We are not our resumes. Nor should we be.

When I enrolled at Yale University in September 1984, I was undecided between majoring in mathematics or political science. That decision was made much easier by my less-than-stellar performance in Math 230, then a required freshman math course. Beyond the objective difficult of the class, there are other reasons why I did not do as well in that course as I would have preferred: a horrible case of mononucleosis in my first semester which sent me home for three weeks, a tumultuous relationship with an older (sophomore!) woman, adjusting to life in a very large pond in which I was an average-sized-at-best fish, and so forth.

Political science it was.

During my sophomore year I was fortunate to take two courses with Professor Edward Tufte, who then became my faculty advisor.

Political science majors at Yale in the 1980s (and probably now) selected a “concentration” (American politics, comparative politics, political philosophy, etc.). As many earlier posts suggest, my choice was “American politics.”

This is why, in the spring of 1986, I met with Professor Tufte (over slices at Naples Pizzeria, if memory serves) and told him that I would like to concentrate in American politics.

His response had two parts.

First…”If you really want to concentrate in American politics, just read the New York Times and Washington Post every day.”

Second…”You should introduce yourself to David Mayhew.”

I smiled at the first part, recognizing Professor Tufte’s gently sardonic contrarianism. I also understood what he meant. While the academic American politics literature is rich, one could argue that all one really needs to know about how American politics actually works can be found in those two newspapers. In fact, when I briefly lived in Washington, D.C. after graduating from Yale, I subscribed to both and read them assiduously.

Still, rules were rules, so I chose to concentrate in American politics.

The second part was another matter entirely. Working with Professor Edward Tufte was already a high honor. Imagine being an aspiring young actor/actress and being mentored directly by, say, Kevin Spacey or Natalie Portman.

Now imagine Kevin Spacey or Natalie Portman were to say to you, “OK, if you really want to learn about acting, then introduce yourself to Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep.”

In this scenario, your gender is irrelevant; either Spacey or Portman could be telling you to introduce yourself to Day-Lewis or Streep.

The point is made either way: it was a terrifying and exhilarating prospect.

I don’t remember how long after this conversation I plucked up the courage to follow Professor Tufte’s advice, but here is all you need to know:

A little over 20 years later, Professor David Mayhew attended my wedding.

**********

This being a data-driven storytelling blog, just bear with me while I briefly discuss an economic concept called the labor force participation rate: “the number of employed and unemployed but looking for a job as a percentage of the population aged 16 years and over.” As of May 2017, the U.S. labor force participation rate was 62.7%, down from 65-67% in the 1980s and 1990s.

This “labor force” concept is important because it forces us to recognize that many adults (if you define a person older than 15 as an “adult”) are neither working nor looking for work. Most of them are retired or choose not to work to stay home with young children and/or pursue other goals.

But it also means that 40.0% of Americans aged 16 and older (37.3% not in the labor force plus 2.7% unemployed[1]) do not have a pithy answer at hand to the question “What do you do?”

Actually, given the rapidly changing nature of American employment (the days of the lifelong company or union job may be over), it is a complicated question even if you are working, because what you do for a living may not be condensable into a concise soundbite.

It is also, however, one of the very first questions Americans ask someone they have just met, as this thoughtful 2014 piece in The Guardian asserts.

This question—this glimpse into how Americans identify themselves to themselves—is one I have struggled with for years, partly because my own jobs have often resisted concise description. For example, when I worked as a “Quality Researcher/Statistician” at the Massachusetts Behavioral Health Partnership in Boston, simply stating that title provided little insight into what I actually DID on a daily basis. I was essentially a kind of in-house statistician/epidemiologist, and I assisted on and/or coordinated a series of data-driven projects related to mental health diagnoses over time and blah blah blah blah blah.

Admit it. Your eyes are already glazing over a bit.

But my struggle was far more than just “my career is difficult to describe pithily.”

No, my struggle had more to do with how my own view of myself has evolved over time, and it can be summarized as the eventual realization that I am not my resume.

In fact, nobody is.

**********

In May 2017, Professor Mayhew turned 80, which he celebrated (in part) by releasing a new book, The Imprint of Congress. As has been his custom since I worked as a research assistant for him 30 years ago, he thoughtfully sent me an inscribed copy.

Not to sound like a shill for my mentor and friend, but I recommend the book. It is a quick and engaging read written in Mayhew’s uniquely appealing conversational style, a refreshing change from the soulless formalism of too much academic writing.

He also celebrated turning 80 by brunching with my youngest daughter and me. Another custom of his is to greet me with the amiable question, “How are you? Are you thriving?”

It turns out, that question was both very easy and very hard to answer.

**********

I spent six years pursuing a doctorate in government, focusing on American electoral geography, at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; Yale Professor Mayhew graciously agreed to serve on my doctoral committee.

For…reasons…I resigned from that program after six years ABD (all-but-doctorate), though I did recently apply for, and receive, a Master’s Degree (A.M.) in Government from Harvard.

Not too shabby, as consolation prizes go.

After a year-plus of “now what the hell do I do?” I landed my first health-related data analysis job at Health and Addictions Research, Inc. (HARI) in Boston (long since folded into the Heller School at Brandeis University). I now look back at that job as one of the three best jobs I ever had.[2] That job is where I met a woman who (along with her husband) remains one of my closest friends. It was also the start of a 19-year career applying (and expanding) my quantitative skills to public health and/or healthcare and/or disease treatment and prevention.

For eight of those years, I simultaneously pursued a Master’s Degree in biostatistics and (successfully, this time) a PhD in epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), while marrying and helping to raise two delightful young daughters.

If you are counting at home, that means a BA in political science from Yale, an AM in government from Harvard, a MA in biostatistics from BUSPH and a PhD in epidemiology from BUSPH.

I am, naturally, proud of these degrees and of my career.

But when I say “I am not my resume,” I mean that when I look in the mirror I do not see an epidemiologist or a biostatistician or a political scientist or a health-related data analyst/project manager/program evaluator staring back at me.

These career choices and academic pursuits are a vital part of my life story, but they are not who I am.

I am not my resume.

**********

Two years ago this June 30, I was laid off from my most recent health-related data analyst position, at Boston’s Joslin Diabetes Center, after four-plus years. My layoff resulted from a combination of the conclusion of a three-year federal grant and a massive organizational restructuring.

This was not the first time that I had left a company with impending reorganization, one which always seemed intended to eliminate the sort of research function requiring my particular skill set. In fact, it seems to be a hallmark of my career, one which has often relied upon “soft money” such as federal grants.

I can thus strongly relate to the career uncertainty expressed in the Guardian article cited above.

What has been disturbing and surprising is how much I have struggled both externally (lack of suitable positions) and internally (a burnout-driven longing for a change in how I apply my particular quantitative/management/dissemination skill set to earning a living) to finding a new job, and the fact that I am still looking two years later.

So when Professor Mayhew asked me if I was “thriving,” the question was difficult for this reason:

Other than the fact that I am still not working (for money, anyway), yes, yes I am thriving.

But, as an American, how can I POSSIBLY be thriving if I am not working? What am I doing with my time (read: how am I wasting my time?), if I am not working? How can I possibly define myself, if not through a job? Aren’t you lying awake every night worried about it?

Well, of course, I am worried about it. The money we have managed to put aside will not last forever, and sooner rather than later I will need to find a new source of income.

The difference, though, is that I refuse to define the quality of my life by what I do to earn a living.

Full stop.

I have spent two years being able to pick up my children from school (don’t get me started on my hate-hate relationship with mornings, which is why I rarely take them TOO school) and happily schlep them to various activities. I have had the gift of time to work on my massive film noir database, which may yet turn into a series of publications, and a wide range of other data-driven projects, as evidenced by the existence of this blog. I will be giving not one, but two, oral presentations deriving from mye doctoral research at this year’s American Public Health Association Annual Meeting and Conference. I am giving serious consideration to writing a book weaving together a chronicle of my personal journey from Encyclopedia Brown to serious devotee of Charlie Chan and film noir, my experiences (and those of others) at NOIR CITY, and my film noir research. I have been able to do all of these incredibly fulfilling (and non-income-deriving) things with the strong support of a loving wife.

