Election Update

May and June were significant months for elections, both in the United States and Europe.  While the news media tends to overhype some elections and ignore others, there are some conclusions that can be drawn from those elections.

Starting with the United States, the big news has been a series of special elections — focusing mostly on three Congressional seats held by the Republicans.  Neither party can be particularly happy with the results at the Congressional level, but certain things need to be noted.

First, except when caused by death or sudden resignation due to scandal, most vacancies occur in what the parties consider to be “safe” seats.  With the exception of the upcoming special election in Utah, the special elections for the House are all the results of an executive of their own party “promoting” the member of Congress to an executive office.  In California, you have to go back to 2012 to see the last time that a Republican even ran in the 34th district.  The four Republican seats were solid wins for the Republican incumbents in 2016 with the closest margin being 16% in Montana.  All five of these districts were double-digit wins for their party’s candidate in 2012.  The only district that was arguably winnable by the “out” party was Georgia 6 and that is only if you looked solely at the 2016 presidential election.  By the partisan vote index, Georgia 6 is still R+8, meaning that the Democrats would need to get around 58% nationally to win that seat.

Second, while national trends have a significant role to play in Congressional election results (as the number of true swing voters declines), races still involve actual candidates running actual campaigns.  Unlike regular elections, in which the parties have a significant period of time between the last election and the start of filing to recruit solid candidates for winnable seats, special elections require getting candidates to file (or choosing a candidate in some states like Kansas and Montana) in a matter of weeks from the announcement of the election to the close of filing.   The candidates for both parties are the ones who are ready to run, not necessarily the “best” candidate.  (That is especially true in Montana where both parties ran flawed candidates.)

Third, special elections are almost never about which party controls Congress.  While the media focuses on wins and losses (and parties will find consolation/disappointment in the wins and losses), the more significant story is whether the results show anything about swings since the last election.

It is in those trends that any discussion of these elections has to begin and it leads to the bigger question — has Trump yet made the Republican Party his party.  In the 2016 election, Trump exceeded expectations in some rural and blue collar districts but underperformed in certain suburban white collar districts.  A question going forward is whether Trump has driven voters with college degrees who, in the past, have leaned Republican from the Republican party or if these voters merely oppose Trump.  On the other side, the question is whether rural and blue collar voters have been permanently lost to the Democratic Party or if they merely disliked President Obama and Secretary Clinton.  Assuming that the results from the special elections so far has any meaning for 2018, it seems likely that the Democrats are looking at getting a result near the 53-54% national vote needed to win a majority in the House.

Another issue from these elections is that, in each of the races in the Republican districts (except perhaps in South Carolina), the polls showed the Democratic candidate either leading or in a close race shortly before the election.  After those polls showing a closer than expected race, the national Republicans intervened in the races and local Republican activists woke up to the need to work hard to keep the seat.  In all of these seats, the Republicans slightly over-performed these polls to barely keep the seat.  Obviously, the mid-term election will be quite different than these special elections.  With 435 seats up for grabs, there will not be polling for every seat (so people will not necessarily know which seats are at risk of an upset).  Additionally, neither party will be able to pour money into every close race — at least not at the overkill levels seen in Georgia 6 — a race that shows that there is such a thing as too much money.    On the other hand, traditional Republican voters did come home in these seats despite any potential problems that they might have with President Trump.

Of course, there are still more elections to come this year — the regularly scheduled off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia and the special election for Utah 3 are all scheduled for November.

Internationally, the big elections were in the United Kingdom and France.  In the United Kingdom, the election law is supposed to make it difficult to call an early election.  However, the Conservatives called an early election barely two years into a five-year term.   The traditional thought in the United Kingdom — from the days when the election law placed no limits on the ability of the government to call an early election — is that calling an early election (i.e. before the last year of the term) when the government has a working majority is generally viewed as opportunist and the government is punished.  This election followed that general rule.  Despite the early polling showing the Conservatives gaining a significant number of seats, the Conservatives actually lost seats and their majority.

