When pundits look back on past House cycles, they often pass ex post facto judgement on campaign outcomes and candidate quality. Overperforming incumbents and successful challengers, especially those scoring unexpected victories, are lauded and heralded as models for electoral success.
But what about the underperformers? The hopefuls that win without meeting or exceeding expectations. For every John Katko or Jared Golden, there is a Jim Hagedorn or Ilhan Omar. To fill in the analysis dearth, Split Ticket will attempt to answer a few broad questions regarding the circumstances of underperformance.
- If a candidate underperforms the fundamentals in one election, is he or she doomed to repeatedly win unimpressively?
- Does media-spotlight polarization damage the district-level reputations of specific incumbents, therefore leading to significant underperformances?
- Four of the five districts represented by the top underperforming House Democrats from 2020 have significant minority populations. Do underwhelming victories in these seats have more to do with actual shifts among minority voters or merely increased national attention?
The WAR Model
To understand this article, one must first comprehend its foundation: the WAR model. Lakshya Jain recently developed the 2020 House version to assess how well candidates in each contested seat really did relative to the fundamentals of their districts and the national environment. Candidate quality and fundraising were just some of the other important factors taken into account.
WAR modelling is important to political analysis because it gives observers a chance to objectively quantify how well certain candidates did void of any prior expectations. For instance, most forecasters rated MN-07 as Lean R during the 2020 cycle because they expected Collin Peterson to lose narrowly. He ended up losing by double digits, even failing to exceed 40% of the vote.
On its face, a pundit would then be inclined to say Peterson performed poorly because he did not meet initial expectations. However, a quick glance at the WAR model will show that Peterson had one of the greatest overperformances of any Democratic incumbent despite his ultimate loss. The model not only shows a candidate can still post an impressive finish while coming up short, it also makes clear that initial expectations are not a surefire way to issue judgement in hindsight.
You can find Split Ticket’s latest interactive model here.
Now that the general characteristics of the WAR model have been explained, methodology must briefly be explored. Residuals are used to calculate under/overperformance and color shading. That means an underperformance for a Democratic incumbent, for instance, is marked in red because the GOP challenger did better than predicted. The data table below denotes Democratic underperformances with positive numbers and Republican underperformances with negative numbers. With explanations out of the way, let’s meet the ten incumbents in question.
Out of thirty incumbents across both parties who underperformed by five points or more, Split Ticket chose to analyze the top five from both parties for a total of ten members. The list of representatives ranked by his or her degree of underperformance is provided below. Many of these names will not surprise the keenest election watchers, but some of them could be a bit shocking.
Once An Underperformer, Always One. Right?
The first question to address is an obvious foundational one: if a candidate underperforms the fundamentals in one election, is he or she doomed to repeatedly win unimpressively? Is underperformance a vicious cycle or a temporary bane? Like most factors governing performance, the propensity to be underwhelming depends largely on the candidate.
Alex Mooney (WV-02) and Jim Hagedorn (MN-01) are both perfect examples of incumbents who have fallen short of expectations in all of their elections. “Chronic underperformance” would be a good descriptor for this seemingly-unshakeable phenomenon.
Mooney, a former Maryland St. Senator, won an open Romney +22 seat by just three points in the Republican year of 2014. Two years later, the 2nd was Trump +37 but Mooney was reelected by only 16 points – almost half that margin. His next two victories were equally unimpressive, including an 11 point underperformance in 2020 that was higher than that of any other victorious Republican incumbent.
The ‘carpetbagger’ aesthetic probably bears most of the blame for Mooney’s denuded wins, but it seems to have mattered less and less over time. With future U.S. Senate ambitions on the line, Mooney must now hope to defeat fellow incumbent David McKinley in the upcoming redistricting primary. It will be more interesting to see if he underperforms again this November.
Hagedorn, the son of a former Congressman, was one of three Republicans nationwide to flip an open Democratic seat amid the 2018 blue wave. Two of the districts that changed hands were Trump-won Minnesota seats, the southernmost of which elected Hagedorn.
The erstwhile conservative blogger had been the GOP nominee against Tim Walz twice before, losing on both occasions. Following Walz’s gubernatorial announcement, Hagedorn tried once more to lock down the Trump +15 seat. Polarization had caught up just enough to deliver his upset victory against Dan Feehan by just 1,000 votes out of nearly 300,000 cast. In hindsight, that win was far from comfortable given the 1st district’s partisanship.
