Sabato's Crystal Ball

Clues From the Upcoming California Primary

Plus: Updates from Tuesday night’s primaries

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball May 24th, 2018



— The California primary on June 5 is the most important election in the battle for the House prior to November.

— Democrats are hoping to avoid getting shut out of November by the state’s top-two primary in multiple districts, and the results should provide a rough guide for the fall.

— Tuesday’s primary results did not prompt any ratings changes but did set up some interesting matchups for the fall.

— One ratings change in the House: Rep. Ralph Norman (R, SC-5) moves from Likely Republican to Safe Republican. We also have a pending change in store if Rep. Tom Garrett (R, VA-5) decides not to run for a second term (explanations below).

— Odds of a Democratic House takeover remain about 50-50. As the Democratic edge on the generic ballot has weakened in recent weeks, there has been a flood of second-guessing about whether the Democrats are favored in the House or not. Because we’ve never made the Democrats clear favorites in the House, though, we don’t have any modifications to our outlook.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings change

California’s primary: A November preview, of sorts

House analysts know that handicapping results in individual seats can be tricky for a lot of reasons, including the lack of independent polling in most districts. Yes, the party committees, campaigns, and other outside groups will survey the districts, but many of these polls will never see the light of day, or will only be leaked to make one side look better than the other.

So, with a dearth of polling, we’re looking for whatever shreds of data we can find as a guidepost on the road to November. The much-anticipated California primary, coming on June 5, is one of them.

California, unlike almost every other state, uses a top-two primary system to advance candidates to the November general election. That means every candidate regardless of party appears on the same ballot, and voters can only vote for one of them. This can sometimes lead to one party getting shut out of the general election. For instance, Republicans did not advance a candidate to the 2016 Senate general election, when now-Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) beat now-former Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D, CA-46). And Democrats got shut out of the general election in a very winnable seat (CA-31) in 2012 and a potentially but probably not winnable seat (CA-25) in 2014.

The intricacies of the top-two format explain why the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its allies have had to dump several million dollars (so far) into three Republican-held Southern California seats, CA-39, CA-48, and CA-49, before the primary because the Democrats are worried about not advancing candidates to the general election in one or more of those districts. This is why the California primary is by far the most important House primary this year, and not just because California has the largest share of U.S. House seats (about one-eighth of the 435 total, 53). Rather, it’s mostly because the California primary could decide races in June. For instance, we rate CA-49 — an open Republican seat held by the retiring Rep. Darrell Issa — as Leans Democratic, making it one of the top Democratic pickup opportunities in the whole country. But it would immediately move to Safe Republican if two Republicans make it through the top-two primary (or Safe Democratic if two Democrats make it through, as seems possible albeit remote). That’s different from other primaries, where sometimes a candidate with a lesser track record makes it through the primary over a candidate preferred by party operatives — like when nonprofit executive Kara Eastman beat ex-Rep. Brad Ashford in Nebraska’s Democratic primary last week. That prompted us (and others) to upgrade the chances of Rep. Don Bacon (R, NE-2), even though Eastman very well could beat Bacon anyway. Yet if a party strikes out in the top-two system, that party’s chances fall to 0%.

Beyond the potential for general election shutouts, though, the top-two primary also provides something of a preview for the fall. Although the two-party voting in the primary is not a perfect predictor of the general election, the Democratic two-party percentage in the top-two primary and the Democratic two-party percentage in the general election were almost perfectly correlated in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Chart 1 illustrates this by showing a scatterplot of the data for two-party contested congressional districts and their Democratic two-party vote shares in June and November. So, in our quest for any shreds of information about House races, the top-two primary vote does provide some insights.

Chart 1: Scatter plot of Democratic two-party vote share in congressional top-two primaries and general elections, 2012-2016

Notes: Includes only districts where there was two-party competition in the primary and general election.

California has used the top-two primary for three cycles, dating back to 2012, which also coincides with the state’s adoption of its current congressional map.

Table 2 shows the House results for all 53 California U.S. House districts in the three elections that have featured the top-two format: 2012, 2014, and 2016. The table excludes all third-party votes cast in the primary, so it just measures the percentage of total Democratic and Republican ballots cast in the primary and the general. Races where two Democrats, two Republicans, or a major-party candidate and a third-party candidate advanced to the general election are excluded (those are the spaces that are blacked out). The number reported is the Democratic share of the two-party vote and the “D+” column is how the Democratic share changed from the primary to the general election. If you’re curious about the Republican share, just subtract the Democratic share from 100. So, if the Democratic two-party share is 55%, the Republican share is 45%. The column on the far right is the average change in the Democratic share from the primary to the general election in all three elections, and it only includes districts that featured two-party competition in all three cycles. Only 28 of the 53 House districts satisfied the three-cycle criterion, which means that it’s relatively common for the general election to lack two-party competition in at least a handful of districts each year.

Table 2: Change in Democratic share of the two-party vote from primary to general election in California House elections, 2012-2016

Notes: Instances where write-in candidates advanced to the top-two election were excluded, and the totals for write-in candidates were omitted even when those candidates were members of major parties. District numbers are shaded by current party control, and negative numbers in the “D+” (change in Democratic vote share) column indicate that the Republican, not the Democrat, gained vote share from the two-party performance in the primary.

Source: California Secretary of State’s office

Map 1: California House districts

Source: National Atlas

The general rule in California is that one would expect the primary turnout to be more Republican-leaning than the general election. The reason is the same reason why one might expect that in other parts of the country: The Republican electorate is older and whiter, two demographic factors that generally predict more reliable voter turnout. This year, we’ll probably see something similar: Politico reported that 32% of the roughly 650,000 returned absentee ballots have been from registered Republicans according to the nonpartisan California data source Political Data, a turnout that is outpacing statewide Republican registration, which is about 25%. That the primary electorate likely will be more Republican than the general electorate is an additional wrinkle that could hurt Democratic chances to advance candidates to November in one or more of the aforementioned districts.

Of the three elections held under the top-two, 2012 provides the best example of a more Republican-leaning primary electorate. While 2012 was a presidential year, the California primary wasn’t held until early June, long after Mitt Romney had effectively locked up the Republican presidential nomination (and incumbent President Barack Obama did not have a major challenger on the Democratic side). Turnout was just 22.5% statewide, and the electorate seemed Republican-leaning, considering that the Democratic share of the two-party vote increased in nearly every district from the June primary to the November general election, as Table 2 makes clear. Overall, the total Democratic share of the two-party vote grew by an average of about six percentage points in each district, or a whopping 12 points in terms of margin. That immense growth, combined with new House districts, allowed Democrats to net four seats statewide, going from 34 to 38 seats overall. Democrats did suffer an embarrassing top-two shutout in CA-31, a district that Obama would go on to carry by 17 points. Then-Rep. Gary Miller (R) seemed like a goner, but he and another Republican advanced to the general election over a splintered field of Democrats that included Pete Aguilar (D). Aguilar would go on to win the seat in 2014, a rare Democratic bright spot in what was mostly a bad year otherwise. It’s worth noting, too, that Miller and the other Republican won 51.5% of the two-party vote in the 2012 CA-31 primary, yet another indicator of the Republican lean of that year’s California primary electorate.

