The Downballot: Should Democrats freak out over recent polls? w/Tom Bonier (transcript)

There has been a ton of coverage in recent weeks over a streak of poor 2024 polling for Democrats and Target Smart’s Tom Bonier joins us to help us separate the wheat from the chaff. We talk about what to take from these polls and how to balance them against the much more positive election results we’ve seen this year. We also discuss how early voting data continues to evolve and how Sen. Sherrod Brown’s campaign will use Ohio’s recent abortion and marijuana referendums to find new persuadable voters next year.

House retirements keep coming and host David Beard and Daily Kos Elections editor Jeff Singer discuss one of the most competitive new open seats, Michigan’s 8th district. They also preview some key state house special elections in Michigan and Pennsylvania and new attempts to put abortion rights on the ballot next year in Montana and Nebraska.

Subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show—new episodes every Thursday! You’ll find a transcript of this week’s episode right here by noon Eastern time.

Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

David Beard:

Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the Presidency, from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.

Unfortunately, David Nir was not able to join us this week, but Daily Kos Elections editor Jeff Singer will be joining me as we go through our weekly hits. The two of us are going to talk about Michigan’s 8th district, which is newly open thanks to Dan Kildee’s retirement, and now one of the most competitive seats in the country. We’ll also talk about new abortion rights measures that are going to be (hopefully) on the ballot in Montana and Nebraska next year. We’ll talk about upcoming state House special elections in Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as the recent spate of rulings on some gerrymandered maps across the country.

Then after the break, Tom Bonier from TargetSmart will be joining me to break down all the data we’ve gotten from the 2022 and 2023 elections and what it all means for 2024. We’ve got a great show, with lots of information, so let’s dive right in.

So despite the Thanksgiving break, there’s still been a fair amount of political news going around in the past couple of weeks, and we want to start off in the House where there’s been a string of House retirements. We’re not going to talk about every one. Most of them are in safe seats, so there’s just going to be a new Democrat or a new Republican replacing the old one. But we do want to focus on one very competitive seat and that’s Michigan’s Eighth District.

Jeff Singer:

Yeah, exactly. This is about as competitive as it gets. This seat is located in Flint in the area known as the Tri-Cities. Very evenly divided turf. Joe Biden won it 50% to 48% — it doesn’t get much closer — and Republicans last year spent millions hoping to flip the seats. Didn’t happen. Dan Kildee won by a surprisingly comfortable 53% to 43% margin, but Kildee isn’t going to be there to defend it anymore. First time in a long time that the Kildee family won’t be running here.

Beard:

Yeah, I mean, the Kildee family is an institution in Michigan. They’ve had a few of these. Of course, the Levins represented Michigan for a long time, either at the Congressional level or the Senate level. The Dingells continue to represent Michigan and have for close to 100 years, I think. But the Kildees, they also have a long streak. Dan Kildee’s uncle originally represented the area in Congress from 1977 until 2012 when he decided not to run for reelection. Dan Kildee, his nephew, ran and won the seat. He had previously been on the Flint Board of Education and the Genesee County Board of Commissioners. So he had a long elective history of his own. It wasn’t purely a nepotism run, though I’m sure the Kildee name helped.

And he’s been able to hold that seat pretty comfortably. Even as you mentioned last year, when it became a lot more competitive, when the Republicans spent a lot of money against him, he was still able to win 53-43. So we are I think going to lose something there now that we don’t have his name and his really strong brand in this area. But I expect we’ll see a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans look to win this seat.

Singer:

Yeah. In fact, there’s already one Democrat who’s running: state Board of Education President Pamela Pugh. She was running for Senate, but wasn’t gaining traction. This week, she announced she was going to run for this seat. But Pugh’s probably not going to scare anyone off. Her Senate run really raised very little money. She ended September with about $9,000. She can use that for House, but that’s not going to intimidate anyone.

Beard:

Yeah, that gets you a day’s worth of a Congressional campaign, $9,000, compared to what you actually need to raise. And we’ll have to see, was the issue with raising money, the fact that so much of the establishment had rallied around Elissa Slotkin, who is also running for the Senate seat, or was it actually a problem with Pugh being able to raise money? Because now I think there’ll be a lot more openness around establishment organizations, traditional donors to give her money now that there’s not a clear front-runner where she’s running, but she’s still going to have to be able to prove to have that fundraising skill. There’ve been some other names that have been bandied about. Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley has said that he’s going to launch an exploratory committee and Mitchell Rivard, who serves as Chief of Staff to Dan Kildee, has also said he’s considering running to replace his boss in this swing seat.

Now, Neeley is obviously the Mayor of Flint. Pugh is from the Saginaw area. So we’ve got three different power bases here. And obviously, Rivard has a lot of D.C. connections, so it’s D.C. versus Flint versus Saginaw. If all of these folks run, there could also, of course, be other candidates running and we expect there’ll be at least one, possibly more, decent Republicans running as well to give them a chance at this seat.