So while I do not currently have gainful employment, I still feel as though I am thriving.

Earlier today (well, yesterday, now that I look at the time on my computer), my wife, daughters and I greatly enjoyed a party at the home of the friend and her husband I cited earlier, the one I met at HARI.

Not once when conversing with older friends I had not seen for years or with someone I was just meeting did anyone ask me,

“So, Matt, what do you do?”

Maybe the message that we should not define ourselves first and foremost by how (or if) we make a living is spreading.

Until next time…

[1] The May 2017 unemployment rate of 4.3% adjusted for the estimated number of Americans aged 16 and older.

[2] The BEST job I ever had was the five months I spent as a 17-year-old delivery boy for the now-defunct Boardwalk Pizza in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, where I created the mushroom provolone pizza steak…as in, “Philly cheesesteak.”

 

Using Jon Ossoff polling data to make a point about statistical significance testing

I do not like the phrase “statistical dead heat,” nor do I like the phrase “statistical tie.” These phrases oversimplify the level of uncertainty accruing to any value (e.g., polling percentage or margin) estimated from a sample of a larger population of interest, such as the universe of election-day voters; when you sample, you are only estimating the value you wish to discern. These phrases also reduce quantifiable uncertainty (containing interesting and useful information) to a metaphorical shoulder shrug: we really have no idea which candidate is leading in the poll, or whether two estimated values differ or not.

For example, a poll released June 16, 2017 showed Democrat Jon Ossoff leading Republican Karen Handel 49.7% to 49.4% among 537 likely voters in the special election runoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. The margin of error (MOE) for the poll was +/-4.2%, meaning that we are 95% confident that Ossoff’s “true” percentage is between 45.5 and 53.9%, while Handel’s is between 45.2% and 53.6%.

In other words, these data suggest a wide range of possible values, anywhere from Ossoff being ahead 53.9 to 45.2% to Handel being ahead 53.6 to 45.5%. In fact, there is a 5% chance that either candidate is further ahead than that. Finally, because random samples such as these are drawn from a normal (or “bell curve”) distribution, percentages closer to those reported (Ossoff ahead 49.7 to 49.4%) are more likely than percentages further from those reported.

But this is a lot to report, and to digest, so we use phrases like “statistical dead heat” or “statistical tie” as cognitive shorthand for “there is a wide range of possible values consistent with the data we collected, including each candidate having the exact same percentage of the vote.”

Each phrase has its roots in classical statistical significance testing. The goal of this testing is to assure ourselves that any value we estimate from data we have collected (a percentage in a poll, a relative risk, a difference between two means) is not 0.

To do so, we use the following, somewhat convoluted, logic.

Let’s assume that the value (or some test statistic derived from that value) we have estimated actually is 0; we will call this the null hypothesis. What is the probability (we will call this the “p-value”) that we would have obtained this value/test statistic or one even higher purely by chance?

Got that?

We are measuring the probability—assuming that the null hypothesis is true—that a value (or one higher) was obtained purely by chance.

And if the probability is very low, it would therefore be very unlikely that we have gotten our value purely by chance, so it must be the case that we did NOT get it by chance. And so we can “reject” the null hypothesis (even though we assumed it to be true to arrive at this rejection), given that value that we got was so high.

The higher the probability, the more difficult it becomes to reject the null hypothesis.

By a historical accident,  any p-value less than 0.05 is considered “statistically significant,” meaning that we can reject the null hypothesis.

Of course, we REALLY want to know how probable the null hypothesis itself is, but that is a vastly trickier proposition.

Or, even better…we REALLY want to know how likely the actual value we observed is.

Think about it. All we are really learning from classical statistical significance testing is either “our value is probably not 0” or “we can’t be certain that our value is not 0…it just might be.” This tells us nothing about the quality of the actual estimate we obtained is, how near the “true” value it actually is.

Now, to be fair to the 0.05 cut-point for determining “statistical significance,” it does have an analogue in the 95% confidence interval.

The 95% confidence interval (CI) is very similar to the polling MOE discussed earlier. It is a range of values (often calculated as value +/-1.96*standard error[1]) which we are 95% confident includes the “true” value.

Let’s say you estimate the impact of living in a less walkable neighborhood relative to living in a more walkable neighborhood on incident diabetes over 16 years of follow-up. Your estimate is 1.06 (i.e., you have 6% higher risk of contracting diabetes), with a 95% CI of 0.90 to 1.24. In other words, you are 95% confident that the “true” effect is somewhere between a 10% decrease in incident diabetes risk and a 24% increase in incident diabetes risk.

Ahh, but this is where that pesky cognitive shorthand comes back. See, that 95% CI you reported includes the value 1.00 (i.e., no effect at all). Therefore, there is likely no effect of neighborhood walkability on incident diabetes.

No, no, a thousand times no.

It simply means that there is a specified range of possible measures of effect, only one of which is “no effect.” In fact, the bulk of the possible effects are on the risk side (1.01-1.24), rather than on the “protective side” (0.90-0.99).

Just bear with me while I come to the point of this statistical rigmarole.

Early this morning, I posted this on Facebook:

The election-eve consensus is that the Jon Ossoff-Karen Handel race (special election runoff in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District) is a dead heat, with Handel barely ahead. This consensus is based in large part on the RealClearPolitics polling average (Handel +0.25). However, the RCP only looks at the most recent poll by any given pollster, and only within a very narrow time frame

Hogwash (for the most part).

All polls are samples from a population of interest, meaning that you WANT to pool recent polls from the same pollster (each is a separate dive into the same pool using the same methods). Also, I found no evidence that the polling average has changed much since the first election April 19

My analysis (90% hard science, 10% voodoo) is that Ossoff is ahead by 1.4 percentage points. Assume a very wide “real” margin of error of 9 percentage points, and Ossoff is about a 62% favorite to win today. 

Meaning, of course, that there is a 38% chance Handel wins

That is still a very close race, but I would give Ossoff a small edge

And, bloviating punditry aside, for Ossoff even to lose by a percentage point would be a remarkable pro-Democratic shift for a Congressional seat Republicans have dominated for 40 years.

Polls close at 7 pm EST. 

Here is the full extent of my reasoning.

I collected all 12 polls of this race taken after the first round of voting on April 20, 2017. Four were conducted by WSVB-TV/Landmark and showed Ossoff ahead by 1 percentage point (polling midpoint 5/31/2017), 3 (6/7), 2 (6/15) and 0 (6/19) percentage points. Two each were conducted by the Republican firm Trafalgar Group (Ossoff +3 [6/12], Ossoff -2 [6/18]) and by WXIA-TV/SurveyUSA (Ossoff +7 [5/18], even [6/9]). Other polls were conducted by Landmark Communications (Ossoff -2 [5/7]), Gravis Marketing (Ossoff +2 [5/9]), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Ossoff +7 [6/7]) and Fox 5 Atlanta/Opinion Savvy (Ossoff +1 [6/15]).

On average, these polls show Ossoff ahead by an average of 1.85 percentage points.

Using a procedure I suggest here, I subtracted the average of all other polls from those from a single pollster. For example, the average of the four WSVB-TV/Landmark was Ossoff +1.5, while the average of the other eight polls was Ossoff +2.0. This difference—or “bias”—of -0.5 percentage points shows the WSVB-TV/Landmark polls may have slightly underestimated the Ossoff margin.

I then “adjusted” each poll by subtracting its “bias” from the original polling value (e.g., I added 0.5 to each WSVB-TV/Landmark Ossoff margin). For convenience, I lumped the pollsters releasing only one poll into a single “other” category; its “bias” was only 0.2.

The “adjusted” Ossoff margin was now +1.865.

To see whether the Ossoff margin had been increasing or decreasing monotonically over time, I ran an ordinary least squares (OLS) regression of Ossoff margin against polling date midpoint (using the average, if polls had the same midpoint date). There was no evidence of change over time; the r-squared (a measure of the variance in Ossoff margin accounted for by time) was 0.01.