Two years later, Democratic strength again generally grew from June to November, although not by as much as 2012 and not as consistently across districts. This makes some sense because Democratic turnout was weak all over the country in 2014, including in California: total votes in the state’s governorship race fell from about 10.1 million in 2010 to 7.3 million in 2014. Despite the weak turnout, and despite some close calls, Democrats did not lose any seats in California and, as mentioned above, Aguilar won CA-31, although not by a lot, creating the party’s current 39-14 majority in the state’s congressional delegation. CA-25, an open Republican seat, saw two Republicans advance to the general election, including now-Rep. Steve Knight (R). A Democrat probably would not have won the seat that year, but former Rep. Buck McKeon’s (R) relatively weak performance in his final election in 2012 may have been an early clue about the GOP’s weakening hold on the exurban Los Angeles district. Clinton carried it by seven points and Knight only won by six points in 2016, and Democrats will target him again this year.

In the 2016 California election, Democrats fell off a little bit from the primary to the general election, although there’s an easy explanation for this. The Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was still going on, and it drove an unusually large Democratic turnout in the June primary. Meanwhile, the Republican primary was effectively over, and the party had chosen a nominee in Donald Trump who was a poor fit for California (as would become clear in the fall, when Trump turned in the second-worst performance by a Republican presidential nominee in the state’s history). Democratic two-party House shares generally fell in more places than they increased from June to November, and no seats changed hands between the two parties even though the Democrats hoped to net seats in California. Still, the change from June to November was minimal: On average, Republicans gained just 1.2 points of vote share. One of the most notable results from the June primary was in CA-49, where the typically untouchable Issa only won 52.7% of the two-party vote. He won by less than a point in November as Clinton carried his district, and now he’s retiring.

Predicting the June 5 primary turnout is challenging, but there’s reason to expect that the Democrats will not replicate their big 2016 primary surge in California. The main reason is that it’s not a presidential year and there’s not a competitive presidential primary to disproportionately drive Democratic rather than Republican turnout. That said, Democratic turnout could benefit from statewide gubernatorial and Senate primaries that hypothetically could advance two Democrats to the general election in both statewide races (that seems likely in the Senate contest, less likely in the gubernatorial election), and Democrats have generally (not always) been more eager to vote in primaries nationally this year than four years ago. Still, one would probably expect the average Democratic vote share in most districts to rise from June to November. That could help the Democrats in some of their targeted seats in November — but lower Democratic turnout in June could prevent them from advancing candidates to November.

Otherwise, what should we be looking for when we get the results as clues for the fall? Here are a few suggestions:

— If the combined Republican two-party vote is below 50% in the June primary, the Republicans are a clear underdog in the fall: In three cycles of House elections, the Republicans have never lost the two-party vote in a district’s primary vote and then won a majority of the vote in that district in the fall.

— One of the Democrats’ targets is Rep. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10), who occupies a seat in the state’s competitive Central Valley. The Democratic vote share in that district is consistently lower in June than in November. If the GOP share of the vote is in the high 50s, as it has been the last three cycles, that might indicate Denham is well-positioned to survive November. However, if the Republican share is just in the low 50s — the only other Republican on the ballot other than Denham is someone who appears to be a minor candidate — that should set off alarm bells for Denham, who had close elections in both 2012 and 2016.

— There are only two candidates on the ballot in CA-21: incumbent Rep. David Valadao (R) and engineer T.J. Cox (D). Valadao holds another Central Valley seat that is one of the most Democratic held by any Republican: Hillary Clinton won it by 16 points. But Valadao has won three relatively easy victories in his three elections, garnering vote shares in the high 50s each time. With the first round of voting being a clear preview of the fall — Valadao and Cox are guaranteed to advance to November — see how Valadao does. His proximity to 50% might be telling, one way or the other. As of now, we rate this race as Likely Republican, making Valadao one of the best-positioned Clinton-district Republicans in the country.

— Democrats are hoping to target some other Republicans, such as Reps. Tom McClintock (R, CA-4), Devin Nunes (R, CA-22), Mimi Walters (R, CA-45), and Duncan Hunter (R, CA-50). Democrats have not broken 40% in the combined two-party vote in any of these districts in any of the last three primaries. If they do in one or more in June, it may be an indication that something has changed in these traditionally Republican districts. If not, Republicans probably will come away feeling good about retaining these seats. Of these four, CA-45 is the best Democratic target if only because Clinton carried it by five points even though it is otherwise Republican down the ballot.

— Do the Democrats finish below 50% combined in any of their 39 districts and, if so, by how much? A below-50% performance for Democrats in one or more of their districts would not be unprecedented — there are numerous examples of winning Democrats overcoming sub-50% primary vote share over the past few cycles — and would not necessarily indicate true vulnerability in the fall, but such showings would be worth noting nonetheless. Republicans nearly beat Rep. Ami Bera (D, CA-7) in 2014 and 2016, but he should have an easier time in a Democratic-leaning environment and with a campaign finance scandal involving his father further in the rearview mirror. We rate his seat as Likely Democratic, and all but one other California Democrat is rated as Safe (Rep. Salud Carbajal of CA-24 is also rated as Likely Democratic).

Obviously, the most important thing is whether there’s a top-two shutout in one or more of the most competitive, Republican-held seats. But watch the other results too as a rough barometer for where things stand in the California battleground heading into the fall.

Oh, and by the way, the California vote count will take weeks to finalize. There’s nothing nefarious about this — California uses extensive absentee voting, which adds extra time to the count — but if some of these races are close, it may take a while before the November matchups are truly set.

Tuesday night reactions and other developments

Three more states held primaries on Tuesday night — Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky — and one other, Texas, held runoffs after an initial primary in March. Some observations:

— In Georgia and Texas, Democrats selected women of color over white primary opponents as their gubernatorial nominees, picking former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez (D) in the Lone Star State and former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams (D) in the Peach State. The Battle of the Staceys in Georgia — Abrams and ex-state Rep. Stacey Evans — provided an interesting contrast in terms of both strategy and race (Abrams is black, Evans is white). Abrams’ argument was that the party needed better nonwhite turnout to win statewide; Evans argued the party needed better outreach to white rural areas to make the math work statewide. Abrams crushed Evans and garnered more than three-quarters of the vote, becoming the first black woman to win a major-party gubernatorial nomination. She likely will have an uphill battle in the fall against either Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) or Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), who advanced to a runoff for the GOP nomination, although Georgia may be winnable for a Democrat under optimal national conditions (we are holding at a Likely Republican rating). In Texas, Valdez faces an even tougher fight against Gov. Greg Abbott (R), although a couple of recent nonpartisan polls have shown Abbott leading Valdez but a hair shy of 50%. We don’t think Abbott is in trouble — if we did, we’d move the race from Safe Republican — but we’re curious to see how much resistance Abbott, or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), encounter as they seek second terms (we rate Cruz as Likely Republican).