Singer:

Yeah. There are two Republicans running. One of them is very much not decent though: Paul Junge. He was the nominee last year against Kildee. He was the one on the other side of that 53% to 43% drubbing. Democrats made sure to emphasize he has weak connections to this area, and that was a pretty good argument. There are other candidates though, like police officer Martin Blank. He served in the Army, was decorated, has a good resume, but he ran twice for the legislature in the last few cycles and didn’t come close to winning either primary. So national Republicans reportedly like him, but local voters so far haven’t, and pretty likely more Republicans are looking at the seat. There have been reports of some names out there. No one’s said anything yet, but there’s a long while to go. This is going to be a big priority for both parties. We’re going to see a lot of action here.

Beard:

Yeah, we’ll definitely be revisiting this district, I think, a number of times between now and next November. I think it could definitely be a majority maker in the end to determine which party controls the House in 2025.

Now, another topic obviously that we’ve covered a ton on “The Downballot” is abortion rights measures. We’ve got some more of those coming. First of all, in Montana, reproductive rights advocates have announced plans to place a constitutional amendment safeguarding the right to an abortion on the ballot next year in Montana. Montana, of course, has become a bit of an oasis for many folks seeking abortion care in the western United States. A lot of the states around Montana have, obviously, severely banned abortion or made it very, very limited and hard to get.

Montana, thanks to a previous state Supreme Court ruling, has protected abortion rights in that state. But, of course, as we’ve seen, rights from a state Supreme Court can change as the makeup of that state Supreme Court changes. So that is a big reason why these advocates are looking to put this measure onto the ballot to get this written into the Constitution very explicitly so that any future state Supreme Courts in Montana won’t be able to decide, “Oh, that ruling was wrong and now actually you can ban abortion in Montana. Sorry about that. Don’t worry about stare decisis. We’re just going to go ahead and let you do whatever you want.” So this is the way to make sure that can protect reproductive rights for the foreseeable future.

Singer:

Yeah, exactly. And Nebraska is also looking to do that, although the situation there is very different. The Republicans recently just passed a very restrictive ban on abortion in the state. Activists are looking to overturn that with a constitutional amendment, but getting constitutional amendments before voters is never an easy job. Advocates need to gather signatures from about 10% of registered voters. That’s about 125,000 people, but there’s a little bit of a catch. The exact requirements aren’t actually going to be known until July 5th, which is the filing deadline. You always want to gather a lot more signatures than you need because some of them are inevitably going to be disqualified and this makes the target a little more hard to say, but 125,000 is about what they’re going for.

There are geographic requirements as well. They need to gather signatures from 5% of registered voters in at least two-fifths of the state’s 93 counties, and Nebraska, like many states, has progressives packed into a few large counties and spread out all over the place. So to hit these targets, you have to go into some very, very red turf. That’s not necessarily a disqualifier. Progressives in Ohio had to do the same thing to get their abortion rights amendment on the ballot, and they very much did. But it does require some extra work.

Beard:

Yeah, I think they’ll be able to do that, but certainly that’s a lot more difficult than being able to collect all of your signatures from a couple of very populous counties, both in terms of the political makeup, but also just the fact that people are a lot closer together so you can just be on a street corner or someplace populous and get a whole bunch of signatures. Anybody who’s lived in a rural county knows it’s not quite so easy to collect a whole bunch of signatures just in one place when there are so few people and they’re so spread out.

The same is true in Montana. They’ll have to collect 60,000 signatures in Montana. That’s equivalent to 10% of the vote in the most recent election for Governor, and 10% of those have to come from at least 40 of the 100 districts in the state House.

So there are some geographic requirements there as well, but that’s a smaller number than 125. The states are around the same size so I think the Montana one will probably have a little bit of an easier time. But I think there’s a good chance that we’ll see both of these on the ballots next year and, as we’ve seen, these have been very successful across the gamut from blue states to red states.

Singer:

Yeah, exactly. And Montana especially has long had a libertarian streak. Candidates who support abortion rights, like Senator John Tester, have persevered. Montana’s probably the better bet if both of them make it to the ballot box, but like you said, even states like Ohio, that have gone quite far to the right, abortion rights are very popular there.

Beard:

And, of course, I’m sure Jon Tester won’t mind sharing the ballot with this amendment, particularly if, as expected, it passes comfortably. I think he will definitely be using that to drive some voters to the polls, try to get people to go out, protect abortion rights by voting for this, and send Jon Tester back to the Senate to protect abortion rights federally. So I definitely think there will be some synergy there to his benefit.