Still, out of a surfeit of caution, I decided to assign a weight of “2” to the most recent poll by WSVB-TV/Landmark, Trafalgar Group and WXIA-TV/SurveyUSA and a weight of 1 to the other nine polls.

Using the bias-adjusted polls and this simple weighting scheme, I calculated an Ossoff margin of 1.38, suggesting recent tightening in the race not captured by my OLS regression[2].

So, let’s say that our best estimate is that Ossoff is ahead by 1.38 percentage points heading into today’s voting. There is a great deal of uncertainty around this estimate, resulting both from sampling error (an overall MOE of 2.5 to 3 percentage points around an average Ossoff percentage and an average Handel percentage, which you would double to get the MOE for the Ossoff margin—say, 5 to 6 percentage points) and the quality of the polls themselves.

Now, let’s say that our Ossoff margin MOE is nine percentage points. I admit up front that this is a somewhat arbitrary MOE-larger-than-6-percentage-points I am using to make a point.

In a normal distribution, 95% of all values are within two (OK, 1.96) standard deviations (SD) of the midpoint, or mean. If you think of the Ossoff margin of +1.38 as the midpoint of a range of possible margins distributed normally around the midpoint, then the MOE is analogous to the 95% CI, and the standard deviation of this normal distribution is thus 9/1.96 = 4.59.

To win this two-candidate race, Ossoff needs a margin of one vote more than 0%. We can use the normal distribution (mean=1.38, SD=4.59) to determine the probability (based purely upon these 12 polls taken over two months with varying quality) that Ossoff’s margin will be AT LEAST 0.01%.

And the answer is…61.7%!

Using a higher SD will yield a win probability somewhat closer (but still larger than) 50%, while a lower SD will yield an even higher win probability.

Here is the larger point.

It may sound like Ossoff +1.38 +/-9.0 is a “statistical dead heat” or “statistical tie” because it includes 0.00 and covers a wide range of possible margins (Ossoff -7.62 to Ossoff +10.38, with 95% confidence), but the reality is that this range of values includes more Ossoff wins than Ossoff losses, by ratio of 62 to 38.

You can reanalyze these polls and/or question my assumptions, but you cannot change the mathematical fact that a positive margin, however small and however large the MOE, is still indicative of a slight advantage (more values above 0 than below).

Until next time…

**********

This is an addendum started at 12:13 am on June 21, 2017.

According the New York Times, Handel beat Ossoff by 3.8 percentage points, 51.9 to 48.1%. My polling average (Ossoff+1.4) was thus off by -5.2 percentage points. That is a sizable polling error. RealClearPolitics (RCP) was somewhat closer (-3.6 percentage points), while HuffPostPollster (HPP) was the most dramatically different (-6.2 percentage points).

Why such a stark difference? And why was EVERY pollster off (the best Handel did in any poll was +2 percentage points, twice)?

I think the answer can be found in a simple difference in aggregation methods. RCP used four polls in its final average, with starting dates of June 7, June 14, June 17 and June 18, and their final average was Handel+0.2. HPP, however, included no polls AFTER June 7, and their final average was Ossoff+2.4, a difference of 2.6 percentage points in Handel’s favor.

Moreover, Handel’s final polling average was 2.1 percentage points higher in RCP (49.0 vs. 46.9%), while Ossoff’s final polling average was only 0.5% lower (48.8 vs. 49.3%).

In other words, over the last week or so of the race, Handel was clearly gaining ground, while Ossoff was fading slightly.

What could have caused this shift?

On the morning of June 14, 2017, a man named James T. Hodgkinson opened fire on a group of Republican members of Congress, members of the Capitol Police and others on an Alexandria, Virginia baseball diamond. Mr. Hodgkinson, who claimed to have volunteered on Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, appeared to be singling out Republicans for attack; he had posted violent anti-Trump and anti-Republican screeds on his Facebook page.

When this ad, brazenly (and absurdly) tying Ossoff to the left-wing rage and violence deemed responsible for the Alexandria shooting, started playing in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, I thought it was a despicable and desperate attempt to save Handel from a certain loss.

But the overarching message of “blame the left” appears to have resonated with district residents who otherwise may not have voted. The final poll of the campaign found that “…a majority of voters who had yet to cast their ballots said the recent shootings had no effect on their decision. About one-third of election-day voters said the attack would make them ‘more likely’ to cast their ballots, and most of those were Republican.”

It is conceivable that this event changed a narrow Ossoff win into a narrow loss, as disillusioned Republicans decided to cast an election-day ballot for Handel in defense of their party. While Ossoff won the early vote by 5.6 percentage points (and 9,363 votes), he lost the election day vote by a whopping 16.4 percentage points (and 19,073 votes).

Ossoff may well have lost anyway, for other reasons: his non-residence in the district, the difference between Republican opposition to Trump and support for mainstream Republicans, the amount of outside money which flowed into the district (making it harder for Ossoff to cast himself as a more centrist, district-friendly Democrat; the Democrat in the most expensive U.S. House race in history lost by a larger margin [3.8 percentage points vs. 3.2 percentage points] than the Democrat in the barely-noticed South Carolina 5th Congressional District special election held the same day) and his inexperience as a politician.

But the fact that Handel herself cited the Alexandria shooting in her victory speech (starting at 03:23) speaks loudly about why SHE thinks she won the election.

Until next time…again…

[1] Itself usually calculated as standard deviation divided by the square root of the sample population.

[2] Other recency weighting schemes yielded similar results.

Two distinct restaurants. Two different conversations. One unanswered question.

I spent many nights in the liberated summer between high school graduation and enrolling at Yale taking long solo drives, exploring outer suburban Philadelphia. One night, meandering along Route 23, I saw this at the intersection with Route 113N in Phoenixville:

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My idea of heaven was, and remains, a 24-hour diner, though less so when the sun is shining.

65_big

Nineteen years later, I moved to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, a 30-45 minute drive northwest of Center City Philadelphia and home to one of the world’s largest shopping malls. Given the proximity of King of Prussia to Phoenixville, the Vale Rio Diner soon became a favorite late-night haunt[1].

The 20-or-so minute drive to the Vale Rio took me through beautiful Valley Forge National Historic Park. Before entering Valley Forge, I would drive by the King of Prussia Mall and the Valley Forge Casino Tower. Upon leaving Valley Forge, I would drive by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, what was then called the National Christian Conference Center and the local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia, I understood that I was living in between the Democratic, majority-minority city of Philadelphia and some of the most white rural/small town conservative parts of the state. Delaware and Montgomery Counties were Republican-dominated, to be sure, but it was a very moderate, northeastern brand of Republican.

Driving to the Vale Rio was thus literally crossing from one political and cultural milieu to its near-polar opposite.

**********

Just bear with me while I present polling data regarding American attitudes toward guns.

In April 2017, a CBS News Poll asked 1,214 adults, “In general, do you think laws covering the sale of guns should be made more strict, less strict, or kept as they are now?” Overall, a majority—54%—answered “more strict,” 33% answered “kept as they are” and 11% answered “less strict.”

Look more closely, however, and you see an unsettling partisan divide. While 73% of Democrats—and 51% of Independents—wanted more strict gun sale laws, only 38% of Republicans did. In fact, a plurality of Republicans (44%) wanted gun sale laws kept as they are now. And while few respondents wanted less strict gun sale laws, Republicans (16%) were three times more likely than Democrats (5%) to hold that position.

CBS News has asked a version of this question, and provided partisan breakdowns, since February 2013, a few months after the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  While specific percentages have ebbed and flowed, the pattern is constant: a large majority of Democrats, and a bare majority of Independents, favor more strict gun sale laws, while Republicans generally prefer to keep the laws as they are. Squint a bit, and you might see Republicans shifting toward more strict gun sale laws, a trend worth watching.

