Myth No. 1
Politicians choose policies based on principles.
With elective officeholders justifying their positions on the campaign trail as the best and only possible options, it’s natural that we see them as deeply committed to those ideas. The Lima News, Rep. Jim Jordan’s local paper, describes the Ohio Republican as “a true believer in conservative ways” for his battles on behalf of “less government, lower taxes, the free market system and a strong military.” This is why the greatest betrayal a politician can make is to appear to have sold his or her principles to moneyed interests. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, contrasting herself with other Democrats who take corporate donations, calls herself “People-Funded,” without lobbyist cash, in her Twitter bio.
But politicians rarely take stands that work against their electoral interests. Most of the lawmakers whose votes most closely track the party line hail from districts that vote more heavily for one party than the other, according to the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI), which measures a district’s partisan performance compared with the national average. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has taken lumps during the presidential primary contest for building a record friendly to gun owners in a predominantly white and moderate state where voters once strongly opposed anti-gun legislation. (Now white moderates in Vermont want action on guns, and Sanders is happy to deliver; he called his previous choices “bad” in the last debate.) If Ocasio-Cortez represented New York’s 17th District, where the Cook PVI score is +7 for Democrats, rather than New York’s 14th, where the party has a score of +29, she would probably have to adjust her approach, too.
Myth No. 2
Gerrymandering isn't driving polarization.
While gerrymandering is often blamed for many problems, many political scientists diminish its contribution to polarization. University of Denver professor Seth Masket wrote in 2014 that “districts tend to polarize more between redistrictings than during them,” meaning that people sort themselves instead of being sorted by boundary-drawers. Political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal concluded in a study that gerrymandering increased the GOP’s share of the House, but “this increase is not an important source of polarization” in the electorate.
But while gerrymandering may not be the root cause of polarization, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contribute, perhaps significantly. The past two redistricting cycles radically shrank the number of competitive districts, from 164 in the late 1990s to just over 70 today, about 17 percent of the House. One consequence is the rise of the primary as the greatest threat to incumbents. Now that 83 percent of House members represent safe districts, party primaries are dominated by ideologues and activists. The effort to fend them off drives officeholders to the political fringes. Republicans today, for instance, surely remember the object lesson of Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), a stalwart conservative majority leader who was nevertheless dethroned by a challenger from the right in 2014. Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley was ousted in a similar challenge by Ocasio-Cortez.
Myth No. 3
College-educated, suburban GOP women flipped the House.
After the Republican defeat in the 2018 midterm elections, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham said his party needed to address “the suburban-woman problem, because it’s real.” Political analyst Bill Schneider told the Hill.TV that he noticed “a lot of affluent, white suburban voters, well-educated, particularly women, fleeing the Trump party.”
Yet party-loyalty voting in 2018 was typical, with 94 percent of all House votes cast by Republicans going to Republican candidates and 95 percent of Democrats voting for Democratic candidates, following the pattern of the past two decades. Senate party loyalty is only a little weaker — averaging 92 percent in 2018 and displaying little variation from the cycles before Trump.
The real change was who showed up to the polls — more women, young people (who increasingly live in suburbs), Latinos, Asian Americans and African Americans — not loyal voters who flipped. That meant electorates favorable for Republicans in 2014 became electorates favorable for Democrats in 2018. The real “swing” is the decision to vote at all, a choice driven largely by the backlash to Trump.
Myth No. 4
The American electorate is center-right.
After the 2016 election, CNN’s John King said that “America is a center-right country” and “is a lot more conservative, especially out in the heartland, than Democrats think.” And it’s true that polls show there are many more ideological conservatives in the United States (31 percent, in a survey by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, where I am an assistant director) than there are ideological liberals (16 percent), while a solid chunk in the middle (51 percent) call themselves moderate.
But in the same surveys, voters express a clear preference for liberal policies, such as universal background checks for gun purchases (89 percent, in a Washington Post-ABC News poll), same-sex marriage (61 percent, according to Pew), giving legal status to “dreamers” (60 percent, Ipsos found) and legalizing marijuana (67 percent, in a Pew survey) — not to mention clear disdain for some key elements of President Trump’s agenda, such as building a border wall (60 percent oppose it, Gallup found) or 2017’s GOP tax-cut package (46 percent disapprove, according to Gallup).
The gap is due to a polling phenomenon known as “symbolic ideology,” in which people support general principles like “limited government” and “equality.” Asked about specific policies, though, respondents manifest their “operational ideology,” in which they are consistently more progressive. The decades-long GOP messaging effort against “liberalism” symbolically has worked, but the party’s efforts to stamp out liberal policies have not.
Myth No. 5
High turnout helps Democrats; low turnout helps Republicans.
Both parties seem to agree with this premise. In 2012, Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Turzai said new voter ID requirements would “win the state of Pennsylvania” for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, implying that the rules would keep some people from voting. In 2016, Sanders said: “Democrats win when the voter turnout is high. We can generate that. Republicans win when the voter turnout is low.” And it’s true that higher helps Democrats, because they experience greater drop off in nonpresidential cycles because of lower participation by key elements of their coalition: nonwhite and younger voters.
But a recent study of nonvoters commissioned by the Knight Foundation found that universal participation would benefit the GOP in many key swing states. In Virginia, 35 percent of nonvoters would vote for Trump and 31 percent would vote for a Democrat. In Arizona, where Democrats are trying to make headway, 34 percent would vote for Trump and only 25 percent would choose a Democrat. In Florida, 36 percent of nonvoters would select Trump and only 31 percent would vote for a Democrat.
That’s because the country is undergoing a long-term political realignment. Once dominated by rural voters, the Democratic Party is now the urban party; once urban, the Republican Party is now the rural party. America’s suburbs are ground zero, creating swing districts and swing states in places where the suburbs are competitive. Because turnout rates are nowhere near universal, even with the dramatic increases since Trump’s election, high turnout is benefiting Democrats in the suburbs, whereas high turnout in more rural and exurban areas boosts Republicans. Based on 2018’s participation rates, turnout in both geographic areas is likely to increase in 2020 over 2016, but the country’s population has grown increasingly dense, probably creating an advantage for Democrats.