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Monday, December 19, 2005

Starting with the Districts: a model for House Targeting

"It's not often that I find myself taking the moderate position," says Joshua Grossman,  SF Bay Area-based political demographer and founder of the congressional vote tracking website ProgressivePunch.org..."but  when it  comes  to House targeting , you can call me a raging moderate."

Grossman, a committed and pragmatic progressive, says this with a twinkle in his eye...and then launches into the heart of his analysis.  "The DCCC has traditionally done targeting in such a narrowly focused manner, targeting and fully funding so few races, that the Democrats would have to draw an inside straight to take back the House...pretty much taking every seat they contest.  On the other hand, and in part in response to this narrow point of view,  the netroots has tended to choose races as if resources and political capital were in endless supply.  Too often, there's been heartbreak at the end of the rainbow for the netroots...dollars, sweat and tears have run up against races where, truth be told, we didn't really have a chance.  There's a middle path."

Joshua's middle path comes out of his background as a political demographer  and consultant.  His website, Progressive Punch.org is a well-known online resource for evaluating congressional voting records using a progressive yardstick. At the core of Joshua's analysis is this precept: the first factor to look at when we consider the pool of races to consider for targeting is the districts themselves...


I'd like to do two things with the essay, which, be forewarned... is quite long.  (It's more of a paper, really.)

  • First, I'd like to examine the nuts and bolts of Joshua's analysis.

  • Second, I'd like to break down why that analysis is significant and how it relates to so many of the discussions we've had here in the netroots: about targeting vulnerable Republicans, about the development of local opposition blogs, and about the widely-shared netroots vision of taking our country back by fighting in every state.

I've logged some hard-core time talking to Joshua and examining his data and conclusions, the upshot of which is that I've seen how his list and his analysis dovetail with so much of what we've been saying here in the netroots (hat tip to superribbie)...but with a welcome pragmatic twist and, at times, a cold splash of demographic reality.  Joshua's analysis is a powerful tool that can help us find a "middle path."  It describes the pool of vulnerable districts in a common sense and grounded way, and it also, in the races it tells us NOT to target, affords a healthy reality check that bears consideration going in to 2006.  


The Task at Hand

Taking back Congress is the single most significant political task at hand.  Nothing impacts our everyday reality like the GOP having majority control of the US Congress: witness the state of our political lives since 1994. On a bedrock level, then, `job one' in 2006 is to develop a strategy to take back the House. We can all agree that we do that by running credible candidates with strong grass roots campaigns effectively supported by national dollars, brainpower and powerful themes.  We also do that by being pragmatic and smart.  That means running credible candidates with strong grassroots support in the districts where we have the best chance at victory, where the voters most lean our way.  Joshua's district-based analysis offers us a start point for that discussion.

Too often, we in the netroots have been like the figure in the famous analogy, looking for our keys under the streetlight "because it's brighter there."  We focus on races because we loathe the incumbent (Musgrave, DeLay, Blunt), because we love the challenger  (Barend, Hackett, Young) , or even because the race is located near where we live, or has come to our attention through blogs we read or being in the news.  Those are natural start points, but they can be self-defeating ones as well.  Joshua's analysis asks a simple question. What would happen if we started with a dispassionate look at the districts minus all those other factors?  What would happen if we started by looking at an analysis of the underlying voting patterns of the districts themselves?

There was  a moment in one of my discussions with Joshua where the value of this start point became crystal clear.  We were talking about one of the districts he proposes examining for targeting, VA11, currently held  by the very popular Representative Tom Davis (R.).  Joshua admitted that this race would be one of the more difficult on his list to win.  Tom Davis is "one beloved Virginian"; in fact, Davis is rumored to be eyeing Sen. John Warner's Senate seat if it opens up. "But," Joshua added, "if Tom Davis leaves his seat in VA-11,  there is an excellent chance that it will go to a Democrat.  Tim Kaine won that district. VA-11, the district held by Tom Davis, is a purple district that happens to have a Republican representative." Let's take a look at how Joshua draws that conclusion, and what he does with it.


The Method: Start with the Districts

Joshua's analysis begins at a familiar starting point.  Joshua crunched the Bush/Kerry `04 numbers as part of an analysis of all 435 congressional districts.  In doing this analysis he noticed something that cut across all of the geographic regions in the country and affects every congressional district.  When the percentages for Kerry or Bush in any given congressional district reach a certain percentage range specific to the district's region, that district will generally no longer elect congressional candidates from the other party.  

In fact, the percentage range for Bush or Kerry in a given district consistently predicts within each geographic region whether a district is "Safe" "Lean" or "Toss Up." Only 7 of the 308 of the "Safe Dem" or "Safe GOP" districts in Joshua's analysis are represented by a representative of the opposite party; that's an extraordinarily low figure. In a nutshell, the 2004 election, when looked at with this regional "twist," was an excellent indicator of the underlying political demographics of the US.  

