Guns Still Hold Little Allure for Younger Americans and Women

Thirty-six percent of 18-49 households with a man present own guns as compared to just sixteen percent in those households with no man in residence. Gun ownership has persistently fallen across the generations, but the proportion of people who own a gun in any specific cohort remains fairly stable over the cohort’s lifetime.

With the release this week of the results from the 2018 NORC General Social Survey it seemed a good time to revisit my analyses of gun ownership patterns across the generations. This table replicates the ones found in those earlier reports with the sample expanded to include all interviews from 1972 through 2018.

Here are the ownership rates for households based on the respondent’s age cohort, or “generation,” and the respondent’s actual age at the time of the interview.  This method lets us see differences among generational cohorts and also measure how gun ownership changes as people age.  There are few representatives of “Generation Z” in the newest data, those who born in 1997 or later and came of age beginning in 2006.

Once again the major findings are clear. Gun ownership has persistently fallen across the generations, but the proportion of people who own a gun in any specific cohort remains fairly stable over the cohort’s lifetime. Ownership falls off among the elderly, in part because men, who are more likely to own guns, have a shorter life expectancy than women.

The oldest generations have shown little change in gun ownership rates as their members aged. That may not be true for Millennials who may be buying guns as they get older.  Even with that uptick among the oldest Millennials, they still remain below their Generation-X forbears.

Pretty much all this growth in ownership among Millennials took place in households with a man present. Left to their own devices, women are much less likely to own a gun. This table presents the rate of gun ownership by type of household.  I have limited it to adults 18-49 interviewed in 2000 or later.  This pool of younger, more recent respondents represents the future of gun ownership.

Thirty-six percent of younger households with a man present own guns as compared to just sixteen percent of households where no man resides. Married households show the highest rates of gun ownership, but unmarried men own guns at nearly the same rate. At the other end of the spectrum, single, unmarried women, and all women with children, have especially low ownership rates of just thirteen and eleven percent. In stark contrast, twenty-three percent of households with two or more women living alone together own guns. That is not a statistical anomaly; it is based on a sample of 833 households and is significantly greater than the 11-13% figures for the other two groups.

While the National Rifle Association and other gun-advocacy groups have targeted women over the past few years, these results suggest their efforts have not borne much fruit among the younger women in this country.



Win Early or Go Home

Only twice in nine elections has the eventual Democratic nominee not won one of Iowa or New Hampshire. Iowa remains fairly wide open, but Bernie Sanders may have the inside route in New Hampshire.

The pace of attrition is swift in Presidential primaries. Usually only a few candidates remain standing after March 1st, so a victory in Iowa or New Hampshire can put a candidate far ahead of his or her rivals.  In fact the eventual Democratic nominee won one or both of these states in seven of the past nine contested Presidential nominations.

We can see a few different patterns over these campaigns. In 2000 and 2004 the “establishment” candidates, Al Gore and John Kerry, began strong and finished strong. Hillary Clinton’s campaigns resemble Walter Mondale’s effort in 1984.  Both Clinton and Mondale were establishment choices but faced strong opposition from outsiders Gary Hart, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders.

2020 has no establishment Democratic candidate, so might it follow one of the other patterns?

Regional Appeals in Iowa and New Hampshire

In the two outlier elections, 1972 and 1992, the strong regional appeal of a few candidates masked the underlying strength of the eventual nominee.

Maine Senator Edmund Muskie came second in Iowa in 1972 by just 0.3% of the vote behind “uncommitted.” When he arrived in neighboring New Hampshire, Muskie was expected to build on his Iowa win with a strong victory among his fellow New Englanders. Sadly for Muskie, he soon found himself the target of an infamous smear campaign involving confederates of Richard Nixon and the then virulently right-wing newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. Confronted with a barrage of falsehoods, Muskie delivered an emotional speech, dubbed the “crying speech” in some quarters, outside the offices of the Union Leader.  Muskie did win New Hampshire and the Illinois primary a few weeks later, but it was the second-place finisher in the Granite State, George McGovern, who went on to win the 1972 Presidential Nomination.

