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Notes on the State of Politics: Feb. 28, 2024

Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of Notes on the State of Politics, which features shorter updates on elections and politics. This week, we are recapping last night’s presidential primaries in Michigan, plotting out our ratings for the likely new congressional map in New York, and looking ahead to California’s top-two congressional primary as part of Super Tuesday next week.

The Editors

Michigan’s primary: Much ado about not much

In the days leading up to the Michigan presidential primary, we must admit to being taken a bit aback at the immense coverage the Democratic contest received. Given all that coverage, we probably don’t need to spend much time setting the scene—some prominent state Democrats and local Arab-American leaders backed a protest “Uncommitted” vote against President Biden in response to his support for Israel in its campaign in Gaza following a Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7. The ongoing conflict has been a political problem for Democrats because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict splits the Democrats in a way that it doesn’t split the Republicans.

This has taken place under the backdrop of poor Biden polling in Michigan, a crucial battleground state that typically votes a little more Democratic than Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the two other Great Lakes states that form the “Blue Wall” states where Donald Trump broke through in 2016 but then fell back in 2020. Obviously, observers are looking for any signs about how these crucial states may be leaning.

That said, we do think the coverage went a bit overboard, particularly because “Uncommitted” didn’t really get that big of a share of the vote. Yes, it got 13%, although that’s not terribly larger than the Uncommitted vote against Barack Obama in a 2012 contest (although the contests are not directly comparable, as that Michigan Democratic contest was a “beauty contest” that did not award delegates, whereas this year’s Michigan primary does award delegates and got some attention because Democrats added it to their roster of early state contests in the primary nominating calendar). In any event, Obama won 89%-11% over “Uncommitted” in 2012, while Biden won 81%-13% over “Uncommitted,” with the remaining smattering of votes going to a couple of other candidates and write-ins. So, yes, Biden’s showing was worse, but not way worse. Voter participation was also way higher—760,000 votes cast this time, not far from quadruple the roughly 200,000 cast in 2012 (although it’s also just a lot easier to vote in Michigan now than it was back then, given the revolution in early/absentee voting there and in other places in recent years, and Obama’s team actively discouraged participation in that 2012 contest).

You could spin the results as being bad for Biden, because an effort to get voters to vote uncommitted did draw double-digits worth of support (and drew clear majorities in some heavily Arab-American pockets of voters in the Detroit area). You could also spin the results as being good for Biden, because turnout was robust and he still got a very large chunk of the vote. Or you could just take it all with a lot of grains of salt and say that it probably does not mean all that much either way—or that if it does mean something, it’s hard to exactly pinpoint what that something is at this point (for instance, one cannot just assume that every uncommitted vote was about Gaza).

A couple of political scientists we respect, Michigan State’s Matt Grossmann and Boston College’s David Hopkins, had good observations last night in posts on X/Twitter (coincidentally, the pair also co-wrote an excellent book, Asymmetric Politics, and are publishing another one that looks good: Polarized by Degrees: How the Diploma Divide and the Culture War Transformed American Politics). Grossmann wrote that “People who vote in Democratic primaries are very likely to vote Democratic in November. There are plenty of Arab American swing voters in Michigan, but uncommitted votes are not a great signal. Other uncommitted voters are also unlikely to be great swing voter signals.” Hopkins, meanwhile, argued that “Any interpretation of the MI results so far that isn’t ‘big wins for both Trump and Biden’ is straining too hard to make drama out of these numbers.” (Donald Trump easily beat Nikki Haley in the Michigan Republican primary, 68%-27%.)

We’ve said before that this might, collectively, be the least-competitive presidential nominating season in modern history. So far, not only have Biden and Trump won every contest, but neither has come even close to losing any individual contest. Neither may lose any contests at all. Normally, there would be at least some competitive action in a presidential nominating season, which we sometimes think of as the busiest time of the four-year election cycle, because of the flood of contests and (typically) other associated tentpole events, like debates. But the debates, which Trump ignored and Democrats did not hold, are long over, and the contests themselves have been uncompetitive.

In other words, there’s usually a lot to talk about during primary season, but this time there isn’t—there’s certainly no lack of action in politics more broadly, and we are building toward another blockbuster presidential general election. But the primary season isn’t providing much drama. So there is a desire to hunt for drama—hence, a fixation on parsing protest votes.

The NY Remap: Better for Democrats but not a “Hochulmander”

As of this writing (Wednesday morning), the Democratic-controlled New York state legislature appeared to be on its way to approving a new set of congressional district lines. While state Democrats did not adopt a map supported by the state’s bipartisan redistricting commission, they did not end up making huge changes to the current map. This is a better map for Democrats than the plan used in 2022, but a “Hochulmander” 2.0 it most certainly is not.

