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Notes on the State of Politics: July 21, 2021


Dear Readers: This is the latest edition of the Crystal Ball’s “Notes on the State of Politics,” which features short updates on elections and politics.

— The Editors

AAPOR report sheds light on “shy Trump” phenomenon

A new report from the American Association for Public Opinion Research confirmed that 2020’s pre-election polls performed even worse than they did in 2016, with both national and state-level polls understating Republican support. Five years ago, final national pre-election polling generally showed Hillary Clinton leading a close national race (she did in fact win the popular vote), but many of the state-level polls, particularly in the Midwest, understated Donald Trump’s level of support. This time, many national and state-level polls were off.

The AAPOR report, which came out Monday, also suggested that some of the proposed solutions to 2016’s polling problems, such as ensuring that a poll was weighted by education level, did not really fix the problems.

Natalie Jackson of the Public Religion Research Institute noted some of these expected findings in the Crystal Ball earlier this month, and the formal report itself confirms Natalie’s suggestion that there would be no easy fixes for 2020’s polling problems.

After the 2016 election, many wondered whether a so-called “Shy Trump” vote may have biased the polls. This could take at least a couple of different forms, as the Pew Research Center’s Courtney Kennedy noted in 2017. “Shy Trump” voters could be reluctant to disclose their support for Trump to a pollster, or these voters could be difficult for pollsters to reach altogether. The AAPOR polling autopsy suggests that the latter “Shy Trump” phenomenon was more likely: “It is plausible that Trump supporters were less likely to participate in polls overall. Nonetheless, among those who chose to respond to polls there is no evidence that respondents were lying. A separate and likely problem is that some people chose not to respond to polls at all.” Overall, it seems as though it would be more accurate to call these hard-to-reach voters “Shy Republicans” as opposed to Shy Trumpers, because polls understated Republican performance a bit worse in gubernatorial and Senate races compared to the presidential contest, according to the AAPOR report.

While it’s hard to know specifically what’s going on — remember, we’re talking about pollsters trying to figure out a group that it appears disproportionately doesn’t respond to polls — it seems likely that, in 2020, there was an underpolled group that tended to vote not just for Trump, but for a straight Republican ticket. Needless to say, this is an important group of voters moving forward, but it may be hard to account for them — both for Republicans dependent on their turnout, and Democrats fearful of it.

Special elections in Texas and Ohio on the horizon

Unlike the initial stretch of the Trump administration, which saw a flurry of competitive House special elections mostly due to members leaving to take jobs in the executive branch, the first year of President Biden’s term has been relatively quiet on the House front — with his party only holding a narrow majority in the chamber, that may have been by design. Still, in what has been something of an uneventful year for special elections, things may be heating up soon. With three special elections already in the books for this year, voters in three more districts will weigh in over the coming weeks.

In Texas, voters in the state’s 6th District will go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new member. In February, then-Rep. Ron Wright (R, TX-6) died of COVID-19 complications, necessitating a special election. Wright’s widow, Susan, placed first in May’s all-party primary (for special elections, Texas uses Louisiana-style jungle primaries). She took 19% in a field that included about two-dozen candidates. Perhaps because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, admittedly, didn’t make the race a priority, the Democratic vote was fractured, and another Republican, state Rep. Jake Ellzey, will join Wright in Tuesday’s runoff.

On policy, there seems to be little daylight between Wright and Ellzey, so the race may hinge on geographic, not ideological, lines. When Wright’s late husband was elected to Congress in 2018, he, coincidentally, beat Ellzey in a Republican runoff. Wright won 52%-48% — he took nearly 70% in the suburban precincts of Tarrant County, while Ellzey ran up the score in the district’s more exurban counties. A redux of that Republican runoff could very well materialize next week, especially because Democratic partisans, lacking a candidate of their own, have little reason to show up en masse. Trump endorsed Wright shortly before the primary, but Ellzey has significantly outraised her and has made this a real contest.

If a Democratic candidate made the runoff, parallels to 2017’s special election in Georgia’s 6th District may have been drawn. The year before that race, in 2016, then-President Trump carried GA-6 by a very slight margin, and both sides spent freely in what turned out to be a nationally watched, though somewhat anti-climactic (the Republicans narrowly held it), contest. TX-6 gave Trump a narrow 51%-48% margin last year, but the intraparty nature of the runoff has meant that the race has largely slipped off the radar. Republicans enjoyed a 62%-37% edge in the combined vote for both parties in the first round — this was a contrast to GA-6, where Democrats largely coalesced behind then-candidate (now Senator) Jon Ossoff, and he claimed 48% in the first round of that jungle primary. Regardless, the TX-6 result will put House Republicans up one seat in the chamber, giving them 212 seats to the Democrats’ 220.

Ohio, which currently has vacancies in two districts, will see special primaries for both seats on Aug. 3. The higher-profile contest is the race for the 11th District, a Black-majority seat running from Cleveland to Akron. It was held by now-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge until her confirmation in March.

For much of the campaign, it seemed that the clear frontrunner in the Democratic primary was former state Sen. Nina Turner; she represented part of the area from 2008 to 2014 in the legislature, then ran, unsuccessfully, for Ohio Secretary of State. Turner was active on both of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) presidential campaigns, and Sanders will be campaigning for Turner before the primary. Though the primary field features over a dozen candidates, Cuyahoga County Councilwoman Shontel Brown has emerged as Turner’s main rival — Brown is trying to position herself as a less polarizing choice.