In 1992 Iowa’s senior Senator, Tom Harkin, tossed his hat into the ring and promptly collected 77% of the Iowa caucus vote. After Super Tuesday he never contended again. New Hampshire that year was won by the junior Senator from neighboring Massachusetts, Paul Tsongas, but it was the strong second-place performance of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton that caught the eye of political observers. Tsongas beat Clinton by only 33% to 25%. The “Comeback Kid,” as Clinton billed himself, went on to win a number of primaries on Super Tuesday and eventually consolidated his hold on the nomination.

Regional Appeals in 2020?

In an earlier article I discussed Iowa‘s apparent preference for Midwestern candidates.  Sherrod Brown’s decision not to run for President leaves only Amy Klobuchar, the senior Senator from Minnesota, and South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg as candidates who can lay claim to Midwestern roots.  So far, though, neither candidate has caught on in the early Iowa polling.  Klobuchar polls in the single digits, and Buttigieg has yet to break onto the list.

Averaging the current Iowa polls gives former Vice President Joe Biden the lead at 27.3%, followed by Sanders at 15.4%, and California Senator Kamala Harris, former Texas Congressman “Beto” O’Rourke, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren all with about ten percent. Name recognition obviously has a substantial influence on these figures, and the race could change substantially should Biden decide not to run.

At the moment, though, Iowa seems fairly open.  That is less true for New Hampshire.

Bernie Sanders won a dramatic upset victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 New Hampshire primary by a margin of 60-38%.  There is no reason to expect him not to do well again in 2020.  His current polling average in the Granite State is about 21%, not far behind Joe Biden’s 25%.  Harris and Warren come in around 9-10%.

New Hampshire has certainly preferred fellow New Englanders over the years. Candidates from neighboring states have won five of the eight competitive New Hampshire primaries held starting in 1972. Despite his travails, Muskie did win the 1972 primary, as did Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas in 1992. New Hampshire voters in 2004 spread their votes across three candidates from New England including eventual nominee Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.

Yet with the exception of Sanders impressive victory in 2016, candidates from neighboring states have not won New Hampshire by overwhelming margins. And both Muskie’s and Sanders’s victories came in largely two-person races, which will certainly not be true next year.

Sanders’s strength in New Hampshire comes at the expense of Elizabeth Warren.  Together Sanders and Warren poll in the low to mid thirties, or about the total vote won by Dukakis and Tsongas. However Sanders outpolls Warren 21-9 on average. If Warren hopes to follow in the steps of Howard Dean in 2004 she’ll need to up her game.

All told, though, the chances look good that Bernie Sanders could win the New Hampshire primary again and secure one of those two valuable slots in the early states.

Too Soon for Impeachment?

House Democrats have been resisting pressures from the most intensely anti-Trump part of their party who think impeachment should begin now. Congressional Democrats have instead taken a more institutionalist approach. Using its Article I oversight powers the House has opened an array of investigations by various Committees like Intelligence, Judiciary, and Oversight.

Just last weekend Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler remarked, “Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen. You have to persuade enough of the – of the opposition party voters.” Nadler’s concerns are supported by the results of a new Quinnipiac poll. 59% of Americans oppose beginning the impeachment process compared to 35% in favor. However fully 66% of Democrats support starting the impeachment process now.

From this poll, Chairman Nadler’s goal of persuading members of the opposite party seems far away.  Only six percent of Republicans favor impeachment now, and just a third think Robert Mueller is conducting a “fair” investigation.

Very different outcomes awaited the two Presidents who have been impeached in my lifetime. Richard Nixon forced to resign his office in 1974 rather than face a Senate trial. Bill Clinton was tried and acquitted by a Senate with a Republican majority. Nixon’s popularity collapsed over 1973; Clinton appeared impervious to his travails.

Public Support for Richard Nixon

This chart plots “net” presidential job-approval (approve minus disapprove) for Presidents Nixon and Clinton using data from the Gallup Poll. To put them on a common time scale, the x-axis measures days elapsed since Inauguration.

