Democrats have a good chance of controlling at least one House of Congress in 2019

Political prognostication is a fool’s game and arguably a distraction from the important work of citizens, which is to influence–not to forecast–the future.

But I can’t resist.

Recent projections give the Democrats anywhere from a 39% to a 58% (or even 63%) chance of winning the House. One reputable model gives the Democrats a 30% chance of winning the Senate. Those two results are not truly independent, since both will be affected by the national situation in November. But they are substantially independent, as illustrated by the claim that an 8 percentage-point swing toward the Democrats would give them 44 more House seats and four fewer Senate seats. If we assume that the two elections are independent events, then Democrats have between a 43% and 70% chance of capturing at least one house of Congress.

The wildcard is how the national situation will change between now and late October. If there’s a terrorist attack on the US, it will probably help the president’s party. The nomination battle could boost Republicans by giving religious conservatives a reason to turn out and by putting red-state Democratic Senators in a tough spot. Another four months of economic growth might help the GOP a bit, as would a report from the Special Counsel that comes nowhere close to associating Trump with crimes.

But I think upcoming news is more likely to assist the Democrats. Trump and his party have already captured whatever political benefit they’re going to gain from the economy, and there’s a significant potential for economic turbulence ahead. The Mueller investigation has lost public support without yielding a damaging public report, but his report is coming. Since 67% of Americans want to preserve Roe v Wade, a nomination that places that decision in jeopardy could mobilize more people against Trump than for him. The North Korea summit was a political success for the president: he hyped a genuine crisis to the maximum and then declared it resolved, which convinced a bunch of Americans. But that domestic political gain is fragile, since the threat was not actually resolved. We can also expect massive Obamacare premium increases, ugly battles in Congress, plenty of awkward votes for Republican incumbents, a possibly damaging Special Counsel report, lawsuits and depositions against the president, and unpredictable controversies revolving around him.

Overall, I’d put the chances that the Democrats control at least one house of Congress above 70%. That estimate is compatible with any actual result in November, so there’s no way I can be proven wrong. Meanwhile, stop reading forecasts and get back to work!

where youth stand on the 2018 election

On April 30, Reuters drew attention with the headline, “Exclusive: Democrats lose ground with millennials – Reuters/Ipsos poll.” The basis was a pair of online surveys of more than 16,000 registered voters under age 35 conducted in 2016 and 2018. In the 2016 survey, a generic Democratic House candidate beat a generic Republican by 28 points (55%-27%). In the 2018 survey, the lead had narrowed to 18 points (46%-28%). Among White men under 35, the generic Democrat lost 11 points between these surveys, and the generic Republican gained 10 points, putting the Republican ahead among this demographic group.

It is important not to overstate the decline based on this single comparison. Democrats have held a consistent and substantial lead in generic House candidate surveys since 2017. According to Reuters’ own tracking poll, in the week ending May 6, 2018, a Democratic generic House candidate led a generic Republican by 24 points (44%-19.6%) among 18-29s. In contrast, Reuters is currently showing a Democratic lead of only 6.3 points for all adults.

Over the whole period since June 2017, the Democratic ticket has always led the Republican ticket among 18-29s, and there is no sign of decline. Among age groups, under-30s have been by far the most favorable to Democrats.

On the other hand, there is no question that young Americans view the Democratic Party brand with some skepticism, and this creates headwinds for candidates in 2018. Reuters reports that 34% of under-25s think that the Democrats have a better plan for the economy, but 32% prefer the Republicans’ plan–basically a tie. Even as surveys show young people becoming more likely to identify as “liberal,” they also show declining willingness to identify as Democrats (with most shifting to Independents).

Millennials first entered the electorate in significant numbers in 2008, and, despite the recession, a majority felt they were middle class that year. But the proportion who identified with the middle class slipped a bit in 2009 and then slumped dramatically in 2010, not yet to recover. In 2016 General Social Survey, just one third of Millennials placed themselves in the middle class. And according to CIRCLE’s survey conducted around that year, only 17 percent of Millennials felt that the “economic system in this country is basically fair to all Americans.”

