james debate
james debate

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Last week, America went to the polls and elected a new Congress. This blog has posted on the subject over the past few months, culminating in last week's final forecast. Now that the dust has settled (aside from a few straggler House seats, a Mississippi runoff and a Florida recount) it's time to step back and take stock of what happened. Were we surprised? What will the consequences be over the next few years? Most importantly, what does this all tell us about the direction the country is headed?

2018 us midterm congress election house senate trump clinton democrat republican

Let's begin by stating the obvious: this was a blue wave election.

Democrats took control of the House, with gains now expected to end up just short of 40 seats, and a popular vote margin of around 8%. Let's not beat around the bush, that's a historic result. This is the third largest swing in the House in 40 years, and the largest for the Democratic Party since the Watergate scandal. An 8% popular vote margin is greater than all bar one Republican House majority in the party's history.

This result exceeds expectations, but not by much. The Ephemeric predicted gains of around 30 seats, but with the caveat that due to the way House districts have been gerrymandered, a slight deviation in national margin could translate to a significant number of additional seats. In fact I specifically suggested that each additional percent over the expected 7% threshold might translate into an additional 10 seats, and that's almost exactly what we're seeing.

Meanwhile in the Senate Republicans look set to gain 1-2 seats depending on what happens in the Florida recount (I'm assuming the Democrats will be unable to pick up the Mississippi runoff unless Cindy Hyde-Smith makes a few more gaffes like this). Again, this is very much in line with The Ephemeric's pre-election expectations of a 1-2 seat gain.

There has been a lot of talk about a "mixed result", and suggestions that Democrats did not perform as well in the Senate as they did in the House based on this result. Sure, on the surface a Republican gain in the Senate may seem like a good result for them, but when you consider that the 2018 Senate map was one of the most favourable maps that any party has ever had, that becomes a harder argument to make. 18 out of 35 Senate races this year were in red states, and Democrats were on the defence in 26 of those states. In a normal election you would have expected Republicans to make gains of 5-6 on this map just by breaking even, so the fact that Republican gains were limited to just one or two is quite remarkable in many ways.

Ultimately Democrats ended up winning 69% of all Senate races this year, which would make this their 5th best result of the last 27 midterm elections, and a greater win percentage than Republican waves of 2010 and 2014. Make no mistake, Democrats performed just as strongly in the Senate, it just so happens that they had a lot of seats to lose.

But elections were not just held in the House and Senate, and throughout the state and local elections the blue wave was consistent. Democrats made substantial gains in the Gubernatorial races, flipping 8 states. A majority of Americans will now be governed by a Democrat. Similar gains can be found in the state legislature and judiciary, with potentially significant ramifications going forward.

There can be no doubt, this was a blue wave and a historically substantial one. Going further, this election was specifically a rebuke against Donald Trump, with exit polls showing a clear majority wanted their vote to send a message to the White House.

The country is a lot more blue now than it was pre-election. A majority of Americans will be governed by a Democrat. Many states, including some swing states, will now be dominated if not outright controlled by local Democrats. But of course the development of greatest national significance will be the new Democratic House majority.

So first the obvious: with a new House majority, Democrats can effectively block all Trump legislation from being passed, including budgets. This may be a moot point considering Trump and the Republican Party barely managed to get any legislation or budgets passed even with total control, but it at least provides additional comfort to the tens of millions of Americans who no longer have to rely on Republican incompetence in order to maintain their access to healthcare.

Of potentially greater import is the ability of the House to hold investigations and subpoena documents. The Republican majority's investigation into Russian election interference has been widely berated as a corrupt farce, while they have simply ignored the President's violations of the emoluments clause, his accusations of sexual misconduct, not to mention the fact that he has actually already been named as an unindicted co-conspirator on multiple felonies by his own lawyer. Investigating Republican Party corruption should certainly not be the first priority of this new Democratic House, but it is at least comforting to know that we have checks and balances who will now prevent this corruption from spiralling out of control, and hopefully bring some of the more egregious offenders to justice. And of course, this new power also has ramifications with respect to the all-important Robert Mueller investigation.

One of Trump's first priorities post-midterm has been (revealingly) to replace Jeff Sessions with his own loyalist in the Department of Justice. Many have suggested that this action is a first step towards firing Robert Mueller, but frankly there's no need for them to do something that would draw such unwanted attention. After all the DoJ can simply withhold funding or refuse to publicly release Mueller's final report. Robert Mueller could well conclude that Trump has committed multiple felonies, and if Trump's new Attorney General chooses to bury the report no one would ever find out. That's where the House Democrats come in. Now that they have subpoena power, it's going to be much harder for Trump to keep any official documents hidden away.