Richard Nixon was re-elected President in 1972 with 60.7 percent of the popular vote, and polls taken in the weeks just after the inauguration found about 65 percent approved of Nixon’s performance, while just 25 percent disapproved.  That net approval rating of +40 exceeds Clinton’s own impressive starting position by ten percentage points.  However the public’s honeymoon with Richard Nixon ended quickly and dramatically over the months of 1973, while their love affair with Clinton actually grew stronger.

Just ten days after Nixon’s second inauguration, all seven of the Watergate burglars had either pleaded guilty or been convicted of their crimes.  About a week later the Senate voted 77-0 to create a Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities under the chairmanship of Sam Ervin.  The White House tried to slow the pace of events by firing three key advisors, Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, Domestic Counselor John Ehrlichman, and White House Counsel John Dean, on April 30th (day 100 in the chart). A few weeks later Dean began his stunning testimony before the Select Committee (day 156) followed by the even more stunning revelation from Deputy Assistant to the President Alexander Butterfield that all Oval Office conversations had been recorded. Legal wrangling over the tapes ended up before the Supreme Court.

The pale red line marks the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre.” On October 20, 1973, Nixon instructed Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. Richardson and his deputy, William Ruckelshaus, both resigned rather than comply with the President’s request, leaving the task up to Solicitor General Robert Bork. Despite Cox’s ouster, it took only eleven days before Nixon was pressured to appoint a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski.  Nixon’s popularity continued to decline after the Massacre, but not at the astounding pace it had fallen in the months before.

Public Support for Bill Clinton

The contrast between Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton could not be more stark. Clinton’s began his second term with a 30-point margin in net approval. That margin actually increased over his term despite Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s repeated investigations. His original remit was the so-called “Whitewater” investigation concerning a real-estate deal in Arkansas. That investigation expanded to include “Travelgate” concerning alleged corruption in the White House Travel Office. Starr even took seriously right-wing claims about the alleged murder and subsequent cover-up of Clinton aide Vince Foster. Starr later concurred with the verdict that Foster’s death was a suicide.

Ultimately, though, Starr’s investigations led him to Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. Starr subpoenaed Clinton to testify before the grand jury, where the President meditated on the meaning of “is.” Starr believed Clinton committed perjury during the grand jury hearing and reported this finding to Congress where it became the basis for the House impeachment proceedings that began on December 19th. To the perjury charge the House later added an obstruction of justice count and sent the Bill of Impeachment to the Senate where a trial began on January 7, 1999.

Despite all this furor, Clinton’s net job-approval rating hovered between +25 and +35 from his second inaugural through impeachment. Ironically, Clinton’s best performance on Gallup’s job-approval question came at the same time as the Senate began to deliberate on the two impeachment counts. Opinion did fluctuate more during the impeachment process, but average net approval remained roughly constant throughout. (If only public opinion mattered, the Republicans’ decision to impeach Clinton makes little sense. Perhaps Republican leaders believed they could hold their caucus together in the Senate, but Clinton’s overwhelming popularity made it easier for defectors like Susan Collins (R-ME) and Richard Shelby (R-SC) to cross the aisle on Clinton’s behalf.

Implications for a Trump Impeachment

If we add Donald Trump’s net job approval, two things stand out right away. While more people disapprove than approve of Trump’s performance in office, he has not reached the depths of unpopularity that we saw when Richard Nixon was President. Second, like “Slick Willie” Clinton, Donald Trump’s popularity seems remarkably impervious to events. In such circumstances, it makes sense for Democratic leaders to take their time pursuing impeachment.  The public is not ready.

Can Midwesterner Amy Klobuchar Find Support in Iowa?

Iowa Democrats’ preference for Midwesterners may work to Amy Klobuchar’s advantage.

Whatever strategic reasoning influenced Amy Klobuchar to announce her almost-certain decision to run for President, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses surely must have played a role.  Historically, Midwestern candidates have had a slight advantage in these contests.

No Midwestern candidates competed in the 2016 caucuses.

