Ithaca, N.Y. – Democrats across the country are expected to be in for a rough night — with national publications and pollsters suggesting the Republicans will seize control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
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That doesn’t bode well for local challenger Martha Robertson (D), the Tompkins County legislator who is hoping to unseat Rep. Tom Reed in New York’s 23rd District.
In 2012, according to Real Clear Politics, Reed beat Democratic contender Nate Shinagawa by 51.9 to 48.1, or 3.8 points.
Reed won the race despite a national mood that leaned toward the left. Barack Obama, of course, won the presidential race by a healthy margin. Democrats gained two seats in the Senate.
More relevantly, while not winning control of more seats, Democratic House candidates won the popular vote in 2012 by more than 1 million votes, or about 1.2 points.
A graphic from Talking Points Memo shows that Democrats had an advantage of 1.6 points over the generic Republican around Election Day, 2012. (This comes from the “generic ballot,” which simply asks voters which party they prefer.)
The national mood has shifted in a major way since 2012, however. Republicans now enjoy a 2.4 point advantage on the generic ballot. That number shows us why Robertson faces such steep odds tonight.
Consider the following:
— Reed beat Shinagawa by 3.8 points when the average Democrat nationally was favored by 1.6 points.
That can be loosely interpreted to suggest that the NY 23rd leaned by 5.4 points (3.8 + 1.6) to the right of the national mood in 2012.
— The NY 23rd’s right-leaning nature is strengthened by the 2.4 point advantage Republicans now have on the generic ballot. In order to win, Robertson must overcome both factors.
She must not only outperform her fellow Democrats, who can be roughly thought of as starting with a 2.4 point deficit. She must also overcome the 5.4 point leaning of the NY 23rd to support the Republican/Reed.
In other words, Robertson must perform 7.8 points better than what — all other variables being equal — one could reasonable expect based on recent history and national polling data. That’s a lot of points!
— What makes matters worse for Robertson is that Barack Obama is not on the ballot, and that could depress Democratic turnout.
Ezra Klein of Vox.com explains the paradox of Obama’s popularity succinctly:
There are many reasons Democrats are likely to lose the Senate on Tuesday. But two of the most important reasons flatly contradict each other.
Reason one: President Barack Obama is unpopular, with only 40 percent approving of his job performance, according to the latest Gallup poll. …
Reason two: President Barack Obama isn’t on the ballot.
Obama’s value to his party is that Democratic partisans turn out to vote for him. In 2012, Democrats made up 38 percent of the electorate. In 2010 — without Obama on the ballot — they were only 35 percent.
This factor could loom large in the NY 23rd, which features pockets of constituencies — in particular, in Tompkins and Schuyler counties — that showed up for Obama.
— There is of course no way to know how Robertson performs until the results are in.
There are, in particular, several possible scenarios that — if they came to prove true — could give Robertson an unexpected boost, including:
Scenario 1: Robertson has huge local popularity
In scenario one, Robertson has an outsize popularity locally disproportionate to national Democrats. If Robertson proves to enjoy a massive amount of support based on her record and personality, in other words, she may be able to overcome her structural disadvantages in the race.
Scenario 2: Shinagawa was actually a weak candidate
Maybe we’re looking at this wrong. Maybe Shinagawa was actually an unusually weak candidate in 2012, and his loss suggested not an absence of Democratic support in the district but a personal dislike for him/his record.
If this is the case, and the district is more liberal than it showed in 2012, Robertson clearly has better odds.
(This scenario seems highly unlikely, given that Obama lost the district by a small margin as well.)
Scenario 3: The politics of the NY 23rd has changed
Our analysis assumes that the general relation between national polling trends and local opinions remains consistent.
That could be an errant assumption. Perhaps some unknown demographic or ideological trends have pushed this district farther to the left than nationally.
For example, if voters in the NY 23rd are motivated by particular animus against a local Republican initiative — say, fracking — we may be underestimating Robertson’s odds.
Scenario 4: Dislike for Reed has grown locally
One possibility — the flip side of scenario 1 — is that even as Republicans nationally have grown more popular, Tom Reed has grown increasingly unpopular with local voters.
This seems possible but unlikely. Reed has been tarred by no major scandals. Whatever their merit, attempts to criticize him over his tax returns appeared to gather little steam in the local press.
But you’d expect that unpopularity to have shown up in polling.
And given that the DCCC pulled funding from Robertson’s campaign to focus on closer races, it seems likely that local Democrats will be licking their wounds tonight.