(If you are interested in the raw Excel spread sheet of this analysis, you can find it here courtesy of Joshua's 527, Progressive Kick. I've written the essay, however,  so that you can skip that step if you'd like.  If you do click through and choose to download the file you'll need the Excel program on your computer.  Each tab at the bottom of the spreadsheet represents a region, and within regions: Green = Safe Dem, Blue = Lean Dem, Orange = Toss Up, Purple = Lean GOP and Red = Safe GOP.)

Now, using the Bush/Kerry returns to judge districts may seem to be simple common sense.  It is.  But there's a twist.  The percentage ranges that define "Safe", "Lean" and "Toss Up" are different in different regions:  

  • A safe GOP district in New York State is a district where George Bush won 55% or more of the vote.  

  • A safe GOP district in Texas is one where Bush won  61%.

  • In the Great Lakes Region that number is 57%

Now, that may seem counterintuitive.  It is.  Why would the numbers change, one asks, why would the yardstick move?  But when you look at the results, it makes sense.  

In each of the ten regions Joshua identifies, there's a point where people just stop electing Democrats or Republicans. Take the Great Lake Region: comprised of MN, WI, IA, IL, OH, MI and MO.  In Joshua's "lean GOP" range, where Bush got 53%-56% of the vote, there are three Democrats and sixteen Republicans.  In the final data point of that "lean GOP" range a lone Democrat, Melissa Bean in IL-08, won election in a district where Bush received 56% of the vote.   In districts where Bush won over 56% of the vote there was but one Democrat elected in the entire Great Lakes region. Now, this pattern holds with differing "breaking points" for every region in the country.  In region after region, Joshua's method is a very effective means of defining "Safe GOP" districts. It's an equally effective means of identifying potential targets for Democratic pick-ups.

In every region of this country there are districts where John Kerry did relatively well for the region but the district itself is represented by a Republican.  Joshua's analysis highlights those Republican-held districts by comparing their data with  other districts in or near "the same range" in that region. So, in looking at districts where Kerry did well in the context of his overall performance within a given region, Joshua finds Republican incumbents in districts that are, in theory, winnable by a Democrat. It is the combination of Kerry's relative strength in a district when  compared to all the other districts in the surrounding region that tells us the districts we should examine for targeting. The GOP vulnerabilities that this regional comparison highlights are the core of Joshua's analysis.

What that means in pragmatic terms is that any Republican who holds a seat in a Safe Dem, Lean Dem, Toss Up or Lean GOP district should be in our crosshairs.  Conversely, districts which Joshua classifies as "Safe GOP" should NOT be included in the pool for targeting because...as shown above...Democratic candidates, by and large, simply can't win in those districts.

Using regional demographics and election return analysis Joshua's model defeats the "streetlight effect" and yields a neutral start point that looks at voters in all 435 districts in a regional context.  This analysis builds a pool for strategic targeting by looking at those races squarely in the demographic middle, where Democrats can win, without reference to incumbents, or ideological or strategic preference.   In my view, this analysis has strong appeal whether  one takes a DCCC conservative  approach or that of a no-holds-barred "contest every district" net roots warrior.  

Let's take a look at Joshua's list so that we can understand what all this means when the rubber hits the road.


The List:

What you're about to read is a list of vulnerable GOP districts that follow a breakdown of the country into ten demographic regions.  Each of these regions reflects common voting patterns and characteristics.  Under each of these regions I am going to list the districts currently held by a Republican that Joshua advocates including in the pool for targeting,  followed by the name of the incumbent (or "Open Seat" if the seat is open) and whether  that district is classified as "Safe Dem", "Lean Dem", "Toss Up" or "Lean GOP".  Note: This is not a "handicapping" list, nor is it an evaluation of the candidates or of the "state of the race" ie. what our chances are in a given district. This list defines the pool of potentially vulnerable Republican districts.  It is a start point.
These are the 88 districts:
The Western US

  • CO-07, Open Seat,   district = Lean Dem

  • NM-01, Heather Wilson, district = Lean Dem

  • WA-08, David Reichert,  district = Lean Dem

  • NV-03, Jon Porter, district = Toss Up

  • AZ-08, Open Seat, district = Toss Up

  • AZ-01, Rick Renzi,  district = Lean GOP

  • AZ-05, J.D. Hayworth, district = Lean GOP

  • CA-11, Richard Pombo,  district = Lean GOP

  • CA-26, David Dreier, district = Lean GOP

  • CA-50, Open Seat,  district = Lean GOP

  • CA-24, Elton Gallegly,  district = Lean GOP

  • CA-45, Mary Bono,  district = Lean GOP

The Dakotas and Montana

  • MT At Large, Dennis Rehberg,  district = Toss Up

Nebraska and Kansas

  • KS-02, Jim Ryun,  district = Lean GOP


  • TX-32, Pete Sessions, district = Lean GOP

The Southern United States

  • NC-08, Robin Hayes, district = Lean Dem

  • VA-05, Virgil Goode, district = Toss Up

  • NC-11, Charles Taylor, district = Toss Up

  • VA-04, Randy Forbes, district = Toss Up

  • AL-03, Mike Rogers, district = Toss Up

  • VA-02, Thelma Drake, district = Toss Up

  • LA-04, Jim McCrery, district = Lean GOP

  • LA-06, Richard Baker,  district = Lean GOP

  • LA-07, Charles Boustany, district = Lean GOP

  • VA-10, Frank Wolf, district = Lean GOP


  • FL-22, Clay Shaw, district = Lean Dem

  • FL-10, CW "Bill" Young,  district = Toss Up

  • FL-16, Mark Foley, district = Lean GOP

  • FL-18, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,  district = Lean GOP