In 1988, both Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Senator Paul Simon of Illinois out-polled Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the eventual nominee.  Four years later Iowa’s own Senator Tom Harkin took a run at the presidency and swamped his competitors.  Gephardt ran again in 2004, but both he and perennial left-wing challenger Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich could only muster twelve percent between them against their major competitors, Senators John Kerry from Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina.  Four years later the candidate from neighboring Illinois, Senator Barack Obama, bested both Edwards and Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.

Iowans seem to display a slight preference for viable Midwestern candidates. Harkin’s favorite-son endorsement in 1992 needs to be set aside, but both Gephardt and Simon showed considerable strength in Iowa. Even Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 fits the pattern. While his position as a Senator from Illinois was hardly his most noteworthy feature as a candidate, it might have swayed some Iowans who might otherwise have voted for Edwards or Clinton.  Unfortunately the 2016 campaign did not provide any mid-Western contenders whose performance we might evaluate.

The down side for Klobuchar is that, among these Midwestern candidates, only Barack Obama won the nomination.  On the other hand, the winner of the Iowa caucuses in the past three competitive primaries, Kerry, Obama, and Hillary Clinton, went on to become the nominee. Can Klobuchar employ “Minnesota nice” to attract a similar plurality among Iowans next February?  In the two Iowa polls released so far she’s running at three percent.  Even in a field as crowded as 2020’s, she’d need to win well over a quarter of the caucus vote to have a chance at victory.

Can Trump Recover?

Compared to recent presidents, only George H. W. Bush was as unpopular when standing for re-election as Donald Trump is today. Bush lost.

Recent opinion polls, especially ones taken after the government shutdown had worn on for a few weeks, show Donald Trump considerably “underwater” in job-approval polls. On December 21st, the day before the shutdown, the running average on Trump’s job approval numbers at FiveThirtyEight put him at 42.2 percent approving, and 52.7 percent disapproving, for a “net approval” score of -10.5 (=42.2-52.7).

Since then the gap between Trump’s approval and disapproval scores has substantially widened. Today, January 27th, FiveThirtyEight reports his approval score has fallen three points to 39.3 percent, while his disapproval score has increased substantially to 56.0 percent. His net approval score has now fallen to -16.7.

Few recent Presidents have plumbed these depths of public opinion as Donald Trump. This chart presents the net approval scores of recent Presidents as measured by Gallup at three different times in their first terms: when inaugurated, at the time of the first midterm election, and once again at the time of the next Presidential election.

Every President except Trump began his term of office with a positive net approval score that deteriorated over the next two years. George W. Bush showed the smallest decline because his approval had received a thirty-point boost after the 9/11 attacks.   Being popular upon inauguration is no guarantee of continued popularity as Ronald Reagan and, especially, Barack Obama discovered. However they were both able to recover and reach positive territory in the Presidential election that followed.

Only George H.W. Bush has stood for re-election with a net approval score below negative twenty like Trump’s current figure. Bush, of course, lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. George W. Bush managed to be re-elected with a net approval score of zero. The remaining Presidents in the chart all had positive approval scores at the time of re-election and were sent back to Washington for a second term.

Donald Trump has not seen a net approval score above zero since a week or two after he was inaugurated in 2017.  It is hard to fathom how he can recover even to a net zero score like George W. Bush had in 2004, never mind reaching into positive territory. Both Clinton and Obama managed to win re-election with net approval scores in the single digits.  Even that relatively low hurdle seems pretty distant for Donald Trump at this point.

One reason we are unlikely to see a substantial movement in Trump’s direction is the large number of people who report “strongly” disapproving of Trump’s performance. The newest Washington Post poll shows that most peoples’ opinions of Trump fall into either the strongly approve (28 percent) or strongly disapprove (49 percent) categories. Only nine percent report they “somewhat” approve of his performance, and another nine percent “somewhat” disapprove. 

Obama could recover from his 2010 “shellacking” because fewer people chose the “strongly disapprove” option when asked about him prior to the 2010 midterms. Trump has fewer chances to bring people back to his side because opinions about him are much more locked in stone.

