13 min read

Diving through 40 years of American political history

“Let’s do more than vibes here,” says veteran political analyst Amy Walter.
Diving through 40 years of American political history
The Cook Political Report’s August 1995 Electoral College ratings, featuring 12 tossup states — a very different assortment than we have now. (Photo by Amy Walter)

Good morning! It’s Thursday, March 21, 2024. Election Day is 229 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

If you want to understand American politics, there are few better sources to turn to than the Cook Political Report and its editor-in-chief, Amy Walter.

CPR was founded in 1984 as an occasional tip-sheet printed and mailed to subscribers by Charlie Cook, a veteran political handicapper. In the four decades since, journalists, campaign operatives, and political junkies have come to rely on the publication for seasoned, non-partisan analysis of presidential, House, Senate, and gubernatorial campaigns.

Even if you’re not a regular CPR reader, you’ve probably encountered its work: they are the creators of the Cook Partisan Voting Index, which calculates the partisan lean of all 435 congressional districts. (If you’ve seen a district described as D+4 or R+7, that was probably their PVI score.) Cook was also the first analyst to use the seven-point scale to handicap elections — Solid, Likely or Lean Democrat, Toss Up, Lean, Likely or Solid Republican — that has now become standard.

This week, for the first time, CPR made all 40 years of its analysis available, an invaluable resource that traces the shifts and realignments of American politics. I spoke to the ever-insightful analyst Amy Walter, who took over the reins from Cook in 2021, about what the archive can tell us about modern political history.

Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your biggest takeaway from looking through the archives of the past 40 years?

Much like we see any time we look at historical data, you see the movement of the two party coalitions. Not that long ago, you had House members and senators who were Democrats from the South and from the Upper Midwest, like North Dakota and South Dakota, and you had Republicans in Vermont and Rhode Island and suburban Northern Virginia — places that today, it would almost be laughable to think about either party getting elected there.

The other thing that you come to appreciate is, reading stuff that Charlie wrote in the 80s or other staff writers wrote in the 90s, there’s a familiarity with [the type of metrics used]. The first things we would talk about are the same things we talk about now: the candidate, candidate quality, the fundraising, the polling, the electoral history in the district or the state. The metrics haven’t really changed, it’s how things interplay with each other that have changed. For example, a really good candidate in a state where Democrats hadn’t been elected at the presidential level could still win in an era where people were prioritizing things like seniority, or they were able to disaggregate their feelings about the president with feelings about downballot candidates.

There’s two strands there, but I think they connect in that politics has gotten a lot more bombastic and shocking, but perhaps also less surprising in the ways that you’re talking about. If you look back at the electoral ratings that you did decades ago, there were more competitive House seats and a more fluid set of states that were competitive on the presidential level. And now, as you said, no matter how many metrics you look at, there’s really only so much a candidate can do if they’re in a certain state. What are some of the factors behind why our politics have ossified in that way?

The barrier of entry for campaigns used to be reserved to people who were either personally wealthy or the kind of people who had an ability to raise a lot of money from big donors. Now, the kinds of candidates who can win primaries are candidates who can raise small-dollar donations nationally, instead of having some connection in your district or state that makes you well-known or well-connected to donors. Your national reach now is so much more important. So maybe that is what ties it all together and what makes it so different from the earlier eras, which is just the nationalization of our politics. We are talking about politics in a similar way in all different parts of the country, in part because we’re talking less and less about local politics and what’s unique about a certain part of the country or a certain county.

I’ll give you a great example of this. Just looking through 2006, the last time I covered the House, the kinds of districts Democrats were winning that year were in southern Indiana and southeastern Ohio. Where they were losing was suburban Philadelphia, suburban Columbus, and suburban Chicago. And it’s sort of, like, how was that possible? And the answer is there was still a local piece to the campaigns. The suburbs hadn’t been completely nationalized; small-town rural areas hadn’t been completely nationalized. You could win in districts, even though they had been traditionally D or R, in a way that you can’t today because of this nationalized level of politics. The local issues that used to drive these campaigns just aren’t as important.

And that nationalization, is that the result of declining local news and the rise of social media? What are the causes of it?

There’s not one specific culprit. But it sure seems to me that the rise of the Internet has everything to do with this and the ubiquity of social media and a disaggregated media landscape. That, I think, is is the biggest piece of all this. When I first started covering the House, the most important sources that I had were the local papers, because they were super important as drivers of opinion and chroniclers of things going on in those areas that you as an outsider wouldn’t know. To be fair, and we learn this lesson every year, it doesn’t mean that local issues don’t matter, or that understanding a community at a granular level is unimportant, or that candidates don’t matter. I think they do. Running a generic Republican or a generic Democrat is oftentimes not enough. You’ve got to be able to show an affinity and an understanding of the place that you are running. But I think it matters more on the margins, rather than being central.

