California and New York are two states that will almost certainly wind up in Hillary Clinton’s column on election night, but despite this certainty, these states are not without intrigue. The 2011 redistricting process—predominantly bipartisan in both states—yielded a number of competitive congressional districts. The competitive races in these states will largely determine the scale of any Democratic pickup in the House of Representatives. Several months ago, our initial analysis found that Democrats would likely achieve a net gain of 12 – 15 seats nationally (with help from the elevated minority participation that accompanies a presidential year election). Given the number of competitive districts, Democrats have a chance to win as many as 10 Republican seats in these two bellwether states, alone. However, the unprecedented impact of Donald Trump’s candidacy complicates any forecast of the behavior of traditional voting coalitions. These states could just as easily produce an electoral draw.
Redistricting Increases Competition
As we noted in a previous article, bipartisan redistricting processes can enhance the number of competitive congressional districts, contradicting what most observers think of when they contemplate the effects of redistricting. California and New York stand out as examples of states where the 2011 redistricting process did just that. In California, citizen-initiated propositions created a bipartisan commission to oversee redistricting. As a result, we have seen the return of competitiveness to California congressional elections.
In the 2012 election—the first after redistricting—eight contests were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points, and 10 more were decided by a margin of less than 20 points. This increased competitiveness continued in the 2014 election. Although the 31st Congressional District was the only district where party control changed hands, several races featured close margins. Consider the following outcomes:
|District||Margin of Victory|
In New York, the split legislature helped ensure some equity in the redistricting process, and though the final maps were challenged in court, a number of competitive districts remain. It’s worth noting that in 2012, voters in New York approved a Constitutional Amendment creating a 10-person commission chosen largely by the legislative leaders. The commission consists of individuals who are neither legislators/party chairs nor state employees, and is tasked to hold hearings and (by supermajority vote) draft districts. Under the amendment, districts would have to preserve minority rights, be equally populated, consist of compact and contiguous territory, and not drawn to discourage competition or to favor/disfavor candidates or parties.
The Limitations of Demographics
The electorate in 2016 promises to be the most diverse in American history. We expect 27 percent of the national vote to be cast by non-white voters, but it could rise to as high as 29 percent. As we have noted in previous articles, the increasingly diverse electorate should improve Democratic congressional prospects. Recent elections support this contention—in the 2008 and 2012 elections, Democrats scored a net gain of 32 seats. Conversely, Republicans netted a total of 77 seats in 2010 and 2014, when the non-white vote accounted for a lesser share of the electorate.
But elections are not decided by demographics alone, and elevated non-white turnout should not be taken as a given. Without sufficient investment from the Clinton campaign, California and New York in particular could lead to missed opportunities down the ballot.
Elevated Latino turnout in California will theoretically deliver several seats, but the scale of the increase is far from certain, and some of the vulnerable Republican incumbents remain popular. In New York, the Republican-held marginal districts fall mainly in rural areas with less minority vote and are populated by working-class white voters that have been susceptible to Donald Trump’s message. Below we will delve deeper into these marginal districts.
Few Vulnerable Democrats
As the 2016 election approaches, prospects are improving for California’s marginal Democrats. In fact, of the five Democratic districts decided by fewer than 10 points in 2014, we expect only two (CA-07 and CA-24) to be competitive this cycle. Congressman Ami Bera of the 7th District remains the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in California. Further, recent polling has suggested that Hillary Clinton is running well in the 24th District, which should help Democratic candidate Salud Carbajal retain this open seat. Other potentially vulnerable Democrats, such as Scott Peters in the 52nd District, now appear to be safe.
Opportunity Depends on Turnout
In a favorable year, the political landscape in California could yield as many as six new Democratic house seats. Changes in the Citizen Voting Age Population (CVAP) show a rapidly diversifying population, particularly in marginal Republican-held districts. The impact of the Trump campaign on these districts could be profound, but turning out these voters out will require effort and resources. Below we analyze the marginal districts:
CA-10: Republican incumbent Jeff Denham is facing a rematch against Democratic candidate Michael Eggman, Denham won their contest in 2014 with 56.1 percent of the vote, a margin of 15,549 votes. President Obama carried this district in 2012 with 51.8 percent of the vote, actually increasing his 2008 vote share (51.2 percent). This sharp variation underscores how important the minority vote is to Democratic prospects. In terms of CVAP, the non-white share of the electorate grew by 3.4 percent from 2010 – 2014, with Hispanic voters representing 27.4 percent of the district CVAP. Since 2014 the Hispanic population has continued to grow, which should aid Eggman, but an assist from the top of the ticket is essential.