Back in 2022, state Democrats rammed through the original Hochulmander, so named for Gov. Kathy Hochul (D-NY). This map was designed to give Democrats a 22-4 edge in the state’s U.S. House delegation (although it would not have performed that way in 2022, given how well Republicans did in New York). But the state’s highest court threw out the map and a special master drew the lines; that map ended up producing a 15-11 Democratic delegation, down from a 19-8 edge Democrats won in 2020 under the old map. Republicans won six districts Biden carried in 2020, including five where Biden did better than he did nationally. Democrats won back one of those seats in a special election a couple of weeks ago, as former Rep. Tom Suozzi (D, NY-3) flipped the Nassau County-based seat that disgraced ex-Rep. George Santos (R) briefly held.

A convoluted legal process initiated by Democrats reopened the redistricting process for 2024, and the commission approved a new map that didn’t differ much from the 2022 map, although the one incumbent clearly hurt was Syracuse-area Rep. Brandon Williams (R, NY-22), whose already Biden-won district got a few points bluer.

The map Democrats are poised to enact also makes Williams more vulnerable, moving his seat from Biden +7.5 to roughly Biden +11. The map also modestly aids Rep. Pat Ryan (D, NY-18) in the Hudson Valley, pushing his seat from about Biden +8 to Biden +9, as well as Suozzi, whose district goes from Biden +8 to Biden +11. This has the effect of pushing Rep. Nick LaLota’s (R, NY-1) Long Island-based district from having narrowly backed Biden in 2020 to having narrowly backed Trump, although this district was a Likely Republican-rated reach for Democrats either way (the district has been in the news lately because former CNN political analyst John Avlon recently launched a campaign there as a Democrat, although he has competition for the nomination).

Assuming this map is enacted, we would make the following rating changes:

— Williams in NY-22 goes from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. If the district’s previous Republican incumbent, the more moderate John Katko, were still in office, we’d keep this as a Toss-up, but Williams—a clearer conservative—was in trouble anyway, and he’ll have a hard time holding this bluer district.

— Rep. Anthony D’Esposito (R, NY-4) holds the bluest district held by any Republican, at Biden +14.5. Following Suozzi’s win in the district directly north of NY-4, we wrote that we would be moving this district from Toss-up to Leans Democratic assuming the district did not get redder in redistricting. It did not, so we are making that move. D’Esposito strongly endorsed Donald Trump for president earlier this week, which gives Democrats an obvious opening to further nationalize this race in a district where Biden may be weaker in 2024 but should still clearly win.

— After his impressive special election win and with a little help from the new map, Suozzi goes from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic. He did not have particularly hard races in a similarly-Democratic district in 2016, 2018, and 2020.

The map did not meaningfully change the districts held by Reps. Mike Lawler (R, NY-17) and Marc Molinaro (R, NY-19), and they remain Toss-ups—the only two Toss-ups we’ll have in New York if these changes go through.

Democrats could have gone much further, and some are complaining that the party didn’t—a frequently-expressed opinion seems to be “we went through all this legal rigmarole for this?” But the changes are not meaningless—NY-22 becomes a better Democratic target and NY-3 becomes an easier seat for Democrats to defend. That said, it’s possible that whatever the November results in these districts end up being, the winners would have been the same on the old map as well. This is not a gerrymander like the new one in North Carolina, where Republicans turned three Democratic-held seats—two that were safely Democratic, and one that was a swing seat—into three easy Republican pickups (and made a fourth Democratic-held seat into a Toss-up after it was more like Leans Democratic on the old map). It’s also possible that if Democrats had gone further in New York, they would have opened themselves up to the kind of legal action that undid the 2022 Hochulmander.

If and when Hochul signs this map—the legislature could approve it later today after Hochul gave her blessing to expedite the process—we will officially make these changes, which would make our ratings 212 seats rated Safe/Likely/Leaning Republican and 206 Safe/Likely/Leaning Democratic, with 17 Toss-ups. That’s two seats better for Democrats than our current ratings. After Suozzi’s win, we wrote that we expected the New York remap to push our ratings toward reflecting more of a Toss-up battle for the House majority, and that’s exactly what will happen. And we will of course revisit this assessment if this map is not enacted.

Thanks to New York analysts Steven Romalewski and Benjamin Rosenblatt for posting helpful information about the new maps.

Previewing the California top-two

California helps kick off the congressional primary season as part of Super Tuesday next week, and its top-two primary system can provide some clues about November’s California races. The basic rule of thumb is that if Democrats win a majority of the two-party vote in a district, they will win the seat in the fall, but that rule does not always apply to Republicans. However, it used to be more common for the Democratic vote to grow from the primary to the general than it is now.

Since 2012, which marked the start of California’s current top-two primary system, Democrats have won 21 House elections after Republicans won a majority of the two-party vote in the first round of voting. Republicans, meanwhile, have not won a single seat where they failed to win a majority of the two-party vote in the first round.

However, most of these instances were before the 2020 election—that year, Democrats won just one district where they failed to get a majority in the first round, and in 2022, the party that won a majority in the first round went on to win that seat in the fall in every single instance.

Despite the topline finding that in six cycles’ worth of elections Republicans have never come back from a first-round deficit to win a California House race, it has become more common for Republicans, in aggregate, to do better in November than they did in the earlier primary.