— The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had a good night in Texas, where all of the candidates we believe the committee favored won. That included attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (D), who routed activist Laura Moser (D) in a nationally-watched runoff where the DCCC caught some blowback for posting damaging information about Moser prior to the first round of voting. Fletcher will face Rep. John Culberson (R, TX-7) in November in a typically Republican district that narrowly voted for Clinton in 2016. In Arkansas, state Rep. Clarke Tucker (D) easily avoided a runoff and will face Rep. French Hill (R, AR-2) in a dark horse Democratic target this fall.

— Finally, in Kentucky, former Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath (D) beat Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (D) for the right to face Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6)[1] in a competitive but Republican-leaning district. Gray, who entered the race late and seemed like a significant favorite, may have taken McGrath lightly, although she also deserves credit for persevering as an underdog. McGrath, who had the callsign “Krusty” as a pilot, has seemingly won over the DCCC after the committee angled for Gray to run.

— We have one ratings change unrelated to the Tuesday primaries. Despite coming very close to winning a special election last year in SC-5, Archie Parnell (D) probably always was a significant underdog against now-Rep. Ralph Norman (R) in a district that Donald Trump won by about 20 points. But Parnell’s hopes may have completely evaporated after a damaging story emerged earlier this week that Parnell had abused his ex-wife several decades ago. National Democrats are pushing Parnell to leave the race and it’s unclear whether the party would have a plausible replacement for him. We’re moving the race off our competitive board for now, shifting the rating from Likely Republican to Safe Republican.

— Another ratings change may soon be in the offing: On Wednesday afternoon, news broke that Rep. Tom Garrett (R, VA-5) might drop his reelection bid in the Crystal Ball’s home district, and he parted ways with his chief of staff on Wednesday. Garrett was already renominated, so the Fifth District will not have a GOP primary on June 12 (or a Democratic primary, for that matter: Democrats nominated Leslie Cockburn at a convention in early May). If Garrett does exit the race, the Crystal Ball will shift the open-seat contest from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. The Fifth District would presumably select a format for nominating a replacement, who once chosen would go on to face Cockburn in the general election. VA-5 is winnable for Democrats under ideal circumstances, although Trump won the district by 11 points in 2016 and Ed Gillespie (R), the unsuccessful 2017 gubernatorial nominee, won it by nine points while losing by a similar margin statewide. So the seat would still be favorable turf for the GOP, though as an open seat it might see a larger swing away from the presidential party than a seat with an incumbent. As of this writing (late Wednesday afternoon), we have not received confirmation that the first-term incumbent Garrett was officially not running again, but we wanted to telegraph this move given Wednesday’s reports about Garrett’s uncertain status.

— From the “where are they now” department: Former Rep. John Barrow (D, GA-12), a Blue Dog Democrat who lost in 2014, captured the nomination for Georgia secretary of state on Tuesday night.

There are no primaries next week, but the big one — California — comes the following week, along with several other states (Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota). For a full primary schedule, see the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Odds of a Democratic House takeover remain about 50-50. As the Democratic edge on the generic ballot has dissipated in recent weeks, there has been a flood of second-guessing about whether the Democrats are favored in the House or not. Because we’ve never made the Democrats clear favorites in the House, though, we don’t have any modifications to our outlook.


1. Rep. Andy Barr (R, KY-6) is a former student of Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato, and thus Sabato is not involved in ratings decisions in that race. Our current rating in that district is Leans Republican.

The Democrats’ Drive for 25 in the House: An Update

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball May 17th, 2018




— This piece revisits a proposed path to a Democratic House majority we sketched out in early February.

— Overall, the Democrats’ odds in the districts mentioned have largely but not universally gotten a little better.

— The California primary on June 5 looms as the most important date in the battle for the House between now and the November election.

— The Democrats’ odds of retaking the House majority remain about 50-50.

— One ratings change this week: Rep. Don Bacon (R, NE-2) moves from Toss-up to Leans Republican following liberal nonprofit executive Kara Eastman’s (D) upset of former Rep. Brad Ashford (D, NE-2) in Tuesday night’s primary. More explanation is below.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House ratings change

A district-by-district path to the House majority

In early February, we sketched out a potential path to a Democratic House majority. We called it the “Drive for 25,” in reference to the Democrats’ branding of their unsuccessful attempt to win the House in 2012. Three and a half months later, we thought we’d revisit this possible Democratic path to the majority and see how much has (or hasn’t) changed.

Some of the overall indicators are a little bit better for Republicans — according to RealClearPolitics, the Democratic lead in the House generic ballot, a national poll assessing voters’ preferences in their local House district, is about five points, down from about seven on Feb. 1, when we first laid out the “Drive for 25.” President Trump’s approval rating is also up a little bit — his disapproval was 13 points higher than his approval back then, and that net deficit is now about nine. Still, these metrics have been fairly stable for much of Trump’s presidency, although the Republicans are at a higher ebb as of this writing. There’s always a chance that the Republicans’ standing could improve more as we build toward the fall, putting them in better position to hold the House. Such a possibility is why we’ve stuck with roughly 50-50 odds of a House flip and not gone further than that. On the other hand, there is still a possibility that Democrats won’t just win the House, but win it easily. The range of possible outcomes still seems wide.

Some district-level indicators are a little brighter for Democrats since we first described this narrow path to a Democratic House majority. As of the last writing, Pennsylvania had not yet implemented new congressional districts, and the eventual map that the state’s Democrat-controlled Supreme Court adopted ended up being very favorable for Democrats, at least compared to the previous, GOP-drawn map. Then, under the old map, Rep. Conor Lamb (D, PA-18) won a surprising victory in a western Pennsylvania district, one of many strong Democratic performances in state and federal special elections held so far this cycle. Lamb’s victory technically reduced the Democrats’ needed net gain from 24 seats to 23 in order to win the House.