This partisan divide appears, often by wider margins, on similar questions:

  • Safer with more guns or fewer guns?
    • Most Republicans say “More guns”
    • Most Democrats say “Fewer gunss”
    • Independents evenly split
  • Banning assault weapons?
    • Most Republicans say “No”
    • Most Democrats say “Yes”
    • Independents evenly split
  • Stricter gun laws (without specifying “sales”)
    • More Republicans say “Oppose”
    • Even more Democrats say “Support”
    • Independents lean towards “Support”
  • Opinion of the National Rifle Association (NRA), of those with opinion
    • Most Republicans say “Favorable”
    • Most Democrats say “Unfavorable” (with higher % not sure)
    • Independents evenly split
  • Own a gun (self or in household)?
    • Most Republicans say “Yes”
    • Most Democrats say “No”
    • Independents lean slightly “Yes”
  • More worried you/someone you know will be victim of gun violence or terrorist attack?
    • Republicans lean slightly “Terrorist attack”
    • Most Democrats say “Gun violence”
    • More Independents say “Gun violence”
  • Allowing more teachers/school officials to carry guns in schools
    • More Republicans say “Yes”
    • Even more Democrats say “No”
    • More Independents say “Yes”
  • Which do you agree with more as way to prevent mass shootings, better gun regulation or more people carrying guns
    • More Republicans say “More people carrying guns”
    • Most Democrats say “Better gun regulation”
    • More Independents say “Better gun regulation”
  • What more important: to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership?
    • More Republicans say “Protect gun ownership rights”
    • Most Democrats say “Control gun ownership”
    • Independents evenly split

Still, just when you are about to throw up your hands and say gun policy divisions are unbridgeable, you find two gun-related policies supported by AT LEAST 73% of each partisan group:

  1. Requiring background checks for all gun buyers
  2. Opposing gun sales to persons on terrorist watch (“no-fly”) lists

Plus, at least 79% of surveyed Americans want to prevent convicted felons and persons with mental health problems from purchasing guns. And while partisan breakdowns were not provided for these polls, mathematically, majorities of each partisan group would have to support this policy[2].

**********

I would generally drive to the Vale Rio late on a weekend night, park myself at the counter with my book or magazine and enjoy a meal or a snack (I am a sucker for a heated slice of cherry pie with chocolate ice cream). The decaffeinated coffee occasionally left something to be desired, but there was always plenty of it.

One quiet night, probably in late 2003 or early 2004, the young man working the counter and I got to talking. That is the great thing about diner (or any restaurant, really) counters: they are highly conducive to starting conversations with total strangers. At least, that has generally been my experience.

This waiter was in his mid-to-late-20s. His slender frame, dirty blonde hair and scraggly beard made him resemble a Da Vinci painting of Jesus. He was soft-spoken and instinctually polite. He had recently lived in Florida, although he was local, having grown up a little further west, near French Creek State Park, where he still loved to hunt. I do not recall discussing his post-high-school education.

In other words, he was a product of the white conservative rural/small town culture I described earlier. I don’t recall discussing our respective partisan affiliations, but I would not be surprised if he had voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016. I was, and remain, a liberal Democrat, as much a product of my urban-raised Jewish parents (and Ivy League schools) as of my moderate-Republican suburban neighborhoods.

During one idle chat, the conversation somehow turned to guns.

And a funny thing happened in that diner, on the border between the urban and rural areas of the state.

We simply talked to each other.

We must have been discussing the notion of banning handguns from crossing large city lines, because he said something to the (paraphrased) effect of:

I collect guns, legally. But what if one night I drive through Philadelphia[3] on my way home from a gun show with my newly-purchased guns in my trunk? Simply by crossing that city line, even with no intention of doing anything with those guns in the city, I would be in violation of the law.

That stopped me in my tracks.

I had never really thought about the legitimate transport of guns by individual, responsible collectors and owners before, probably because I never saw any guns in my suburban milieu.

But then I observed that gun control activists don’t want to take everyone’s guns away from them. They…we…are simply trying to reduce urban gun violence (mass shootings and domestic terrorism were not as prevalent then). You may not be contributing to this violence, but other bad actors do bring guns into the city, perpetuating gun violence. And they need to be stopped.

That stopped him in his tracks.

My sense was that he had never really looked past his stereotype of Philadelphia-as-Gotham long enough to consider the people who live (and die) there.

There was probably more, but here is the point: the suburban liberal public health advocate for gun control got to see gun rights through the eyes of a responsible gun collector and hunter, while the rural conservative gun collector and hunter got to see gun control through the eyes of a suburban liberal public health advocate.

Fancy that.

**********

My wife and I will celebrate our ten-year wedding anniversary this October. Marriage, I have discovered, involves a series of lessons in communication and understanding.

One such lesson is that my wife cannot hear anything I say in a voice raised in anger or frustration or sheer excitement. The volume drowns out the substance.

This lesson applies also to my daughters, especially my younger daughter. When Daddy yells, the message is lost.

I should have known better, but I grew up with a loud and boisterous extended family (although, I cannot now remember my father raising his voice very often, if at all). Shouting was simply the easiest way to be heard in the passionate, talking-over-each-other mode of communication we utilized.

Whether any of us actually HEARD each other remains an open question.

**********

About a year after I met and befriended this waiter, he left the Vale Rio; I have no idea where he is now. In the fall of 2005, I returned to Boston, though I still visited Philadelphia a few times a year.

It became my habit to drive out to the Vale Rio during my stay, if I could.

One night in August 2008, I did just that. I drove through Valley Forge National Historic Park, past Route 252, past the Freedoms Foundation and the National Christian Conference Center and the Boy Scouts headquarters, past the waterfall, past Route 29, past the Phoenixville Hospital and the Phoenixville Morris Cemetery, around and down the bend in the road as it approaches the intersection with Route 113 north, and I saw…

…a brand new Walgreens where the Vale Rio had been.

“Heartbroken” does not begin to cover my reaction.

**********

The town of Brookline, Massachusetts, just east of Boston, gave 84.9% of its vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

Suffice to say that Brookline sees itself as a progressive enclave.

Situated on Harvard Street, in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, the “Hub of Brookline,” is a terrific, family-friendly (albeit with a delectable house pinot noir) restaurant called Zaftigs. Zaftigs is a short walk from Beals Street, where you will find the house where President John F. Kennedy was born.  More recently, I have seen President Kennedy’s grandnephew, current Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy III (MA-4), holding meetings in a quiet back booth at Zaftigs. I introduced myself once and found him to be approachable, earnest and utterly likeable.

I have spent countless hours sitting at the counter at Zaftigs, eating and chatting amiably with the remarkably friendly wait staff.

One morning in the fall of 2016 I listened (there are only seven or eight chairs at the counter) as another regular discussed the impending presidential election with a waiter. While both loathed Trump, they reserved a particularly bitter opprobrium for Ms. Clinton.

This being Brookline, however, their contempt was coming from the LEFT. As I understood it, they felt that her husband, former president Bill Clinton, had betrayed progressive principles by governing too much from the center, and Ms. Clinton was no better. They were particularly incensed at the paid speeches she had given to Goldman Sachs, believing this made her a pawn of Wall Street.

Despite my own complicated feelings about Ms. Clinton (I voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary, then voted for Ms. Clinton in the general election), I gently came to her defense, arguing that she was clearly the better choice if you wanted to advance any sort of progressive agenda: the classic “half a loaf is better than no loaf” argument.

I also pointed out that Trump posed such a clear and present threat to the nation’s existence that he needed to be stopped, full stop.

No, came the forceful response (again, I paraphrase), what good are principles if you don’t stick to them, if you simply abandon them for political expedience. I don’t like Trump, and I don’t like Clinton, and I refuse to vote for either of them.

Sure, I argued back, annoyed by his arrogant self-righteousness, you have to start with principles, but there also has to be some give and take. It only occurred to me later to argue that if we all followed his “position-absolutist” argument, nothing would ever get accomplished.

Eventually, the conversation fizzled out, and we each returned to my food and whatever we had brought to read.