Singer:

But we have some more immediate races in front of us because it’s going to be special election time in two key states, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Beard, last year, Democrats in both states unexpectedly won small but very important majorities in both the Michigan and Pennsylvania state houses. Democrats also won the Michigan Senate in a true shocker, but those majorities are so small that if anyone, say, resigns to, I don’t know, take another elected office somewhere, you have to have a special where the entire chamber is basically on the line. And that’s the case in Michigan where two Democrats, Kevin Coleman of Westland and Lori Stone of Warren, they were elected mayor, on November 7th, of their respective towns. The Michigan state House drops from a 56 to 54 Democratic majority to a 54 to 54 tie.

The Democratic Speaker says, “We’re still in control because the rules only require a power-sharing agreement if there’s an exact 55 to 55 tie, that’s not what’s happening here.” But if Republicans snag one of those seats in the special elections, which are now set for April 16th, that’s a different story. And if somehow they manage to win them both, they have the Speaker’s gavel back. The good news is it’s not likely to happen in either seat. Coleman’s seat is the more competitive of the two, but only just. Joe Biden won 59% of the vote here. Stone’s seat is even more Democratic. Biden won 64%. But April 16th is not a date many people are likely to go to the polls normally. Unexpected things can happen, especially when the stakes are this high.

Beard:

And I think we’ve seen the Michigan state legislature pass a ton of really great legislation throughout 2023 and these seats are going to be really important in order to allow them to continue passing great legislation throughout 2024. I think we’ll see a good amount of attention paid to these races. There will be investment on both sides, but I think particularly the Democrats are going to want to maintain this majority and they will be spending whatever they need to, to feel comfortable that they’re going to do so. As you mentioned, these are scheduled for April 16th. The Pennsylvania one, which you’re going to talk about, hasn’t been scheduled yet, is my understanding. So we’re still waiting a little bit on that one, right?

Singer:

Yeah, exactly. The Democratic state representative, John Galloway, he won a local judgeship in Bucks County outside of Philadelphia. He’s going to resign on December 15th. There’ll be a special, but they haven’t scheduled it yet; probably January or February.

It’s appropriate that we’re talking about Punxsutawney Phil’s home state because this is going to be the fourth time in the space of a year where special elections are going to decide control of the Pennsylvania state House of Representatives, a 203-member chamber where Democrats have a one-seat majority. Democrats have successfully defended now five seats across three election nights, easily winning all of them, and hoping to do so again in Galloway’s seats. Biden won 55% of the vote here, but Bucks County, as everyone knows, it’s an area that’s pretty unpredictable. Republicans often do well down the ballot. Special election turnout’s been good for Democrats overall, but it’s unpredictable. This is one where Democrats are going to be keeping watch; we don’t want any surprises. We’ll see if Republicans try to take advantage of anything.

I should note, just like in Michigan, Democrats are going to keep the speaker’s gavel for now. They passed a rule saying, “The party in control of the chamber is the one that won the most seats in the last election, unless the math changes with special elections or party switches.” So, for now, that means in a tied chamber, Democrats win, but if Republicans pick this one up, they’re in control.

Beard:

I think, this one, the Republicans will definitely be throwing the kitchen sink out a little bit. I think it’s one I would guess they think they can win. As you mentioned, Biden only won this seat with 55% of the vote. That’s lower than either of the two Michigan open seats. It’s definitely got some more Republican tendencies downballot.

We saw in Virginia that despite having some districts that Biden won by single digits, they’re often a lot more Republican downballot, and I think this district shares similarities to those districts we saw in Virginia. And so, this one’s probably going to be really competitive. We’re still waiting, like we said, for the date for the candidates. So it’s still a little up in the air, but it’s definitely one that we’ll be paying a lot of attention to as we get some more definitive information, and as the election becomes closer.

Singer:

I’ll just note there is one key difference between Michigan and Pennsylvania special elections in Michigan. There’s going to be a primary in both these seats in January, a regular party primary. Pennsylvania? No primary for special elections. The parties pick their nominees. So, those things can also be unpredictable, but it probably means we won’t have some case like in New Hampshire where, oh, I don’t know, the Republicans nominate a guy who just goes on about Moloch.

Beard:

No Moloch for 2024. It’s a tragedy. Hopefully, he’ll pop up somewhere else, so we’ll see. One last topic we wanted to touch on, there have been a number of gerrymandering rulings in the past couple of weeks, largely upholding some gerrymanders unfortunately.

We’ve seen the New Hampshire state Supreme Court uphold the Republican gerrymanders of the state Senate and the executive council. We’ve seen the Ohio Supreme Court uphold the Republican gerrymanders of the state legislature there, after, of course, the composition of that court changed when a more moderate Republican, willing to enforce the gerrymandering laws,  was replaced with a more down-the-line conservative Republican in Ohio.

