By Theodoric Meyer
September 11, 2016
Democrats seeking control of the House are pushing into new battleground districts, exposing vulnerable Republicans in diverse suburban areas that have been safe GOP seats for nearly a generation, according to a POLITICO analysis of Census demographic data, internal polling from both parties, and TV advertising data.
Longtime GOP strongholds like Orange County, Calif. and suburbs of Orlando, Minneapolis, and Kansas City, look set to have competitive House races for the first time in decades. Indeed, Donald Trump has accelerated decade-long changes in both parties’ coalitions, repulsing minority voters while driving more college-educated whites out of their traditional home in the GOP. Democrats — who would need a whopping 30 seats to win the House — are already targeting at least 18 of the 60 GOP districts with the highest share of college-educated white voters, many of which also have large numbers of nonwhite voters. And Democrats are looking at that formula as they seek to expand the House map even further this fall, beyond even first-ever challenges to veteran Republicans like Florida’s John Mica and California’s Darrell Issa.
The average district in the emerging House battlefield — which so far includes 45 GOP-held districts, per the Cook Political Report’s current ratings — is 10 percentage points less white than in 2006, and the white population in those seats is about 5 percentage points more college-educated than a decade ago. In other words, the House battlegrounds of 2016 feature both a larger Democratic base and a bigger pool of swing voters loosened from the Republican Party by Trump.
The question for House Democrats is whether enough new diverse and high-education districts are on the map this year for them to leverage Trump into a serious challenge for the 30 seats they need. Even as he struggles elsewhere, Trump remains startlingly strong (and Hillary Clinton very weak) in blue-collar districts that have traditionally been House majority-makers — from northeastern Wisconsin to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to upstate New York — which could make it tougher for Democrats to play offense there.
"Some non-college voters in Democratic districts are stronger for Trump than you would expect," said Democratic pollster Karl Agne. But "even in darker red areas, I've been surprised at the level of defection among college-educated Republicans."
"It's night and day," said Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster with Public Opinion Strategies who has conducted some of the Republican internal polls that have been made public. "It's like there's two different elections going on."
House Republicans still lead their Democratic challengers almost across the board — even in many districts where Trump is losing to Clinton. Speaking Thursday at the National Press Club, NRCC Chairman Greg Walden said Clinton leads Trump by an average of 2 percentage points in his internal polling, but Republican House candidates lead 49 percent to 39 percent on average.
Republicans have also released specific examples: Outside Minneapolis, for one, GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen led Democrat Terri Bonoff 57 percent to 31 percent in a poll from American Action Network, a GOP nonprofit — even though Clinton led Trump 39 percent to 30 percent in the white-collar district, which Mitt Romney lost by only a percentage point in 2012.
“Throughout the year, there have been folks on the other side who have made the claim that all they have to do is tie our member to Donald Trump and game over,” Walden said. “I’m not seeing empirical data that backs up that.”
GOP strategists tout the polls as evidence that voters who can't stand Trump will still support House Republicans, even if they end up voting for Clinton.
"The House polling in competitive districts is remarkably positive," said Gene Ulm, a fellow partner with Newhouse’s firm who has also conducted some of the surveys.
But Democrats are looking at the same polling and getting excited about what it means for their chances of cutting deep into Republicans' historic House majority.
In the Kansas City suburbs, for example, both Democrats and Republicans have released internal polls showing GOP Rep. Kevin Yoder leading his Democratic opponent by double digits — an encouraging sign for Republicans. But both polls show Clinton leading Trump, and Democrats argue Republicans’ advantage in such districts will evaporate as they hit the airwaves in the coming weeks.
"Being up right now doesn't count," Kelly Ward, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's executive director, said in an interview last week. "It doesn't mean anything."
House Democrats have been stung by overzealous predictions of success in the recent past, but Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi went on the record Thursday saying she believes Democrats can retake the House if Clinton wins by enough.
“If Hillary [Clinton] were to win 54-46, oh my God. It’s all over,” Pelosi told POLITICO. “If it’s 53-47, and I think that’s in the realm of possibility ... that’s a big deal. Five or more [percentage points] is a big deal.”
Democrats’ new bullishness stems from the decline in the number of split-ticket voters year after year. Republicans don’t disagree about the trend, but they do say that Trump is so unlike the typical GOP nominee that this election will be different.
What's clear is that Trump is struggling in many battleground districts. Trump led in just two of a sample of 15 internal polls of competitive districts conducted since the conventions, six by Democrats and nine by Republicans, even as most GOP incumbents continued to lead.
But Democratic strategists say there's evidence voters' views are unusually malleable this year.
Republicans may be ahead in suburban battlegrounds when pollsters ask voters which candidate they prefer, said Jef Pollock, a top Democratic House pollster. But spending is just starting in many House races, and Democratic challengers are closing the gap on the "informed ballot" — when a pollster reads a positive statement about each candidate — which Democratic operatives say has been unusually volatile this year.
"Look, incumbents are supposed to be ahead," Pollock said. "The fact that [New Jersey GOP Rep.] Scott Garrett is ahead by only 2 points is a major danger sign."
To be sure, “informed ballot” tests simulate a world in which both campaigns have equal resources to get out their ideal message. Campaigns never turn out that way, and Republicans spent August pouring tens of millions of dollars into the fight to save the Senate. A similar deluge could be on its way in the House if the GOP starts to feel truly threatened.
Republicans aren’t yet convinced of the danger.
"Zero," said Ulm, the GOP pollster, when asked whether he saw any way for Democrats to take back the House. "Zero. There just simply aren't the seats available, in my view."
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. walks to a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 7, following a meeting with House Republicans.
Besides a possible increase in ticket-splitting under Trump, House Democrats may have to overcome another obstacle: Trump is actually doing quite well in some traditional battleground districts. The Republican appears to have widened the gulf between battleground districts that lean white-collar and more working-class ones.
In retiring GOP Rep. Richard Hanna's seat in upstate New York, where whites without college degrees compose about two-thirds of the adult population — one of the highest shares in the country — Trump leads Clinton by 9 percentage points in a recent GOP poll, even though Romney won the district by just 149 votes in 2012.
Republican Claudia Tenney has a smaller lead over Democrat Kim Myers, with a conservative independent candidate picking up a sizable share of the vote. A DCCC poll found the race tied — but the polling memo conspicuously omitted the presidential numbers in the district.
But Democrats see a path that runs through seats like GOP Rep. Jeff Denham’s district in California’s Central Valley. A Democratic poll last month found Clinton with a narrow lead over Trump in the district — which is 40 percent Hispanic, but has relatively few whites with college degrees — and Denham leading his Democratic challenger, Michael Eggman, by just 3 percentage points. (A poll conducted by Denham’s campaign and the NRCC last month found Trump and Clinton tied and Denham up by double digits.)
Denham said in an interview that he's "never had so much support," with more volunteers than ever before. His own polling found Trump and Clinton tied, with Denham up by double digits. And Eggman's campaign, Denham said, "is nonexistent on the ground."
Eggman, a commercial beekeeper who lost by 12 points when he ran against Denham two years ago, has built his campaign this time around reminding voters that Denham has said he'll vote for Trump. "We're going to make sure that everyone in the valley knows that Congressman Denham supports Donald Trump," Eggman said.
But Denham has run well ahead of the top of the ticket in previous campaigns, and he sees no reason why he can't do it again. "Democrats are really grasping when they try to tie each of these races to the national level, when really it has to do with what you're done here at home," he said.
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