The exasperating irony is that we probably agreed with each other—and with Ms. Clinton—on the vast majority of “principles.”

**********

The polling data cited above reveals that with, few exceptions (background checks; keeping guns from suspected terrorists, convicted felons and those with mental illness), Democrats, Republicans and Independents see the same world through different lenses, preventing collective action that protects responsible gun owners AND dramatically reduces gun violence.

At the same time, my own views on gun ownership are subtly shifting. One result of my strong interest in the gangsterism resulting from Prohibition is a deep fascination with the Thompson submachine gun, also known as the tommy gun, the Chicago typewriter and the chopper. Periodically, I half-jokingly ask my wife if she will get me one for my birthday or some other worthy occasion. Her response is always a firm “no.”

Also, my maternal grandfather served as a Philadelphia police officer[4], eventually rising to Detective, for 20+ years. My aunt still has his service revolver (his badge sadly went missing after his death in 1978). It is sweet irony that I, a staunch gun control advocate, would love to inherit that service revolver someday.

**********

The Vale Rio Diner no longer sits at the intersection of Route 23 and Route 113N, while Zaftigs just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Two very different encounters in those two very different eateries leave me with this question: When do you stick to deeply-held principles, and when do you set them aside to advance the common good?

The answer may something to do with lowering your voice, listening to other points of view and questioning your own certainty.

Until I find the answer, I have this treasure to sustain me.

IMG_3114 (2)

IMG_3115 (2)

Until next time…

[1] I would be remiss if I did not give a shout out to the superb Minella’s Diner (Wayne, Pennsylvania) and the charmingly-anachronistic (Friday night karaoke!) Limerick Diner (Limerick, Pennsylvania).

[2] Nonetheless, one of the few major pieces of legislation passed by this Congress (February 28, 2017) overturned an Obama Administration regulation preventing certain mentally ill people from purchasing guns. Public opinion is not always the force we presume it to be.

[3] The disdain in his voice when he drawled “Philadelphia” spoke volumes.

[4] Late in his career, my grandfather was partnered with a rookie police officer named Frank Rizzo, whom he despised. Rizzo would go on to serve as a highly controversial and racially-divisive Philadelphia Police Commissioner (1967-1972) and Mayor (1972-1980).

Jon Ossoff, Ed Markey, and the (near-)future of the Democratic Party

The runoff special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District (CD) is June 20, 2017. Democrat Jon Ossoff won the first round of voting on April 19, 2017, but with only 48.1% of the vote. Rather than have separate party primaries, all candidates in Georgia run in a single “jungle primary.” If nobody receives more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates meet in a runoff. Thus, Ossoff will be facing Republican Karen Handel (19.8%) in eight days.

This election is occurring because Republican Representative Tom Price resigned to become President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services on February 10, 2017. What makes Ossoff’s performance on April 19 so surprising is that Price had won his seven Georgia CD-6 elections by an average of 53.0 percentage points (excluding the 2004 and 2010 races, when Price ran unopposed, drops the average to 34.3%), although he had won in 2016 by “only” 23.4 percentage points.

Price’s dominance makes the performance of Ossoff (and of all five Democrats, who combined for 49% of the vote overall) remarkable, though it should be noted that 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton lost Georgia CD-6 by only 1.5 percentage points to Trump, after Republican presidential nominees Mitt Romney (2012) and John McCain (2008) had won the CD by an average of 21 percentage points.

Currently, Ossoff is leading in the non-partisan polls (which should be taken with a box of salt) by either 4.8 or 6.9 percentage points. Even a narrow win would be a small political earthquake, because Georgia CD-6, in suburban Atlanta, houses precisely the sort of highly-educated suburban population I argue Democrats need to target.

Thus, on the one hand, a Democratic victory in a historically Republican CD would bode well for their chances of recapturing the U.S. House of Representatives (House) in 2018. On the other hand, Ossoff is running a centrist campaign targeting local district needs, eschewing a more ideologically progressive message, and that is probably why he is winning.

As this article makes clear, Ossoff is opposed to raising taxes (even on the wealthy), is not ready to entertain a single-payer health plan, has not said whether he would support California Representative Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic leader in the House, and thinks it is too soon to discuss impeaching President Trump.

And I would still vote for him if I lived in Georgia CD-6, for the simple reason that for Democrats to regain the House in 2018 and have any chance of acting toward progressive goals, they will need to let more moderate/non-ideological Democratic candidates run campaigns suited to their individual states and CDs.

**********

On June 1, 2017, I attended Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey’s town hall event at the beautifully-restored Paramount Theater in Boston. To my mind, Markey is a progressive hero, particularly on the environment, even if he has been described as “moderate left of center.”

IMG_3107

Markey was introduced by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Democratic Congressman Michael Capuano, and then he spoke for about 15 minutes, primarily about the dangers posed by a President Trump and the need to defend the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), before taking questions.

The first few questions were about the ACA repeal and replace process. With the second overall question, I asked the Senator whether he could convince any fellow Republican Senators to break with pressure from their own party to vote against any ACA repeal/replace bill. He answered that he could, citing his long history of getting bills passed with bipartisan support.

The next two questions were by members of LaRouche PAC, about which the less said, the better (I had to leave the town hall early, and the two questioners were proselytizing outside; I MAY have had a few choice words for them).

And then came the single-payer questions.

Actually, these were more demands than questions.

They were demands that Markey not merely support a single-payer healthcare system (which he does, having introduced legislation to that effect in the past), but that he do so NOW, without equivocation, to the exclusion of all else.

Markey doggedly explained after each such question that he would support such a system again, but for now, the goal needs to be to save the Affordable Care Act. To my practical-progressive mind, what he was saying was “I would love to perform massive gorgeous renovations to our shared house, but right now the house is on fire, and I think we should put that out first.”

That sound about right to me. I support a Medicaid-for-all plan (or a similar variant), but I also recognize that we need to prevent repeal/replace of the ACA first.

One woman kept insisting (from her chair, after she had already asked her single-payer question, which struck me as the sort of rudeness I would never tolerate in my own daughters) that the public now supports a single-payer healthcare system.

The most recent poll I can find that specifically addresses this is a Kaiser Family Foundation poll from December 2015 (1,202 adults nationwide, +/-3%). When asked, “Now, please tell me if you favor or oppose having a national health plan in which all Americans would get their insurance through an expanded, universal form of Medicare-for-all,” 58% were in favor, 34% were opposed, and 8% were unsure or refused to answer the question.

I will admit that I expected the favor/opposed percentages to be much closer, and I am pleasantly surprised that support for a single-payer healthcare system is that high.

Still, here is the current political reality.

We live in a political universe in which the ACA is more popular (47.0% vs. 41.5%) than unpopular, while the AHCA is highly unpopular (17%-31% approval vs. 55-65% disapproval, in recent polling)…and the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate is still doing its darnedest to replace the former with the latter (or a related alternative), with the AHCA having already passed the House by just two votes. Republicans, beholden to their most right-wing voters and their own promises, are blatantly ignoring these data.

When the ACA was being written, inclusion of a “public option” (allowing consumers to buy into the Medicare program, a first step toward single-payer healthcare) was debated. It was ultimately rejected, even though Democrats had supermajorities of 59 Senate seats and 259 House seats (59.5%).

**********

My point is not that public opinion or election victories do not matter. They absolutely do.

My point is not that the Democrats should reject the progressive fervor of their energized and mobilized base. They absolutely should. The Democratic Party needs greater clarity in what precisely it stands for, and this is a great place (though not the only place) to start.

My point is that the primary goal for Democrats needs to be winning elections. The most progressive platform in the world will get you nothing if you are not in a position to enact it. If the Jon Ossoff’s of the world need to run centrist campaigns to win in traditionally Republican areas like Georgia (or Arizona or Texas or North Carolina), then so be it.

A separate-but-related point is that progressive and moderate Democrats alike need to be supportive of our current elected officials, from progressive champions like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to moderates like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who faces a tough reelection race next year.  Not blindly supportive, but not antagonistic either.