We also saw the New Mexico Supreme Court uphold a Democratic gerrymander of the congressional seats in New Mexico, basically saying it’s a relatively mild gerrymander. It doesn’t do anything wild, and so it didn’t rise to the level of something that they would strike down, but they did reserve the right to find something strike-downable in a future map.

But in a couple of cases, either a map has been or very well could be struck down. In North Dakota, a federal court struck down the legislative maps that the Republicans enacted after the 2020 Census. They ruled that the map violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the voting power of Native Americans. Now there’s a good chance there’ll be an appeal in that case, so it remains to be seen if we’ll actually get new maps for 2024 or not.

And then, in Wisconsin, importantly, the Supreme Court heard a case about the state legislative maps in Wisconsin. It seemed from the hearing that the four liberal justices on the court are to strike down the state legislative maps over the fact that more than 70 of the districts are noncontiguous. They have parts that don’t touch each other. There’s a long, complicated history about that and those districts and towns in Wisconsin that I’m not going to get into, but the important thing is that these heavily, heavily gerrymandered maps are likely going to be struck down. And then it remains to be seen what the Supreme Court orders in terms of a resolution there, but we will at the very least, be getting new maps in Wisconsin, and hopefully fairer maps.

Singer:

That would be remarkable. Democrats have really been locked out in the swing state for a long time. Republicans swept both chambers in 2010. They passed gerrymanders and while Democrats briefly got the state Senate back in 2012 in the summer because of recall elections, Republicans took it back right afterward. And just when a party has such dominant control of the legislature in such a swing state as Wisconsin, you know something’s wrong.

Beard:

Yeah, absolutely. So that’s definitely something we’ll be keeping a close eye on in the weeks to come. Jeff, thank you so much for stepping in and joining me for the weekly hits this week.

Singer:

It was great to be here. And on the off chance that anyone is listening who’s a Democratic House member who’s thinking of retiring, please announce your retirement early in the day and don’t announce the day that everyone else is announcing.

Beard:

Yes, yes. Please, think of Jeff when you retire from your congressional seat. It’s important.

Singer:

Yes.

Beard:

Now stick with us. We’ve got an interview with Tom Bonier, the CEO of the TARA Group, and a senior advisor at the Democratic data firm, TargetSmart, so we’ll be back right after the break. Joining us today is Tom Bonier, the CEO of the TARA Group, and a senior advisor at Target Smart, a Democratic data firm. Tom, welcome back to the pod.

Tom Bonier:

It’s great to be back.

Beard:

So 2023, we just had a set of off-year elections, obviously not the same scale as a midterm or, of course, a presidential election, but a good number of elections took place on November 7th. What were your broad takeaways from the results that we saw and the data that you’ve since been able to collect on the elections we saw on November 7th?

Bonier:

At the broadest possible level, the most obvious takeaway was it was generally a good night for Democrats, and I’ll expand on that a little bit in terms of the data. I think there was an open question going into this election. We know what we experienced in 2022, but I think one of the biggest questions was, to what extent the impact that we saw… especially with the Dobbs decision, but generally this rejection of Republican extremism… to what extent that had survived the intervening year?

Some people theorize that, “Well, the Dobbs decision, it might fade in impact over time,” which sounds silly just saying those words, but in reality, there are many very credible people theorizing that, that, “Well, people would just get used to it,” which is, again, insane. But at a deeper level a question of, will it motivate and mobilize voters?

I think the other big question that I was looking at was that we had this dichotomy that we’ve talked about in the past in prior elections, and going back to 2022 where the Dobbs decision and this notion of Republican extremism did have a significant and substantial impact in some states and then other states, it was like it just didn’t exist. It was like the red wave that was expected came in those states. So I think one of the challenges for Democrats and progressives coming into 2023 elections was: can they transfer what we’ve been seeing in states where abortion was literally on the ballot to states where it was more figuratively on the ballot?

So Virginia ended up being, in a way, the perfect test of that because you had both sides agreeing that this was going to be about abortion rights, which surprised me a little bit the extent to which the Republican governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, really leaned into the issue. He didn’t try to shy away from it. In fact, that was really his closing argument was, “This is about abortion rights,” and his 15-week ban. I really think he thought he had cracked the code. This would put him at the front of the field in terms of the ‘everyone but Trump’ field, the race to be who’s the heir apparent, or maybe even who’s the person who could take him on.

So to the extent that it was a test of that, my takeaway is it was a step forward in terms of showing that abortion rights can mobilize and motivate and persuade voters, even when it’s not on the ballot.

Beard:

I think a big takeaway that I think aligns with that is that it feels like if you took the 2022 results, and you basically fast-forwarded 365 days with almost nothing intervening and ran another election, it seems very close to what we saw in 2023.

Bonier:

Yes.