Still, we’re sticking with the “Drive for 25” as the Democratic goal here, because we’re assuming that the Republicans, even in a potentially bad environment, will pick up at least two Democrat-held seats. Back in early February, we selected the open MN-1 as the likeliest Republican pickup. Now the likeliest pickup is PA-14, a more Republican version of Lamb’s current district. State Sen. Guy Reschenthaler (R) beat failed special election nominee state Rep. Rick Saccone (R) and is very heavily favored to be elected in the fall in PA-14. Meanwhile, Lamb has opted to run in the new PA-17 against Rep. Keith Rothfus (R). We’ll get into this more in the Pennsylvania section, but for the sake of this article, we’re going to assume that Republicans pick up two Democratic districts, the open MN-1 and PA-14. That’s not to say Republicans are locked into picking up two and only two Democratic seats: They might fail to pick up any outside of PA-14, which we rate as Safe Republican, or they may pick up more than two, with another Minnesota open seat, MN-8, another prime Trump-won target, and a handful of other Democratic seats as possibilities as well.

In any event, we’re again assuming Democrats will need to win at least 25 current Republican-held seats to capture the House.

With that explanation out of the way, let’s revisit the path. Remember, this is a PATH, not a PREDICTION. We had 12 different categories that made up the Drive for 25, and benchmarks we believe the Democrats need to hit in each to be on track for a House takeover. Obviously, an overperformance in one category would make up for an underperformance in another, and an underperformance in one category would necessitate an overperformance in another category, or an upset in one of the Democratic targets not included as part of our Drive for 25. We’ll reprint our original analysis in italics, add new commentary (and, in a few instances, new seats), and then assess whether the Democratic odds of meeting the benchmark have, in our judgment, increased, decreased, or stayed the same.

1. Win all four open seats where Democrats already are favored

Seats: AZ-2 (Open), CA-49 (Open), FL-27 (Open), and NJ-2 (Open)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS (FEB. 1, 2018): We recently published a detailed analysis of all of the open seats in the House as of a couple of weeks ago, and these four stood out to us as the likeliest Democratic takeovers. Hillary Clinton won three of the four, and according to our friend Scott Crass, the presidential party has not successfully defended an open seat won by the other party’s most recent presidential nominee in a midterm since 1990. Additionally, we see Trump-won NJ-2 as a good Democratic opportunity because of the candidacy of state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D) coupled with the Republicans’ inability (thus far) to find a top-tier candidate as they seek to replace the retiring Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R, NJ-2), a relative moderate who enjoyed labor support since his initial election in 1994.

If there are any “must-wins” for Democrats in the House, these four seats qualify.

UPDATE: Democrats seem largely on track in all of these districts with the possible exception of CA-49, where Democrats worry about getting shut out of California’s top-two primary. However, with four Democrats and eight Republicans running in CA-49, it’s also possible that two Democrats could advance to the November election. Van Drew, despite criticism from the left, appears to be on track to get nominated and be a favorite in the fall. National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers (R, OH-15) recently had to backtrack after calling NJ-2 a “recruiting hole” in the Republican defenses, a slight to likely GOP nominee Hirsh Singh (R), an engineer who has some capacity to self-fund.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Unchanged. Judge these seats on whether they continue to attract attention in the fall: If national third-party spending groups are targeting one or more of these districts in the fall, it may be a sign that the Democratic advance is stagnating. Likewise, Republicans may end up writing off these districts by the fall, which would be telling in the other direction. As of right now, FL-27 and NJ-2 seem to be edging toward the “write off” category for Republicans, while the other two still seem salvageable for Republicans. Obviously the CA-49 primary is important as well.

2. At least three more Toss-up open seats

Seats: CA-39 (Open), MI-11 (Open), NJ-11 (Open), WA-8 (Open), and WI-1 (Open)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: Here are two more Clinton-won open seats (CA-39, WA-8) as well as two Trump-won seats where the president ran a bit behind Mitt Romney’s 2012 showing (MI-11 and NJ-11). Picking up three of these four would get the Democrats to the open-seat goal we set for them two weeks ago: netting at least half a dozen seats from the total number of open seats (50 as of Wednesday afternoon), again assuming that the Democrats lose one of the open seats they are defending (MN-1 in this scenario). The Democrats may be able to net even more than a half-dozen open seats (some others are addressed below).

The one seat here that merits a little further comment is NJ-11, which just became open after long-time Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R) retired earlier this week. The district swung from 52%-47% Romney to just 49%-48% Trump, and the Democrats have a potentially strong candidate there, former Navy helicopter pilot Mikie Sherrill (D). NJ-11 is one of the relatively few congressional districts where a majority of residents over the age of 25 has at least a four-year college degree, and it is also one of the 10 wealthiest districts in the country by median income. This profiles as the kind of district where some usually-reliable Republican voters may be sympathetic to the idea of putting a check on the president, although the GOP has an opportunity to find a strong substitute for Frelinghuysen.

UPDATE: Since Frelinghuysen’s retirement, Democrats have consolidated around Sherrill and she is dominating the splintered GOP field in fundraising. NJ-11 is still a Toss-up but is edging toward Leans Democratic territory. In WA-8, former statewide candidate Dino Rossi (R) is amassing a giant warchest, although some of the Democrats trying to advance along with Rossi to the general election are raising good money too (Washington, like California, uses a top-two primary system). Democrats are worried about a top-two shutout in CA-39. One positive for Democrats is that they have an additional seat in this category now: WI-1, an open seat Toss-up held by retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R).

By the way, there are now 58 total seats where an incumbent won’t be seeking reelection. Of those, 38 are held by Republicans and 20 are held by Democrats. This does not include special elections that will be held before November or districts where incumbent members lost a primary, like NC-9, where Rep. Robert Pittenger (R) lost last week.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Unchanged. The addition of WI-1 here is a positive for Democrats, as is the seeming trajectory of NJ-11. But CA-39 has become something of a Democratic headache — more on California below. MI-11 is a tough district for a Democrat but the Democratic field there may produce a stronger candidate than the Republican one. Rossi should be a strong contender for the Republicans in WA-8, but he is not unbeatable, particularly in a district that narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton.

3. Net at least three seats from Pennsylvania

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: We’re not including the previous analysis because it really is of no value now — it came out prior to the release of the new districts and so much has changed in Pennsylvania since then.

Seats: PA-1 (Brian Fitzpatrick), PA-5 (Open), PA-6 (Open), PA-7 (Open), PA-10 (Scott Perry), or PA-17 (Keith Rothfus)

UPDATE: At the start of this cycle, Republicans held 13 of 18 districts in Pennsylvania. Under the OLD map, we suggested Democrats needed to pick up three net seats to have a successful election there. The new map has only made that path easier.