These folks are on the side of progressives, broadly speaking, and they all need our support.

Until next time…

Democrats’ current generic ballot advantage is JUST enough to recapture the House in 2018

On June 5, 2017, the data journalism website fivethirtyeight.com introduced its new yardstick to assess which political party is winning the battle to control the U.S. House of Representatives (House) after the 2018 midterm elections. This tool is a weighted average of “generic ballot polls,” polls that ask respondents some variant of the question “If the election were held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican House candidate in your Congressional district.”

For reference, Democrats lost the total of all votes cast for the House in 2016 by 1.1 percentage points, 47.6% – 48.7%, despite netting six seats.

As of 10:12 am on June 7, fivethirtyeight.com had the Democrats winning the House vote by 6.1 percentage points, 44.5% -38.4% (with 17.1% undecided/choosing another party). If the Democrats won the House vote by 6.1 percentage points in 2018, that would mark a 7.2 percentage shift in the Democrats’ direction since 2016.

To regain control of the House, Democrats need to add 24 seats to their post-2016-election tally of 194.

Here is the question, then.

What change in Democratic seats would historically be associated with a 7.2 pro-Democratic percentage point shift?

To answer this question, I first compared the change in Democratic margin (Democratic percentage minus Republican percentage, total House vote) from the previous election year (“margin change”) to the change in the number of House seats held by Democrats[1] from the previous election (“seat change”) for the 24 House elections from 1970 to 2016[2].

Figure 1: Change in Democratic minus Republican Margin of Total House Vote vs. Change in Democratic House Seats, 1970-2016

Change in Democratic House Vote Margin vs. Change in Democratic House Seats, 1970-2016

For example, in 2006, when Democrats netted 31 seats to recapture the House, they also increased their margin over Republicans by 10.5 percentage points, from -2.6 percentage points in 2004 to +7.9 percentage points in 2006 (Figure 1).

The relationship between margin change and seat change is strong and linear: the Pearson correlation (R) between the two measures is +0.91, meaning the two values nearly always rise or fall in tandem.

The next step was to run an ordinary least squares (OLS) linear regression on these data. An OLS regression yields the average change in one variable given an n-unit change in another variable, analogous to calculating the slope of a line (y=mx+b). According to this OLS regression[3], a 7.2 percentage point margin change would, on average, result in a 20.8 seat change, just shy of the 24 seats Democrats need.

Knowing that the party in the White House often loses seats in midterm elections, I tested whether the relationship between margin change and seat change differed between midterm and presidential elections by adding a “product term” to the regression.

The short answer is yes: the relationship between margin change and seat change is higher in a midterm year[4]. According to this second OLS regression, a 7.2 percentage point margin change is associated with, on average, a 25.3 seat change, slightly more than the Democrats need to recapture the House in 2018. Moreover, for every 1.0 percentage point increase in margin change, average seat change increases 3.4.

Despite the possible Republican House advantage from gerrymandering, I found no change over time in the association between margin change and seat change[5].

I will close this remarkably short (for me) post by showing the average seat change associated with a range of margin changes (Table 1):

Table 1: Estimated Average Change in Democratic House Seats Resulting From Various Changes in %Democratic-%Republican Margin in Total House Votes, 2016 to 2018

Margin Change, 2018 Seat Change, 2018
-3 -9.4
-2 -6.0
-1 -2.6
0 0.8
1 4.2
2 7.6
3 11.0
4 14.4
5 17.8
6 21.3
6.8 24.0
7 24.7
8 28.1
9 31.5
10 34.9
11 38.3
12 41.7

According to this model, Democrats need to win the House vote in 2018 by around 5.7 percentage points (i.e., a 6.8 percentage point margin change) to recapture the House.

Until next time…

[1] Sidestepping, for now, net seat change, which only differs from actual seat change if the number of seats held by Independents changes.

[2] The selection of years is solely because I have been collecting data on all elections (president, Senate, House, governor, state legislative seats) since 1968 for a much larger project. Sneak preview: I observe a fundamental shift in party “focus” between Executive and Legislative in 1992-94. Stay tuned.

[3] Average seat change = 3.112 * margin change – 1.627

[4] The new formula for midterm elections, if you must know, is Average Seat Change = 3.408 * Margin Change + 2.433 -2.770. The coefficients for Margin Change, Election Type (1=Midterm, 0= Election), Margin Change times Election Type were 2.076, 2.433 and 1.332, respectively. The adjusted r-squared was 0.831.

[5] In fact, the product term year*margin change was perfectly collinear with margin change, preventing me from running the OLS regression.

Democrats need to capitalize on gubernatorial election opportunities in 2017 and 2018

Having previously analyzed Democratic prospects in the 2018 midterm elections for U.S. House (House; here and here) and Senate (Senate; here), I now examine what I think are the most important elections for both parties in 2017 and 2018—those for governor.

In an age of increasing partisan polarization and Congressional gridlock, governors have emerged as crucial policy leaders far from Washington DC. On the conservative side are recent innovations by Republican Governors such as Sam Brownback of Kansas, Scott Walker of Wisconsin (prompting an unsuccessful 2012 recall election) and Rick Snyder of Michigan. Governors could choose whether or not to accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, as Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio continues to note.

More recently, Democratic Governors have attempted to block Trump Adminstration actions. Washington’s Jay Inslee was a key leader in blocking iterations of the travel ban. California’s Jerry Brown has emerged as a leader on climate change, especially after President Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.

Currently, there are 16 Democratic governors, 33 Republican governors and one Independent governor (Bill Walker of Alaska). Thus, of the 38 elections for governor scheduled for 2017 (New Jersey, Virginia) and 2018 (36, including New Hampshire and Vermont, who hold gubernatorial elections every two years), 27 are currently held by Republicans, offering a potentially target-rich opportunity for Democrats.

2018govraces

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Just bear with me while I review some recent electoral history.

When Barack Obama won his first presidential election in 2008, Democrats also netted one governor’s mansion, giving them a 29-21 edge.

On January 21, 2009, Arizona’s Democratic governor, Janet Napolitano, became Secretary of Homeland Security. She was succeeded, under the Arizona Constitution, by the Republican Secretary of State, Jan Brewer. That November, in a further ominous sign of things to come, Democrats lost governorships in New Jersey (Republican Chris Christie unseated Democrat Jon Corzine) and Virginia (Republican Bob McDonnell won an open seat).

Democrats 26, Republicans 24.

During the 2010 midterm elections, as Republicans were recapturing the House, Democrats lost six governorships, while Republicans gained five and Independents gained one (Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island).

Republicans 29, Democrats 20, Independent 1.

Over the next three years, there was no net change in the partisan distribution of governorships. The four gubernatorial elections in 2011 were a wash: both Republican seats stayed Republican, and both Democratic seats stayed Democratic. In 2012, Republicans netted one governorship, as Republican Pat McCrory won an open seat in North Carolina from retiring Democratic governor Bev Perdue. And in 2013, while Christie cruised to reelection by 22.1 percentage points, Democrat Terry McAuliffe edged out Republican Ed Gillespie by 2.5 percentage points (Virginia governors are limited to a single four-year term).

In 2014, however, the wheels really came off for Democrats, as they lost nine Senate seats, and control of the Senate, while losing 12 additional House seats. They also lost a net of two governorships: Republicans Asa Hutchinson, Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker won open Democratic-held governor’s mansions in Arkansas, Maryland and Massachusetts, respectively, while Republican Bruce Rauner defeated incumbent Democratic governor Pat Quinn in Illinois. On the flip side, Democrat Tom Wolf defeated incumbent Republican Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, and Democrat Gina Raimondo won an open seat in Rhode Island (Independent Chafee did not seek reelection), while Walker defeated incumbent Republican governor Sean Parnell in Alaska.

Republicans 31, Democrats 18, Independent 1.

