‘Volatility’ defines 2016 congressional contests


There are certain code words used by journalists, economists and gossip columnists. "Volatility" tops the list. It is a euphemism for being totally, hopelessly clueless. When the stock market, some Hollywood celebrity’s marriage or the U.S. political scene are described as "volatile," it means that those who are supposed to know what is happening don’t know what is happening.

With the November election 5 months distant, political pundits and the Washington political elite don’t have a clue as to the outcome of the presidential and congressional races. They’re at the pre-panic stage. They cannot intelligently strategize. It’s "volatile," they moan.

Indeed it is. This year is shaping up as that kind of unique year when "swing" voters, meaning that critical 10 percent which decides elections, won’t make up their collective minds until just days before the Nov. 8 election, and it’s driving the politicians on the ballot for Congress crazy, as their fate is not in their hands. Here’s why.

First, polling in the Trump-versus-Clinton contest is within the margin of error. The latest nationwide polls show Donald Trump ahead by 2 to 3 points. Nobody expected that. Even in key "battleground" states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia and Arizona, Clinton is ahead by only a few points. Nobody expected that. The wave of anti-Trump sentiment prophesized by the media has not yet materialized. In fact, Trump might not be a "drag" on down-ballot Republicans.

However, politicians are by nature pessimistic and fretful. Republicans fear that Trump will say something fatally stupid or offensive. Democrats fear that the FBI will unearth enough evidence to get Clinton indicted for intentional security breaches in her computer server. Either occurrence would be a game changer, especially for congressional candidates. If Trump self-imploded, disgusted Republicans would not flock to Clinton, they just wouldn’t vote. Likewise for Clinton, committed liberals and minorities, her supposed base, would not flock to Trump, they wouldn’t vote.

Pundits muse about the fractionalized Republicans, but the Democrats’ schism between the "business as usual" Obama/Clinton wing of the party and Bernie Sander’s liberal/socialist wing, populated largely by younger voters, is cavernous. The lefties obviously detest Trump, but they detest Clinton only slightly less. For those with long-range vision, a best-case scenario would be electing Trump in 2016, having the country go to hell, and then nominating and electing Democratic Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2020.

Either scenario would be catastrophic for the parties’ congressional candidates.

Polls earlier in 2016 suggested that 20 to 30 percent of 2012 Romney-supporting Republicans would not support Trump. That cannot be happening if the Trump-Clinton race is at roughly 45-45 in the latest Real Clear Politics tracking polls. Remember, in 2012 Obama won 51-47 percent, a nationwide margin of 4,975,389 votes. In 2008 Obama won 53-46 percent, a margin of 9,549,975 votes. In four years Obama bled nearly 4.6 million votes. Given Obama’s record in the last 4 years, the Obama/Clinton vote may have declined by another 4 million to 5 million.

Second, there is the messaging and positioning problem, which is especially acute for the Republicans. Trump is running because he is going to "fix" Washington and "make America great again," but there is a reality roadblock: The Republicans hold majorities in both the Senate and the House. They are part of the gridlock which needs to be "fixed." It would be blatantly hypocritical, and self-defeating, for Trump to endorse any Republican congressional incumbent, so there is a de-coupling. Everybody is on his or her own, with each candidate having to gauge how ardently or tepidly pro-Trump they want to be.

The Democrats are similarly befuddled, and they await Clinton’s guidance. Does Clinton run as "Obama Part II," as the Republicans will allege, or does she shift her focus elsewhere? She could, like Harry Truman in 1948, run against the "do nothing" Republican-controlled Congress and blame them for every problem. That would put Trump in a difficult position: He’s running as the "fix Washington" candidate, so does he defend congressional Republicans or throw them under the bus? However, if congressional Democrats wrap themselves around Clinton, they threaten to alienate the Sanders crowd.

Politicians crave predictability, and there is none in 2016. The 2012 Obama vote is not necessarily the 2016 Clinton vote, nor is the 2012 Romney vote the 2016 Trump vote. As Trump proved in the primaries, there are lots of new anti-everything voters, and that unsettles incumbents.

Third, it is impossible to "target" voters, particularly in marginal states or districts. America has become polarized, with straight-ticket voting the norm, but what if passionate Trump voters refuse to back Republican congressional candidates? What if dispassionate Clinton voters — meaning those who don’t want Trump — vote Democratic for other offices? The presumption at this point is that those backing Clinton will vote straight Democratic but that those who back Trump may not necessarily do so. Republican congressional candidates are in a lose/lose position. They have to back the party nominee, and the Democrats will deluge the party base and media with mailings and ads tying them to Trump.

