Easy To Have “Tsunami” When the Seawall Is Torn Down

I don’t know how many more interesting post-mortems of the midterms we’ll get; I just scanned Sean Trende’s, which is predictably provocative; I may do a post about his take later today or tomorrow. But right now I’d draw attention to the analysis of the House results by Cook Political Report‘s wizard David Wasserman, writing at FiveThirtyEight.

Wasserman focuses on the handful of unexpected GOP House wins this year, and figures out they mostly occur in what he calls “orphan states:” those where no competitive statewide contests attracted the attention or money needed to drive up turnout:

Take the case of Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who represents a highly transient district just north of Las Vegas that’s 49 percent white, 27 percent Latino, 14 percent black and 6 percent Asian. House Democrats were so confident that Horsford, a promising African-American freshman, would be re-elected in 2014 that they didn’t put him in their “Frontline” program, which was meant to steer Democratic donors toward vulnerable incumbents’ campaigns. After all, President Obama had won Nevada’s 4th district by 10.7 percent in 2012.

But in mid-October, hyper-alert Nevada political analyst Jon Ralston noticed that early voting participation had skewed much more Republican than it had in 2012, even in Horsford’s melting-pot seat. It made sense: With GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval cruising to re-election and no Senate race on the ballot, there was little reason for Democrats to show up. At the last minute, President Obama cut a radio ad for Horsford designed to boost turnout among the Democratic base, but it was too little, too late: Horsford won fewer than half the 120,501 votes he had won in 2012. Little-known GOP state Assemblyman Cresent Hardy beat Horsford 49 percent to 46 percent.

Republicans won eight of 13 races rated “tossups” by Wasserman, which isn’t terribly surprising. But Republicans built their House “wave” on five upsets in races rated “Lean D.” Four of them happened in “orphan states,” and in all four (including Horsford’s race) turnout was down calamitously.

What’s the takeaway from this analysis? Well, you could say given the terrible results in states where Democrats did invest a lot of money in GOTV they should have spread it around to states where Republicans were doing well in early voting–or where, as in New York, there were signs of exceptionally low Democratic activity. If you are an enthusiast for “enthusiasm” rather than mechanics in improving turnout, you could blame it all on Obama or on high-profile candidates running away from Obama or on both. But the treatment of the GOP’s big night as a “wave” tends to disguise what was going on under the surface, where in some cases and some places he results looked like a Republican “tsunami” but what was really going on is that the seawall was torn down.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.