Almost predictably, the race has been framed as another frontier in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. There are some undeniable surface-level parallels: Hillary Clinton, as well as the Congressional Black Caucus, have endorsed Brown. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D, SC-6), a pillar of Democratic leadership and a key backer of Joe Biden during the 2020 primary, and other members of the CBC will campaign in the district on behalf of Brown. Still, Cleveland’s Plain Dealer, in endorsing Turner, cited a pragmatic streak that characterized her previous time in office. Indeed, during his 2016 presidential run, former Gov. John Kasich (R-OH) would often cite their bipartisan work on criminal justice reform. Turner is not campaigning as a Sanders backer and sometimes-critic of Joe Biden, though she has been both, as Brown’s campaign is noting as a way to attack Turner.

Polling over the past month has shown anything from a narrow Turner lead to a tied race, though those polls are from sources that are hostile to Turner. Turner also has been the better fundraiser. In Ohio, with its partially open primary system, anyone may vote in the primary, so non-Democrats could matter in a close race. In this 80% Biden district, the Democratic primary winner will be virtually assured victory in the Nov. 2 general contest.

Finally, Ohio’s 15th District, which covers the southern Columbus metro area, has another primary to watch. In May, then-Rep. Steve Stivers (R, OH-15) resigned to take a job leading the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. If the OH-11 Democratic primary is being billed a rehash of the 2016 presidential primary, the OH-15 Republican race is being considered a test of former President Trump’s endorsement power.

Last month, Trump endorsed businessman Mike Carey, a coal lobbyist and first-time candidate. While Carey himself has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, critics are pointing to his proximity to a recent high-profile scandal involving an energy company bailout (not the one that Carey worked for). In the 11-candidate primary, Stivers endorsed state Rep. Jeff LaRe, who hails from one of the district’s more exurban counties. Fairly new to elected office (he was first elected in 2019), LaRe is trying to position himself as a political outsider who can appeal to both rural and urban voters.

State Rep. Allison Russo, who represents some areas west of Columbus in the state legislature, is the favorite for the Democratic nomination. While some comparisons to a 2018 special election in OH-12 may come to mind — the districts are situated on either side of the Columbus metro area, and each became open when incumbent Republicans resigned to take jobs leading business groups — the 15th District is several points more Republican, and the national environment doesn’t seem as favorable now to Democrats as it was in 2018.

Last year, Trump held OH-15 by a 56%-42% vote, making it redder than any seats House Democrats currently hold. Blue-trending parts of Franklin County (Columbus) make up about 30% of the district, and OH-15 runs east to grab the college town of Athens, home to Ohio University — but the territory in between usually gives Republicans large majorities. So while we’ll be watching the primaries there in a couple of weeks, our Likely Republican rating stands.

New Jersey redistricting: A tiebreaker stalemate

New Jersey’s congressional redistricting process is technically bipartisan, but it is getting off to a most partisan start. How it all shakes out is an important piece of this cycle’s redistricting puzzle.

New Jersey uses a bipartisan redistricting commission. Leaders from both parties appoint six members apiece to the 13-member commission. Those 12 members then pick a 13th member who serves as a tiebreaker. This is the fourth redistricting cycle that this process has been used for congressional redistricting there. The commission members picked an academic as the tiebreaker in 1991 and 2001 and a respected former state attorney general in 2011. That tiebreaking member sided with Republicans a decade ago, setting up what would be a 6-6 split delegation in what is a clearly Democratic-leaning state. However, the map ended up working out well for Democrats by the end of the decade, as they now hold a lopsided 10-2 edge in the delegation. A pro-Democratic, anti-Donald Trump trend in several affluent, highly-educated districts in the northern half of the state helped Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D, NJ-5), Tom Malinowski (D, NJ-7), and Mikie Sherrill (D, NJ-11) capture Republican-held districts in the second half of the decade, and Democrats also flipped two Trump-won swing districts in South Jersey, NJ-2 and NJ-3, in 2018. One of those Democrats, Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R, NJ-2), is now a Republican, but Rep. Andy Kim (D, NJ-3) is one of the seven Democrats nationally who holds a Trump-won seat (although Trump only won NJ-3 by a couple tenths of a point).

New Jersey is a great example of how a congressional map can change over the course of a decade: a map that helped Republicans at the start of the decade morphed into one where Democrats have prospered, to the point where New Jersey is now one of the states where House Democrats most overperform what one might expect from the 2020 presidential results, per Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Louis Jacobson’s research.

Without the ability to actually gerrymander the state however they would like, Democrats — who otherwise control the governorship and the state legislature — should realistically hope for their already-lopsided 10-2 advantage to endure. Republicans, meanwhile, will want a map that allows them to win back some of their lost territory.

This time, the 12 members of the commission were unable to come to an agreement on the 13th member of the commission, with both parties proposing a retired judge from their respective sides. So the state Supreme Court will have to pick one or the other. The state’s high court is divided politically, and its members may not vote in accordance with their party ID, as the New Jersey Globe’s David Wildstein noted in a great Q&A on the dispute. The court has until Aug. 10 to decide on the tiebreaker.

The standoff is a reminder that even in states that don’t have an outwardly partisan redistricting process, disputes between the two parties can be difficult to avoid.