Politics isn’t all that complicated. It’s really just math. But, as those of us who were never big fans of the subject in school can attest, sometimes math can be hard. 

As I write this on Thursday, the most prominent political figure in America, Republican Kevin McCarthy, has a very big math problem. After multiple rounds of voting, the Republican leader from Bakersfield, California has been unable to find the 218 votes needed to be elected speaker. 

His path to the speakership was always predicated on winning a big majority in 2022. The McCarthy-aligned SuperPAC CLF poured tens of millions of dollars into competitive House contests with the goal of filling the GOP caucus with like-minded colleagues who would support his bid for the top House job. When the GOP’s rosy red wave scenario failed to materialize, McCarthy was left with a narrow and harrowing path to get the top job in the House. 

But, argues Mike Podhorzer, the former AFL-CIO political director and progressive political strategist, Republicans’ math problem runs deeper than McCarthy’s failures to find 218 votes. He argues that since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, “we’ve discovered that Trump turns out more people on our side than theirs” in the battleground states. Before 2016, Podhorzer told me, it was Democrats who had the math problem. Midterm elections had been dominated by a whiter, more conservative electorate. Trump’s win in 2016, however, added a new tranche of voters to the electorate. Using data from the Catalist voter file, Podhorzer estimates that these “new voters” (defined as those who voted in 2018 and 2020, but had not voted in 2014, or, if they were eligible for the first time, voted in 2020), number almost 40 million.  These voters aren’t necessarily Democrats, says Podhorzer, but “they are anti-MAGA.”

As such, Democrats’ political success comes down to a pretty simple equation. When those millions of “new voters” show up, Democrats can win. When they don’t, Democrats fall short.

Using Catalist modeling, Podhorzer calculated the percent of the vote Democrats could expect from “regular voters” and from the “new Midterm voters” in each battleground state. 

In every state but Michigan, regular voters—those who voted in 2014—are more GOP leaning. For example, in Arizona, just 46 percent of “regular voters” would vote Democratic, while in Florida it’s 43 percent. But, in every state except Texas, new Midterm voters are majority Democratic. In Nevada, for example (where regular voters are just 45 percent Democratic voting), a whopping 57 percent of new voters are modeled Democratic voters. 

In other words, if only those who voted in 2014 showed up to vote last year in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, Democrats would likely have fallen short of winning in those states. But, with the addition of these new voters, Democrats were victorious. 

However, this also illustrates the challenge for Democrats to win once critical battleground states like Florida and Ohio, as well as the still-uphill fight to turn Texas blue. Florida, Ohio and Texas have the most GOP-leaning “regular voter” pool of the battleground states. Plus, in Ohio and Texas, the new Midterm voters are divided evenly between Democratic and Republican leaning. So, to win statewide in those two states, Democrats will need to not only drive up their new voters, but will have to hope that the GOP base voters stay home as well.

This is the math that helps to define midterms in the current era. But, as we look ahead to 2024, the most important number in any political equation is 270; the total number of electoral votes needed to win the presidency. 

Here, Podhorzer argues, the math is once again on Democrats’ side. “In 2016, despite losing the popular vote, Trump became president by virtue of his Electoral College victory. That election made clear that the political fulcrum would be the states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.” Trump won all five of those states in 2016. Since then, however, Republicans have steadily lost ground. “In those five states, on the day that Trump was sworn in, only one state had a Democratic governor (Pennsylvania), only four Democrats served in the Senate, and Democrats did not constitute a majority in any of the 10 state legislative chambers.” Today, however, “four of the five governors will be Democrats, 8 of the 10 Senators will be Democrats, and three of the state legislative chambers will have Democratic majorities.” And, of course, Joe Biden carried every one of those states in 2020.

Plus, as the Pew Research verified voter study found, voters who sat out 2016 but came out in 2018 and 2020 supported Biden by 26 points. 

It is also worth noting that Democrats had their strongest showings in many of these battleground states in the midterm election years of 2018 and 2022 when Trump was not on the ballot. When Trump was back on the ballot in 2020, the Democratic margin of victory was much narrower. For example, Democrat John Fetterman won the 2022 Senate race in Pennsylvania by almost five points. In 2018, Democratic Sen. Bob Casey won re-election by 13 points. But, in 2020, Biden only carried the state by less than two points. Arizona also performed much more strongly for Democrats in 2022 and 2018 than it did in 2020. Biden won the Grand Canyon state by just one-third of a point. Two years earlier, Democrat Kirsten Sinema won her Senate race by just over two points. In 2022, Sen. Mark Kelly easily won re-election by almost five points. In other words, there is something about Trump that brings out plenty of Republican voters who have been willing to sit out the midterms. For example, according to Pew, 13 percent of the 2020 electorate had voted in 2016 but sat out in 2018. Trump carried those voters by eight points (53-45 percent). Those voters who skipped 2016 but voted in 2018 made up just six percent of the electorate (but, as I noted earlier, they voted for Biden by a more significant margin). 

So, let’s bring this conversation back where it started: the House Speaker vote and, more importantly, the likelihood of a functioning GOP House. The more dysfunctional the House looks, the easier it is for Democrats to convince their “new Midterm Voters” that the upcoming election is yet another existential battle for which they’ll need to engage. The same goes for the GOP nomination for president. Can Democrats effectively label Republicans like Gov. Ron DeSantis as a serious MAGA threat if he is the one that defeats Trump in a primary? As we saw in Georgia with GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, that may be the most effective way for Republicans to win over enough of those swing/new voters to make their battleground math work.

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