In 2020, Hagedorn narrowly beat Feehan again – but with a mere plurality of the vote. Had the Legalize Cannabis Party not been on the ballot to take almost 6% of the vote, it is possible that the Democrats could have won the 1st or at least come closer to doing so. Redistricting is not complete in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, but there is reason to believe Hagedorn will underperform in the future.
Darrell Issa, a former Congressman who carpetbagged to a safer seat in 2020, can probably blame his tarnished image for his 7.9 point underperformance in a similar manner to Mooney.
Some incumbents just become congenital underperformers on their own accord. Fellow Congressmen like Scott DesJarlais and John Garamendi are other poignant examples despite not being listed. Basically, repeated underperformances show that candidate quality – or lack of it – can still impact margins in various seats.
The Spotlight: Is It Detrimental Or Beneficial?
Most politicians and aspiring candidates never get time in the spotlight. The modern media demand rewards partisans and grandstanders more than honest legislators with selfless dedication to bettering the nation. Because every electoral contender yearns for air time and improved name recognition, it is worth asking: does media-spotlight polarization damage the district-level reputations of specific incumbents, therefore leading to significant underperformances?
Think of Ilhan Omar, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Madison Cawthorn, or AOC. What do all of these members have in common? They are darlings of the mainstream media, and have no trouble getting the attention of everyday Americans in ways that most House members could never dream of. Idolized or hated depending on the network in question, all of the members listed above have been subjects of controversy from the media firestorm at some point or another.
The biggest underperformances from incumbents came from Ilhan Omar, Matt Gaetz, and AOC. Did controversial comments, scandals, and spotlight polarization harm the electoral viability of these three representatives? To a certain extent, the data suggest that the answer is yes. According to the WAR model, Omar underperformed by 17.3 points – a larger drop than any incumbent nationwide of either political persuasion. Gaetz and AOC posted similarly-poor drop-offs of 8.6 and 9.8 points respectively.
In this increasingly-polarized America, it is not hard to imagine “going national” as a positive thing. After all, the nationwide spotlight gets politicians recognition – good and bad – from Americans across the spectrum. But bomb-throwing and controversy probably do disillusion a significant amount of voters at the district level. Being more open to compromise seems just as beneficial to the country as a whole as it is to electoral reliability.
Attention Is Influential.
The final conundrum of underperformance analysis deals with the interpretation of results. Does a significant underperformance indicate actual shifts among key portions of a given electorate if the shifts are somewhat reflected nationally, or can it be blamed on national attention alone? This has been an especially-pertinent question for political analysts when analyzing inroads Republicans have made with Hispanic and black voters. Our conclusion: national attention and regional outreach can drive split-ticket voting.
Let’s look first at Devin Nunes, the former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. A longtime Congressman and standard conservative, Nunes more or less won easily every two years for the last two decades. That changed in 2018 when he faced a challenge from Andrew Janz in the middle of a Democratic environment. His controversial intervention in the Russia Investigation garnered the animosity of Democrats everywhere, bringing money and attention to his opponent’s campaign. He won, albeit narrowly.
Although he had never faced any issue when it came to outrunning the top of the ticket in a Presidential year before, our model considers his 2020 victory rather weak given the fundamentals. Do the Nunes underperformances mean his 22nd district would vote consistently Democratic in the future under the current lines? No. His negative position in the national spotlight simply engendered the opposition.
Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40), Maxine Waters (CA-43), AOC (NY-14), and Kweisi Mfume (MD-07) all represent solidly-Democratic seats with large minority populations. Most of their underperformances can probably be blamed on media polarization as well. Mfume faced a well-funded challenge from Kim Klacik, a prominent black Republican with a bold push to reform Baltimore from the ground up. Waters and AOC both drew visible challenges from the right because they are fixtures of the American left despised by conservatives.
Republicans did make inroads with Hispanic and black voters in 2020, but these specific Democratic underperformances are probably more attributable to national attention levels and the candidates themselves.
Ultimately, the most important thing 2020 showed us about underperformance is that candidate quality still matters. Polarization might be making it difficult for the minority party to win a given race amid strong headwinds, but split-ticket voting is still widespread enough to impact incumbent performances. It is possible that underperformances will become less common in Presidential years if electoral polarization continues, but the phenomenon will not disappear altogether.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org