Ep. 33 Elliott Morris: Primary Season Round-Up

Nicie Panetta: This is the MidPod - the midterms podcast. I'm Nicie Panetta with Heather Atwood. We are two progressive moms travelling America to bring you the voices of the 2018 midterm elections. Our democracy is in trouble and we're here to help you become an effective active citizen. We interview candidates activists and experts on important issues. We profile key congressional races in-depth and we hold a citizens potluck supper in every district we visit. This week we're going to round up the results of the June 5th Super Tuesday primary elections with Elliot Morris of The Economist magazine.

But first we have to share that we have just had our first ever mid pod friendraiser. Two amazing women listeners in the D.C. area opened their home to us this past weekend and we had a fantastic and energizing brunch conversation about our MidPod journey with a room full of brilliant active citizens. It was a blast. If you're interested in hosting a fundraiser for us drop us a line at squad@themidpod.com.

So now onto our conversation with Elliot Morris. This is our second conversation with Eliot who was featured in episode 23 of the MidPod our race roundup that looked at results from the Texas primaries and the Pennsylvania 18 Special.

Elliott is a leading election forecaster now with a very important statistical model that tries to forecast the outcome of the November elections for the House of Representatives. And he's just now joining The Economist magazine as a data journalist. We spoke to Elliott just the day after the June 5th primaries on June 6 over a little bit of a scratchy Skype connection. 

Elliot Morris: The best way for people that really get a handle on what this all means is that my friend Alexander and I have this twitter bot would probably a lot of people are familiar with, it's called American voter bot - American__voter and it tweets out a profile of random survey respondents like actual people from around the United States every hour. And it tells you what ideology they are where they come from, you know, their race gender their political party and then a subset of some random policy preferences and you get some pretty wacky profiles. There are quite a few liberal Democrats who hate the Clean Air Act and support deporting illegal immigrants. Now there's the flip side of that too, some conservative Republicans who like the EPA and then might also really support Obamacare maybe even if you voted for Hillary Clinton

Nicie Panetta: And would that be just to make sure I'm in the right zip code of what you're talking about. That's like for example a lot of Trump voters might be for universal health care.

Elliot Morris: Yeah it's absolutely more complicated than that, though it's getting easier to do that over time which is sort of one of the other contributions that political science has found over over the past few decades that are partisan and ideological attachments have come to mean a lot more to us behaviorally and sort of abstracted those policy preferences from view The American voter bot. It makes a lot of people mad because their actions don't seem to make sense on the face of what they may or may not actually believe or they say they believe and might not actually believe. 

Suffice to say there are quite a few rage tweets in the inbox of American voter but you know probably a few times every hour.

Nicie Panetta: I'm really glad you brought that up because I have that bot in my Twitter feed and I get a lot out of it. It's surprising and thought provoking and helpful because I do think there's a tendency that we just want to put people on boxes and particularly onto teams like you know red team blue team. And it's just more complicated than that isn't it.

Nicie Panetta: All right well we're speaking to you on Wednesday June 6th after the intergalactically important June 5th Super Tuesday primaries in these midterm elections and we really appreciate your making time. We're dying to know what are your top line takeaways from last night's results.

Elliot Morris: If I were to pick a few races or just a few data points, that's sort of the way that I look at politics. To summarize last night's results I would point people toward the turnout numbers in competitive New Jersey districts. That is the 11th, the 7th in the 2nd district those are all currently Republican held districts that are sort of expected to be toss up or lean Democratic seats in November. Check out those numbers. The percentage of primary ballots Democrats cast, they generally favor the Democrats in all three districts and so those are those are some numbers to look at.

Nicie Panetta: Yeah the one I saw was the raw vote totals in New Jersey 11. Those were some pretty big numbers. I thought turnout was actually pretty good. 

Elliot Morris: You know it wasn't on the level of a presidential election but as we've been seeing over the primary cycle Democrats and Republicans are generally turning out at slightly higher levels than we saw in say 2014 or 2010 which were actually. I mean it sort of makes sense because those election cycles were his murkily bad turn. So we would hope normatively that these election cycles had larger turnout and they saw 45 almost 50,000 votes. I think for the Democrats like you're saying in New Jersey's 11th District which is no it's not phenomenal right. They're not going to ride a wave easily to November but the numbers are certainly are certainly there.