The three gubernatorial elections in 2015 were again a wash, with open seats in Kentucky flipping Republican (Matt Bevin) and Democratic in Louisiana (Jon Bel Edwards). Finally, in 2016, Republicans netted an additional two governor’s mansions, winning open seats in Missouri (Eric Greitens), New Hampshire (Chris Sununu) and Vermont (Phil Scott), while Democrat Roy Cooper upset McCrory in North Carolina.

Republicans 33, Democrats 16, Independent 1

In other words, since Obama assumed the presidency on January 20, 2009, Democrats have lost 13 governorship (Republicans +12, Independents +1), as well as 62 House and 11 Senate seats.

Ouch.

**********

For Democrats simply to break even in governor’s mansions (or pull within one, if Alaska reelects Walker in 2018), they would need to net nine of them (or Republicans would have to lose eight of them).

That is a tall order for a single two-year election cycle, but there is every reason to believe Democrats can make up substantial ground in the 2017 and 2018 gubernatorial elections.

 Table 1: Governor Elections in 2017 and 2018

Current Governor State Open Seat? 3W-RDM Ave. Margin Prior 2 Races, Incumbent Party Net Approval*
DEMOCRATS
David Ige HI No 34.3 14.7% 8%
Jerry Brown CA Yes 23.2 16.4% 24%
Andrew Cuomo NY No 21.6 21.6% 31%
Gina Raimondo RI No 18.0 -3.0% 3%
Dannell Malloy CT ? 12.8 1.6% -37%
Kate Brown†† OR No 8.7 6.5% 27%
John Hickenlooper CO Yes 2.2 9.0% 33%
Terry McAuliffe VA Yes 1.5 -7.4% 21%
Mark Dayton MN Yes 1.5 3.0% 23%
Tom Wolf PA No -0.4 0.4% 5%
 

INDEPENDENT

Bill Walker AZ No -19.2 -9.6% -10%
 

REPUBLICANS

Phil Scott VT No 27.7 3.7% 52%
Larry Hogan MD No 22.6 -5.3% 57%
Charlie Baker MA No 22.1 -2.3% 58%
Bruce Rauner IL No 14.7 1.5% -7%
Chris Christie NJ Yes 12.0 12.8% -46%
Susana Martinez NM Yes 6.5 10.6% -5%
Paul LePage ME Yes 5.9 3.3% -1%
Rick Snyder MI Yes 2.2 11.1% -14%
Brian Sandoval NV Yes 2.0 29.2% 42%
Scott Walker WI No 0.7 6.1%††† -5%
Chris Sununu NH No 0.1 -1.3% 33%
Rick Scott FL Yes -3.4 1.1% 21%
Kim Reynolds†† IA No? -4.7 15.7% N/A
John Kasich OH Yes -5.8 16.3% 26%
Nathan Deal GA Yes -9.6 9.0% 38%
Doug Ducey AZ No -9.7 11.8% 25%
Greg Abbott TX No -15.3 16.5% 40%
Henry McMaster†† SC No -15.7 9.5% N/A
Sam Brownback KS Yes -23.4 17.4% -39%
Pete Ricketts NE No -25.8 32.9% 31%
Dennis Daugaard SD Yes -25.8 34.0% 45%
Bill Haslam TN Yes -25.8 39.7% 40%
Asa Hutchinson AR No -28.2 -8.4% 45%
Kay Ivey†† AL ? -28.4 21.5% N/A
C.L. “Butch” Otter ID Yes -34.2 20.6% 26%
Mary Fallin OK Yes -38.1 17.9% -11%
Matt Mead WY Yes -45.7 37.4% 33%

   * From a Morning Consult poll of 85,000+ respondents in all states (except South Carolina), January to March 2017.

   For Rhode Island 2010, the margin is Democrat minus Republican, despite the victory of  Independent Chafee. For Colorado 2010, the margin is Democrat minus American  Constitution Party (who nominated former Republican Representative Tom Tancredo). For Alaska, the margins are Independent minus Republican (2014) and Democrat minus Republican (2010). New Hampshire and Vermont hold gubernatorial elections every two years, so this is the average of 2014 and 2016. For Maine 2010, the margin is Republican minus Independent, as LePage’s closest competitor was Independent Eliot Cutler.

   †† Brown became governor February 18, 2015 when John Kitzhaber resigned amid scandal, then won reelection in 2016. Reynolds became governor May 24, 2017 when Terry  Brandstad became Ambassador to China. McMaster became governor January 24, 2017 when Nikki Haley became Ambassador to the United Nations. Ivey became governor  April 10, 2017 when Robert Bentley resigned amid scandal.

    ††† Margin includes the regularly-scheduled 2010 and 2014 elections, as well as the June 2012 recall election

Table 1 (for which I am indebted, in part, to here) lists, for every governor’s race in 2017 (italicized) and 2018, whether an incumbent will be seeking reelection (if known; open seats tend to be closer), the average margin of victory in the previous two gubernatorial elections for the current governor’s party, and the net approval rating (percent approving minus percent disapproving) in an April 2017 Morning Consult poll[1].

The potential for Democratic governorship gains in 2017-18 is clear: Republicans are defending governor’s mansions in nine states which lean at least 2.0 points more Democratic than the nation[2] (using my 3W-RDM measure of how much more or less Democratic a state’s presidential vote has been than the national presidential vote over the last three elections, weighted for recency) and in an additional five[3] states no more than six points more Republican than the nation. Democrats, by contrast, are defending only one governor’s mansion in a state (Pennsylvania) less than 1.5 points more Democratic than the nation.

In the rest of this post, I will briefly analyze all 38 gubernatorial elections in 2017 and 2018, organized by party and from most to least vulnerable. This analysis is based solely upon the partisan lean of the state, previous winning margins and the incumbent governor’s popularity (or unpopularity), ignoring possible partisan “waves” and (for the most part) opposition candidate quality.

Republicans. Let’s get 2017 out of the way first. Christie is the least popular governor in the nation, with a -46% net approval rating. And while he won his two elections by a solid 12.8 percentage points, on average, New Jersey is a Democratic state (+12.0). Put it this way: if Democrats do NOT win the 2017 New Jersey governor’s race, they should disband as a political party.

There are four other 2018 gubernatorial elections in Democratic-leaning states in which a Republican governor is retiring: Maine (+5.9), Michigan (+2.2), Nevada (+2.0) and New Mexico (+6.5). In Maine, Michigan and New Mexico, the current Republican governors average a -7% net approval rating and won relatively close elections in very good Republican years (2010, 2014). These three states are thus probably the best opportunities for Democrats to win back governor’s mansions in 2018[4]. Nevada, by contrast, has a very popular governor in Brian Sandoval (+42), who won his two elections by an average of 29.2 percentage points, making it a harder pick-up for the Democrats than the state’s Democratic lean would suggest.

Six Republican governors will seek reelection in 2018 in Democratic-leaning or swing states, with five having won either a single close election (average margin 4.1 percentage points) or three relatively close elections (Walker, by an average 6.1 percentage points). Baker, Hogan and Scott govern very Democratic states (average=+24.1), but they are also remarkably popular (average=+56%), making them (at this point) likely favorites to win reelection[5]. On the flip side, however, are Bruce Rauner (Illinois, +14.7), Walker (+0.7) and Sununu (+0.1). While Rauner and Walker have an average net approval of -6%, Sununu is quite popular (+33%). Thus, Illinois and Wisconsin should also be at the top of the Democratic target list in 2018, while Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont have popular Republican incumbents who may be hard to beat in 2018.

Florida is the ultimate swing state, albeit one that leans Republican (-3.4) at the presidential level. Retiring Republican governor Rick Scott (net approval +21%) won both his 2010 and 2014 elections by only 1.1 percentage points (even as Republicans were winning the gubernatorial vote in 2013-14 by 4.4 percentage points and in 2009-10 by 1.3 percentage points). If I were a Democratic strategist, I would add Florida to Illinois, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico and Wisconsin as top targets to retake governor’s mansions (and I would certainly keep an eye on Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire and Vermont).

