Sunday, September 22, 2019


Democrats are overplaying recent special-election results as a harbinger for 2020’s elections. By focusing on its comparatively favorable results, they are neglecting the reasons behind them — and that these will turn decidedly unfavorable next year. In North Carolina, Democrats benefited in candidate and cash; in 2020, they will be disadvantaged badly in both.  

On Sept. 10, in North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, Republicans narrowly retained a district they have held almost 60 years. The contest pitted conservative Republican Dan Bishop against moderate Democrat Dan McCready. Mr. Bishop won by two points, but both parties could claim a victory: Republicans for winning and Democrats for keeping the margin well below Mr. Trump’s double-digit 2016 total.  

While Democrats pounced on the outcome as moral victory, extrapolating from a single congressional loss to a national presidential victory is a great leap of faith.  

Looking locally first, Republicans actually increased their margin above 2018’s disputed one, which forced this special election. Close is not victory and backward is not forward.  

Even looking collectively, off-year congressional elections — either midterms or special elections — are a far cry from presidential ones. Voter turnout is much heavier for presidential elections. According to the Census, 53 percent of Americans voted in the 2018 midterms — 11 percent more than the previous midterm. However, 61.4 percent voted in 2016’s presidential election.  

This wide difference, in which the larger turnout elects a president and then a lower turnout turns on the president’s party in Congress long has been a regular pattern in American politics. Bill Clinton lost 54 House seats in his 1994 midterm and Barack Obama lost 63 in 2010 — both well more than President Trump lost last year.  

Further, the ebb of the midterm often has little impact on the flow of the incumbent’s campaign two years later, when the larger electorate, which elected the president, returns to the polls. As evidence, both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama handily won re-election; overall, elected incumbents seeking re-election have gone 11-3 over the last century.  

This flow for Mr. Trump, particularly in contrast to North Carolina’s ninth district in 2019, is likely to be especially large. By now everyone recognizes Mr. Trump is sui generis: Love him or hate him, there is no imitating him. Mr. Bishop tried and won, but he is no replacement for Mr. Trump himself.  

In contrast, Democrats nationally will likely fare worse with their 2020 candidate than they did with their one in North Carolina’s ninth district in 2019. As the AP wrote on the local race: “McCready’s moderate profile resembled that of many Democrats who won in Republican-leaning districts in the 2018 midterms.” In 2020, Democrats will again need to win Trump areas; however, they will almost certainly have to do it without a moderate candidate.  

According to last week’s Real Clear Politics’s average of national polling, Democrats’ collective left (everyone but Joe Biden, John DeLaney and Steve Bullock) stands at 60.3 percent support versus B-D-B’s at just 27.5 percent.  

Facing a more than 2-1 deficit, it is hard to see a moderate winning the Democratic nomination. That means Democrats will run nationally to the left — and likely behind — where they were in North Carolina’s ninth district and the 2018 midterms.  

Another notable difference will be in cash. According to an Issue One estimate, the day before North Carolina’s ninth district vote, all-in spending by and for the two major candidates was just over $9 million apiece, with the Democrats slightly ahead.  

In 2016, Democrats had an enormous cash advantage. According to Open Secrets, Hillary Clinton’s candidate plus outside money amounted to $770 million; Mr. Trump’s total was $448 million.  

Democrats lost both races despite cash advantages. What happens in 2020 when they face a likely sizable disadvantage? According to Open Secrets, Mr. Trump has more candidate campaign money than the top three Democrats combined. If outside money is included, Mr. Trump surpasses the top eight Democrats combined.  

Additionally, the Democrats are already spending their money — on each other. Having already vigorously shaken their money trees, there may not be large amounts left for when their single nominee faces Mr. Trump. On the other side, Mr. Trump is saving — and continuing to bank — his for whenever, and whomever, Democrats finally choose.  

Coupled with Mr. Trump’s unparalleled ability to generate “earned media” — both innate and as an incumbent — he could not only virtually dictate the message content, but dominate 2020’s message war.  

Democrats are narrowly looking at the recent results of North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District. At the same time, they are overlooking the more important reasons behind them. The results may dominate Democratic talking points, but the underlying reasons will determine Democrats’ 2020 fate. While favorable factors shaped results in in North Carolina’s ninth district and 2018’s midterms, unfavorable ones — particularly candidate and cash — will shape 2020’s against them.  

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department.

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