Nicie Panetta: Right. And just for our listeners that's episode two of the mid pod where America survived featuring Mikey Sherill who is the Democratic nominee there. So take a listen to that, if you haven't already. She's a very impressive candidate and she'll be facing off against a gentleman named Jay Weber on the Republican side. OK so turnout you would say is not blowing the doors off but consistent with pretty strong turnout in November for Democrats and Republicans

Elliot Morris: For Democrats mainly that the numbers out of those three districts in New Jersey the 11th 7th and 2nd District show an average eight point swing in two party share of votes cast for the 2016 general election but not the primary election and those primary elections last night and then those other exciting turnout numbers are all in California. These are sort of dicey because the votes aren't all counted yet and I'm sure we'll dive a little bit into the specifics of all these districts. There are seven I guess depending on how you define it, districts that Democrats have been targeting here and they show an average five point swing on the margin from the 2016 composition of two party votes cast for Democrats there which is probably a bit less if we're comparing it to the swings we're seeing towards Democrats in other national measures like the generic ballot or maybe more reliably we haven't we know we're not going to know it till November what the best measure is but also you know special elections we're showing large swings towards Democrats and we saw a swing last night in California. And as I wrote on my blog this five point swing from the 2016 primary there last night will most likely couple with a five to six point swing in California from the primaries to the general election in November to form what we might expect to be at almost double digit swing in California. If these numbers hold up with all the final votes are counted. You know these these predictions have margins of error around them right as I almost incessantly harp upon. But we should expect pretty good gains for Democrats based off of these numbers in California, contrary to what the top line of those numbers say which is Republicans are still leading in the two party share of votes cast in California it's just these swings are large an average of five to six points.

Nicie Panetta: OK so would you say overall that the results are consistent with the model that you've been running for the midterms.

Elliot Morris: This is a harder question. It's a yes and it's a no. And I'll tell you why. The first one is we can only really measure this question If we're comparing a projection from a model today. And you know this shift in the primary elections that we really have to do is forecast out to November for both of them were based in both today. If we did that it would be roughly consistent. The basic answer is yes. They're both showing that Democrats are gaining ground. Now the real question is if Democrats are going to see a wave election how high will that wave be and if we're only using the California measurements the answer is that Democrats will probably get three or four seats out of California. But you know California is not the only state holding elections and so we have to keep those other ones in mind which may have shown less favorable information to Democrats over the past two or three months of primary elections. But you know we're not really going to know until Labor Day with some of the other information has to say about who you know about the 2018 midterms nationwide.

Nicie Panetta: I  wanted to mention just briefly Minnesota Eliot because we haven't really started doing all our work on Minnesota but there are several seats that could flip either way in that delegation. And the primary isn't until August. So you know really really hard to say now how those are shaping up right.

Elliot Morris: Right. Yeah and we just got another open seat in that delegation which you know should prompt some national media organizations to send US congressional reporters to Minnesota as they think they can. This is going to be the 2018 battleground state with lack of a better term right. And you know there are like you said there are two Democratic held districts. They're the first and the 8th District I believe in the 7th if you will, one factor that went into that could flip to the Republicans and then there are there's the second and the third district that could flip towards Democrats. So we might get this. you know, swings cross Minnesota whereby Republican strongholds per se. You know rural areas of the state keep shifting away from Democrats and then urban areas and suburban areas keep shifting towards Democrats. So you get there that might cancel each other out. But even if that's the case the swings cancel each other out, it could be one of the more important states that's been overlooked.

Nicie Panetta: The other thing I just wanted to mention about Minnesota just partly because we've spent so much time on California is this rural issue where that policy landscape is changing so quickly. With the AG tariffs that may be coming into play and really affecting the view of President Trump and the Republicans from the farm belt that's just kind of a wildcard at this point to see if it will have an impact on rural voters and especially farm vote.

Elliot Morris: Yeah I mean a lot of people in the Midwest and Iowa Nebraska to Kansas lower Minnesota really rely on income from being farmers. So if AG tariffs really kick in and start to punish these farmers we would guess that it would have a disproportionate impact on the party in power being Republicans this year. So that's also you know one of the many factors at play between now and November 6th that we're going to have to keep an eye on. 

Nicie Panetta: Maybe we can circle back to California in a minute, but I just thought we'll make sure we cover the other states that had primaries last night. Are there any takeaways for you particularly from Iowa?

Elliot Morris: Well Iowa has two women Democrats running in their general election against incumbent Blum and Young in the first and third districts. And it's yet another example of women carrying the banner in the post Donald Trump Democratic Party, to the extent that it has changed over the past year and a half and if we're seeing large movements toward female candidates on the Democratic side we would probably expect that to happen on the Republican side as well. And so suffice to say these two women candidates now and the first and third districts in Iowa could be one of these other factors that push expectations toward Democrats between now and the November midterms. So that's going to be another two districts to keep an eye on moving forward.