First of all, Democrats should have little trouble winning PA-5 and PA-6, two open southeast Pennsylvania seats. Indeed, we rate these as the two easiest Democratic pickups in the country. Even assuming the Republicans also win PA-14 — the rough equivalent of the seat Lamb won in March — the exchange of those seats plus no other changes would give Democrats seven total seats in Pennsylvania, up from the five they held under the old map and before Lamb’s upset. That means that to meet their goal of three, they would need to net just one more seat. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R, PA-1) and Keith Rothfus (R, PA-17) are locked in Toss-up races, and the open PA-7 is also a Toss-up. Lamb will face Rothfus in a district that is significantly less Republican than the one Lamb won in March — Trump won the old PA-18 by about 20 points but the new PA-17 by only about three — although Lamb will have to beat an incumbent this time as opposed to winning an open seat. Meanwhile, Democrats picked former Allentown solicitor Susan Wild (D) in a competitive primary for PA-7; she beat out candidates positioned to both her left and right and will face Marty Nothstein (R), an Olympic gold medalist and Lehigh County commissioner. Finally, wealthy philanthropist Scott Wallace (D) — grandson of former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace — won the PA-1 primary against Fitzpatrick. Scott Wallace can self-fund although he also has some liabilities, as National Journal‘s Josh Kraushaar recently argued. Late Wednesday, The Forward reported that Wallace’s foundation “has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to organizations that promote the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel,” a potential problem for a Democrat running in a district with a substantial Jewish population. We’re holding at Toss-up for now, as opposed to Leans Republican, but PA-1 is the least likely Democratic flip of these three GOP-held Pennsylvania Toss-ups. There’s also an outside chance that Democrats could push Rep. Scott Perry (R, PA-10) or Republicans could push Rep. Matt Cartwright (D, PA-8). Winning just one of the three Toss-ups would get Democrats to a three-seat net gain in Pennsylvania, and they have the potential to go higher.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Thanks to the remap, Democrats’ odds of meeting the original goal of a three-seat net gain or more from Pennsylvania have increased.

4. Beat at least three of five vulnerable California incumbents in Clinton-won districts

Seats: CA-10 (Jeff Denham), CA-21 (David Valadao), CA-25 (Steve Knight), CA-45 (Mimi Walters), or CA-48 (Dana Rohrabacher)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: Democrats already hold 39 of 53 districts in California, and yet they likely need to squeeze several more seats out of the Golden State to get to a House majority. Two California districts, CA-39 and CA-49, are already listed above because they are open seats, but there are at least five other incumbent-held Republican seats that Democrats will target in California. Democrats came close to beating Denham (CA-10) and Knight (CA-25) in 2016, and Rohrabacher’s (CA-48) unique liabilities involving his admiration for Russia combined with the shifting politics of his district imperil him as well; “shifting politics” also describes the seat held by Walters (CA-45). On paper, Democrats should have a great chance to defeat Valadao (CA-21) in a majority Hispanic district that Clinton won by 16 points, but Valadao has won commanding victories in the high 50s in each of his three general election victories and it’s not clear Democrats will have a strong challenger against him. Looming over all of the California seats is the state’s top-two primary, which occasionally allows two members of the same party to advance to the general election. Democrats need to be sure they advance a candidate to November in all of these seats, which might require outside intervention given bloated Democratic candidate fields in some California races.

UPDATE: Of all the California districts, CA-48 may be the one where Democrats most fear a top-two shutout. Scott Baugh (R), a former Orange County GOP chairman, is running, and there’s a chance that both Baugh and Rohrabacher could end up in the November election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, after initially seeming supportive of scientist Hans Keirstead (D), now backs technology entrepreneur Harley Rouda (D). That puts them at odds with the state Democratic Party, which supports Keirstead, and there are other credible Democrats running. Earlier this week, the DCCC spent more than $1 million combined on ads in CA-39, CA-48, and CA-49, indicating the severity of the Democrats’ situation in the top-two primary. Democrats shouldn’t have much trouble advancing candidates to face the other four Republican incumbents, although how many of those incumbents they can realistically beat is an open question. Valadao (CA-21) still sticks out in that regard, and we’ll have to see if engineer T.J. Cox (D) can push him harder than previous Democrats after Cox moved over from the CA-10 race.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Better for Republicans. If one combines all of the California seats mentioned in this category and above, a fifth of the Drive for 25 comes from California. Given the uncertainty in some of the top-two primary contests, the Democrats might have a hard time getting to such a big number. One other factor is what influences turnout at the top of the ticket: Republicans likely will not advance a Senate candidate to the general election, and they are not guaranteed to in the gubernatorial race. Republicans, meanwhile, hope a ballot issue dealing with a gas tax repeal could give GOP voters a reason to turn out. If Democratic odds of hitting their target in Pennsylvania have increased, they probably have decreased in California, although we’ll have to revisit this after the June 5 primary, which is unquestionably the single-most important primary on the House calendar this year.

5. Defeat three of these six Clinton-district incumbents

Seats: CO-6 (Mike Coffman), FL-26 (Carlos Curbelo), IL-6 (Peter Roskam), MN-3 (Erik Paulsen), TX-23 (Will Hurd), or VA-10 (Barbara Comstock)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: One of the GOP advantages in this election is that they still have a number of proven incumbents running in Clinton-won districts, these half-dozen members included. Most of these members won relatively clear victories in 2016; the only one who didn’t was Hurd (TX-23), who won by just a little over a point. Democrats will target all six of these districts, but it’s unrealistic to expect them to win all of these seats: As we’ve noted previously, even big waves don’t wash away all of the other side’s most vulnerable incumbents, and a big wave is not guaranteed anyway. Realistically, winning half of these districts would represent a good night for Democrats.

UPDATE: We don’t have much to add here. These are strong incumbents in tough districts who in most if not all cases will face strong challengers.


6. Win one of these three Clinton-won, historically Republican seats

Seats: NJ-7 (Leonard Lance), TX-7 (John Culberson), or TX-32 (Pete Sessions)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: It’s not entirely clear how vulnerable these three members actually are, although it seems like a safe bet that all three are in for much harder races than they are accustomed to. Lance (NJ-7) first won his seat in the big Democratic year of 2008 by eight points, and he hasn’t really had a close general election since. Meanwhile, Culberson (TX-7) and Sessions (TX-32) never would have been considered as even remotely vulnerable until Clinton narrowly carried both of their suburban Dallas (Sessions) and Houston (Culberson) districts in 2016. Republicans seem concerned about Culberson being caught napping, although he upped his fundraising output in 2017’s fourth quarter, a sign that he may be coming around to his district’s newfound competitiveness. Sessions, a former NRCC chairman, already was sitting on a big warchest and he’s been adding to it.

UPDATE: The arrow is probably pointing a little bit up for Democrats in this category. We recently moved Lance to Toss-up, and he seems likely to face Tom Malinowski (D), a former State Department official. Culberson and Sessions remain in the Leans Republican column, but we may revisit after the May 22 runoff to determine their opponents.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Better for Democrats than in February, although none of these seats will be easy wins.