Equally big from the United Kingdom were the continued developments in Northern Ireland.  This election saw the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic and Labour Party lose their last seats in Parliament.  In the old days, when there was still fighting between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, these two parties were the two leading parties in Northern Ireland.  Since the Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland, these two centrists parties that pushed for peace have lost votes and seats to the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein — the two parties that represent the extremes of the two communities.  After the last election, the Democratic Unionists held ten seats and Sinn Fein held seven seats with one seat held by an independent who was originally elected as an Ulster Unionist.  (In comparison, before the Good Friday Agreement, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP held thirteen seats.)  Given that the Conservatives fell just short of a majority, the overall election results mean that the Democratic Unionists hold the balance of power.  Given that the DUP is a socially conservative party and the fact that the rest of the UK has managed to stay above the unique regional disputes of Northern Ireland, the DUP being power brokers is not a good thing.

Another development worthy of note from this election is that the DUP is only in this position because the Conservatives rebounded in Scotland.  Before the election, the Conservatives held only one seat from Scotland with the Scottish Nationalists holding 56 of 59 seats.  The SNP fell to 35 seats with the Conservatives gaining twelve seats (compared to a gain of six by Labour) leaving the Conservatives with a total of thirteen seats.  Given that the Conservatives fell six short of a majority (forcing them to rely on the DUP’s ten votes to survive any motion of no confidence), the gain of twelve in Scotland is the only thing letting them form a minority government that has any chance of surviving more than a couple of months.  (It will also be interesting to see what will happen.  In the past, a minority government would probably call an election within several months in the hopes of winning a working majority.  Now, calling an election would require the support of the opposition parties.)

The stated reason for the Conservatives calling the election was to receive a mandate to pursue a certain strategy in Brexit negotiations.  The attempt to get a mandate for a very Trumpian approach to those negotiations failed “bigly.”  Additionally, the most Trumpian party lost its only seat in parliament.

Across the English Channel in France, the election results show the significance of “personality politics.”  A political party that did not exist in the last general election has now won the presidency and an overwhelming majority in Parliament.  While the new president is not quite the newcomer that he is sometimes portrayed in the media — he served in the last government — the ability to build a movement from scratch is somewhat foreign to U.S. politics.  Other countries make it much easier for parties to get on the ballot leading to more fractured political loyalty and a chance for a new party to accumulate a significant percentage of votes.  In the first round of voting (for both president and the legislature), this new party managed to get in the mid-20s.  Given the number of parties in France, those numbers were enough to make the run-off for president and the run-off in almost all of the legislative seats.  In the U.S. (or even the U.K.) with two major parties and no run-off, those numbers would be an electoral disaster rather than winning numbers.  While the Trumpian party made the presidential run-off, it got crushed and only won eight seats in parliament.

As in the U.S., major international elections are not done for the year.  Even  if there is not a second election in the U.K., German elections are scheduled for late September.  In the beginning of the year, it looked like a far right Trumpian party might win a significant number of seats (polling in double digits).  Now it looks like, they are polling in the single digits.  While currently they are polling over the 5% necessary to qualify for seats (having fallen just short in 2013), they have dropped 3-4% since earlier in the year and may ultimately fall short again.  (The most recent polls have them between 6% and 9% compared to polls showing them near 15% at the start of the year.)  As would be expected, most of the voters that flirted with the far right have returned to the center-right meaning that Chancellor Angela Merkel is looking likely to win another term in office.  While Chancellor Merkel’s party is polling slightly under its result in 2013, its main ally (who failed to get the necessary 5% in the last election) is polling around 8%.  As a result (as compared to a grand coalition after the 2013 election), it looks likely that Chancellor Merkel will be able to form a center-right coalition after this election (like after the 2009 elections).

Of course, the big story from Europe is that the Trump brand of politics is not doing well in European elections.  The far right populism peaked in Europe last year and Trump’s example of poorly run government is turning off European voters.  For the United States, the bigger problem is that Europe’s leaders are getting the message that they are on their own.  The United States has been able to get rather favorable deals internationally (regardless of how domestic opposition mischaracterize them) because the United States was in a leadership role and seen as indispensable to making any arrangement work.  If our traditional allies get used to having to do things for themselves, it may be hard for the U.S. to reclaim that position after Trump is shown the door.

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