An Interview with GSG Pollster Jefrey Pollock on the Democrats’ Midterm Success
Recently, The Well News team had the opportunity to discuss the Democrats’ midterm success with pollster extraordinaire Jefrey Pollock, founding partner and president of Global Strategy Group (GSG), a premier public affairs, research and communications firm. Pollock is a longtime advisor to Democrats and Democratic candidates in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives — ranging the spectrum from moderates like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to more progressive New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand — giving him a unique perspective on the historic midterm elections.
Below is a transcript of our interview. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Well News (TWN): How important were moderates in the 2010 election and specifically to the Democrats taking back the House?
Jefrey Pollock (JP): I think moderates were incredibly important. What we saw was, first of all, a tremendous number of moderate candidates who came out of the primaries who then competed in seats that were rated by some of the neutral observers, like Cook and others, as some of the most competitive or difficult to win. And given the 40 seat pickup, I think there’s almost no doubt that moderates were a key part of that victory. Let’s just take partisanship or performance as one metric. What we know is that there are 21 House members who won in seats that Hillary Clinton won. That’s 21 out of 40, but only half.
So when you think about places where Trump won by five points or less, we won seven seats. In places where Trump won with between five and ten points, we won eleven. And we actually won a race where Trump won by more than ten. So when you’re talking about the 40 seats, 21 were in the Clinton seats, but 19 were Trump seats. So just on a partisanship level or ideological level there’s no question that we needed moderate candidates to win in a lot of those places.
TWN: Do you think this election was a referendum on Trump, or did the candidates run more issue-centric campaigns?
JP: I do think that issues were front and center. 57 percent of all the ads that the Democrats ran were about health care across this country. So there’s no question that issues were at the forefront, but to me, you can’t separate a midterm election from the President. And when we think about the suburbs, in particular, and the suburban movement that happened towards the Democrats, that has to be in part attributable to Donald Trump and how he behaved.
Think about one place, for example, when we think about the midterms. There are 12 House districts that voted for Romney and then voted for Clinton. So those are people who are already moving away from Donald Trump. We won 11 of those 12 seats. At the same time there were also 20 House districts that voted for Obama and then voted for Trump. We won 14 of those 20. We used to have eight of those 20.
So that shows you the amount of movement that occurred in those the Romney/Clinton districts. Many of them are classically suburban districts in AZ-02, KS-03, NJ-07 and VA-10. Those are the ones the Republicans have moved towards the Democrats. So, it’s not all Trump, and it’s not all issues. It’s a combination of the two. All midterms, particularly midterms with a President whose job approval is under 45 percent, are generally referendums on those Presidents early on.
TWN: This year was pronounced the “Year of the Woman” early in the election cycle. Do you agree with that assessment, and what role did women play in shaping the outcome of the election?
JP: Women are the key. If I had to pick only one thing that was a factor in the Democrats’ win, it’s women. Now there are many subgroups of that. For example, women of color voted in high numbers and voted in an astronomical proportion for the Democrats. So there are subsets of women when we talk about it. But let me give you a couple of things that show the power of women. Number one, according to the exit polls among women, the Democrats won by 19 points, whereas among men the Democrats lost by four points. Now that four point loss is actually relatively small. Democrats have done far worse than that in 2014 and 2016 among men. But that 19 point gap or margin for the Democrats among women is the largest one. I looked at exit polls going back to 1982, and that 19 point margin is the largest ever. That was a factor.
The second is, of course, the kind of people who are coming to Congress. 60 percent of the 2018 freshman Democrats are women. When you think back to the freshman class in 2006, which was one of the numerous “Years of the Woman,” 20 percent of that class of freshmen were women.
A third thing that’s interesting is donations. Female donors made up 34 percent of campaign contributions in congressional elections, which is a significant increase in donations to female candidates over 2016. The level of donations to Democratic women was even higher, just like 45 percent of the contributions were to Democratic women candidates. So in terms of who the candidates were and in terms of women and the vote share that they gave to the Democrats, there’s no doubt that the Democrats owe the winning of the House of Representatives to women across this country.
TWN: That really puts it in perspective, particularly on the donor aspect.
JP: I think the reality is that women are looking at the Trump Administration, and they are looking at the way that this man is conducting himself. And I think it is causing many of them to recoil. Some of those same women were willing to swallow it at the end of the presidential election for various reasons. And I think suburban women in particular are looking now and saying there is a Congress that doesn’t work. This is Donald Trump that doesn’t work and it’s time for a change. So the real question is whether this suburban shift is a temporary one or a permanent one, and that is something that none of us know.
TWN: Well that’s a perfect segue into our next question for the Democrats. The big hurdle was overcoming a lot of gerrymandering to build the momentum and really bring this wave home. How do they maintain this momentum through 2020 and into 2022? With redistricting reform and the census coming up, how do the Democrats save the moderates and avoid the same fate as 2010?
JP: Every election cycle is different, and we’re going to have to see where we are in two years.
This president has shown no propensity to change his behavior. And knowing that makes you feel pretty good about the voters who’ve moved away from him – that they’re not going to be given a reason to come back into the fold. But, the future is very hard to predict. I think that we’ve got redistricting coming up that’s going to change things a lot. How we don’t get wiped out may very well be impacted by that and by what happens. I think there are too many factors and too many questions with too many unknowns to opine in a real way and say, “Look, I know what’s going to happen.” What I do believe is that people like Leader Pelosi, who knows full well that she’s got members that are in tough districts, she’s done that before. And I trust that the congressional leaders are going to do what they can to protect as many of these folks in the middle as humanly possible.
TWN: There are a lot of narratives swirling around as people digest what happened on election night and as subsequent vote tallies continue to roll in. It’s been a slow moving wave that has brought with it a diverse group of members, from centrists like Abigail Spanberger to progressives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Do you think this was a bigger year for moderates, for progressives, or a combination somewhere in between?
JP: Well there were a couple of progressive victories that happened in the primaries, and those have obviously gotten a disproportionate amount of press coverage. But when you look at the major red to blue pickups, the story is one of moderates across the country – whether it’s Abigail Spanberger, Max Rose, Jason Crow or countless others. It’s hard to argue that that wasn’t a sort of moderate takeover.
I give credit to the progressives who had some major victories in the primaries. At the same time, I credit organizations like the DCCC (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). They weighed in in primaries to make sure that they had the best opportunities to win.
If you look at their record, they did pretty well. They did pretty well picking good candidates who they thought could win, and they did pretty well at the end of the day in terms of winning national races. So I don’t think that’s taking anything away from the progressives. But we don’t win the House without these moderate members winning.
And of course there were some of the more progressive candidates who frankly didn’t win even in this wave election, but that doesn’t mean the progressives can’t win — they can. Lots of these moderate candidates were running on some pretty progressive ideas. So I think we have to remember that as well.
TWN: We really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. Thanks again for your insights and we will see how this plays out going forward
JP: Thanks again.
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