Thus, even while the nation saw a long (if slow) economic recovery under President Obama, Millennials were experiencing a rapid drop out of the middle class and drawing negative conclusions about the economic system. Since 2017, unemployment has fallen, and it’s possible that surveys would show some improvement in Millennials’ sense of their own economic circumstances under President Trump.

I conclude:

  • Democrats must reach out to youth to capture the support of this constituency, which leans their way.
  • Republicans can reasonably expect to contest the youth vote, if they try.
  • Candidates should address a wide range of economic concerns, including but extending beyond college affordability.
  • Antipathy to Donald Trump is real, but Millennials need other reasons to support Democrats.

See also: the politics of student debtthe weakening bond between millennials and the middle classnew CIRCLE report on Millennials’ ideologyhow Millennials split on some key issues; and how talking about Millennials obscures injustice.

the politics of student debt

When Democratic political candidates are asked about “youth,” often the first issue that comes to their minds is college affordability. For example, when Hillary Clinton was asked during a Democratic primary debate about how she would reach Millennials, her whole answer was about student debt.

I agree that student debt is a problem, but it’s not nearly as widespread as politicians assume. Nearly half of the debt is held by families in the top quartile, and for less advantaged younger Americans, student debt is only one of many challenges. Therefore, a much broader policy agenda is needed to engage the younger generation as a whole.

According to Harvard’s Institute of Politics, 42% of Millennials say that they or anyone else in their household holds student debt. Pew reports that 37% of 18-29s hold student debt in their own names. That is a lot of people, but not a majority.

Forty percent of Millennials do not take any college courses at all (whether in community colleges or four-year institutions). They don’t have college debt, and their immediate economic problems may be quite different: the minimum wage, daycare, job training, GED options.

Another 38 percent enroll in college but don’t attain a BA. They have mixed experiences. Some of them incur debt but don’t hold degrees. However, according to Sandy Baum and Martha Johnson, 60% of graduates of public community colleges hold no student debt. They have Associates Degrees and are debt-free. Most of the people who borrow to obtain a 2-year degree attend for-profit institutions, and that’s a problem unto itself.

[Graph corrected on April 21]

The proportions of all adults who report holding student debt is pretty steady across all income levels. (Source: Caroline Ratcliffe and Signe-Mary McKernan for the Urban Institute.)

But the loans get bigger as you go up the income ladder. Ratcliffe and McKernan report that people in the top quartile are least worried about their ability to repay their debt, yet they hold almost half of the dollars owed.

Similarly, Pew reports, “About two-thirds of young college graduates with student loans (65%) live in families earning at least $50,000, compared with 40% of those without a bachelor’s degree.”

It should not be surprising that the more education you attain, the higher your debt. This also means that the people with the most debt are young adults in white-collar professions. They may be struggling, and I am fully sympathetic to them, but they represent the upper socio-economic stratum.
Median amount of outstanding student debt varies widely by education level

It would therefore be difficult to spend public money reducing debt without channeling most of the resources to upper-income young adults.

More youth regard debt as a problem than personally hold debt. Fifty-seven percent tell Pew that “student debt is a major problem for young people in the United States.” One reason may be that the prospect of debt deters people from pursuing college at all (or keeps them from pursuing more costly four-year and postgraduate degrees). In that case, college affordability and debt would be challenges for more than the 35%-40% of Millennials who actually hold debt.

But it’s a big assumption that the main reason people don’t pursue college degrees is the cost of tuition. About 41% of 31-year olds have no more than a high school diploma. The next step up the SES ladder for them would be an Associates Degree, and 60% of people who graduate from public community colleges have no debt. There may be many reasons 41% of young adults can’t get Associates Degrees–and they may not even want one–but tuition is not likely the main obstacle.

