In July 2018 the most widely-respected analysts were decidedly uncertain whether the Democrats could retake the House—they were favored, but not by much. On July 6, Cook Political Report, for example, listed 180 seats as “solid,” and 21 “likely/leaning” Democratic, plus 24 “toss-ups” — meaning Democrats would have to win toss-ups by more than 2-1 (17 to 7) to take the House. In mid-August, 538’s first forecast had “only 215 seats rated as favoring Democrats — ‘lean Democrat’ or stronger — which is fewer than the 218 they need to take the House.” And on August 30, 2018, Sabato’s Crystal Ball published a model prediction, based on 3000 simulations, with an average Democratic margin of 7 seats. Editors noted this was close to their own assessment: “Democrats as modest favorites but with Republicans capable of holding on to the majority.”
But on July 1, 2018 — preceding all this cautious uncertainty — newcomer Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia, released her prediction of a 42-seat “blue wave,” while also citing the Arizona and Texas U.S. Senate races as “toss-ups.” Her startling prediction was numerically close to perfect; Democrats will end up with a gain of 40 or 41 seats, depending how the re-run in North Carolina’s 9th district turns out. (Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona Senate race, in a major historical shift, and Beto O’Rourke came close in Texas.) Furthermore, she even strutted a little, writing on Nov. 2 that she hadn’t adjusted her seat count, but that “the last few months have been about filling in the blanks on which specific seats will flip.” Her resulting list of those was also close to perfect.
With a record like that, you’d think that Bitecofer’s explanation of what happened would have drawn universal attention and become common sense — but you’d be sadly mistaken. She’s barely beginning to get the recognition she deserves, and more troubling for the country, the outdated assumptions her model dispensed with continue to cloud the thinking of pundits and Democratic Party leadership alike. (Follow her on Twitter here.)
This hampers efforts to counter Donald Trump’s destructive impact on a daily basis, and spreads confusion about both Democratic prospects and strategy in the 2020 election prospects. Above all, the mistaken belief that Democrats won in 2018 by gaining Republican support (aka winning back “Trump voters”) fuels an illusory search for an ill-defined middle ground that could actually demobilize the Democratic leaners and voters who actually drove last year’s blue wave.