Conventional wisdom dictates that a blue wave is coming in November. But what will really decide the 2018 midterms?
The 2016 election may have just been a fluke, or, it may have been a sign that the very expertise of academics, pollsters, and journalists is outdated. Therefore, I’m not going to try to predict the outcome of the 2018 midterms, but I will lay out all of the major factors that could benefit the Democrats and the Republicans in this upcoming.
1. The President’s Party usually loses seats in midterms. The last three times a president’s party gained seats in a midterm were 2002, 1998, and 1934. In all of these cases, the President had well above 50% approval ratings.
2. Trump’s 39.9% approval rating. This should spell disaster for a president’s party in the midterms. Trump was doing no better in 2016, however, and won. But….
3. Trump isn’t on the ballot. It’s possible that all of the defilement of conventional wisdom associated with Trump’s “winningness”, is limited to Trump himself. While Republican candidates can run as “Trump Republicans”, they are not Trump. Democrats have a better chance against regular Republicans, particularly when they run “Trump-lite Democrats” in the right areas, such as Pennsylvania’s Conor Lamb.
4. Youth turnout movements, like #neveragain and #climatevoter. Younger voters have been more likely to favor Democrats since the 60s. But youth turnout is fickle. Therefore, a strong get-out-the-vote rally is likely to favor Democrats. Efforts bring out the youth on issues that actually matter to them, rather than just “referendum on Trump”, are more likely to motivate young voters.
5. Russiagate. Needless to say, the whole Russian election interference scandal benefits Congressional Democrats. Aside from appealing to their voting base, it also discourages Trump leaning swing voters and even some off Trump’s base.
1. Voter turnout by age. Older voters tend to favor Republicans and are more reliable voters than the young. In 2016, voters 60+ turned out over 70%, compared to the 18-29 age group that turned out just below 45%. Furthermore, 2016 was a low turnout election for a Presidential race, and we remember the outcome. As midterms have always had lower turnout than Presidential races, Republicans get a natural advantage here.
2. The District lines. While this has no effect on the Senate, the Republicans have gained an advantage in House races. The Republicans have spent the last few decades vesting heavily in winning state legislatures. State legislatures then get to draw the district lines, and with some limits, can draw those lines to favor their party. As a result, Republicans have been able to draw districts to their advantage.
3. Negativity politics. Possibly because of #1 above, Republicans seem to do better in negative political climates. Fear of terrorism kept Bush in power and staved off any significant blue waves until 2006. In the depths of the Great Recession, the Tea Party was able to revive the Republican Party in 2010. Currently, the political climate is especially negative, despite…
4. The economy. As unemployment was 3.9% as of August 2018. Compare that to 9.7% in August of 2010, just before Obama faced the Tea-flavored “red wave”. It goes without saying that a better economy favors the party in power. Democrats can mitigate this Republican advantage by calling it “Obama’s economy – Trump’s inheritance”. It’s hard to say how convincing that will be.
1. Will enough of the youth #walkaway? The #walkaway movement is led by a young, gay former Democrat, who decided to “walk away” from the Democratic Party, and towards Trump. His movement is mostly confined to social media but has been getting much attention from FOX News. It’s real, but it’s hard to say how much of an impact it will make on either bringing young voters to Trump, or at least away from Congressional Democrats. They are planning a march in late October on DC. The size of this march will be a good indication of how impacting it will be.
2. The Democrats’ self-defeating negativity. While Democrats gain some advantage from Russiagate, they can easily overplay this card.
If Democrats make 2018 about “a referendum on Trump” rather than what they can do for American voters, it will benefit Republicans.
It is too soon, even in September, to say whether or not the Democrats will run a negative campaign, or try to revive some “hope” for “change”. The latter would be to their advantage.
3. The Midwest. About this time two years ago, Democrats watched with glee as Republicans seemed to be hemorrhaging off red states. How can the Republicans win if they lose Virginia, and can barely hold onto Georgia and N. Carolina? But the Democrats didn’t notice that they, too, were losing some of their strongholds. Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania decided the outcome of the 2016 election. For them, it was largely Trump’s trade agenda. Trump has been delivering on these tariffs for sure. However, in the rust belt, the atmosphere has been generally bleak since the de-industrialization that started in the late-70s. That makes it difficult for Trump to build on his 2016 momentum to get them to turn out for regular Republicans.
Will the Midwest determine the outcome of this election too?
The Midwest was underestimated by the Democrats and most pollsters and journalists in 2016. While there has been some talk of that following the election, the Midwest still seems underrepresented in media coverage and electoral projections. If the Midwest is continually ignored, and Trump continues to hold rallies in those states that, perhaps to his advantage, get minimal media coverage, it may be enough for another “upset” Republican victory in November. However, blue-collar Midwesterners are not Republicans; they just voted for Trump. As Trump is not on the ballot, they may very well vote like white southerners did in the 1980s, for Republican Presidents, but for their local Democrats.
Should the Democrats regain the Midwest in this election cycle, they would be wise to remember that beating Republicans in the Midwest is not the same thing as beating Trump.
Trump appealed to them in ways that neither party has for a long time. If I’m going to make any prediction at all about 2018, and 2020, it will be that the Midwest is key, and the party that neglects these states does so at their peril. For the Democrats, this means repeating the success of the Conor Lamb race. It will mean more Democrats in Congress who can’t be counted on to oppose anything and everything Trump. But it will also mean more Democrats in Congress. To paraphrase Princess Leia, the more the Democrats tighten their grip, the more districts slip through their fingers. As the DNC has neither the technology nor resources to build a Death Star, they’d be wise to loosen their grip.