I’d be the last person to criticize reforms that make college more affordable. I just don’t think that this is the Rosetta Stone to the Millennial vote.

youth in recent protests

A new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll provides detailed information about participation in current protests and social movements. The Post leads with: “Tens of millions of Americans have joined protests and rallies in the past two years, their activism often driven by admiration or outrage toward President Trump.” Here, I’ve broken out the data for ages 18-29 and separated the questions into categories.

To begin, 17% of 18-29s would call themselves “activists,” just a point below the whole adult population. They are less sure than older people that they will vote in 2018 (only 37% are “absolutely sure”), but more likely to disapprove strongly of Donald Trump. Just under 20 percent actually voted in 2014, the last midterm election. It will make a great deal of difference whether that number rises in 2018.

During the past two years, an outright majority of 18-29s have signed a petition, and many have taken other classic political acts. They are less likely than older Americans to give money, but they come close on most other measures of engagement.

I’ve divided the long list of topics for rallies and protests into right- and left-wing causes. Respondents are asked whether they have personally attended a rally or protest of each type in the past two years.

Under-30s do not appear in detectable numbers in the rallies for Confederate monuments, for oil and gas, or against the Affordable Care Act. About one percent of 18-29s have rallied against abortion, against immigration, or in support of police conduct. Three percent have turned out at physical events for Trump. For right-wing causes, the rates of participation are low for all adults. Most of these are fringe movements.

Young adults have been more active on the other side of the political spectrum. Nine percent have marched or rallied against Trump, the most popular cause. (They have been over-represented in the anti-Trump events.) Marches for LGBT rights and immigration have also been popular for youth, and disproportionately so.

Only one percent have turned out (so far) in support of gun control. However, that could be misleading because students under the age of 19 have played notable leadership roles in the gun-violence movement. I commented on MSNBC about the youth protests against gun violence.

youth voting on All Things Considered

Excerpts from “All Things Considered” (March 29): Barbara Howard  interviewing my colleague and our CIRCLE director, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg:

BH: It seems like with these rallies last weekend, there was a real crackling in the air. People registering kids right there at the rallies. And you can register now when you’re 17, coming up into the midterms. Is there a chance that the interest will wane? There’s some months between now and November.

KG: That’s correct. Registering young people is, of course, very important, but it’s often not enough. There are many ways we can keep young people engaged, though. One of them is to really make sure that they can feel like they can do something at their local community. Some of the ways in which to do that is [to] make sure young people are motivating their own friends and families, uncles and aunts, and even grandparents. Also, they can work at polling places in some states, including, I believe, Massachusetts, where young people can be [a] really active part of the process even before they’re actually eligible to vote.

BH: But young people do tend to turn out in much smaller numbers than older voters.

KG: That’s correct. Traditionally, they’ve turned out at the lower numbers; it is especially the case in midterm elections. Last midterm election we measured youth turnout was 2014, and nationwide only 20 percent of under 30s actually turned out.

BH: Do you think this time it’s different, having seen the rallies last weekend?

KG: There are certainly great indicators of hope. One is that there’s of course been a lot of enthusiasm and passion from young people, and it’s for the movement that’s started by and led by young people. So they’re certainly taking the lead and really putting a stake in the ground to say, we’re not going to wait for a political leader to come to us and talk about the issues that’s important to them, but we’re going to tell them what’s important to us, and they’re going to put that on their agenda. So it’s certainly promising. We’re also seeing other polling that there is a lot of young people saying we’re enthusiastic about coming out to vote in November, and also the suggestion that they actually may be signing up with political parties, especially the Democratic Party, more than they did before.

I’d also note the clear connection between this social movement’s agenda and voting. The youth who are working for gun control are on the same side as the majority of all voters; it’s just elected officials who block the legislation they want. The solution is to vote new politicians in. Voting is more fraught and complicated for radical social movements that challenge mainstream public opinion or that lack allies in electoral politics (or both). Thus I would predict a bigger electoral impact from the gun control movement than from other recent social movements.

the 2018 Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI)

From CIRCLE today:

CIRCLE’s updated Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) is a valuable tool for any individual, campaign, organization, or institution that seeks to increase youth political engagement. Earlier this month, we highlighted the top 10 congressional districts where young people might have an especially high electoral influence. Today we are releasing the top 10 senate and gubernatorial races where young people have the potential to do the same. The YESI can help stakeholders identify places where additional efforts and resources to turn out the youth vote could be decisive. It can also be a tool for equity and broadening engagement, if efforts focus on reaching those not yet engaged in the top-ranked locations.