Donald Trump could, of course, confound all his observers as he did in 2016. However it is unlikely he will be able to run against as unpopular a candidate as Hillary Clinton turned out to be. 

The Grim Reaper of Primary Campaigns

Observers of the 2020 primaries expect a huge crop of Democratic candidates to declare before next February’s Iowa caucuses. History tells us that few of those hopefuls will still be contending for the nomination by mid-March.

Pundits have routinely suggested that the field for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination might range upward of a dozen candidates. As of today, January 22, 2019, a total of seven candidates have announced their intention to run — Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Richard Ojeda and Elizabeth Warren. Wikipedia lists another twenty people who have “publicly expressed interest” in running including Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg, Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke and Bernie Sanders. The field could certainly exceed a dozen candidates before the Iowa caucuses take place on February 3, 2020.

The Democrats saw eight contenders in the 2004 primary race that was eventually won by John Kerry. Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Barack Obama in 2008 fended off six other competitors in their paths to winning the nomination.

Most of these competitors fell by the wayside early. In 1992, 2004, and 2008 just two candidates remained by March 15th. In 1988 Al Gore and Paul Simon continued their contests against Dukakis until April, while Jesse Jackson maintained his symbolic quest into the Convention .

This drastic winnowing of candidates reflects a variety of forces. All the campaigns compete for funds and staffers. Candidates who fail to make a strong showing in the early races see their access to contributions and staff dry up.

These resource limitations are exacerbated by the need to attract and maintain media attention. While it might be possible to cover a dozen candidates at the outset, media organizations inexorably must target their resources to a much smaller number of candidates deemed “viable” by the press and party professionals.

So while we may see long lists of potential Presidential candidates lining up in Iowa and New Hampshire, it is hard to imagine there being more than three or four candidates remaining in the race after Super Tuesday, March 3rd.

For comparison, here is the equivalent chart for the 2012 and 2016 Republican primaries. Fully seventeen candidates took to the stage in the Republican primary debates in late 2015. By March 15th just three candidates remained standing — Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. A month later Trump stood alone.

Retirements as a Bellwether for House Elections

There have been eleven midterm elections when House retirements by one party outnumbered those of the other party by six or more seats.  In all but one election the party with the greater number of retirements lost seats.

In the months before the 2018 election forty Republican House Members chose to give up their seats rather than pursue re-election, by far the greatest Republican exodus since the New Deal. The previous Republican record of twenty-seven was set in 1958 during the Eisenhower recession. Democrats once saw forty-one of their Members choose to depart the House in 1992 when Clinton was first elected.

However it is not the volume of a party’s retirements that matter as much as the excess of retirements from one side of the aisle or the other.  To be sure, Members of Congress retire for many reasons. Age and illness catch up with the best of us.  Some Members give up their House seats to seek higher office like Kyrsten Sinema and Beto O’Rourke did this year.

Still, Members also pay close attention to the winds of politics for fear they might be swept out of their seats. Some choose to retire rather than face an embarrassing defeat in the next election.  Such “strategic retirements” might prove a plausible bellwether for future elections.  If many more Members of one party are leaving their seats than the other, that might bode ill for the party’s results at the next election.

One thing is certain, retirements prove useless for predicting House results in Presidential election years.  Presidential politics overwhelms any effect we might see for strategic retirements in House elections.

The picture looks different in midterm elections.  Years that saw more Republicans retiring compared to Democrats were also years where more seats swung from Republican to Democratic hands.  This past election joins 1958 as years when an excess of Republican departures from the House foretold a substantial loss of seats at the next election.

The horizontal axis measures the difference between the number of Republican Members who left the House before an election and the number of Democrats who gave up their seats.* The vertical axis shows the swing in House seats compared to the past election. For instance, in 2018 forty Republicans and eighteen Democrats left the House, for a net retirements figure of +22 Republican. The “blue wave” swung forty seats from the Republicans to the Democrats, about nine fewer than the best-fit line would predict.

Some readers might ask whether that nine-seat deficit reflected Republican gerrymandering in the years since the 2010 Census.  I simply cannot say.  The likely error range (the “95% confidence interval”) around the prediction for any individual year averages about a hundred seats.** With that much variability, detecting things like gerrymandering effects is simply impossible.