CA-21: The 21st district shares many of the same characteristics of the tenth, as the Hispanic CVAP grew by 4 percent between 2010 – 2014. President Obama carried this district in both 2008 (52.5 percent) and 2012, expanding on his vote share in 2012 (55.7 percent). Despite Obama’s performance, Republican incumbent David Valadao cruised to victory in 2014, winning 57.8 percent of the vote. Valadao won in spite of the fact that Dianne Feinstein received 56.6 percent of the vote in this district at the top of the ticket that same year. As a Hispanic, Valadao might be able to garner an elevated amount of Hispanic support, but as in the tenth district elevated turnout will favor the Democrats. The Fresno County portion of this district is especially important, as President Obama carried it in 2012, compared to the House candidate in 2014, who received 41.8 percent of the vote.
CA-25: California utilizes a top-two primary system, which allows all candidates to run and all voters to vote but only moves the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, to the general election. In 2014, the race in the 25th district featured two Republicans, vying to replace longtime Republican incumbent Buck McKeon. Despite these results, this is still considered a top-tier target in 2016. The Hispanic share of the CVAP in the 25th district has grew by 3.5 percent from 2010 to 2014, and has continued to grow making this district increasingly marginal. The Los Angeles County portion of the district, which was more than 28 percent Hispanic in 2014, is absolutely crucial for Democratic candidate Bryan Caforio. The Los Angeles County portion of the district represents 79 percent of the expected vote. President Obama won 51.4 percent of the vote here in 2008 and 49.1 percent of the vote in 2012.
CA-39: The Asian population, an emerging Democratic voting bloc, represents 27.1 percent of the CVAP in this district. Overall, the non-white share of the CVAP of this district is over 60 percent creating an obvious opportunity (particularly in a presidential year). Yet, Republican incumbent Ed Royce managed to win more than 68 percent of the vote in 2014, and 57.8 percent of the vote in 2012, despite Obama’s competitiveness in the district (48.1 percent). Fiercely Republican portions and Orange County and reliably Republican segments of San Bernardino County account for 74.3 percent of the expected vote, but the remaining share of the vote comes from sections of Los Angeles County, which is more than 47 percent Asian. Watch the San Bernardino portion of the district, as Obama received more than 47 percent of the vote here in 2012, and the non-white population has grown by 3.8 percent. Candidate quality is a potential concern for the Democrats.
CA-49: Well-known Republican, Darrell Issa, has drawn a strong candidate in Attorney and Iraq War Veteran Douglas Applegate. President Obama carried this district in 2008, but his share dropped by 4 percent in 2012, due to a declining share of the vote in the San Diego County portion of the district. Overall, the non-white share of the vote has grown by 2.7 percent from 2010 – 2014, but the district remains more than 68 percent white.
Rural White Districts Moving Away from the Democrats
While California is a state where the combination of recent changing demographics, shifting voter coalitions, and the consequences of the Donald Trump campaign have yielded additional pickup opportunities for the Democrats, the opposite is true in New York. The pickup opportunities this cycle are largely located in rural areas of the state, where the non-white vote has not grown at the level that we have seen in urban areas. Aside from demographics, the Trump campaign has accelerated the erosion of Democratic support among working-class whites, as several polls have shown Trump running more competitively in the state than any recent Republican. In 2006, a Democratic year, the Democrats captured 3 Republican-held House seats in many of the same communities that will be competitive this year. But changes in voter sentiment could make these areas far less receptive to the Democrats this cycle. Should the Democrats lose Steve Israel’s seat (NY-03), it’s possible that the Democrats could gain as few as one new seat, or break even in the state.
NY-01: The Democrats successfully recruited a top-line candidate in Anna Throne-Holst to run against Republican incumbent Lee Zeldin in this Long Island-based district in Suffolk County. Zeldin captured this seat in 2014, amid the Republican wave, winning by almost 9 percent. In the past, the general election electorate favored Democrats, President Obama carried this district in both 2008 and 2012, but his support level dropped in 2012 to 50.3 percent. The first district encapsulates the challenges facing the Democratic Party this November, as it’s a district that’s more than 80 percent white. The most recent polling has indicated that Donald Trump has resonated with voters in these districts, and is generally expected to perform well in parts of Long Island. Without a strong candidate like Throne-Holst, Zeldin would be looking very likely for reelection.