Please click to Explore the Interactive Index  or Read the Full Report and Methodology

talking about student activism on Under the Radar with Callie Crossley

I was on WGBH’s “Under the Radar” today with host Callie Crossley and an excellent student activist named Victoria Massey, who is a senior at Charlestown High School and a member of the Hyde Square Task Force community organizing group. The segment is entitled “Is Student-Led Activism A Driving Force For Change In America?” It airs on Sunday but is officially available for listening and sharing now. Here it is.

And here’s how the conversation was framed:

Alexander Hamilton wrote his first political pamphlet as a student at King’s College, now known as Columbia University. He was 17 years old. On February 1, 1960, The lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, were started by four college freshmen started the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C. Three years later, the “Children’s Crusade” in Birmingham, Alabama, involved kids as young as 7 in peaceful protests against segregation. And this weekend, a group of high school students who got the nation to say “Never Again” will lead  thousands at the March For Our Lives.

Student-led activism has always been a part of American culture. Could it be one of the country’s driving force for change?

should Democrats play constitutional hardball in 2019-20?

In How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt use comparative evidence to argue that democracies rely on two “soft guardrails”: constitutional forbearance and mutual toleration.* Forbearance means that political actors refrain from using all the powers that the written text of the constitution affords them. Regimes rarely survive once politicians routinely honor the letter but not the spirit of the rules. Toleration means explicitly acknowledging that the other side has a legitimate place in politics, a right to its views, and a right to govern if it wins elections.

We are perilously close to losing both constraints. This won’t be the first time in our history, but then again, our history has involved major breakdowns, like a Civil War that killed 620,000 Americans.

If Republicans beat expectations in 2018 and 2020, both parties’ behavior is predictable. Republicans will remain behind Trump because their base likes him and because the whole party will be winning under his banner. Democrats will resist as aggressively as possible, but with built-in limitations.

The choices for both sides will become much harder if the Democrats do well in 2018 and then 2020, capturing at least one house of Congress and then maybe the whole federal government. The Republicans’ choices will then be:

  1. The GOP stays Trumpian. This is what their base wants. Their losses will have been concentrated in swing districts and among independent-minded incumbents who tangled with the Trump base. The remaining party will be all-in for Trump. Since this scenario assumes that they lost ground in elections, they will be even more hostile to the political system, the media, and the Democrats, now seen as clearly rigging the system against real Republicans.
  2. Or the GOP turns into a principled conservative party that is skeptical of ambitious government, resistant to both taxation and public debt, and committed to constitutional restraint, including a restrained presidency. It presents that package as attractive to younger and more diverse voters and grows less demographically distinct from the Democrats.

Meanwhile …

  1. The Democrats play what Mark Tushnet calls Constitutional Hardball. Because they lost a Supreme Court seat when the Republicans wouldn’t even consider Merrick Garland, they return the favor and refuse Trump any new appointments. They launch aggressive investigations against Trump, his family, and his cabinet, focusing on potential financial crimes. They lay the predicate for impeachments and then prosecutions. They shut down the government over budget disputes, reckoning that Trump will send undisciplined tweets that will make him look at fault. If a Democratic presidential candidate wins in 2020, they drive through political reforms that advantage them in subsequent elections. In short, they decide not to be rolled, and also that their substantive policy goals require strong action.
  2. Or the Democrats try to restore mid-20th century norms of constitutional forbearance and partisan toleration. That doesn’t mean that they seat Trump’s Supreme Court nominees or refrain from investigations, but they try to follow the traditional procedures. For example, they bring Trump’s nominees up for votes but vote nay, and they make their investigations as focused and as bipartisan as possible. Democrats look to peel off independent-minded Republicans who are uncomfortable with Trump’s style and go out of their way to honor these colleagues.

