Nine Lessons From 2016

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 50-

This week:

  • Louisiana runoffs end a wild 2016 election cycle
  • Another Republican triumph
  • Nine important lessons from Election 2016

Louisiana: With the results in from Saturday’s runoff elections in Louisiana, a very, very wild 2016 cycle has finally come to an end. So here’s one last piece of business.

Democrats essentially wrote off both of the races in which they had a horse — the race for the open seat held by Sen. David Vitter, R, and the open Fourth Congressional District. The open Third District race was between the two Republicans who had qualified for the runoff last month.

The Senate race was best characterized by low statewide turnout — in fact, state Treasurer John Kennedy won with fewer votes than former Sen. Mary Landrieu, D, had received in the runoff she lost decisively in 2014. Statewide turnout was only about half of what it had been on November 8.

Kennedy, who had run unsuccessfully against Landrieu in 2008, easily defeated Democrat Foster Campbell, a member of the state’s Public Service Commission. Republicans took the race seriously enough that Mike Pence paid a visit to campaign — Democrats did not. Turnout in New Orleans was pathetic. Campell even lost in his home parish, Caddo, home to Shreveport, which Trump had lost by four points in November.

That last detail is a strong hint about a total lack of Democratic activity in the Fourth District. Republican state Rep. Mike Johnson trounced Democrat Marshall Jones by 30 points, a result that had been predicted by polling from the Trafalgar Group.

The most interesting race of the three that took place Saturday was the one in the Third District between two Republican candidates — former Sheriff Captain Clay Higgins and Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle.

Higgins, who had served as the public information officer for the St. Landry Parish sheriff, became a national sensation with his unique weekly Crime Stoppers presentations on local television. He was known both for taunting wanted criminals and for gently coaxing them to turn themselves in (which they often did). It’s really worth watching some of his work — very entertaining stuff:

Whereas Higgins was running as a Trump-style law and order candidate, Angelle was running more as a representative of his state’s political establishment. He had tried and failed to make the runoff in the 2015 governor’s race. The voters on Saturday chose Higgins by a convincing 12-point margin, a fitting end to a year that rejected the political establishments of both parties nationwide.

Lessons of 2016: So with 2016 in the rearview mirror, it’s worth taking stock of the year’s themes and the apparent trends moving forward.

First, Trump convincingly proved all of his critics wrong about his political sense and his ability to win the election. In some states (such as Missouri and Minnesota) he very obviously had positive coattails for the GOP downticket. Although there are states where he underperformed the downticket, there is not a single state where it is evident that he had any negative down-ticket effect.

Second, Trump’s win unlocked an entire new region for presidential elections for Republicans in a region that many had written off as hopelessly Democratic. And Trump’s victory is especially significant for the fact that it came all at once in a completely unexpected avalanche. He could have won by just barely cracking Clinton’s so-called “blue wall” in the industrial Midwest. Instead, he actually carried Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa all at the same time. He very nearly carried Minnesota as well, and his presence on the ballot surely helped Republicans there to capture the State Senate, even if they came up just 22,000 votes shy, in total, of taking over three rural Democratic U.S. House seats.

Third, this election changed how we must view the electoral map. The Red and Blue map of 2000 is no longer set in stone the way it once seemed to be. One must now also question the conventional wisdom about the electoral college, that it gives Democrats a large inherent advantage.

Look at this way: Make “toss-ups” only of the states that finished within five points in 2012, and you got a Democratic advantage so large that it seemed nearly in the bag:

2012But do the same with the 2016 results, and you get this, again courtesy of

2016There are trade-offs, of course, but a lot of Democratic territory returned to the competitive category, to the point that it almost looks like a fair fight again. One takeaway from this is that nothing is as permanent in politics as it seems. 

Fourth, the U.S. may well still be the center-right nation that it appeared to be ten years ago. Trump may not have won the popular vote, but House Republicans did — for the third time in the last four elections and the eighth time in the last twelve elections. Republicans vastly exceeded expectations by losing only six seats and maintaining a majority that is historically large for their party.

And this is important, because the House will be the Republicans’ weakest link in 2018. In the Senate (more on this soon), they are strongly favored to gain seats in 2018 even if they have an otherwise lousy year.

Fifth, Republican dominance in state legislatures is also historic, leaving the party with nearly enough of them to ratify Constitutional amendments. The party control by state finally reflects almost all of the realignments that have been occurring for a long time at the presidential level (in Kentucky, for example). Republicans control both houses (in Nebraska’s case, the only house) of the legislature in every state Trump won, and in three states (Virginia, Minnesota and New Hampshire) where he did not win.

Republican state House and state Senate dominance is nicely illustrated by these two maps recently published by Quorum, of all state House and Senate districts in the U.S.:


state-party-control-maps-2017-001-2(Note that the maps respect the convention of Nebraska’s legislature as elected without official party labels. Nebraska’s single legislative chamber is controlled overwhelmingly by Republicans.)

Sixth, this election again upended what had seemed like well-grounded conventional wisdom before 2012 — that the polls, all taken together, are correct.

And even in 2012, when the national polls slanted too heavily toward Mitt Romney, the state polls generally showed a race that Obama would win. In this election, many of the the national polls were correct within the margin of error (Clinton won the popular vote). But the state-by-state polls were dreadful, giving Trump no serious chance of carrying Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin right to the end, and hinting at photo finishes in Iowa and Ohio, which Trump won by nine and eight points, respectively. This will not only give new ammo to poll-skeptics in future elections, it will also make commentators and experts less certain that what they know is right — and that’s a good thing.

Seventh, the 2016 election, like the 2014 midterm, shows that Republicans have finally developed data and get-out-the-vote operations comparable to those of their Democratic counterparts — an area where they had been lacking for a decade. The RNC data was accurate enough that Trump’s campaign knew to make last-minute trips to Michigan and Minnesota, and to send Mike Pence to western Wisconsin (Trump was originally going to go there), a Democratic area that had gone heavily for Obama and which Trump surprisingly carried.

Both Trump and Republican senate candidates in tight races were well provided for in gaining that last inch, just as they had been in 2014. This has been the non-stop preoccupation of Reince Priebus during his tenure as RNC chairman, and it’s what he’ll be remembered for at First and D SE.

Eighth, Republicans have added a new partner to their coalition — the working-class voters whom Pat Buchanan once called “conservatives of the heart.” It worked out quite well in this election, but it will be interesting to see, going forward, whether this results in any serious ideological or rhetorical changes in the way Republicans operate. If so, what exactly will change, and what will not change?

Ninth, this election result has set national expectations incredibly high. This is a double-edged sword, and it means that quite a bit rides politically on the success of Trump’s presidency.

Last week, for the first time in anyone’s memory, Trump had a positive net approval rating in an opinion poll. Even more importantly, the University of Michigan index measuring consumer confidence is at its highest point since January 2005.

High expectations mean that a failure to break out of the economic doldrums of the Obama years could cost the Republican Party dearly in the 2018 midterm. Obviously, there is always the historical tendency for the party in power to lose House seats, and sometimes to lose a House majority. But beyond that, many GOP governors first elected in 2010 will be stepping down due to term limits. This means that state party control will be at stake in many key states.