7. Defeat one of two Trump-district freshmen, who were narrow winners in narrow districts

Seats: MN-2 (Jason Lewis) or NE-2 (Don Bacon)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: We’re now transitioning into the part of the list where the Democratic targets are almost exclusively in Trump-won districts. With only 23 Clinton-district Republicans to target, and virtually no chance of sweeping those districts even under optimal national conditions, Democrats will need to win some Trump districts to win the House. How many? Read on.

Both Bacon (NE-2) and Lewis (MN-2) were somewhat surprising Election Night winners in 2016: Lewis won an open seat while Bacon knocked off first-term Rep. Brad Ashford (D). The winning Republican margins in both seats were quite narrow: at both the presidential and House levels, the largest margin in either seat was Trump’s 2.2-point win in NE-2, which prevented Clinton from getting an electoral vote from Nebraska (which, along with Maine, is one of two states that award electoral votes at both the statewide and congressional district levels). Adding to the intrigue in both districts is the likelihood that both will feature rematches: Ashford and 2016 MN-2 nominee Angie Craig (D) are the frontrunners for the nominations to face the first-term incumbents, although there is some grumbling in progressive circles that the Democrats should run different candidates.

UPDATE: Craig is on the glide path to nomination as well after winning the state party endorsement in April. However, Ashford did not win the nomination, falling to nonprofit executive Kara Eastman (D), who ran to Ashford’s left on issues like health care and abortion. The NRCC was ecstatic over Eastman’s victory, in part because it gives them some evidence of liberal activists knocking off a more moderate Democrat supported by the DCCC, creating insurgent headaches for Democrats that have become all too familiar for Republicans. While it’s far too early to believe that there’s now a Tea Party of the left, the Eastman victory represents a victory for the left over party leaders.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Better for Republicans. We moved NE-2 from Toss-up to Leans Republican in response to Eastman’s win. We think it’s notable that, in this primary, the NRCC got what it wanted and the DCCC didn’t. Eastman and her supporters will believe that a more liberal candidate can drive better turnout in November than the less liberal Ashford, and they may be proven right — a Leans Republican rating does not rule out Eastman winning. But some recent research suggests that more ideologically extreme House candidates end up motivating the other side more so than moderate candidates. NE-2 seems like it will be a great test of that theory.

8. Net at least two seats from “Trump York”

Seats: NY-19 (John Faso) and NY-22 (Claudia Tenney), but also possibly NY-1 (Lee Zeldin), NY-11 (Dan Donovan), NY-21 (Elise Stefanik), NY-23 (Tom Reed), or NY-24 (John Katko)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: While the president’s home base of New York City overwhelmingly rejected him outside of typically Republican Staten Island, Trump made big strides compared to recent Republican presidential performance in much of the rest of New York. He won six more congressional districts (nine of 27 total) across the state than Romney did in 2012 (just three). Much of New York outside of New York City is congressional battleground territory: As recently as 2010, Democrats controlled all but two of the state’s districts, but now they hold only two-thirds (18 of 27). As in California, Democrats likely need to increase their already big majority in the state’s congressional delegation in order to win the House, but the difference between California and New York is that in the former the Democrats have many Clinton-won districts to target, while in the Empire State the Democrats will have to win in Trump-won territory. Of the seven districts listed as potential Democratic targets, Clinton carried only one — Katko’s NY-24 — and even then by a lot less than Barack Obama carried it (Obama won it by 16 in 2012, but Clinton only won it by four). Katko stands out as one of the few Clinton-district Republicans who currently lacks at least one clear Democratic challenger; Democrats were disappointed recently when former Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner (D) again ruled out a bid for the seat.

The two clearest Democratic targets on this list are freshmen members Faso (NY-19) and Tenney (NY-22). A host of Democratic challengers is angling to face Faso, while Tenney is likely to face state Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi (D), who previously rebuffed Democratic entreaties to run before jumping in this cycle. The others are all basically reaches, although Zeldin’s Suffolk County seat (NY-1) has historically been very competitive.

UPDATE: Katko remains perhaps the best-situated Clinton-district Republican in the country, even though national Democrats recruited former Syracuse mayoral candidate Juanita Perez Williams (D) into the race. Katko is likely vulnerable only in the event of a big wave that would make the agonizing, seat-by-seat district details here unnecessary (in other words, the kind of environment where Democrats would win significantly more than 25 GOP-held seats). Faso’s eventual opponent in November remains unclear; Tenney vs. Brindisi should be very competitive; and Donovan could lose a primary to former Rep. Michael Grimm (R) in NY-11.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: A little brighter for Democrats, as evidenced by our recent shifts of Zeldin (NY-1) and Donovan’s (NY-11) seats from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. On the flip side, Stefanik (NY-21) and Reed (NY-23) don’t seem to be in much if any real trouble.

9. Win two of these four Trump seats with down-ballot Democratic DNA

Seats: IL-12 (Mike Bost), KY-6 (Andy Barr), ME-2 (Bruce Poliquin), or UT-4 (Mia Love)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: Democrats held all four of these seats as recently as 2012, but in recent years all have fallen to Republicans. Retirements by long-time Democratic members helped Poliquin (ME-2) and Love (UT-4) to win competitive races in 2014, and both were reelected in 2016 with increased margins in rematches against their 2014 opponents. Barr (KY-6) knocked off then-Rep. Ben Chandler (D) in a Lexington-based seat in 2012, and Bost’s (IL-12) larger-than-expected 2014 victory against a first-term incumbent perhaps presaged this downstate district’s more than 15-point swing in margin from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016.

Three of these four seats (all but ME-2, where there are several Democrats running but no obvious frontrunner) feature candidates touted by national Democrats: Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams (UT-4), St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly (IL-12), and Lexington Mayor Jim Gray (KY-6). Gray will still face a primary against veteran Navy pilot Amy McGrath (D), whose debut ad went viral online and allowed her to raise a substantial amount of money.

UPDATE: The Gray-McGrath primary is a House highlight coming next Tuesday. McAdams and Kelly are officially nominated, and the ME-2 primary will be June 12.


10. Net at least one seat from Iowa

Seats: IA-1 (Rod Blum) or IA-3 (David Young)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: Few states swung harder against the Democrats in 2016 than Iowa, which Trump won by nearly 10 points after the state had generally voted at least a little more Democratic than the nation as a whole since the 1980s. Republicans now hold three of the state’s four House districts.

