This is part 10 of the PredictWise series on congressional districts that are seen as competitive in the 2018 election according to PredictWise and Cook: The PredictWise Progressive Pendulum, with new entries coming right here on PredictWise every Tuesday. Instead of the ins-and-outs of the horse-race, this series sheds light on the ideological landscape in these districts. How do residents tick politically? What are their stances on the hot-button issues of the day, from immigration to gun regulation? How do they view traditional political fields, from taxation to healthcare? What role do environmental policies play in the mind of voters of these Districts? How does the Progressive Pendulum swing? Today, we will zoom in on the 21st Congressional District in California.
CA-21: Highly uneducated district, with high levels of skepticism toward elites and elite opinion and deep fears about economic displacement, but also disapproving of Trump, with strong preferences for job training and government-provided education This district sees Democratic candidate TJ Cox squaring off against incumbent David Valadao. The PredictWise Progressive Pendulum has identified some openings on progressive messages around job-training, healthcare, and taxation, but Democratic strategists need to take into account a deep anti-elitist sentiment in this district.
This district spans the San Joaquin Valley, and includes areas of Fresno County, Kern County, Kings County, and Tulare County. Cities include Coalinga, Delano, Hanford, and outer parts of Bakersfield.
Demographically, this district is a minority-majority district, with the vast majority of all citizens identifying as Hispanic (71%), and only a small faction being White (19.3%). This Central valley district is one of the least educated in the country, with a college graduation rate of only 8.3%, compared to the 32% at the national level. And, almost 40% of residents here do not have a High School degree (!). CA-21 is poor, with a median annual family income of only $42,621. And, most residents are employed, unsurprisingly, in agriculture (close to 30%).
As far as elections go, this district has been in Republican hands for decades, with the incumbent, David Valadao being in power since 2012, but the political climate this year is less clear. Yes, the one public poll we are aware of has Democratic challenger TJ Cox trailing by 11 points, but PredictWise metrics are much closer. Our nation-wide generic ballot polling has Cox in a substantive lead, and private, candidate-specific polling we are conducting in this district sees Cox ahead by several percentage oints. Our methods of polling, randomly targeting Ad Ids on mobile phones, has the potential to reach less educated respondents (a major factor behind our successful 2016 predictions). If we see a surge in turnout in this district, we would not be surprised to see a major polling error in public polling (and other private polling we are aware of).
Further, Trump approval we are tracking is at only 36% in that district, dangerously close to our state-wide estimate of 34%. The Cook PVI – comparing a congressional district’s average Democratic or Republican Party share of the two-party presidential vote in the past two presidential elections to the national average share for those elections – illustrates the potential for this district to flip: It is set at D+5. Cook does rate this district as “Likely Republican” though, but nonetheless, this district is a Dark Horse to us. Progressives need to invest resources immediately.
Politically, Cox supports expanding rural healthcare services, opposes President Trump’s immigration plan and favors a path to citizenship and protections for DACA recipients, protecting Medicare and Social Security, and opposes Citizens United. Valadao has voted against funding for President Trump’s border wall, but voted in favor of other measures gutting legal immigration, and voted in favor of a measure withholding federal funds from states and localities that chose not to follow federal immigration laws.
CA-21: Distrustful of elites; left on the sideline of 21st century economics
This district is one of the least educated in the country, and it is hence no surprise that anti-elitist populism is central to political belief systems here. To residents in this Central Valley district, the elite discourse is far, far away, and elites are seen deeply skeptical. Proof in point: 54% of all likely voters here believe that groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate or suppress evidence in order to deceive the public, and this includes majorities of likely voters identifying with the Democratic party (50%) and the Republican party (58%). Note that these numbers are among the highest in the country.
This skepticism of elites is reflected in cultural mores present in this district, especially as they relate to child-rearing. Nowhere is this gap between the daily life of ordinary people and what experts prescribe more apparent than on the issue of discipline. Expert groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics heavily recommend against using physical discipline such as spanking, but residents in this central valley districts heavily favor spanking as a means of child-rearing. 62% of all voters, and 58% of Democrats as well as 68% of Republicans, agree that “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good hard spanking”.