Nicie Panetta: Yeah. And I'll mention for our listeners we are definitely hoping to visit Iowa this summer and I think the first congressional district this one we're quite interested in which is the Blum district with Abby Finkenauer advancing to the general there are a younger candidate .

Elliot Morris: Right. I think she'd be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Pretty interesting.

Nicie Panetta: Now Alabama had its primaries last night was that were there any takeaways there.

Elliot Morris: Pretty much every congressional district in Alabama is just safe for whichever party holds that and that's because the 7th District stretches basically between two large urban areas and then one rural area to produce one Democratic district compared to I think six or seven other districts in Alabama that are held by Republicans. So that's a very solid district right. Yes well in Alabama 7. 

[00:12:58] So suffice to say the primaries probably won't have an impact for the November general election as far as seats flipping is concerned for either party. But what will stand out is this now a runoff election that we're going to have between Martha Roby the incumbent Republican Congresswoman and Alabama's 2nd District and her challenger. I think Bobby Bright is his name and this is going to be the second example we've seen of a Republican incumbent congressperson being kicked out or almost kicked out of office before a general election in 2018. And a lot of people are speculating. We can't really say for sure without polls in the district are really getting boots on the ground for coverage between now and the runoff. But it looks like she might actually be in trouble for that runoff and that's somewhat of a signal to Republican elected that opposing President Trump does still have a price at least in these red states. Can we just say what happened with her. Do you want to describe that. ELLIOTT At the moment it's sort of the opposite of me too right. Yeah sort of the Republicans. Me too it's like the Trump test. I think people are calling it Roby in 2016 disavow President Trump and never sort of came back she spoke out against him and said she will support him. And that's been the focal point of the campaign the primary campaign there. And you know Republicans like the president there's a new poll out today from Quinnipiac University that shows Republican approval of President Trump at 77 percent. [00:14:23][84.8]

[00:14:24] So it's not a great tactic for Republicans to distance themselves from the president although you know this was a good tactic for Democrats in 2010 to you know get themselves away from this referendum on Obama and the ACA and stimulus packages that really fueled the Tea Party movement across the country. You know we're not really seeing something like that on one party this year. So it's just one of these tests of loyalty for the president that keeps popping up for Republicans. And then Montana there was a bit of a surprise there in the Democratic primary for the single seat in the house that Montana holds. I think this is the Kathleen Williams election. Yes exactly. We're going to get another woman running for Congress and that's going to be in a deep red state this time. So up to now we've had a lot of women being nominated on the Democratic Party ticket for you know some Democratic areas where we would expect them to do well. If the meter movement is holding up and you know it seems like it is from these results you've also seen female candidates be dominated and suburban Republican areas and Democrats are hoping that that Mitsu movement. And you know he has around Democratic women candidates can sort of propelled him to elections. Now we're also seeing it in deep red areas. You know when we're talking about midterm elections politics around all of them are so nationalized that it's really hard for a factor in rural Virginia for example to not affect an election in Wisconsin's Fifth District or something. You know these all sort of mesh together and we're seeing a trend on one side of the country that isn't improbable for us to see it elsewhere too. [00:15:58][94.0]

[00:15:58] One of the things that we've talked about with you in the past is the ideological division in the Democratic Party between the so-called Bernie wing and the so-called Hillary wing. And what would you say are the takeaways from last night's results with respect to that divide. Explicitly I would think that progressives are pretty unhappy with the results in New Jersey. There are two or three moderate Democrats running in those three or four vulnerable congressional districts. So for progressives who are hoping that you know the liberal cause will sort of overwhelm the Democratic Party or that more properly democratic candidates would sort of adopt liberal tenets of the ideology. Last night was probably not a good night. You know we can flip that around and we can say that it was a good night for Democratic Party leaders who have given a lot of money to these candidates who think that they can win elections more than a progressive alternative in these seats where there are more Republicans. Right. This is sort of the conventional wisdom of the ideology versus electability debate. So if you're a progressive you're probably not too happy with the results from last night's primaries in New Jersey or even California. But if you're just rooting for Democrats to win seats probably a pretty good night for you. There was actually a strikingly conservative Democrat who won his primary in New Jersey last night. Right. And Drew is that his name. Yeah I think that's true. People aren't you happy with him but he has the endorsement of every single county Fishell in I think he's in the second district. [00:17:26][88.2]

