As soon as the final count of the Georgia 6th was in, the thunk-pieces started dropping, perhaps best laid bare in this steamer of concern trolling by Republican strategist Shermichael Singleton, in which he concludes that left wing activism is the reason for Ossoff’s loss, echoing the dumber wing of the Democratic establishment and fanning the flames of the Sanders wing of ideological partisans.
Reality check: An extremely generic Democrat just lost a district by 4 percent in an off-cycle election (which depress turnout more than Midterms) that has an 8-point Republican lean, down from a 13-point Republican lean in 2013.
Yes, Democrats need not just improvements, but wins to take back the House, but any Rep that catastrophizes a 4 point over-performance into a sign that the Democratic brand is “toxic” needs to be put on the idiot boat and set adrift.
So how do we avoid being stupid?
First off, recognize what any good poker player should: You can do everything right and lose a hand. Overall, Ossoff outperformed predictions and made the GOP commit resources to an otherwise safe district. Any Republican representative who thinks that they have a safe seat and only need to worry about primaries from the right should recognize that if Dems hit that 4-point increase across the board, they’ll take 80 seats.
Second off, we need to abandon the myth of the median voter. Ossoff ran hard to the center, but you can’t stand on a platform of creamed corn — especially in a tight race. In a paper by David King charted the DW-Nominate scores for Congressional members from 1993 through 2000, and found that contrary to the idea of an ostensible centrist who is wooed by a veneer of reasonableness, tight races tend to be won by politicians who are more partisan — not less — than their safe seat peers. The mechanism makes sense: In tight races, partisan identity tends to be stickier — there are less people in the moveable middle, because attacks harden identification with political parties. Because of that, turning out people who are further to the extreme of the party gives the margin of victory. Ossoff needed to stand for more, not less.
I will note that while I haven’t seen any actual data on this, I would bet that the thesis in general is complicated by the rise of the Tea Party right, who aggressively attacked otherwise conciliatory centrist politicians who had safe seats and leaned to the middle.
But we know that voters are more flattered by a self image of being moderate than they are motivated — everyone tends to think of themselves as moderate, but voter preferences are better captured by weird bundles of conflicted extremist positions, especially when they have very little hand in implementing the policies they prefer.
The real lesson of the Ossoff election? Democrats are in line with historical cycles to retake a significant portion of the House, it’s better to be clear about your partisan lean than it is to be mushy, and it’s important to live in the district you want to represent.