Beard:

It almost seems like there was almost nothing that has happened since the Dobbs decision that changed where we were, where clearly before the Dobbs decision Dems were not in a great place. After the Dobbs decision that got reset. We saw what happened in the second half of 2022. Really, I don’t really feel like anything has really changed where we are since the Dobbs decision, and the election results then pretty much showed that.

Bonier:

Yeah, I agree 100%. It’s sometimes hard analyzing these elections and really internalizing them and figuring out what they mean, which is important because it has a bearing on how we approach future elections. Especially in this case, the 2024 elections, given that there was an argument in the lead-up to 2022 is like, “Are Democrats talking about abortion too much? Are they talking about Republican extremism too much? Do they need to talk about the economy and crime more?” And then, obviously, what happened happens. We know that the fact was that they were talking about all those issues pretty effectively in a lot of places.

So to your point, yes, it was like this continuation. But when I say you have to view these elections in context, it’s almost like grading on a curve, meaning we have a tendency… Well, I say we, but the punditry, the media, especially the media, have this tendency to want to put every election into one box or the other box: “This was a good night for Democrats, a bad night for Democrats.” Sometimes it’s both. In this election, there were some people afterward who were saying, after the initial day or two where it was like, “Oh, this is really good for Democrats,” I think people started looking for reasons to say why maybe it wasn’t as good for Democrats. We saw the New York Times say that in a day or two after that, “Democrats had a good night. Here’s why it’s still bad for Democrats in 2024,” something to that effect.

The reality is when I say you have to grade an election on a curve, there are so many factors that have an impact. And so, to the extent that we want to be able to distill the impact of the Dobbs decision and Republican extremism on this specific election, we have to consider what the election would’ve looked like if those issues didn’t exist. Of course, that’s impossible. We can’t run this election in a parallel universe where the Dobbs decision never happened, but people love to talk about the fundamentals in politics, meaning what’s the general environment? What’s the economy? What’s people’s perception of the economy? What’s inflation like? The President’s approval ratings? All we heard in the run-up to 2022 was the fundamentals were bad for Democrats, which was true.

Similarly, the economy’s gotten a lot better. We’ve got some great economic news, even just recently, in terms of the growth of the economy, but people’s perception of the economy is still not good. The President’s approval ratings are still not great. That hasn’t changed either, to your point, in terms of fast-forwarding. So, grading on that curve, the expectation would have been Republicans would do quite well in places like Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi. Mississippi didn’t get as much attention — the governor’s race there — partially because I think the expectations got set a little bit too high because Democrats were spending a decent amount of money.

In the end, that race was decided by just over three points. When a Republican incumbent governor — remember how good things have been for incumbents in the last two years in terms of the elections we’ve had — wins by just over three points in Mississippi is not a good sign for Republicans. So, grading on that curve, yeah, Democrats had a much better night than they would have without putting the issues of Republican extremism and abortion rights in the forefront.

Beard:

Yeah, And, of course, the media loves to take wins and losses above anything else when the fact that getting 47% or 48% in Mississippi is a really great job for a Democrat, even if you ultimately lose, overperforming by that much is a really impressive sign nonetheless.

Bonier:

Yeah, absolutely. Again, I think it bears more attention — the dynamic there, what that campaign was able to put together. The other question that’s been going in is the question about whether Democrats are losing core components of their constituency. And when you look at the Mississippi results and you look at the strong turnout, especially among Black voters, and the incredibly strong performance — again, it’s one election, but I’ll take election results over polls any day.

Beard:

Yeah. That’s something I wanted to ask you about, so let’s go ahead and lead into that. Obviously, here at “The Downballot,” we don’t spend a lot of time on the presidential election, but sometimes you can’t help but dip your toe in a little bit because that’s all everyone else more broadly wants to talk about.

Obviously, there have been a lot of polls around Biden and Trump next year, and there’s been a lot of analysis around this issue around voters of color and young voters, and the fact that some of these polls are showing Biden doing significantly worse than he did in 2020 with young voters and voters of color. Did we see any evidence of that coming through in any of the election results that we’ve seen in 2023 that would sort of lead us to believe that there’s a broader departure from the Democratic Party that would actually back up these polls?

Bonier:

We didn’t. I mean, short answer is we didn’t. And I don’t want to discount it entirely, but it does feel a little bit like 2022 where it was like we’re waiting for the red wave, where are the signs of it? We know what red waves look like. We know what the lead-up to red wave elections looks like, and we weren’t seeing any of those signs in place. And this is sort of, I guess, just maybe the beginnings of that where people are looking forward to 2024. And there are a lot of these polls that are suggesting that younger voters, voters of color are not just edging away from President Biden.

I mean poll after poll after poll showing, in some cases, President Biden losing among younger voters, which is just not plausible, in some cases with very narrow margins. And so, when you have that many polls showing something similar, it bears paying attention, but it’s just one element. It’s one blip on our radar when we have to calibrate other data points too, especially election results.

