Supporting DC Statehood is Practical Politics

By John Ray (@johnlray)

On Friday, the newly Democratic-led House passed HR1 which includes, among many commonsense voting reforms and electoral protections, endorsement of DC statehood. Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first-ever piece of legislation to pass the House officially endorsing voting rights for the District, which has a higher population than Wyoming, Vermont, and every other non-voting US territory besides Puerto Rico.

From January 25 to 29, 2019, Data for Progress fielded a survey of 1,282 US voters with YouGov Blue. On that survey, we asked voters about statehood for both Washington, DC and Puerto Rico. Specifically, we asked respondents:

Would you support or oppose granting statehood, including full representation in Congress, to Washington, DC, currently a Federal District?

and

Would you support or oppose granting statehood, including full representation in Congress, to Puerto Rico, currently a US Commonwealth?

to which respondents could respond if they strongly supported, somewhat supported, neither supported nor opposed, somewhat opposed, strongly opposed, or were unsure.

While Republicans were quick to attack HR1 as a “power grab,” our results were clear: DC statehood and Puerto Rico statehood are both popular.

Voters support DC statehood 34 percent-28 percent, with a further 19 percent being in the middle and 18 percent being unsure. The numbers are even clearer for Puerto Rico: 53 percent of voters support Puerto Rico statehood, and just 21 percent oppose, with 14 percent in the middle and 12 percent being unsure.

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Across the full survey, views on statehood for DC and Puerto Rico were highly correlated. Eighty-seven percent of voters who strongly supported statehood for DC also strongly supported statehood for Puerto Rico, and 59 percent of those who strongly opposed statehood for DC also strongly opposed it for Puerto Rico. While overall support for Puerto Rico statehood was higher to a statistically detectable degree, supporting equal rights in one territory is clearly related to supporting them in another.

Even though the partisan voting history of Washington, DC suggests that it would be to the clear benefit of Democrats to support DC statehood, Democrats exhibited by far the least certainty on the matter, with 43 percent of the Democrats in our sample either being neutral or undecided on DC statehood. By contrast, Republicans in our sample clearly opposed equal rights for both territories. Republicans opposed DC statehood 46-23, and opposed Puerto Rico statehood 39-33. But Independents side with the Democrats on both counts, supporting DC statehood 35-33 and Puerto Rico statehood 58-22, almost as large of a margin as Democrats.

As HR1 included DC statehood but not Puerto Rico statehood, we’ll drill down slightly more into the DC question next. Across the full sample, self-identified conservatives were out of step with liberal and moderate respondents. Liberal/very liberal respondents supported DC statehood 57-10, moderates 32-22, and conservative/very conservative respondents opposed it 52-16.

The same trend held within political party: Self-identified very liberal, liberal, and moderate Democrats, Independents, and Republicans all on net supported DC statehood. The following plot shows the share of respondents who strongly or somewhat supported DC statehood minus the share who strongly or somewhat opposed DC statehood. Democrats are mostly very liberal or liberal (58 percent) and moderate (35 percent), and Republicans are overwhelmingly conservative or very conservative (75 percent) and moderate (20 percent), and those smaller subgroups can make net differences difficult to detect statistically. But the tiny (5 percent) share of Republicans who identify as liberal or very liberal clearly support DC statehood, and moderate Republicans on net support DC statehood as well, though the net level of support can’t be confidently distinguished from zero. Moderate and liberal Independents supported DC statehood as well.

Using respondents’ vote history, we can categorize them by how they behaved at the ballot in 2016 and 2018. We can describe voters as Dem-Dem if they voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for their Democratic House candidate in 2018, as Rep-Dem if they voted for Donald Trump in 2016 but for a Democrat in 2018, as Rep-Rep if they voted for Trump in 2016 and a Republican House candidate in 2018, and so on.

While these groups get down to small sample sizes (470 of our respondents were Dem-Dem, 400 were Rep-Rep, 140 moved from Trump, a third party, or from not voting in 2016 to the Democrats in 2018, 51 moved to the Republicans from 2016-2018, and 220 didn’t vote in one or both elections), we can see that it is clearly good politics to include DC statehood in HR1. Voters who moved into the Democratic column in 2018 on net support DC statehood, as do those who didn’t turn out in at least one of those elections or voted for a third party in both elections.

Facing rising costs from the structural errors in our system of government now propagating through a growing partisan rift in our system, Democrats have many options going forward for rectifying our democracy on behalf of the majority of voters. From expanding and guaranteeing voting rights to expanding the courts to fighting for fair maps, Democrats have many tools in their arsenal for fighting the minoritarian tendencies that have kept the Republican Party afloat. Statehood for disenfranchised American taxpayers is one of them that the public clearly endorses.

John Ray (@johnlray) is a Senior Political Analyst at YouGov Blue.

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