phone with Dave Wasserman, the U.S. House editor of the Cook Political Report. I wanted to get a sense of where the race for the House stood—as well as whether what appeared to be increasing Democratic optimism about capturing a House majority was warranted. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we also discussed what we can and can’t learn from Trump’s approval ratings, why House and Senate races are so distinct from one another this cycle, and why the conventional wisdom about what makes a good presidential candidate may be wrong.
Isaac Chotiner: In the last month or so, in a lot of commentary and even your Cook Political Report rankings, there’s been an increasing bullishness on Dems taking the House. Has something changed, or is the conventional wisdom catching up to the actual state of play?
Dave Wasserman: Democrats have had a good month. I have seen enough waves to know that they ebb and flow. There are usually moments of doubt for the party benefiting from a wave, and it usually turns out to be larger than most people anticipate. I found that to be the case in 2006 and 2010 and to some extent 2014. And at this point, Democrats are 60 to 65 percent favorites, I’d say, to take back the House based on what we know. If you just go by generic ballot polling, it suggests a pretty tight race for the House. I’d estimate Democrats need to win 7 to 8 percent more votes than Republicans to break even, and Democrats have averaged a 7- to 8-point lead in most aggregators.
But what gives Democrats the edge is their intensity advantage. We’ve seen this over and over again in special elections. On most measurements of engagement, Democrats are running well ahead of Republicans. In that respect, it’s a lot like 2010 or 2014 in reverse.
What led you to change a lot of your Cook rankings in the last month toward the Democrats?
We’ve changed ratings because campaigns have developed into some serious challenges in more places. When one side’s base is angrier about the status quo, they give more money. They have more candidates running. Those candidates are of a higher caliber. Many times, they have competitive primaries because lots of people are interested in running, but it makes the party more competitive in more places. Problems are cropping up for Republicans in some unusual places—southern West Virginia, rural Kansas, even Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ district in eastern Washington. These are all telltale signs of a wave.
There’s been some concern that polls like the recent NBC News/Marist poll, which had extremely favorable numbers for Democrats in the Midwest, were not rating by education and therefore might be making a similar mistake that some of the polls last time around did in undercounting less educated white voters. Is that a concern of yours?
I’m concerned about that too, but keep in mind that this electorate is going to be the most college-educated in the history of American elections. The college-educated share of the electorate goes way up in midterms, and that’s never had much of a partisan consequence before, but in the Trump era, there’s simply a massive education gap between the parties. The switch to a much more college-educated electorate benefits Democrats a lot. If I had to put a name on 2018, it’d be the Year of the Angry Female College Graduate.
As a casual poll watcher, I have not perceived much of a relationship between Trump’s approval rating and the generic ballot polls. Is that your sense also, and if so, why?
They haven’t always moved in concert with each other, but the correlation’s not too bad. Keep in mind that Democrats’ largest lead on the generic ballot was last December, and that’s when Trump’s approval rating was lowest. Keep in mind that was around the time of the congressional debate on the tax bill. There is still a disconnect between what the Democratic base is talking about in D.C. and on MSNBC and what Democratic voters and independents are concerned about in a lot of the most competitive districts, which explains why the health care and tax issues are still big deals for voters in most of these competitive districts even though they’ve faded from the debate on television.
You said 60 to 65 percent chance for Dems to take the House. What number do you have for Dems in the Senate? Have they had a noticeably good month in terms of the Senate as well?
I would put it this way: In my 11 years of covering races professionally, I’ve never seen as little overlap between the House and Senate. If every single election result on November 6 were an 8-point uniform swing in Democrats’ direction from the 2016 presidential result, then Democrats would win 44 House seats, which is almost double what they need, but they would simultaneously lose four Senate seats. There’s a tendency to underestimate just how different the terrain in the House is versus the terrain in the Senate. It’s possible we’re headed for a divergent outcome on election night. Few people have lost money betting on a growing rural versus urban divide this year. This really is a tale of two midterms. I would put Republicans’ odds of holding the Senate even higher than Democrats’ of taking over the House.
You had a tweet that surprised me about a month ago when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won, where you said that if she were eligible to run for president in 2020, she would be a better candidate than Joe Biden. Political activists often think that the way to appeal to voters is by going after their base, but people like yourself—and I say that lovingly—who look at things through a generally nonpartisan lens, tend to think that appealing to the middle is smarter. Has your view on this stuff changed?
Yeah, I have changed. Now, look, I don’t think Democrats would be wise to field Ocasio-Cortez in every competitive House race. Clearly, a big advantage of being the out party is your party can have multiple personalities. The face of your party can be Brendan Kelly in southern Illinois, who would fit right in with the Blue Dogs, or Jeff Van Drew in New Jersey, who also won. Or it can be Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Katie Porter in California, or progressive Democrats elsewhere.
But for the purposes of winning the presidential election, Democrats need to do a much better job of motivating two groups: young voters and Latinos. And we saw that in 2016. After all of the things that Donald Trump said and did, the turnout rate of 18- to 29-year-olds and Latinos was lower than it was in 2012. I think a common error of the punditocracy in D.C. is to think about politics on a left-right spectrum, when in fact more voters these days are thinking about it on an outsider vs. insider spectrum or a canned vs. “I don’t give a fuck” spectrum.
I don’t mean to argue that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would be Democrats’ ideal nominee, even if she were eligible. But I do think someone of her profile, a young charismatic woman, would energize the base in a way someone like Joe Biden would not.
I know Hillary was to some degree unable to motivate people by saying Trump is a danger. My feeling is that after four years of Trump, Democrats will be motivated regardless of who the candidate is, but maybe that’s naïve just the way that optimism about Hillary was naïve.
Yeah, what 2016 proved was that in presidential elections, these parties need a candidate people are enthusiastic about. I don’t think Republicans could say that about Mitt Romney even though he was thought of by the D.C. press as a more moderate candidate than Donald Trump. Voters did not perceive Romney to be a more moderate candidate than Trump. They perceived Trump to be a more moderate candidate than Romney. I’ll just go back to this point. In 2014, how many of us thought that Donald Trump would be a serious contender for the presidency if he won the nomination?
You’re making two points, I think. One is it’s about outsider/insider, not just moderate versus partisan. What you also seem to be saying, which I think is slightly different but connected, is that if you are an outsider, people may just see you as more moderate regardless of your policy positions, which is helpful to know.
Or they’ll see you as not bound to one of the corrupt party establishments. That’s very valuable in an age when the proportion of unaffiliated voters is setting new records every year.