  • FL-08, Ric Keller,  district = Lean GOP

  • FL-24, Tom Feeney,  district = Lean GOP

  • FL-13, Open Seat,  district = Lean GOP

  • FL-25, Mario Diaz-Balart, district = Lean GOP

Western PA / West Virginia

  • PA-03, Phil English, district = Lean Dem

  • PA-18, Tim Murphy,  district = Toss Up

  • PA-04, Melissa Hart, district = Toss Up

  • WV-02, Shelley Moore Capito,  district = Lean GOP

Indiana + Louisville, KY

  • KY-03, Anne Northup,  district = Lean Dem

  • IN-02, Chris Chocola,  district = Toss Up

  • IN-09, Mike Sodrel,  district = Lean GOP

  • IN-08, John Hostettler,  district = Lean GOP

Great Lakes

  • IA-02, Jim Leach,  district = Safe Dem

  • IA-01, Open Seat,  district = Lean Dem

  • IL-10, Mark Kirk, district = Lean Dem

  • OH-15, Deborah Pryce,  district = Toss Up

  • OH-01, Steve Chabot,   district = Toss Up

  • OH-12, Pat Tiberi,  district = Toss Up

  • MI-09, Joseph Knollenberg,  district = Toss Up

  • MN-01, Gil Gutknecht,  district = Toss Up

  • MN-03, Jim Ramstad,  district = Toss Up

  • IA-04, Tom Latham,  district = Lean GOP

  • OH-14, Steven LaTourette, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-06, Open Seat, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-06, Fred Upton, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-11, Thaddeus McCotter, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-11, Jerry Weller, district = Lean GOP

  • OH-16, Ralph Regula, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-07, John J.H. "Joe" Schwarz, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-08, Mike Rogers, district = Lean GOP

  • WI-01, Paul Ryan, district = Lean GOP

  • MN-02, John Kline, district = Lean GOP

  • OH-03, Michael Turner, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-13, Judy Biggert, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-16, Don Manzullo, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-04, Dave Camp, district = Lean GOP

  • WI-08, Open Seat, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-14, Denny Hastert, district = Lean GOP

Northeastern US

  • CT-02, Rob Simmons, district = Safe Dem

  • CT-04, Christopher Shays, district = Lean Dem

  • DE-At Large, Michael Castle, district = Lean Dem

  • NH-02, Charles Bass, district = Lean Dem

  • PA-07, Curt Weldon, district = Lean Dem

  • NY-25, Jim Walsh, district = Lean Dem

  • PA-06, Jim Gerlach, district = Lean Dem

  • PA-08, Michael Fitzpatrick, district = Lean Dem

  • CT-05, Nancy Johnson, district = Toss Up

  • NJ-02, Frank LoBiondo, district = Toss Up

  • PA-15, Charles Dent, district = Toss Up

  • VA-11, Tom Davis, district = Toss Up

  • NH-01, Jeb Bradley, district = Toss Up

  • NY-23, John McHugh, district = Toss Up

  • NJ-03, Jim Saxton, district = Toss Up

  • NY-03, Pete King, district = Lean GOP

  • NY-24, Sherwood Boehlert, district = Lean GOP

  • NJ-07, Michael Ferguson, district = Lean GOP

  • NY-19, Sue Kelly, district = Lean GOP

  • NY-20, John Sweeney, district = Lean GOP

  • NJ-04, Chris Smith, district = Lean GOP

That's 88 districts representing every region in the country. These are Republicans representing 2 Safe Dem, 16 Lean Dem, 25 Toss Up, and 45 Lean GOP districts. For those who've argued this point for years, this analysis clearly shows that there are vulnerable Republican districts in every region, and practically every state, in the nation.

Now, some of these 88 districts are so obvious that those who follow House races (among them superribbie, Nathaniel Ament Stone, Jonathan Singer and RBH...hat tip to all...)  have already labeled them "no-brainers" for targeting...consensus races all of us are looking at.  Other districts are counterintuitive, and, some may say, seemingly impossible long shots given the popularity of the incumbent and the 2004 vote totals.  What Johsua's model does, however, is highlight the pool of most vulnerable districts for us to consider mounting a coordinated, well-funded grassroots campaign around a credible candidate with strong local appeal.  (Many of these districts haven't had a credible, well-funded Democratic opponent in recent memory.)  If this analysis says nothing else, one would be hard put to explain the state of the Democratic party more succinctly than to point to the DCCC's lack of a strategic commitment in so many of these 88 districts.

At the end of the day, however,  as it is for any `reality-based' approach, the proof is in the pudding; so, let's take a closer look.  

The rest of this essay, included in the story below, will examine:  New York State,  Overlooked and Under-emphasized Districts,  and Opposition Blogs.


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