In 2012 and 2014, when Democrats overcame a first-round deficit to win a combined 14 House races over the two cycles, the Democratic margin improved, on average, by 6 and 4 points respectively from the primary to the general. In 2016, Republicans actually improved by about 1.5 points on average. Democrats were back to improving, by an average of about 3 points, from the primary to the general in 2018, and then Republicans improved by a little over 2 points on average in 2020. Last cycle, and under a new congressional map, Republicans improved by a little more than 1.5 points on average in 2022 (all of these figures only consider races where both a Democrat and a Republican advanced to the general election).

There are some extenuating circumstances that contribute to these numbers: In both 2016 and 2020, the California primary was held concurrently with the presidential primary, and there was more activity on the Democratic side in each year; in 2012, the presidential primary was uncompetitive, with Barack Obama running as an incumbent and Mitt Romney having sewn up the Republican nomination earlier in the cycle.

To the extent there is action in this presidential primary, it is more on the Republican side, but neither party is hosting a very competitive race leading into Super Tuesday. It has shown in turnout: California election expert Paul Mitchell, speaking on the Capitol Weekly podcast earlier this week, has been tracking the turnout and suggests it will be quite weak. That could have some bearing on the state’s closely-watched Senate primary, where Rep. Adam Schiff (D, CA-30) has been boosting former Major League Baseball star Steve Garvey (R) in a bid to set up a Democratic versus Republican Senate general election, thus knocking out chief rival Rep. Katie Porter (D, CA-47) in the primary stage. One wonders if the alignment of the Senate race could have some bearing on November down-ballot turnout—if the Republicans are shut out, perhaps their voters have less reason to vote, although the GOP has no chance of winning the seat whether they have a candidate or not.

We currently list four California House seats as Toss-ups. Three are Republican-held seats that Joe Biden won by low double-digits, making them three of the most Democratic seats held by the GOP: Rep. Mike Garcia’s CA-27 north of Los Angeles, along with CA-13 and CA-22, Central Valley seats respectively held by Reps. John Duarte and David Valadao. The Democratic-held one is Porter’s open seat, Orange County-based CA-47.

Each California primary season, there arises the possibility of a party—almost always the Democrats—worrying about being shut out of the top-two primary in an otherwise winnable seat. This hasn’t actually happened in an electorally important district since 2012, when two Republicans advanced to the general election in the old CA-31, a district Barack Obama would win with 57% of the vote that November (Democrat Pete Aguilar, who finished third in that primary, would come back and win the seat in 2014 and remains in the House today).

This time, Democratic top-two worries are centered on CA-22, the Central Valley seat held by Valadao. Democratic outside groups have pumped in millions to try to make sure that former state Assemblyman Rudy Salas (D), who lost in a competitive race to Valadao in 2022, doesn’t get surpassed by state Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D), who is not running much of a campaign but could finish ahead of Salas (national Democrats prefer Salas). Meanwhile, Valadao, a rare Republican backer of impeaching Trump in 2021 who remains in the House, is facing a rematch with a more right-wing foe, Chris Mathys, who also ran in this district in 2022 and came within a few points of beating out Valadao for a top-two primary slot. Republican outside groups have come to Valadao’s aid (though their intervention hasn’t been as pricey as the Democrats’ assistance to Salas has been, at least based on the numbers we’ve seen publicly reported). With two Democrats and two Republicans running, hypothetically any alignment (two Ds, two Rs, or one D and one R) is possible, although this is a district where the GOP is much likelier to win a majority in at least the first round of voting, so it makes sense for Democrats to worry more about a shutout. The electorate in this district is fairly small, as it is heavily Hispanic and ranks low in terms of four-year college attainment. As an aside, Democrats generally hold the districts with the smallest electorates: Among the 25 districts with the lowest vote totals in 2022 (as compiled by Rhodes Cook in a Crystal Ball article last year), Republicans hold only two: CA-22 and its Central Valley neighbor to the north, the aforementioned CA-13, where Duarte and his 2022 opponent, former state Assemblyman Adam Gray (D), are the only candidates running.

One other California primary to watch is a nasty intraparty fight between state Sen. Dave Min and activist Joanna Weiss, Democrats who are competing for a top-two spot, with 2022 candidate Scott Baugh (R) favored to also advance to the general election in the 54%-43% Biden CA-47 that Porter left behind to run for Senate. We call this race a Toss-up, for now, as it is more competitive down the ballot than the presidential topline would indicate and Democrats no longer have the well-funded Porter to defend it. In 2022, Porter’s share in the top-two primary was 51.7% (she was the sole Democrat running)—and it remained exactly that in November. So for all the drama of the primary, if the Democratic share in the district exceeds 50%, it would be a positive sign for Democrats to hold the district given the history we noted above.

Vote counts in California take weeks to finalize, so we’ll hold off on following up on the 2024 primary results and mining them for clues about November until after the results are completely reported. Remember this warning if you see others drawing general election conclusions based on incomplete results next week.

California is one of five states—Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas—that are holding the first congressional primaries of the season on Super Tuesday. Together, these states account for roughly a quarter (26%, or 115 out of 435) of the nation’s congressional districts, so there is a lot of early action. We’ll review any notable results next Wednesday.