The new Democratic dominance at the state level is also likely to manifest itself in tangible ways, most notably in the realm of gerrymandering. North Carolina has historically been one of the most outrageous offenders, but now that the Democrats have taken a majority in the NC Supreme Court, there's the very real prospect of judicial action being taken to restrict such anti-democratic abuses in future. In this one state alone that could result in an additional 5 seats flipping Democrat in 2020. If similar steps against gerrymandering can be taken in other states, it could be over a dozen seats. So as you can see, even at the less glamorous local level, this election's results could have quite a significant impact on 2020.

It's also worth discussing how it's become quite fashionable to say "ignore the polls", "the polls are always wrong". But in actual fact this was a very very good night for the polls and forecasters. As you can see, even my own forecast was almost exactly right in both the House and Senate, and I'm far from alone in that regard. The quality of polling in America is actually pretty darn good if you know how to use them correctly.

As a final observation, the fallout from this election appears to have cemented a very unfortunate attribute of today's politics: complete detachment from reality.

A way too early preview of Election 2020
Don't get me wrong, midterm elections are awesome. But it's fair to say that the real reason many Americans tuned in is to find out how likely Trump is to be re-elected in 2 years time. So at the risk of jumping the gun a bit, let's have a quick look towards the next set of elections, and whether we can divine any clues from this year's results as to how those are likely to unfold.

Presidential election years are usually more favourable for Democrats from a demographic perspective, which means all else being equal you might expect Democrats to perform even better in 2020 than they did in 2018. But of course, 2018 is looking to have been something of a wave year for Democrats, and historically speaking when one party has that kind of momentum it is extremely rare for them to maintain that position into subsequent elections. So it is likely that any benefit from the Presidential year demographics will be offset by some reversion to mean. Nevertheless, Trump is historically unpopular, and that was a major factor in his party's sweeping losses in 2018. Ultimately, if he remains this unpopular, it's difficult to see him winning re-election, and Republicans could have a tricky time in the Congressional elections.

Of particular concern for Trump will be the strong performance of Democrats this year in rust belt states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, all states that he won in 2016 and that he needs to win again in 2020. Those states were barely even in contest in 2018, and certainly did not have the kind of close results that one would expect from genuine swing states. This will be a central question of the 2020 campaign, have those key states turned against Trump?

Equally concerning will be the Democratic victories in Arizona in the House and statewide. Arizona is one of those states that has been on the cusp of turning purple for a few years, and almost went for Hillary in 2016. It's starting to look like this will be a genuine swing state for 2020.

But it's not all bad news for the President. The close results in Florida and Ohio in what was otherwise a strong Democratic year suggest that Trump's support remains surprisingly robust in these states. These historically purple swing states are increasingly starting to look like dependable red states, and that is potentially a huge boon to any future Republican Presidential ambitions.

Meanwhile in Texas and Georgia, two red-but-increasingly-purple states that went very close in 2018, it is tempting to make points similar to those in Arizona. But considering the high Democratic enthusiasm of 2018, and the specific, notably unpopular Republican candidates they faced in these states, I think it is unlikely that Democrats will fare any better here in 2020.

So overall the early picture that is shaping up is one where Democrats are modest, but by no means unassailable favourites to win in 2020. The rust belt that was so crucial for Trump in 2016 looks to have returned to the Democrats, and if that trend continues it could be fatal for Trump. While the sun belt looks increasingly competitive, my immediate hot-take is that it will be these three states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that will determine the outcome of 2020.

Down-ballot, Democrats could face a tough battle to retain control of the House unless significant gerrymandering reform is accomplished. We discussed this in our election preview, but the House map has been artificially drawn up in such a way that Democrats need to win by sweeping landslide majorities just to stand a chance of winning control. They had such a majority in 2018, but two in a row will be tricky. The key here will be whether Trump remains toxic enough to keep Democrats' numbers high, and whether key states like Texas or North Carolina have district maps redrawn (which would arguably make Democrats clear favourites).

The Senate, meanwhile, is looking very favourable for Democrats. Six years ago was 2014, a wave year for Republicans, and as a result they will have a lot more seats to defend than in 2018. Republicans have a likely pick up opportunity in Alabama, but otherwise face an uphill battle to keep Maine, Colorado and North Carolina, while Democrats have good opportunities in Iowa, Arizona, Georgia, and, based on this year's results in those states, potentially Alaska and Montana. This is where the fact that Democrats managed to keep the Republican majority to just 2 or 3 seats in 2018, when it could have easily been more, will be crucial. Had Republicans gone to 54 or higher, I'd have made them clear favourites to keep their majority, but at just 52 or 53 it really opens up the possibility of a Democratic majority in 2020.

So there it is, 2018 election is done, and the first battle lines have been drawn for 2020. We went into this election facing a political system rife with corruption and blatantly anti-democratic electoral practices. While this election won't fix everything, the people have duly stepped up and taken a first step in the fight back for American values.

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