You would expect if Democrats generically … because a lot of Republicans have now been crowing about this supposed multi-ethnic, multicultural working-class emerging majority, that they’re winning over voters of color, younger voters because they’re actually much more culturally conservative and they’re with us. And if that were true, you would expect to see it in places like Mississippi. You would expect to see it in Virginia with an incumbent Republican governor who has molded himself to appear as a moderate, even though his agenda suggests otherwise. And you just didn’t see it.

You saw strong performance from voters of color for Democratic candidates. Kentucky, let’s not forget that in terms of winning that governor’s race in Kentucky with very strong African American turnout and performance. So, it’s worth noting though that those who would argue that this is something that is happening here or is going to happen, they say “Well, it’s actually the lower propensity, as they say.” Meaning those who are less likely to vote in these lower-turnout elections, it’s those voters who are more problematic for President Biden.

So, maybe that could be true to me. To me, it’s more likely that those voters at this point are just not very engaged. Let’s face it, most Americans are not very engaged in the 2024 elections right now, and they won’t be for a long time, and that’s probably healthy. I wish some days I could be like that. But if they’re not very engaged, but you’re asking them a year out who they’re going to vote for, well, the least engaged are more likely to answer those questions just a little bit differently with a little bit of a different framework.

Beard:

To go back to that multi-ethnic Republican majority, I’ve definitely seen people pushing that whole concept on Twitter, and I think it’s putting the cart way before the horse. Let’s have one election where you get 25% of the black vote before you’ve declared your multi-ethnic working-class party in effect. It seems a little ridiculous.

Bonier:

It’s wild. And this is not to call someone out individually, but there’s literally a book written about this now that came out recently. I’ll name him because it’s not cool to mention someone then that got into it. Patrick Ruffini, who was a very smart Republican analyst, and I generally respect his analysis, but books are weird things, I guess, right? By the time you pitch it and then actually write it, things can have changed. That just has happened with Ruy Teixeira’s book that just came out. So, I’m calling out people who wrote books.

So, yeah, you’re right. Let’s see some elections. Yes, Donald Trump did do a little bit better with voters of color in 2020 than he did in 2016, but we’re talking about … We’re certainly well aware of what happened with Latino voters, and in some communities where you saw a bigger swing with African-American voters. We’re talking about maybe a point or two.

Beard:

Yeah. Now, I also want to talk about sort of the concept of campaigns. I think that’s also driving this a lot. Obviously, you’ve worked on a ton of campaigns, seeing that side of things. And I think what people often forget is that where people start is often not where they finish, particularly because so many of us on Twitter, probably listening to this podcast, as you said, they’re very engaged. They know all about 2024, they know exactly who they’re going to vote for passionately, and a lot of people aren’t like that. And the course of a campaign engages voters, it persuades voters, it talks to voters. And I assume being on the inside of these campaigns, you can see that happen in polling and as the work goes on.

Bonier:

Yeah. I mean, it’s something that I think we are all sort of forgetting in a way that campaigns exist for a reason. And the good campaigns actually do have an impact. I mean, every campaign has an impact one way or another. And so, to the extent that some of these polls show potential vulnerabilities for the president or for Democrats in general — well, that is why campaigns exist.

I think it’s also just worth noting that we’re existing in an incredibly dynamic environment right now. We talk about the polarization, and sure the polarization exists. But just in terms of what is going on in the world and the impact that’s having on these polls also needs to be taken into account. And it’s not to say that these elements, when you think about two wars going on, two major wars going on in the world right now, again, economic uncertainty, that sort of thing, are going to have an impact.

The polls are certainly picking that up, but I think one of the favorite things that a lot of people like to say when they’re reporting on these polls is, “Well, if the election were held today.” That’s the framework now, if the election were held today, Donald Trump would win or he’d be considered the favorite.

Well, it’s a counterfactual that really betrays the logic of the poll itself in that you can’t possibly simulate in a poll the election happening today. It’s not happening today. And the stakes that I internalize when I answer a question about for whom I’m voting are going to be very different a year out than they will be next year.

To your point, the campaigns themselves are going to have a huge bearing on how people think about their vote choices and think about the stakes. And beyond the campaigns, it’s just all the things that we know that will be transpiring over the next year, including multiple trials with Donald Trump having been indicted for several dozen felonies.

Beard:

Yeah, absolutely. We have no idea where that’s going, and we will continue to see how that unfolds throughout the next 11 months. But I want to turn to a different topic, one that obviously you’ve done a ton of work on, and that is early voting data. It’s something that is in the lead-up to an election now obsessed over and sort of poo-pooed in equal measure. People both look at it multiple times a day, and then they’re like, “Oh, well, don’t look at early voting data. It doesn’t tell you anything.” At the same time sometimes, they’re the same people doing it at the same time.

But, obviously, I think it’s something that has evolved as more and more data becomes available, as more states do this in a bigger way in terms of people voting early. How have you seen, both looking back at 2022, now that all of the possible data has come in and at 2023 to the degree that there was that sort of data around early voting and mail voting? How useful has it been in terms of looking at elections ahead of time? Do you feel like after Election Day you were like, “Oh, I’m glad we had all this information ahead of Election Day?” What’s sort of the state of affairs with that information?

Bonier:

Yeah, there are really two layers of analysis I think are important with early vote. And this is something where we sort of learned painful lessons over the years in terms of what sort of early vote analysis can be helpful and what can’t. The first level is a strategic or tactical level, and that’s less in the realm of the second area, which is the predictive power of the early vote, but it can’t be discounted. Meaning, there’s a common thread where people talk about the early vote and say, “Well, it’s not really relevant because the Democrats, the Republicans, they’re just ‘cannibalizing’ their Election Day votes.”

Meaning, the people who they’re turning out early are people who would have turned out on Election Day had they not had the opportunity. They’re what we would call the higher-propensity voters. They’re people where you look at their past vote history and they voted reliably in previous elections.

And so, that’s true, and from a predictive element, I think that’s something that does need to be taken into account. But there’s a massive advantage if one party is just clearing the roles of their turnout targets early weeks before election day. Whether these are people who would have turned out anyway by having a smaller universe to communicate with, the campaigns have a significant advantage. And that’s something that Republicans had ceded almost entirely to Democrats up through last year’s elections.

The second element, predictive ability, really speaks to the first point in a way. If you just look at the early vote and say, “Well, Democrats are winning by a ton, therefore Democrats are going to win by a ton.” Well, it doesn’t work that way. And so, in 2022, what we were really looking for was some sort of asymmetry in intensity, in turnout, and that you don’t get that by looking at the overall early vote. What we do is look at the low-propensity voters, those who generally might not have expected them to vote in this election or first-time voters.

And like I said before, we know what a red wave looks like. Red waves or blue waves, any sort of wave election happens not just with a persuasive advantage, but with a turnout advantage. So if the election was going to be a red wave election in 2022, you would expect to see, even among the early vote where Democrats have an advantage, you would expect to see it closer among these lower-propensity, less-likely voters. And we didn’t see that except in places like Florida, New York, and California.

So it was actually quite predictive of that dynamic. It’s not predictive to the extent that you can look at it and confidently predict a winner, it’s one data point that you’re triangulating against. I will note, in 2023, I think my biggest takeaway was we heard how Republicans, especially in Virginia, were investing in early voting. Governor Youngkin, I forget what he called his program, but it was some sort of thing where it made it sound like it was like protecting the vote, something like that. That wasn’t the actual name for it that they used, but they said that they invested something like $5 million into getting their voters out early, and you could see the impact in the early vote result. And I will say that in the lead-up to the elections, it made me nervous, because the early vote was much more Republican than it was in 2022, 2021, 2020, which suggested that they were having some success.

They clearly did have some success there. I think the elections wouldn’t have been as close in Virginia, frankly, if the Republicans didn’t invest and didn’t have the successes they had. So we know both chambers, the outcomes were within the narrowest possible margins in terms of seat margin, and when you look at the closest seats, you’re only talking about a few thousand votes swinging one way or another. And we could have had Republicans in control with a trifecta there.

And so, I do think their early vote successes were a key component to that. That said, when we looked at the lower-propensity voters, it was slightly less Republican at that point. So it did suggest that point, okay, well, it’s not that Republicans have a huge intensity advantage, but they have a tactical advantage in terms of their ability to turn out more of their voters before Election Day than they had in prior elections.

Beard:

And we did see, though Democrats of course took the House and held onto the Senate, they only did each by a one-seat margin. And the following races, if you go to seats 52, 53, 54, and seat 22 in the Senate — they were the really close races. Democrats, obviously the 21st and the 51st seat were close, but they weren’t the closest races of the night. The closest races of the night were the ones right beyond there.

Bonier:

That’s a great point.

Beard:

And Republicans won those, almost uniformly really the ones that were one or two points, despite obviously still Democrats are happy to have taken the chambers, that’s still a great victory. The narrowness was really in their ability to hold on to those few seats just beyond 51 and to 21.

Bonier:

Yeah, it’s an excellent point, and again, I think it sort of speaks to part of their tactical acumen and how they approached this. When we looked at the early vote and you broke it down statewide, it didn’t look that impressive. It looked much closer to the way it had looked in the last couple of elections. But when you limited the analysis just to the target districts, that’s where you saw the advantage, meaning they were clearly being very tactical about where they were doing the early vote push, and it was effective. And yeah, it’s a very good point. I mean, it easily could have resulted in much bigger Democratic margins than it did, but I think because Republicans did a comparatively good job with getting their vote out, it ended up being as close as it could be.