Low levels of education also directly translate into economic fears about future employment, again to a much higher degree than in other districts. People in this Californian district are keenly aware that they will not gain much from globalization and internationalization of the labor market, quite to the contrary. 69% of all likely voters here are either very concerned or somewhat concerned that jobs they qualify for will be replaced by machines in the near future, and this includes 72% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans. Again, these numbers are among the highest in the country.
CA-21: Moderate on immigration and gun control; in favor of military expansion
On many measures curtailing immigration, Republican incumbent David Valadao has voted in lock-step with the Trump administration, but sentiment on immigration in this Central Valley district is not as conservative. A majority of likely voters here believes that recent immigrants strengthen the country when it comes to the job market in the US, and this includes a robust majority of Democrats (65%), and a sizable fraction of Republicans (34%). Of course, immigrants are key to a functioning agriculture here, one of the central markets in this district.This more nuanced position on immigration directly translates into a nuanced position on free trade. Across all residents, Democrats, and Republicans, more people believe that when the US expands free trade, trade-offs between more and/or cheaper goods and increased stress on the borders are worth it as opposed to not worth it. Of course, as we have pointed out elsewhere, many Americans have no strong preferences on free trade, and CA-21 is no difference.
Another issue on which residents in this district are much more moderate than in comparable districts: Gun control. While a majority of likely voters here are in favor of protecting overall rights to buy or own guns, positions are much more nuanced when it comes to certain elements of gun control. For example, a majority of likely voters (66%) believe that the right to own guns without being subject to state or federal registration should be restricted. And, this includes a sizable majority of Republicans (59%).Things look different when it comes to the military. While only about 1% of those participating in the labor force are on active duty in this district, a clear majority hear supports expanding the role and scope of the military, with 58% of all likely voters, 45% of Democrats, and 74% of Republicans in support.
CA-21: Progressive on Jobs, Climate Change, Taxes, Elderly Care
In general, there is a number of openings for clear, progressive policies in this Central Valley district, especially as they relate to education (As we noted before, this district is one of the least educated in the country). For example, vast majorities of all likely voters (72%), Democrats (84%), and even Republicans (! 57%!) believe that the government should make colleges tuition-free.
Connected to these numbers is an understanding that the poor face numerous obstacles related to job training and education resources. 54% of all likely voters here, and 62% of Democrats, believe that poor people have it hard, without enough government benefits to succeed, when it comes to job training, and this includes a majority of Republicans as well (44%, as opposed to 38% of Republicans who believe poor people have it easy when it comes to job training, with ample government benefits to succeed). Here, TJ Cox’s plan to fund free community-college, vocational school, secondary school education and job training should be highlighted aggressively.
On other fronts, this district looks a lot like other districts we are tracking, inhibiting high support for progressive healthcare and taxation. On healthcare, a vast majority of all likely voters (78%), Democrats (85%), and Republicans (70%) believe it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that people over 65 have healthcare coverage. Again, TJ Cox’s position on providing and ensuring healthcare in rural areas is a good angle to push.
On taxation, things look similarly progressive. Most likely voters here (55%) are in favor of raising taxes on large, public corporations to provide more government services; this includes 60% of Democrats and a robust majority of Republicans (48% in favor of raising taxes as opposed to 32% in favor of lowering taxes).
On climate change, this district is surprisingly progressive as well. In fact, a large majority of likely voters in this Central Valley district believes that the US should take a leadership role in international agreements aimed toward addressing climate change (71%), and that includes majorities of Democrats (79%) and Republicans (64%) alike.
CA-21; target education (education, education), healthcare, and taxation
In sum, there is no doubt that there are some openings for progressives in this district, especially around the issue of education as it relates to job training. TJ Cox is in a particularly powerful position when it comes to initiatives for free vocational training, community colleges and job training. Likewise, his agenda of providing rural healthcare resonates here: likely voters are especially concerned about healthcare for the elderly. And, incumbent David Valadao should be attacked on his conservative record on immigration, which does not resonate with this district, that bends more progressive on immigration. We think overall conditions are much more favorable here, with abysmal Trump approval ratings, and Cox being in a slight lead. But structurally, this is a fairly conservative district. Low levels of education mean that conspiracy theories resonate here, and elites and elite opinion are seen as highly critical. What we propose to Cox: Make job training and healthcare, especially elderly care, the cornerstone of your campaign; attack Valadao on immigration!