After that it gets…trickier. Donald Trump won Iowa and Ohio by 8.7 percentage points, on average, in 2016; these two states now average 5.2 percentage points more Republican than the nation in presidential elections. Kasich, who is term-limited, won his two elections by 16.3 percentage points, on average, just above the average 15.7% percentage point victory margin for Branstad, before becoming Ambassador to China in May 2017, elevating Lieutenant Governor Reynolds to governor. If Reynolds seeks reelection in 2018, she is probably a heavy favorite[6]. However, the open seat in Ohio should be in play for Democrats, even with Kasich’s current popularity (+26%).

Governor’s races in 2018 in Arizona and Georgia (average 3W-RDM=-9.7, though trending Democratic), will test the hypothesis that the future of the Democratic Party lies more in the Southeast and Southwest than in the Rust Belt/Midwest. Current Republican governors Doug Ducey (+25%) and Nathan Deal (+38%) are quite popular. However, Ducey is seeking reelection in Arizona, making him a likely favorite, while Deal is term-limited in Georgia, creating a better opportunity for Democrats. These elections may be more about narrowing Republican advantage than outright victory, but Georgia, at least, should be on the Democrats’ radar.

That leaves 11 additional 2018 gubernatorial elections in states with a Republican governor. These states average 27.9 percentage points more Republican than the nation in presidential elections, ranging from Texas (-15.3) and South Carolina (-15.7) to Wyoming (-45.7). As many as five of them will have incumbent governors seeking reelection, three of whom have an average net approval of +39% (Greg Abbott in Texas, Pete Ricketts in Nebraska, Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas). Of the six open seats, only two are of even the slightest interest to Democrats: Kansas, where outgoing governor Sam Brownback has a dismal -39% net approval rating (and only beat Democrat Paul Davis in 2014 by 3.7 percentage points), and Oklahoma, where outgoing governor Mary Fallin has a net approval rating of -11%. These two states would be the longest of long shots, but I would still stick a pin in them if I were a Democratic strategist.

Independent. The unpopular Walker (-10%) upset incumbent Republican Parnell in 2014 by 2.2 percentage points while Republicans were winning the national gubernatorial vote by 1.3 percentage points. Given the strong Republican lean of Alaska (-19.2), I would expect a decent Republican challenger to unseat Walker—though if a strong Democrat were to run[7], a three-way race could be anyone’s to win.

Democrats. Let’s start with 2017. McAuliffe, the popular (+21%) Democratic governor of Democratic-leaning Virginia (+1.5), cannot seek reelection, and in the commonwealth’s two previous gubernatorial elections, the average Democrat-minus-Republican margin was -7.4 percentage points. On paper, then, this election looks like a toss-up (maybe even slight lean Republican). That said, both Democrat candidates for governor—Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam and former House Member Tom Perriello—have opened up double-digit polling leads against Gillespie.

Should he seek a third term, the most vulnerable incumbent Democrat is Dannell Malloy of Connecticut. His net approval is a dismal -37%, and he won his previous two elections (albeit in strong Republican years nationally) by only 1.6 percentage points, on average. The state’s solid Democratic lean (+12.8), which would benefit another Democratic candidate (even as Malloy’s unpopularity would weigh her/him down), probably would not save Malloy in 2018.

To the extent that any of the other eight Democratic-held governorships are likely to be won by Republicans in 2018, the next-most-vulnerable incumbent Democrat is Wolf, whose net approval is a middling +5%. Wolf defied Pennsylvania’s decades-long tradition of changing partisan control of the governor’s mansion every eight years[8] when he beat incumbent Republican Corbett by 9.9 percentage points (after Corbett had won an open seat in 2010 by 9.0 percentage points), even as Republicans were winning the national gubernatorial vote by 4.4 percentage points. Pennsylvania is a swing-state at the presidential level (-0.4), and Democrats have essentially tied the last two governor’s races (D+0.4 percentage points). Like Virginia, this looks like a toss-up on paper, but I would give Wolf the edge to win reelection.

Popular Democratic incumbents Mark Dayton (+23%) and John Hickenlooper (+33%) are term-limited in the Democratic-leanings states of Minnesota (+1.5) and Colorado (+2.2). These two governors defied the strong Republican performances of 2010 and 2014, winning their four combined elections in those years by an average 6.0 percentage points. I would expect Democrats to prevail in close elections in both states in 2018.

That leaves five current Democratic governors in Democratic states. Oregon is the least Democratic of the five (+8.7), but Governor Kate Brown has a solid +27% net approval rating. California’s equally popular Jerry Brown (+24%) is term-limited (for a second time; the eternally-young 79-year-old also served as California’s governor from 1975-1983), but at +23.2, California is one of the nation’s most Democratic states. Hawaii’s David Ige is only marginally popular (+8%), but Hawaii (+34.3) is the most Democratic state in the country, and Ige won his first election by 12.4 percentage points. By contrast, Rhode Island’s Raimondo is not especially popular (+3%) and she only won in 2014 by 4.5 percentage points, but the state’s strong Democratic lean (+18.0) is likely sufficient for her to win reelection. And, finally, New York’s highly popular governor Andrew Cuomo (+31%) won his previous two elections by 21.6 percentage points, on average, while New York is heavily Democratic (+21.6); Cuomo is a safe bet to win reelection.

Bottom line. The dream scenario for Democrats is this. All 10 governor’s mansions currently held by Democrats stay in Democratic hands, while Democrats not only upset Walker in Alaska, they also defeat Rauner and Walker in Illinois and Wisconsin, respectively, while capturing open seats in New Jersey, Maine, Michigan, New Mexico, Florida, Ohio, Kansas and Oklahoma. Democratic gubernatorial candidates also prevail in states with popular incumbent Republican governors: Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont, and even Iowa. This scenario would result in a net pickup of 17 governor’s mansions, which while (barely) within the realm of possibility, is EXTREMELY unlikely.

The nightmare scenario for Democrats is that Republicans win the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races in 2017, recapture governor’s mansions in Connecticut and Pennsylvania (as well as Colorado and Minnesota), and do not lose any other currently Republican governorship in 2018. This scenario would result in a net gain for Republicans of five governor’s mansions. This, too, is (even more barely) within the realm of possibility, and even more EXTREMELY unlikely.

The most likely outcome is that Democrats net somewhere between one (lose VA, CT, PA while winning half of NJ, MI, ME, NM, IL, WI, FL, OH and none of MD, MA, NV, NH, VT, KS, OK) and nine-ten governorships (hold VA, CT, PA and win all of NJ, MI, ME, NM, IL, WI, FL, OH as well as one or two of MD, MA, NV, NH, VT, KS, OK).

Simply put, the opportunity for Democrats to make substantial progress towards parity in governorships is there, if they can take advantage of it.

Until next time…

[1] I assume more unpopular governors will have a harder time winning reelection or being succeeded by a member of the same party, and that higher popularity will make it easier to win reelection, while contributing little otherwise.

[2] This is still a reasonable proxy for the general partisan lean of a state, despite the fact that governor’s races do not always align neatly with presidential voting.

[3] Seven, if you count Democratic-trending Arizona and Georgia.

[4] A wild card is Maine. If Republican Senator Susan Collins runs for governor in 2018, she is probably a heavy favorite to win, though from a policy perspective, replacing the Trump-like LePage with the far more moderate Collins would be a moral victory for Democrats.

[5] Heck, I am a lifelong Democrat, and I might vote for Charlie Baker in 2018!

[6] It should be noted, however, that Branstad had only a +2 net approval rating in April 2017.

[7] Former Democratic Senator (and Anchorage Mayor) Mark Begich lost his 2014 reelection bid by only 2.1 percentage points, even as Republicans were winning nationally by 6.7 percentage points. Were Begich to run for governor…

[8] I’m not kidding. Democrat Ed Rendell was governor from 2003-2011. Republican Tom Ridge was governor from 1995-2003. Democrat Bob Casey Sr. was governor from 1987 to 1995. Republican Richard Thornburgh was governor from 1979 to 1987. Democrat Milton Shapp was governor from 1971 to 1979. And so forth.