Beard:

Now, one last topic I want to pick your brain on. It’s something that David and I talked about a couple of weeks ago in Ohio and the fact that the abortion rights amendment passed comfortably here in November; it did very well in a lot of the suburban areas of Ohio where Sherrod Brown will likely be looking to pick up votes that maybe he hasn’t gotten in his past election victories to sort of counteract Democratic losses in the eastern part of the state.

How does it actually work in terms of a data targeting firm to sort of take these election results and be like, “Oh, we’ve got new targets?” That’s something that I understand from a layman’s perspective to be like, I know there’s a bunch of voters out there, I know some of them voted for this amendment even though they normally vote for Republicans. How do you actually go from that, to actually being like, here’s how you target these folks and try to build on that to get them to vote for Sherrod Brown next year?

Bonier:

Yeah. It’s actually, it’d funny you asked this because I was having a conversation with someone on our team just earlier today about specifically Ohio and this sort of element, and also throwing in the cannabis amendment that was also on the ballot and ran just incrementally ahead of the abortion rights amendment. One of the first things you can do is actually just a precinct-level analysis where you throw in those ballot initiatives, those ballot measures, and then you throw in previous election results in terms of Senator Brown’s previous election.

You look at the Trump race, you look at J.D. Vance and his performances, and you’re looking for those precincts where you have a bigger split, where you have logically more voters who have voted for Republican candidates in these statewide races, but voted with the progressive position on the pro-abortion rights position on the ballot measure or pro-cannabis, and really zeroing in on, well, what are the type of voters, what are the demographic profiles of these voters who are ticket-splitting?

Because for Democrats to win in Ohio as the state has, at least from a partisan performance veered to the right over the last decade or so, those are the voters that you’re most likely to win back at that point. If someone’s not with us on abortion rights, they’re not with us on issues like cannabis, the odds… it’s not that we can’t pull any of those voters back, but they’re much less likely. So that’s one level of analysis.

Then, really, what that leads to is individual-level statistical models where every voter is applied a probabilistic score saying the probability that this is a ticket splitter vote or someone who’s with us on the issues but hasn’t voted with us in these partisan races. It really speaks to something that I was talking about at the beginning of this conversation, which is the challenge for Democrats is how do you draw that sort of organizing and persuasive power that we’ve experienced post-Dobbs with abortion rights issue and turn that into performance and persuasive power in candidate races.

You saw J.D. Vance come out in Ohio, the senator, a Republican Senator, come out the day after the vote there and basically just admit that the voters aren’t with them. They need to do some soul-searching on this issue, but then said, “We should look at federal action on this.” And in my mind, that’s something that Democrats will really need to put in the forefront, because to the extent that we saw this dynamic where voters in New York and in California didn’t really come out in 2022 post-Dobbs, presumably because they didn’t feel like abortion rights were at risk in their states, because let’s face it, they weren’t in the short term. Well, the one way that you put abortion figuratively on the ballot in those states is a federal abortion ban. So I think that will be something to watch for.

And so, to your question about, tactically, how will we be working with campaigns — we have the ability to identify those voters who have not been with us in the partisan races, but are with us on the issues, and then we just have to communicate effectively that these are the stakes, that if you’re voting for these Republican candidates in these races, you are effectively voting for abortion bans, and maybe Republicans will do for us what Governor Youngkin did in Virginia and go out and just say it, which is what they actually planned to do.

Beard:

Yeah, I mean, I’m all for Republicans being honest with how they’re actually going to govern and tell us all the things they’d like to pass because I don’t think that would be very popular with the public.

Bonier:

No. Well, Donald Trump was pretty honest this week when he talked about reversing Obamacare.

Beard:

Yeah. I didn’t see a lot of Republicans wanting to talk about that on the Hill today.

Bonier:

No.

Beard:

Tom, thank you so much for joining us. Always incredibly informative when we have you on. Where can people follow you and then hear more from you?

Bonier:

I’m on all the different social media platforms. I know there are so many. I’m still on Twitter, X, whatever, tbonier, T-B-O-N-I-E-R. Though every day, I feel less good about being there, just trying to the extent that I can get more of the folks who follow me there over to places like Threads, trying to be a little bit more active there, always trying to share analysis and these sort of little nuggets in terms of what we’re seeing in the data. So, on any one of those platforms, I’ll be there in one way or another.

Beard:

Great. Well, thanks again for joining us.

Bonier:

Thank you.

Beard:

That’s all from us this week. Thanks to Jeff Singer and Tom Bonier for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday, everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing thedownballot@dailykos.com. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor Trever Jones. We’ll be back next week with a new episode.

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