How do you feel political prognosticating has changed in the past 40 years? Do you think it’s gotten more accurate or less, easier or harder?

When I was reading through handfuls of stuff that we had written over the years, some of it, if I just read it to you and didn’t tell you what year we wrote it, you would say, “Oh, that sounds like something you could have done today.” We use the same tools, whether that’s polling data, the demographic data, the historical voting data, the interviews with the candidates, the really in-depth reporting. The tools are still the tools, they just may be more sophisticated tools now, since we have online access to the kind of census data or historical voting data or polling data that allows for a more granular look.

To your point that you made earlier, we do have fewer competitive races and fewer races where the winner is not of the same party as the district normally leans. you’d think that makes it easier, right? If Democrats are winning blue places and Republicans are running red places, then just give the Republicans all the red-leaning seats and Democrats all the blue leaning seats. But, actually, I think what makes it more challenging is that, as we’ve been seeing, who comes out of the primaries now is really significant. The quality of a candidate, the individual campaigns do matter, even if those candidates might be of the “wrong party” or “right party” for the district. And campaigns and money still matter a ton, especially when the difference between one party or the other winning or losing is just a handful of seats. In some of these cases, literally, one party does better in four races by a combined total of 6,000 votes, and that’s the difference between one side being in the majority and the other side not.

Every cycle, we see criticism of polling — but it seems to have particularly increased this year, with even the White House saying that “polling is broken.” As someone who sifts through a lot of polling data in her job, how are you thinking about polling this cycle?

I do think it still matters and I don’t think it’s broken. I think it’s more complicated. I think people are, rightly, more skeptical about survey data that they’re getting, because of what we’e seen over these past couple of years: in the era of Trump, the polls seem to be pretty spot-on in the midterm years, but then not as good in the presidential years where Trump’s on the ballot. So I don't think that means, “Oh, well, all these polls are biased against Trump, or they are not reflective of what a general electorate is really going to look like, so let’s just either throw them out or just assume that Trump’s gonna be even stronger than he looks in these polls.” I think that’s super dangerous.

What I try to do is make sure we’re looking at as many holes as possible, rather than just trying to cherrypick the ones that seem to be telling the story we want to hear. I still think the aggregators do a good job of that, with the ability to take all of those polls and aggregate them in a way that you can see trendlines. The share of the vote Trump was getting in primaries was very close to what the polls were projecting him to get. If it were completely broken, it would mean that Trump was at 50% in all the pre-election polling and he gets 32%. That’s “polls are broken.” “Polls are broken” is not it said Trump was gonna get 50% and he got 51%. To me, that doesn’t show that there’s something fundamentally wrong with our polling.

You’ve written a lot about the “meh voters,” the ones who disapprove of Joe Biden’s presidency but still seem to be voting for Democrats again and again in downballot elections. Does that suggest to you that approval ratings are a less effective metric for forecasting elections?

Approval ratings have been our gold standard for so long because they have a pretty good track record. Whatever your job approval rating is going into an election as a president, that’s pretty close to what you’re going to get in the popular vote within, like, two to four points. And so it’s hard to argue, “Oh, well, job approval ratings don’t matter.” But I do think that the job approval number for Biden, part of the reason that it is less effective right now is that when you look at his job approval rating, whether it’s in a state poll or in a national poll, it is significantly lower than the vote share that he’s getting against Trump. So there are clearly people that are saying to pollsters, this is how they’re processing this election, which is, “I’m not really crazy about Joe Biden, but in a matchup with Donald Trump, I’m still going to pick Joe Biden.”

So I think the danger for Biden, though, is that even if you assume that those “meh voters” break for Biden, and that his job approval rating really isn’t 39%, it’s more like 47%, that’s still not great, right? It’s not like, “Oh, well, if you if you take all those ‘meh voters’ and you put them in the mix, he’s at 52%.” He’s not. So it puts him more in the range of where, say, Trump was in 2020, but that is still a very dangerous place to be as an incumbent.

As evidenced by his loss.

Well, right, and you can look at it two ways. You can say, “Boy, Donald Trump, he was only at 46% or 47% job approval rating, and that wasn’t enough for him to win the election.” On the other hand, you can say, “Donald Trump was at 46% or 47% job approval, and but for about 40,000 votes in three states, he would have been re-elected.” Would he win the popular vote? No. But that’s not how the game is played. Could he win the Electoral College with 46% or 47%? Absolutely.

Looking through the archives, do you see any years with particular resonance for 2024?

This year, in some ways, reminds me a lot of the 2000 election. This is what we wrote around this time, in March 2000: “Only a few months ago, conventional wisdom in the halls of Capitol Hill as well as K Street was that a Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives was almost a foregone conclusion,” which is kind of the way things have been for the past few months today. My sense for months, from both sides, has been that Democrats are gonna win the House but Republicans are gonna win the Senate.