As a bellwether, then, retirements seem pretty useless.  They appear to have so much intrinsic variability that any effects of strategic decision-making by Members remain hidden.  Suppose we group elections by the difference in retirements.  Will we see any stronger relationship with the election result than we have so far?

In the six elections where the number of retiring Republicans outnumbered retiring Democrats by six or more Members, the Republicans lost seats in five or them.  The same held true for elections when six of more Democrats retired compared to their Republican colleagues.  The Republicans gained seats in all five of those elections.

So retirements can prove a useful predictor of future election results if we limit our attention to the more extreme years where one party’s retirements outnumber the other by six or more.  The party with the excess of retirements has lost ten of the eleven elections fought in such circumstances.



*The data on Congressional retirements come from the Brookings Institution’s invaluable Vital Statistics on Congress.  The figure for 2018 come from the New York Times.

**The height of the bars depends on the overall “standard error of estimate,” in this case 23.8 seats, the size of the sample (21 elections), and the difference between the number of retirements in a given year and the mean for all years.  The confidence intervals average about plus or minus fifty seats for any given election.

The Economy in the 2018 Congressional Election

Americans saw their real disposable personal incomes grow by a fairly average two percent over the past year.  With that mediocre rate of income growth, a “normal” President would have had an approval rating around forty-eight percent at the time of the election.  Donald Trump’s forty percent favorability probably cost his party at least four percent of the popular vote, or about half the Democrat’s popular-vote margin of just over eight percent.

The state of the economy was considered one of the few items on the positive side of the ledger for Congressional Republicans in 2018.  The stock market accelerated after Trump’s election in 2016; the new tax bill was expected to put cash in peoples’ pockets; and, incomes overall continued to rise as they had since 2010.  All of these should have helped Republicans this year.  The question is how much.

The effect of the stock market rise is somewhat easy to dismiss as only half of American adults own stocks.  And the market has experienced considerable volatility this year compared to the steady march upward during the first year of the Trump Administration.  So while the half of Americans with stock portfolios are certainly better off today than they were in November of 2016, the future looks more dicey.

However the evidence for a relationship between stock prices and presidential popularity is, at best, mixed. Back in 2009 Gallup found little correlation between the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the popularity of recent Presidents.  Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight also expresses skepticism about a stock-market effect.

The benefits of the Republican tax cut also have had limited effects when it comes to the broad voting populace. Some forecasts expected the cuts to stimulate investment and consumption and grow the overall economy. However, even supporters of the plan do not expect those broader benefits to appear for some years to come.  Meanwhile, critics of the plan focus on how most of the gains from the tax cut have been funneled into stock buy-back plans that boost companies’ share prices and executive compensation instead of investments in the real economy. “Perhaps that’s why voters aren’t enthusiastic about the tax cuts,” writes a columnist in Forbes. “People just aren’t getting any real economic benefits from the tax cuts and they know it.”

As I’ve discussed here before, political science research often treats changes in real per-capita disposable personal income as a useful shorthand for the economic welfare of an “average” American.  That measure turns out to have a weak, though measurable, influence on Presidential popularity.  This chart presents Gallup’s job-approval measure in the week or two before an election and the one-year change in real per-capita disposable income as reported by the Bureau of Economic Affairs. I use the third-quarter figure since it covers the period closest to an election.

The scatter around the line in this chart testifies to the weakness of the relationship. The R2 value measures the percentage of the variance in approval that can be accounted for by income changes; here it is about eleven percent.  The slope of the regression line, two, suggests that a one-percent increase in real disposable personal income is associated with, on average, a two-point improvement in a President’s popularity.

One thing made immediately clear by this chart is that average Americans saw no extraordinary growth in their incomes over 2018.  Real per-capita disposable income grew from $42,866 in the third quarter of 2017 to $43,718 at the end of September.  That gain of $852 was just short of a two-percent increase over the year before, and a bit below the 1944-2018 historical average of 2.25 percent.