[00:17:27] And you know that's going to be important come election day if he's a moderate and he's able to sort of peel off some of the Republican voters in this seat that gave it most recently a 22 point Republican margin where Hillary Clinton only lost by four points. You know that's an important gain for Democrats if they can keep this coalition of a party together and have some moderate Democrats in their ranks. The entry is probably a pretty key component of that. So what we've seen with the Republican Party over the last eight years isn't happening to Democrats as far as like a tea party of the left goes. And that's precisely because voters in Democratic Party competitions keep electing candidates like Andrew. You know they say that the party is a coalition of interests that people of different ideologies are welcome under the umbrella that is the Democratic Party and that they'll work for all of them. Last night was sort of an affirmation of that message again. Right. If you're a progressive that's probably the very opposite of what you want to hear. Yeah. Two that come to mind are districts that we've profiled on the mid Pade the 25th in California a pretty centrist candidate Katie Hill and then the forty eighth Harley Roodt who was a Republican until quite recently. Both of those candidates got a lot of support and even intervention you could say from the National Party to help them we would hope that the D triple C is sort of making good decisions on who they're choosing to carry the party banner forward. [00:18:49][82.1]

[00:18:50] Again if we're using last night as a litmus test on who they picked they pick pretty well because in the 25th District with Cadyville it shifted 6 points towards the Democrats last night. So maybe that's a good sign after all Eliot you have since last we spoke revised your model you've added a new element into it. Do you want to just give our listeners an update on your model and how it's changed and what it's showing now. So since last we spoke the model has changed to incorporate two larger factors that we have been discussing over the course of the year midterm forecasting cycle to the extent that forecasting has its own sort of life to it. The first is that you know again that we're seeing a lot of special elections showing an average thirteen point shift towards Democrats in the margin of victory there. And over time these shifts in special elections are actually relatively predictive of what will happen in November. So whereas before the model was only built off of the generic ballot which has been a little bit hectic over the past few weeks steps the second correction that I'll get to the model now uses both generic ballot national congressional polling data and these indicators that we get in special elections. Cross the country. So those both combined together to predict today nine to ten point win in the vote for Democrats in November which is you know it's a pretty sizable change because before it was that was about 8 percentage points and so these special elections have it's better news for Democrats. And we saw another one last night in Missouri right. [00:20:23][93.7]

[00:20:24] Yeah we saw another special election in Missouri I think 17th Senate district in which the Democrat I think Lauren Arthur won the election and she swung it 24 25 points from Donald Trump's four point margin of victory there in 2016. That's also coincidentally the partisan lane of the district. And I only bring this up to say that it's a pretty reliably Republican seat. So if we're seeing swings towards Democrats in both marginal and reliably Republican not necessarily safe but typically Republican districts you know it's again just another data point that we can use in this average special election indicator and we can be a little more confident. And what the average is picking up if we know what smaller districts are coming into play there and then the second change was just a smoother polling average over time. So we've seen some errant data in the generic ballot recently whereby the polling firm Ipsos which has its polls commissioned by Reuters For whatever reason saw 8 or 9 percentage points shifted towards Republicans not only in the top line result of the generic ballot moving from D plus 7 or 8 to our plus 1 or 2 actually at one poll it was our plus 6 but we like to take averages here. Not only did it see that shift in the top line and saw that shift in the makeup of people responding to the poll. There were some wonky business going on in the numbers here. You know that's not to say that someone is messing with the numbers but the sample composition of the poll got so mixed up that the numbers that we were looking at changed and that moved these generic ballot averages towards Republicans in a way that wasn't really reflecting sentiment in the national environment. [00:22:07][102.6]

[00:22:07] And that prompted a larger conversation among political analysts about how we're using the generic ballot to project what will happen on Election Day. And it's clear that we shouldn't be changing our averages so quickly in responses to data especially if we're going to get large swings between and among polling organizations. So the model simply now takes the most predictive average on every day of the election cycle I tell my computer to compute the most predictive average of the polls in the past and then we use that most predictive average this year and it ends up smoothing out the trend of the polls quite a bit. And so today they're up now 6 or 7 percentage points and the polling average six point three whereas if we're taking a really short term average of the polls there they would be up 1 or 2 or 3 which is less predictive and our response to some errant data in the generic ballot. ELLIOTT tell us what does your model say now about the odds of the House changing control in November. Today it says that the Democrats have about a 63 percent chance of taking the majority of seats. And near certainty of winning the national popular vote on Election Day I have a question Eliot and this is a really fundamental one in terms of taking these polls. What are the issues with asking you know a certain sample don't answer. There are landlines or they answer their cell phones. I mean is that the thing the reliability of who is getting surveyed in these polls over the past 10 years actually is a sort of a much longer conversation that pollsters have been having. [00:23:43][95.7]

