The Icosahedron #5 ft. Trevor Smith, Ph.D. on political competition and Michael Cohen, Ph.D. on endorsement irrelevance. — Published 01/21/20

By: Trevor Smith, Ph.D. and Michael Cohen, Ph.D.

Thanks for reading our newsletter. This issue focuses on the political environment with pieces from Dr. Trevor Smith, Director of Research at WPA Intelligence and myself. Trevor looks at how competitive congressional races were in 2018 and what opportunities that provides our Republican Party in response. My piece opens with a look at the widelyheckled (by Democrats!) New York Times dual-endorsement and whether or not these kinds of endorsements matter. For intelligence like this and much more, reply to this email and I’ll connect you with our outstanding team. I look forward to hearing from you!

Michael D. Cohen, Ph.D., CSO, WPA Intelligence

Competition is Good
By Trevor Smith, Ph.D., Director of Research

Perhaps the laziest theory of American politics is that voters have become more polarized than ever and the political parties are now vessels of extremism. This theory has some observables that make sense on their face: the rise of extreme policies on the Left, the self-owned bias of the news that used to be impartial, and the effects of gerrymandering, which have theoretically sorted voters into safer districts. That all might be true but what really matters is elections.

What if I told you if congressional races were more competitive in 2018, a bad year for our party but the best one for democracy in a decade? Let’s take a 10% margin of victory as a benchmark for a competitive House race and look at the past four elections. How many of them, do you figure, would be considered “competitive?” I’ve done the math and it shows just how competitive of a year 2018 was among congressional races, removing at-large seats; an excellent opportunity to use data and messaging based on data to win back the House.

Sure, competitive districts, by this definition, almost halved from 2012 to 2016 but it rebounded to the tune of more than 2x in 2018 due to a motivated Democratic base. Again, the rebound was hard on the GOP, but as the party of competition this is an opportunity to learn from the mistakes made, listen to voters, and act accordingly. Running the same old campaigns are not going to work in 2020, regardless of who the Democrats run at the top of the ticket even if it is likely, in my view, a weak one.

Relying on President Trump’s support among blue collar voters is not going to be enough for your race. Instead, focus on who is going to vote and who they intend to choose. Understand who the persuadable voters are and who will vote for you if you get them to the polls on Election Day. What messages will matter most, do you know where your ad dollars should go, and on what platforms? That’s what we do best, put that altogether to enhance your chances of victory.

If you think you are in a non-competitive district, just remember that there were far more of them in 2016 than there were now. There is more opportunity now, not less. Ignore the noise of polarization and extremism and focus on the signals that will get you there by knowing which voters get you there. The question really comes down to this: what will you do to capitalize on these openings?

Endorsement Irrelevance
By Michael Cohen, Ph.D., Chief Strategy Officer

“If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice,” Freewill by Rush.

By choosing to endorse both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the New York Times unintentionally highlighted how insignificant newspaper endorsements are and how much opinions of voters matter more. Warren has dropped from her peak, now polling well behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, nationally and in early states; her odds of winning the nomination have plummeted. Klobuchar is a margin-of-error candidate, virtually everywhere. By endorsing two fading candidates, the New York Times has inadvertently chosen to benefit neither. This is peak endorsement irrelevance.

Pulling it back, what value do newspaper opinion section endorsements even provide candidates in an era of strong partisanship and polarization? Are these important signals to leverage or just campaign noise? This is something we research on behalf of our clients at WPA Intelligence. The consensus from newspapers themselves and our team’s experience is, well, not really. Moreover, in the runup to the 2016 election, Jeb Bush had 30 major endorsements while future President Donald Trump had none … and we all know how that turned out (please clap).

Somewhat more important signals are local leadership endorsements but, really, only to people who are well-connected to the political dynamics in their communities. At this point, Joe Biden’s decades-long Washington tenure has paid off in endorsements, where he leads Warren and Klobuchar by 207 to 77 and 50, respectively. Still, it’s who’s endorsing that matters, with Biden holding onto many of the endorsements gained through his association with Barack Obama, signaling to black voters, in particular, that he’s their best choice.

Still, normies don’t care. They don’t read the NYT or FiveThirtyEight. In fact, there is some evidence that a relatively small pool of moderates, who Biden and Klobuchar are courting, are actually low-information and low-participation voters, meaning that they’re not watching debates, aware of newspaper endorsements, or who their representatives will vote for in the primaries. These kinds of endorsements matter more within the pool of party activists rather than for external signaling to move voters.

So, does a NYT endorsement matter? No, but other endorsements can help with those voters, donors, and activists who pay attention to these kinds of developments. Endorsements certainly matter to political hobbyists, who believe they’re engaged and certainly follow news cycles and social media. They matter a bit if your bias aligns.

Will the NYT endorsements propel Warren or Klobuchar to the top of the polls in Iowa? No. Iowans still will make a choice and the NYT endorsement will sit where it deserves: irrelevant.

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