Game theory is tailor-made for situations in which two players can make independent choices and the result is a single outcome. Here is a guess about how these choices would play out.

Democrats play “Constitutional Hardball” Democrats try to restore cooperative norms
Republicans stay Trumpian Democrats probably win on policy–increasingly so as the demographic trends favor them. Republicans retain 35% of the population that is overwhelmingly white and Christian and increasingly angry. The GOP still dominates some states and regions. Right-wingers give Democrats rationales for using increasingly hardball tactics. Political violence grows. Democrats are corrupted by the lack of legitimate checks. Democrats get rolled on policy. Possibly they expand their electoral power as a result of demographic trends plus a reputation for being responsible (if their forbearance is widely understood as such). Possibly they just look weak, and lose.
Republicans shift to principled conservatism Perhaps the Democrats prevail on policy and grow stronger due to demographics. Or perhaps they further erode confidence in government and thus strengthen principled conservatism, which wins elections and policy battles. The republic is safe. Democrats make incremental progress on policy, but Republicans offer a conservative alternative that sometimes prevails.

This is pretty close to a Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), with the best option for all being the bottom-right, yet both sides have strong reasons to choose the other course. It’s a little more complicated than a pure PD because it plays out over time. The options and payoffs depend on the precise circumstances of the moment–say, in 2019 with a Democratic House and a narrowly Republican Senate, or in 2021 with (hypothetically) a newly inaugurated Democratic president. But versions of the choices arise at each stage, from congressional primaries today to legislative strategies in 2021.

*See pp. 7-8. However, my comments are based on hearing the authors speak, not having read their whole book yet.

powering youth civic engagement with data

(Providence, RI) Two of our marquee data projects have made the news this week. In The New York Times (March 3), Farah Stockman writes:

Efforts to bolster student turnout have been aided by a new national study that analyzes voting behavior on campuses across the country.

For the first time, schools can get detailed data on how many of their students cast a ballot, either locally or absentee, thanks to the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement, put out by researchers at Tufts University.

The study aims to assess how well schools are doing at preparing students to be active citizens in a democracy, said Nancy Thomas, director of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University, who oversees the study.

The study, which matches enrollment records with voting records, began in 2013 with a modest expectation of getting a few hundred colleges to participate. Today, it includes voting data from more than nine million students on 1,100 campuses in all 50 states. Identifying information has been removed from the data to protect students’ privacy.

The data has unearthed a series of fascinating insights about the 2016 elections: Social science majors had higher turnout than math and science majors (53 percent versus 44 percent). Female students had higher turnout than males (52 percent versus 44 percent). Asian students turned out at a far lower rate than their peers (31 percent versus 53 percent for white students, 50 percent for black students and 46 percent for Hispanic students).

“This initiative will hopefully motivate educators to teach students across disciplines why they should not take democracy for granted,” Dr. Thomas said.

And Josh Kurtz writes in Scientific American (March 5):

Millennial voters are poised to drive the U.S. debate on climate change—and they could have an oversized impact on 10 competitive congressional elections this year, two new studies suggest. …

The second study, also released late last week by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, showed the 10 congressional districts where millennial voters could potentially make the greatest difference in November. Eight of the 10 districts are in the Midwest or Plains states. …

“Millennial voters have generally favored Democrats in midterms, and that trend continues,” the Pew report says. “But, comparing early preferences this year with surveys conducted in previous midterm years, Millennial registered voters support the Democrat by a wider margin than in the past.”

That’s where the Tufts study comes in.

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement created a Youth Electoral Significance Index, using demographics, historical voting patterns and projected competitiveness to produce a ranking of the congressional districts where young people (ages 18-29) have the highest potential for impact on the 2018 elections.

The study identified 10 swing districts with large populations of young people, including college campuses.