Misunderestimating the Democrats

by Nicholas Frankovich

In this analysis of the Cleveland Indians, Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight shows how they’re a better team than their win–loss record so far. A key team stat of theirs that figures into his calculations is their Pythagorean expectation, which is high. The Pythagorean expectation is what you would expect a team’s winning percentage to be when you consider the ratio of its runs scored to runs allowed. When a team’s Pythagorean expectation is higher than its winning percentage, its future performance is likely to be better than its record to date. When it’s lower, worse.

The concept can be applied to politics. For example, in the last national election — for president, the Senate, and the House — the aggregate vote won by each party is like runs scored. The vote it lost to the other party is like runs allowed. Did the percentage of contests that each party won match the percentage of the vote that it won? No.

In the House, Senate, and presidential races combined, Democrats won about 12 million more votes than the Republicans, despite coming up empty on Election Night, winning neither the White House nor either house of Congress. This is not an argument about the Electoral College or gerrymandering. It’s a statistical observation. It doesn’t jibe with the assumption, which you can hear all day long on the Left as well as on the Right, that the Democratic party is on life support. It’s true that at the state and local level in many parts of the country it’s getting crushed. At the national level, though, no. There it’s the majority party, at least in terms of popular support as measured by votes cast.

Currently on the generic ballot for the House, Democrats lead Republicans by 6.5 percentage points, according to an average of polls compiled, again, by FiveThirtyEight. That would be a gain of 7.6 points since November (when Republicans won the aggregate vote for the House by 1.1 points). Those polls are in line with the four relevant special House elections so far this year. (There was a fifth, in California, but it was a runoff between two Democrats, as in 2016.) In red districts in Kansas, Montana, Georgia, and South Carolina, Democrats improved by 8.6 points over their performance last November. If they improve by that much across the board next November, they may take the House. They would need to flip 24 seats.

As of now, the table looks set for a typical midterm election: The party out of power gains ground. If Republicans want to defend against that outcome, they should figure out how to appeal to Democrats. So far the instinct of the president has been to shore up his base in ways that come across as hostile to Democrats; he doesn’t call them deplorable, but that’s approximately what they hear. Obviously, congressional Republicans in purple districts need to walk a tight line between independence and party loyalty.

Meanwhile, of course, it would be in the self-interest of Democrats to stretch and figure out how to reach Americans who are drawn to the GOP. It would be in the self-interest of both parties, for that matter, to forswear smugness and attitude and start disarming each other’s voters with civility and tact. It would be in the interest of the country too.

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