NY-19: Law School Professor and progressive activist Zephyr Teachout is a strong candidate for the Democrats in New York’s upstate 19th District, an open-seat contest. The 19th District includes predominantly white sections of 11 separate counties. From 2006 – 2008 these areas voted overwhelmingly for Democratic House candidates, but the voters have shifted ever since. President Obama carried the district in both 2008 and 2012, but the Democratic House share fell from 62.8 percent in 2008 to 47.2 percent in 2012. These results are a perfect example of the decline of Democratic support among rural white voters. In 2014, 87.6 percent of the CVP was white, and the Democratic candidate received 35.5 percent of the vote. The presidential election will surely help Teachout make it a close race.
NY-22: The 22nd District leans Republican, but this is a contest where a third party candidate could potentially tip the scales, especially because it’s an open-seat following the retirement of Republican incumbent Richard Hanna. Reform candidate Martin Babinec, a businessman with great personal wealth, has brought increased intrigue to this race, early polling suggests that Babinec is pulling support away from Republican Claudia Tenney. Democratic candidate Kim Myers faces an uphill battle in this district that President Obama narrowly lost in both 2008 and 2012. As with the 19th District, this predominantly white district (90 percent white in 2014) has seen a precipitous drop in support for Democratic House candidates since the 2006 election. In 2006, the Democratic candidate won 56.1 percent of the vote in these areas, compared to just 39.3 percent in 2012. As an open-seat this contest is assured to be more competitive, and as noted, the third party candidate could have a big impact.
NY-24: Hillary Clinton should experience a great deal of success in the 24th District, the Democratic Presidential candidate has amassed at least 52.2 percent of the vote in every election since 2000. Given those statistics, it would seem that Democratic candidate Colleen Deacon would be in a great position to unseat Republican incumbent John Katko, but Katko remains very popular in his district. In 2014, he defeated Democratic candidate Dan Maffei by more than 19-points. Like the 19th District, the 24th District remains mostly white, as 85.2 percent of the CVAP in 2014 was white.
NY-02: Peter King remains one of the most recognizable Republicans in the New York delegation. Though he is not often listed in the lists of vulnerable districts, the second is a marginal district. Democratic candidate Duwayne Gregory is a strong candidate who, if properly resourced, could make this a very interesting race to watch. Recent election results support this premise, as King won in 52 percent of the overall vote in 2012, with an additional 11 percent left blank. This year NY-2 has 4,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. A 19,000 Democratic growth while Republican registration fell 3,000 during the same time period. Should Trump be a drag on the overall Republican ticket, this could be a very competitive contest.
NY-11: Historically, the 11th District is nearly a 50/50 district, especially in presidential year. President Obama carried the district in 2012 (52.3 percent) but lost it in 2008 (with 48.6 percent). Obama’s presence on the ballot did not help the Democrats in 2012, as former Congressman Michael Grimm won the district by more than 5-points. Unlike the 1st District, the non-white population is growing more rapidly, particularly Asians and Hispanics, which represented 22.6 percent of the CVAP in 2014. Former Incumbent Republican Michael Grimm, won re-election in 2014 by more than 12-points, despite being under indictment.
NY-23: The Democrats successfully recruited a strong candidate in veteran John Plumb to run against Republican incumbent Tom Reed, all signs are pointing to a competitive contest. Reed narrowly survived a close race in 2012, winning by less than 4-points.
NY-25: Based on the characteristics of the district, this should be a safe Democratic district. However, incumbent Louise Slaughter, was nearly unseated in 2014, winning by less than a thousand votes. She faces a rematch with Mark Assini this November, an aggressive candidate. We remain confident that Congresswoman Slaughter will win again, but an upset can not be ruled out.
From a national perspective, the continued diversification of the American electorate benefits Democrats, especially in presidential years. But this year’s surprisingly competitive and polarizing presidential contest showcases that if Democratic support among white voters continues to fall congressional majorities appear increasingly unlikely. In a normal year, where Democrats enjoy their demographic advantage, we could expect these two states to produce as many as 10 new Democratic House seats. But, as of now, it’s conceivable that the Democrats could win as few as one seat.