There have been some signs of slippage for Republicans in the state, though. A Des Moines Register poll pegged Trump’s statewide approval among all adults at 35% as of early December and Gallup had it at 43% over the course of 2017, also among Iowa adults. Even if one assumes Trump’s standing is better among registered voters, it’s still fairly weak statewide given Trump’s 2016 showing. Iowa, one of the whitest states in the country, provides a great test as to whether Democrats can restore some of their performance among whites who do not have a four-year college degree. The Democrats’ troubles in Iowa pre-date Trump, though: Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) won by a bigger-than-expected margin in 2014, the same year Blum (IA-1) and Young (IA-3) first won open-seat House races in districts that would flip from Obama to Trump in 2016.

UPDATE: Since our February piece, we’ve moved IA-1 to Toss-up, with state Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D) as Blum’s likeliest November opponent. In IA-3, Democrats may regret the failure of businesswoman Theresa Greenfield (D) to make the primary ballot. One additional wrinkle in a farming-heavy state is the potential ramifications of the president’s recent tariff moves: A possible retaliatory Chinese tariff on soybeans could hit Iowa and other farming states hard, and states like Iowa sometimes react strongly to dips in the farming economy (an example: In an otherwise very successful 1988 presidential election, George H.W. Bush struggled in Iowa and other heartland states over a farming crisis).

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Probably a little better for Democrats now that IA-1 is officially a Toss-up.

11. Net at least one seat from Kansas

Seats: KS-2 (Open) or KS-3 (Kevin Yoder)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: Kansas does not seem like the kind of state where Democrats could win a House seat, and yet they have two different but equally compelling opportunities in 2018. One of them is an open seat, KS-2, that is strongly Republican but which ex-Rep. Nancy Boyda (D) captured in a big 2006 upset. Boyda lost it two years later to Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R), who is now retiring, and 2014 gubernatorial nominee Paul Davis (D) is trying to replicate Boyda’s success a dozen years later. The other district, Yoder’s KS-3, was won by Clinton in 2016 even as Yoder won a competitive but clear reelection. A Democratic win in one of these districts would likely be seen as an upset, but to build a majority on this map, Democrats are going to have to spring some victories that would seem surprising this far in advance.

UPDATE: KS-2 is another race we’ve moved to Toss-up since early February. Davis has continued to build support on the Democratic side and the struggling Republican field has recently attracted some new candidates of unclear quality. The Democratic field to take on Yoder remains uncertain.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Just like in Iowa, Democratic chances to net a seat from Kansas are probably a little bit better now than they were in February.

12. Net at least one of these Trump-won seats in North Carolina, Ohio, or Virginia

Seats: NC-2 (George Holding), NC-9 (Robert Pittenger), NC-13 (Ted Budd), OH-1 (Steve Chabot), OH-12 (Special), VA-2 (Scott Taylor), VA-5 (Tom Garrett), or VA-7 (Dave Brat)

ORIGINAL ANALYSIS: Here is a grab bag of seats across three states: The only one rated as even Leans Republican is Taylor’s VA-2, a GOP-leaning Hampton Roads-based swing seat. Unless there is a big wave, the Republicans should be fine in most if not all of these seats, but Democrats probably need at least one of these races to truly activate in the fall. The best possibilities at the moment may be VA-2; NC-13, where philanthropist Kathy Manning (D) is raising an impressive amount of money against the first-termer Budd; or perhaps OH-1, where Chabot just drew a potentially credible challenger in Hamilton County (Cincinnati) Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval (D).

UPDATE: Here’s where the Democrats have likely made their clearest strides outside of Pennsylvania. Pittenger lost his primary, pushing us to move his race to Toss-up last week, and several of these seats have moved to more competitive ratings categories over the last few months. NC-9 is a Toss-up, and NC-13, OH-1, OH-12, and VA-7 have moved from Likely Republican to Leans Republican. We’ve also added some additional North Carolina and Ohio districts to our ratings as Likely Republican.

CURRENT OUTLOOK: Definitely improved for Democrats. It would now be something of a surprise if they didn’t win at least one of these seats, even if individually their odds are no better than 50-50 in any of them. Additionally, this grab bag category could be expanded to include some other districts that look more competitive now than they did at the start of February. Democrats now appear likely to really push some other Republican incumbents not mentioned above, such as Reps. Mike Bishop (R, MI-8) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R, WA-5).


One thing that’s clear in comparing the Democrats’ current path to a House majority versus the one we sketched out in February is that the playing field is bigger. Back in February, we listed 65 GOP House seats in a competitive (non-Safe) category. We now list 86. Many of these races likely will not develop (particular in the Likely Republican column, where we list 35 GOP districts). On the other hand, some current Safe Republican races may enter the fray, too.

That said, this “Drive for 25” essentially assumes a close battle for the House and tries to assess the most competitive GOP-held seats. From that standpoint, there’s been some subtle movement toward the Democrats, but not enough to significantly alter our overall assessment of a coin flip battle for the House.

We’ll keep tabs on this Democratic target list and will use it as a guide for further updates as we get closer to November.

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings

Mad as Hell: How Anger Diminishes Trust in Government

With politics increasingly defined by feelings of anger toward the opposing party, trust in government is bound to decline unless something changes drastically

Steven Webster, Guest Columnist May 17th, 2018



— Over the past 60 years, trust in government has declined precipitously. Whereas high levels of trust in the national government were typical during the Eisenhower Administration, by 2016 only a fifth of Americans said they trusted the government “always” or “most of the time.”

— Using a survey experiment and utilizing a technique known as “emotional recall,” I find that individuals asked to write about a time they were very angry or to write about a time they were very angry about politics were more likely to agree that the national government is unresponsive to the concerns and interests of the public. Merely asking individuals to recall a time they had thought about politics had no effect on lowering trust in government. These results indicate that anger does play a causal role in lowering citizens’ trust in the government.

— A regression analysis of respondents’ use of angry words as well as positive and negative emotional words revealed that those who were primed to exhibit higher levels of apolitical anger offered the most negative views of the national government. That is, apolitical issues, rather than political issues, elicited the most anger. This suggests that the magnitude of the anger, and not necessarily the target, is the most important factor in shaping citizens’ trust in government.

— Normatively, these results have troubling implications. With the rise of negative partisanship and a contentious style of governing, Americans are more frequently exposed to anger-inducing stimuli. With politics increasingly defined by feelings of anger toward the opposing party and its governing elite, trust in government is bound to decline.

All politics is anger

From President Donald Trump’s tweets, to congressional gridlock, investigations about Russia’s potential meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and, yes, a comedian’s standup routine at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, the political scene is inherently anger-inducing. Indeed, in an era defined by intense partisan divisions where the logic of negative partisanship governs most political decision-making and forms of political behavior, anger is an omnipresent emotion in contemporary American politics. Yet, despite the fact that anger is so prevalent within the American electorate, little work has been done to understand the ways in which this anger is related to an equally worrisome trend that has been developing simultaneously: Americans’ declining trust in their own government.