[00:23:44] There has been a lot of concern about declining response rates people actually picking up the phone and listening to a pollster and answer their questions answering their questions accurately. There's been a lot of concern about that over the past 10 years but a lot of it actually doesn't come out in the data. So there's been a few studies done in the past couple of months about the reliability of both election polls and public opinion polls just asking if someone supports marijuana for example or the percentage of the country that's going to support a certain candidate. And these results are comprehensive and compelling that the polls are doing well and you're picking up on real sentiment and actually conveying proper information. I have a question that I kept. I kept seeing this list of results in California on Twitter and there are the seven districts that we all care about and you quoted these averages that Dems are up an average of 5 percent. But then there's California 21 down 20 percent that's an aberration on this list. What's going on there. So there are two things that you know that are going on in California's 21st District. The first is that the incumbent representative Bella Dayo in that district is probably one of the strongest incumbent congresspeople in the entire country. The partisan lean of the seat is about 12 or 13 percentage points. And he won the seat Republican by about the same March. So about 25 percent stronger than what we would expect given the presidential theme of the seat. So he's a strong incumbent and that's the first thing that's going on. So we wouldn't expect to see the same sort of numbers there. [00:25:19][94.7]

[00:25:19] But then there's also you know a much simpler electoral issue there. And that is that the Democratic candidate Cox sort of jumped on the ballot pretty last minute as a replacement to the frontrunner who dropped out. And you know there are only two people on the ballot so they're both going to advance. And the idea is that the turnout was much lower there for both parties isn't a good representation of what might happen in November. And so the fundamentals that are predicting how the district might operate. You know my bottle for example could be a more reliable indicator of what might happen there than this you know minus 20 percent change in the Democratic composition of primary votes that we saw last night. Democrats might be safe but they might not. And how did women do last night. They've been winning about 70 percent I think of the Democratic primary challenges and they won a similar number last night. They won you know eight or nine of the nine or 10 competitive Democratic primaries. So they're showing up you know they're going to make big waves in November I think. I you know I quipped on Twitter that whoever writes about women candidate takeover of the Democratic Party is sort of propelling women toward parity in holding office probably as good a right. Like a million dollar book this is probably the trend of the 2018 midterms. How would you like a million dollar podcast following those women for their first year in office. Yeah you. You have that million dollar podcast. [00:26:45][86.0]

[00:26:48] Yeah we're pretty fired up about a lot of these these women there they're impressive and looking strong for the general I think many of them and the first Native American woman who may go to Congress right in New Mexico. Yeah she's in the first district of New Mexico. Deb Howland she will be the first Native American congresswoman and she is expected to be elected because the partisan lean of the seat is 14 percentage points for Democrats and it's voted for a Democrat for the past two or three decades. It would be very very surprising if she didn't win anything else on your mind. ELLIOTT What. Anything we're missing. There aren't that many primary elections to keep our eyes on most of the states with competitive districts in November have had a lot of their primaries so far. But you know we'll be keeping an eye on the primary elections in Florida and New York here I think in the next month or so and and whenever Washington has its primary I'm sure people will be picking up on what happens with Dino Rossi in the 8th district of of Washington. But last night the topline takeaway it was a pretty good night for Democrats and it's about what we would expect given the past two or three months just to wrap it up. Are you heading to London to take up your post at the Economist or what's next for you. Yes so I will be covering the elections at 5:00 a.m. I guess in London come come July. You will be getting all of my updates for you whichever flat I end up having over across the pond as they might say. Well Eliot Maurice we are so grateful for your time today and just inclosing remind our listeners of how to find you online. [00:28:25][97.2]

[00:28:26] Sure. So I blog at the cross tab dot com that's cross and tab as you expect to spell them and I'm on Twitter. Most of the day at Twitter dot com slash G. Elliot Morris with 12 cent to tease. Thanks again to Elliot Marice of the Economist magazine. We spoke to Elliot over a little bit of a scratchy Skype connection. That's it for this week and until next Tuesday be sure to catch up with us online. There's a lot happening on what we like to call election Twitter these days and feel free to join in the conversation. See you next week. [00:28:26][0.0]


Eunice Panetta