Still, the chart shows that Trump was less popular than economic conditions would predict. Approval for a “typical” President presiding over an economy showing two-percent in growth should run a bit over 48 percent, not the 40 percent for Trump reported by Gallup in the week before the election.

Earlier this year I presented some results that tied together Presidential popularity and support for the President’s party on the so-called “generic-ballot” question.* We can use that model to imagine how the election might have transpired had Trump been a “normal” President and an economy with two-percent personal income growth.  In that model a one-percent change in “net approval,” the difference between the percent approving versus that disapproving of the President, improves the Democrats’ margin on the generic-ballot measure by about 0.3 percent.

Trump’s net-approval rating just before the election stood at 40-54, or -14, according to Gallup. A President with 48 percent approval will likely have an identical disapproval rating, 48-48, after accounting for the four percent or so who report having no opinion.  That makes the net approval for this hypothetical President zero, meaning Trump’s net approval is fourteen points below a normal President’s.  Trump running fourteen points behind a normal President on net approval probably expanded the Democrats’ margin in the popular vote for the House by about four percent (4.2 = 0.3 X 14).  That accounts for half the Democrats’ margin of victory in November, 2018.


*The generic-ballot again did a pretty good job of predicting the actual margin of victory in the election for the House of Representatives.  The RealClearPolitics average of generic-ballot polls showed the Democrats with a lead of 7.3 percent.  Omitting the obvious Rasmussen outlier, which predicted a one-point Republican victory, brings the average up to 8.2 percent, nearly identical to the actual margin of 8.5 percent.


No, the “Blue Wave” did not wash away gerrymandering

Democrats have won, on average, about eight fewer seats in each election since 2010 than we would expect given their popular vote.  The surge in Democratic votes this year might have cut that deficit down to two, but it is more likely there was no effect at all.

Before the November election, some commentators argued that a surge in turnout could negate the effects of Republican gerrymandering after 2010.  Of course, this argument only makes sense if there were a larger increase in Democratic turnout than Republican turnout.  A proportional increase for both parties would leave the seat results unchanged.

It is certainly true that the Democratic vote for the House of Representatives was considerably greater in 2018 than it was in 2014.  In fact, Democrats cast nearly as many votes this month as they did for Hillary Clinton two years ago.  Compared to the 2014 midterm, the Democrats increased their vote by over fifty percent. Republicans also turned out in higher numbers, recording a vote for House candidates some 23 percent above their 2014 totals. (Figures for 2018 from Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report.)

Was this surge in Democratic turnout sufficient to overcome the 2010 gerrymander?

To test this, I added a term for the 2018 election to my standard model of seats and votes described here and here.  I use the “logits” of Democratic seats and votes won with “dummy variables” to represent reapportionment periods.  The basic model, with 2018 included, produces this chart showing the number of Democratic seats won or lost compared to what we would expect based on the national popular vote won by that party.  Some periods, like 2002-2010, show no significant excess gains or losses.  Others like 1942-1950 and 2012-2018 show substantial effects.In the five elections beginning in 1942, Democrats routinely won nearly nine more House seats than their popular vote would predict.  Republicans picked up a number of state legislatures in the 1952 election and erased this deficit for the decade to follow.  From 1962 through 1990, Democrats were again advantaged, but by a diminishing margin over time.  The elections fought between 1992 and 2010 showed no systematic bias for either party  After the 2010 Census and the “shellacking” of Democrats in both national and state elections that year, Republicans were able to draw district maps that gave their party just short of eight “excess” seats in the House.

By adding another variable to represent just the 2018 election, it does indicate a diminished effect compared to the 2012-2018 average.  However this effect fails to reach any conventional level of statistical significance (t = 1.07).

One other question we might ask is what the 2018 outcome would have been had the neutral results for 1992-2010 continued on into elections held since the 2010 Census.  While the chart above shows that Democrats lost on average about eight seats to gerrymandering beginning in 2012, the estimated effect for this past election is just short of fourteen seats, the result of the Democrats’ substantial victory in the popular vote.