Here’s a look at several Illinois congressional races where the "Trump factor" is in play.

10th District (Cook County North Shore suburbs, eastern Lake County). This is an upscale suburban district which has sent a Democrat to Congress only four times in the 32 elections since 1950. Democrat Abner Mikva barely won in 1974, 1976 and 1978, and Brad Schneider won in 2012 but lost in 2014. This election places incumbent Republican Bob Dold in a nearly impossible position: To win, Dold needs 10 to 15 percent of the anti-Trump, pro-Clinton vote.

In 2012 Obama won the district, which had been remapped in 2011 to eliminate predominantly white suburbs around Arlington Heights, 157,400-112,552, getting 58.3 percent of the vote in a turnout of 269,952. In 2008 Obama won 180,732-103,170, getting 63.7 percent of the vote in a turnout of 283,902. Clearly, this is a Democrat-friendly district, but Republican Mark Kirk, now a senator, managed to win five times, running 20,000 to 30,000 votes ahead of the Republican presidential candidate in 2000, 2004 and 2008.

When Kirk went to the Senate in 2010, Dold won 109,941-105,290 against three-time loser Dan Seals, in a turnout of 215,231. The remap doomed Dold, who lost to Schneider 133,890-130,564 in 2012, in a turnout of 264,454. Dold got about 18,000 more votes than Mitt Romney, with the turnout up by almost 50,000 over 2010. In the 2014 rematch, Dold beat Schneider 95,992-91,136, in a turnout of 187,128, down by 77,000 from 2012.

The district is more than 20 percent Hispanic and 7 percent black, with large pockets of Jewish voters in and around Glencoe, Deerfield and Highland Park. Dold has been careful, as was Kirk, to build an "independent" record, being socially liberal, supporting gay rights, abortion and gun control, arming Israel, and being fiscally conservative. In his current term, he opposed the Iran nuclear deal and repeal of "Obamacare," but in this election, that won’t matter. The defining issue will be Trump. Dold will wobble as best he can, not attend the Republican convention, and declare that the Trump-Clinton race doesn’t affect him, but it won’t help. Dold won by 4,856 votes in 2014.

If turnout spikes and Clinton wins the 10th District by more than 25,000 votes, Dold is a goner. Dold’s only hope is that the Sanders/liberal types don’t vote.

12th District (East Saint Louis, surrounding rural areas). From 1944 to 2014 this district, which has a black population of 17 percent, was habitually Democratic. It went 62 percent for Obama in 2008 and 58 percent for Obama in 2012, but the district is 30 percent rural and 65 percent suburban, and anti-Obama revulsion has caused a realignment.

The incumbent is Republican Mike Bost, a longtime state representative who beat one-termer Bill Enyart 110,038-87,860. In 2012 Enyart won the open seat 157,000-129,902, so the 2014 turnout was down by about 92,000. This is the kind of district where Trump has real appeal, and Bost need not fudge and hide. The Democrats’ candidate is lawyer C.J. Baricevic, the son of a longtime Saint Clair County office holder, who has raised more money than Bost, but being a Democrat in Southern Illinois is no longer advantageous. Bost will win easily.

8th District (Schaumburg, Elgin, Carol Stream). This district, in the northwest suburbs of Cook, Kane and DuPage counties, was created by Mike Madigan to further the political trajectory of Tammy Duckworth, who now is running for U.S. senator. Duckworth, who was born in Thailand, is a decorated war veteran. She lost a 2006 congressional race, got a state job, and then went to Washington as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. In 2012 she won the primary 17,097-8,736 over Raja Krishnamoorthi and then beat incumbent Republican Joe Walsh, who moved into the district, 123,206-101,860.

Krishnamoorthi, a self-proclaimed "progressive," brought in Nancy Pelosi for an endorsement, and he won the 2016 primary with over 60 percent, beating a state senator and the Villa Park mayor. His Republican foe is DuPage County Board member Pete DiCianni.

The district was more that 15 percent Asian, according to the 2010 census, and Obama won it with 58 percent of the vote in 2012 and with 62 percent in 2008. Trump will do well, but Krishnamoorthi will go to Congress.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.