Trust in government has declined precipitously over the past 60 years. As the trend line in Figure 1 shows, high levels of trust in the national government were typical in the latter years of the Eisenhower Administration. However, by 2016, only 20% of Americans said they trusted the government “always” or “most of the time.” Because trust in government is essential for facilitating democratic representation and legitimacy, understanding the causes of this cratering trust in government is of paramount importance. My research, published last September in the journal Political Behavior, suggests that the growth in anger within the electorate and Americans’ declining trust in the national government are not separate phenomena. In fact, my work has shown that higher levels of anger within the electorate are actually one of the primary reasons citizens have lost trust in the national government.

Figure 1: Americans’ trust in government is declining

Why might we expect higher levels of anger to lower citizens’ trust in the national government? The primary reason stems from the psychological theory of “mood congruity.” Aptly named, this theory argues that people tend to evaluate institutions, objects, or other people in ways that are in line with the emotions that they feel. Moreover, psychological studies indicate that every emotion has either a positive or a negative valence to it. So, if one is experiencing the emotion of happiness, he or she will evaluate objects positively precisely because happiness is an emotion with a positive valence. On the other hand, because anger is an emotion that contains a negative valence, an individual who is in an angry state will tend to render negative evaluations of any given thing.

To examine whether and how anger within the electorate causes citizens to lose trust in their own government, I conducted a survey experiment on approximately 3,300 registered American voters a few months before the 2016 presidential election. The key part of the survey is the experimental manipulation that seeks to induce anger in respondents. To do this, I utilized a technique known as “emotional recall.” This strategy simply asks respondents to write a paragraph about a time they were very angry about politics. The idea, which is rooted in psychological studies, is that when individuals write about an anger-inducing experience they will temporarily relive that emotional response.

However, in addition to asking respondents to write about a time they were very angry about politics, I randomly assigned respondents to two other treatment groups: a group that asked individuals to write about a time they were very angry, and a “political salience” group that asked individuals to write about a time they thought about politics. By doing this, I am able to separate the emotion (anger) from the target (politics) while invoking anger. Separating anger from politics is important from a theoretical standpoint because this allows me to examine both the effect of political anger and generalized apolitical anger on citizens’ trust in government. The individuals randomized into the control group were asked to write about what they ate for breakfast. This serves as a useful control group because it is benign in nature and unrelated to politics or political affairs. The schematic displayed in Figure 2 illustrates these four randomization groups.

Figure 2: The four randomization groups

To help facilitate an easier understanding of these experimental conditions, consider the following examples of responses to each of the treatment groups. One individual who was randomized into the anger about politics condition wrote that “the lack of action on social security pisses me off — it seems congress always waits till the very last minute to fix issues with it that need fixing.” Another individual wrote that “[o]ur country is going to crap because politicians care more about themselves and their own personal agendas then [sic] they do the welfare of the country and its people.” Individuals who were randomized into the apolitical anger condition wrote about their divorce, problems their children were having at school, and confrontations with former romantic partners. Finally, those individuals who were randomized into the political salience condition tended to write about noteworthy political events from their formative years, such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

After the randomization process was complete, survey respondents were asked to rate their level of agreement with the following statement on a 0-10 scale, where higher values indicate more agreement: “The national government is unresponsive to the concerns and interests of the public.” Accordingly, higher values on this measure indicate a greater level of distrust in the national government.

The results of the experimental manipulation are shown in Table 1. The positive coefficients for the “Anger” condition and the “Anger about politics” condition indicate that individuals who were randomized into the treatment groups that asked them to write about a time they were very angry and to write about a time they were very angry about politics, respectively, were more likely to agree that the national government is unresponsive to the concerns and interests of the public. Merely asking individuals to recall a time they had thought about politics had no effect on lowering trust in government. These results indicate that anger does play a causal role in lowering citizens’ trust in the government.

Table 1: Regression results of experimental manipulation

Yet, the results shown in Table 1 raise as many questions as they answer. Indeed, a particularly curious result that emerges from Table 1 is the fact that those individuals who were primed to exhibit higher degrees of apolitical anger gave more negative evaluations of the government than those who were primed to exhibit higher levels of anger specifically about politics. Because the national government is a political institution, the most logical expectation would have been to expect bigger effects for those who were given the political anger treatment.

To determine why the treatment effects were the largest for the anger-only condition, I conducted a sentiment analysis on the text that individuals wrote during the experimental design. To do this, I utilized a lexicon known as the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC). In addition to analyzing the grammatical structure of a text, such as the number of adverbs or pronouns used, the LIWC dictionary is able to classify the emotional content of a given text. For these purposes, I was interested in the percentage of words each individual used that the LIWC dictionary classifies as “angry words” (there are nearly 200 words classified as angry words; examples include “frustrated,” “annoyed,” “irritated,” “hate,” etc.) and how this varies by treatment status. To do this, I conducted a regression analysis where the primary dependent variable is the percentage of angry words used in the respondent’s text and the independent variables are dummy variables indicating which treatment status the respondent was randomized into. I also analyzed the percentage of “negative emotional” words (an aggregate scale of all negatively-valenced words) and “positive emotional” words (an aggregate scale of all positively-valenced words) each respondent used. The results of these regressions are shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Regression results of sentiment analysis with original experimental manipulation

The results of the regressions shown in Table 2 indicate that those who were randomized into the anger only condition used nearly 3.4% more angry words, 4.5% more negative emotional words, and 3.4% fewer positive emotional words than those who were in the control group. Those who were randomized into the anger about politics treatment group used 2.7% more angry words, 3.7% more negative emotional words, and 2.4% fewer positive emotional words than the control group. These patterns reveal why those who were primed to exhibit higher levels of apolitical anger offered the most negative views of the national government: apolitical issues, rather than political issues, elicited the most anger. This suggests that the magnitude of the anger, and not necessarily the target, is the most important factor in shaping citizens’ trust in government. Finally, the results in Table 2 reveal something disconcerting: those who were asked to write about a time they had thought about politics were also more likely than those in the control group to use angry words and negative emotional words. This suggests that, to some extent, anger and politics are not separable. On the contrary, in the contemporary era, politics and anger go hand-in-hand.

Normatively, these results have troubling implications. With the rise of negative partisanship and a contentious style of governing, Americans are more frequently exposed to anger-inducing stimuli. With politics increasingly defined by feelings of anger toward the opposing party and its governing elite, trust in government is bound to decline. Absent some drastic change to the political system that reverses this trend, it is possible that trust in government will decline to a level so low that the national government will lose its sense of legitimacy in the eyes of those to whom it is accountable. To the extent that trust in government is a sign of the health of American democracy, we have ample reason to be concerned.

My full study can be found here.

Steven Webster holds a Ph.D. in political science from Emory University. His research interests involve political psychology, voter behavior, and public opinion.