And we said at that time, “Many on both sides seemed to believe it was almost inevitable Democrats would score the five seats necessary for the majority. Though the contest for control of the House is exceedingly close and likely to remain a photo-finish, Republicans seem to have very slight advantage at this juncture.” And that ultimately did prove to be the case, that Republicans did end up holding on to their very narrow majority in 2000 in the House. That feels very similar to where we are today: an exceedingly close presidential race, and a House contest where conventional wisdom — because of how close the House is, how dysfunctional Republicans have been in power, and the fact that there are more Biden-district Republicans than Trump-district Democrats — is this sort of inevitability. But when you do what we did in 2000, and you look at every one of the districts and the races, I don’t know that I would say that Republicans have a very slight advantage, but I would say it’s really more of a toss up. It’s not that the race is in the bag for Democrats. That does feel pretty familiar.

The other fun thing was looking back at something Charlie wrote in early 1991, a reminder that what’s happening today isn’t necessarily what the race is gonna be about by the fall. In 1991, George H.W. Bush was riding pretty high in polling, in large part because of the success of the Gulf War. And Charlie wrote about how he was skeptical that that was going to be enough for Bush, because economic issues were really starting to creep up as more important to voters. And, of course, that’s the election where “it’s the economy stupid” came from. So, those two really stood out for me when thinking about this upcoming fall.

It feels like the message of both those is, “Maybe we know less than we think.”

Exactly, which I think is a good thing to appreciate. And: “We know less than we think, but here’s what we do know.” In the case of the House, we went through and looked at all of the races and who was — at least in that moment in time — doing better and who was doing worse and came to the conclusion, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves on Democrats flipping the House.”

We’re gonna go on a little bit of a roller coaster this year, where it’s, like, “Ooh, Republicans are having a good couple months. Ooh, they’re having a bad month.” But that’s why you have to constantly check in on, and say, “All right, let’s do more than vibes here.”

In the archives, you can see the realignment of different states, like Virginia and Missouri leaving the tossup category, or Georgia entering it. Projecting forward, which states should we watch that might be shifting in category?

One place I would look is Nevada. Now, I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s not a swing state, but I think for so many years, it seemed like it was more Democratic-leaning. It’s one of these places where the demographics of the state once suggested that Democrats would be dominant here forever, because not just the Latino population, but younger Latinos who were going to be coming into the system, who were assumed to have an identity that is more aligned with Democrats. I don’t know that we can feel as confident about where that state ultimately sits. I mean, it’s gonna sit in that toss up category, but I feel like it's been moving a little bit into even more of a jump ball.

Looking at the House list, how much longer are Democrats going to hold on to northern Maine, the Lansing and Saginaw/Flint area in Michigan, Toledo, Wilkes-Barre? Some of these places, you’re like, “It’s just a matter of time.” In the same way, how much longer are Republicans going to be able to hold on to Palm Springs? Even though the Central Valley could stay in Republican hands, will we will we look back in five years and go, “Oh, that’s adorable. We used to think that Democrats had a chance in this part of Michigan or this part of Ohio. Or, oh my gosh, I can’t believe they used to elect Republicans on the coast of California.”

More news to know.

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump is hunting for money — both personally and politically. Personally, he faces a Monday deadline to post a $464 million bond in his New York civil fraud case; per NBC, he’s “growing frustrated” with his inability to obtain the needed cash.

Politically, his February fundraising numbers show his campaign far behind Joe Biden’s. The Biden campaign took in $21.3 million in February, ending the month with $71 million on hand. The Trump campaign took in $10.9 million in February, ending the month with $33.5 million on hand.

The two issues are also intersecting: NBC News reported that Trump has been calling campaign donors to ask for help guaranteeing the bond — at a time when he needs their dollars flowing to his campaign war chest more than ever. Meanwhile, his affiliated PAC spent $5.6 million last month on legal fees.

As the hunt for cash continues, both candidates are stepping up their donor outreach. According to the New York Times, Trump has been hosting donor dinners at Mar-a-Lago, the type of coddling he’s been loath to do in the past. President Biden, meanwhile, has granted private audiences to at least two billionaires recently, a sign of his increased engagement with fundraising as well.

More headlines:

Thanks for reading.

I get up each morning to write Wake Up To Politics because I’m committed to offering an independent and reliable news source that helps you navigate our political system and understand what’s going on in government.

The newsletter is completely free and ad-free — but if you appreciate the work that goes into it, here’s how you can help:

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.‌‌‌‌

Thanks so much for waking up to politics! Have a great day.‌‌‌‌

— Gabe