If the narrative about the 2018 election starts to change, blame the 'phantom public'

If the narrative about the 2018 election starts to change, blame the 'phantom public'
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For most of 2017, Democrats were bullish on the 2018 elections. In mid-December, Democrats were running thirteen points ahead of Republicans in the generic congressional voting poll.

In recent weeks, the Democratic edge has plummeted to a mere 6.6 points in the Real Clear Politics aggregated polling. This drop may be the difference between a Democratic and a Republican House.

Republicans were reportedly feeling confident about keeping their majority after their retreat last weekend, and some columnists have argued that Democrats would be better off not winning control of the House — presumably they could continue to blame Republicans for many things and channel their bitterness into the 2020 election.


You might reply that there is no election where a generic Democrat is running against a generic Republican. Even as congressional voting has become more polarized, people still tend to reward likable incumbents and to think at least a little bit about the traits of the candidates. Campaigns still matter.

Democrats who want to find optimistic signs have spoken of how well their nominees have performed in House special elections, in the 2017 New Jersey and Virginia elections, in the Alabama Senate race, and in state legislative elections.

Over the past month we have seen efforts to read the tea leaves regarding Democratic upsets in state legislative special elections in rural Wisconsin and in a Missouri district that Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE won by 28 percentage points.

At the same time, however, the generic polling is easy to understand and intuitive. If people say they’re going to vote for a Democrat, they will and vice versa. We know, as well, that the generic voting poll is predictive — much more so than fundraising data or voting results for other offices.

It’s important to identify the people who have abandoned their support for generic Democratic candidates in 2018, and consider why they’ve done so. In the early years of public opinion research, some political scientists questioned if there was a way to determine what the will of the public.

In 1927, Walter Lippmann argued that any effort to discern a public interest was doomed to fail; the “phantom public” was a useful rhetorical tool in making arguments, but the public is really only capable of choosing among a limited range of options.

To update Lippmann’s argument, little has happened over the past month that would seem to have influenced citizens’ decisions, but perhaps a momentary cessation of truly awful news from Washington has registered at some level. Given that the election is still nine months off, it’s hard to make a case that it matters what these people are thinking.

This does not mean, however, that variations in polling don’t have real consequences — the phantom public can still be useful.

Here are some things that matter right now:

First, now is the time for prospective House candidates to make up their minds about running. Seven states’ deadlines have passed, and twenty-one more states have filing deadlines before the end of March.

As the Campaign Finance Institute’s analyses have shown, the Democrats have already had an unprecedented number of candidates file to run – there are nearly twice as many Democrats who have filed to run as there were Republicans at this point in 2010, and there are four times as many Republican incumbents who face relatively well-financed Democratic challengers than was the case at this point two years ago.

However, one slices the data, there are a lot of people with a stake in the game. If things start to look a bit less rosy for Democrats, we may see fewer Democrats continue to jump in, or even more Republicans may look to challenge Democratic incumbents.

Second, just as some candidates will chose whether to run based on their beliefs about what will happen in November, so too, incumbents may decide whether or not to stick around for those same reasons.

To date, 35 Republican House members have announced their retirements (24 are retiring outright, 11 are seeking higher office). Although their reasons may vary, surely some of them have been thinking about the 2018 election and what it would be like to be members of the minority party. Again, some good news about November for Republicans may stem the tide of resignations.

Third, campaign contributors and super PACs will also make campaign contributions based on what they think will happen in November. Big donors, in particular, can be herded toward candidates who seem like they might win, and away from those who look uncompetitive. These decisions can make these perceptions reality.

We are seeing this right now in the meager fundraising hauls for some Republican Senate candidates. As the election dates approach, it will be clearer which candidates are viable and which aren’t, and the money will follow. Early fundraising successes can help position candidates for serious consideration later in the campaign.

All of these decisions are made by people who are paid to understand more about politics than you or I. Yet the narratives we tell about who is going to win tend to drive their decisions. Sometimes things don’t work out the way everyone expects, but when candidates decide whether to run, donors decide who to support, and parties decide who to recruit based on their perceptions of what is going to happen, then perceptions have a way of becoming reality.

All of which is to say that those six percent of voters could be completely untethered from anything happening in politics. They could be an artifact of polling error. They could merely be momentarily smitten with the extra $1.50 in their paychecks. But if the narrative about the 2018 election starts to change, blame the phantom public.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse.