Debating the World is a Pi Comment column focusing on the big debates and events occurring in the world today, reflecting on their impact on society. India Crawley discusses the results of the recent US Midterm Elections and what implications they may have for future elections, including Trump’s re-election campaign.
Having just taken place in early November, the 2018 Midterm Elections in the United States have attracted widespread media attention as pollsters and analysts try to figure out whether the result is indicative of the Trump Administration’s 2020 prospects. However, what this election cycle has demonstrated more than anything else is that campaigns are becoming focused on the national issues rather than the local, and this could be to the detriment of the Democrats in 2020 if they emerge without a suitable candidate. However, the Democrats enjoyed a rather successful run of local campaigns to win back the House for the first time since 2010, whilst the Republicans managed to turn back a few Senate seats in their favour. While the immediate effects of these results are clearly visible, the question turns to factors lying behind the outcome and what this might mean for the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election.
Distinguishing this election from previous midterms is the extraordinary increase in turnout. This was a decisive factor in the ‘blue wave’ which swept the House. The 2018 Elections recorded the highest voter turnout in a midterm election since 1914, with over 49% of the US population casting their ballots on November 6th. This amounts to nearly 116 million people, as true a verdict on presidential performance as can be. Though not perhaps as big a sweep as many pollsters expected, the Democrats won the large coastal districts and flipped many other Republican seats to win a strong majority in the House. This capture of the House does not go against the grain of historic midterm results (just look at the Democrats’ fatal losses in 2010, where the Republicans swept 63 seats in the largest seat change in the House since the 1930s), but what does make this large loss stand out for the Republicans is the fact that this vote was not an election where only the parties’ bases turned out as normal, but rather the election drew votes from a far larger electorate. We can therefore read the House vote as a rather significant win for the Democrats, and if they manage to hold onto many of the areas they won this year, they could be in for another victory in the 2020 Congressional Elections. Take Orange County as a case example. Once the hotbed of populism and conservatism, aiding the rise of Republican stars like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and an area whose four congressional districts have not been Democrat since 1940; the Democrats won every seat, solidifying California as a robust Democrat stronghold, potentially indicative of flips in 2020.
The Senate was not such a different story, but Trump managed to turn the narrative into a decisive victory for the Republicans. The Democrats represented the majority of seats up for re-election in this midterm, giving the G.O.P. an edge in this cycle before campaigning had even started. The fact that the Democrats turned back the traditionally strong wall of the North-Eastern states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania – Trump voters in 2016 – can be seen as a major victory, suggesting that 2016 was perhaps the exception rather than an indication of future results.
This election cycle was primarily a national campaign. All the candidates that Trump campaigned for won, suggesting this was not fought over local issues but was rather a verdict on the President’s performance so far. This is reaffirmed by the importance of Brett Kavanaugh’s recent Senate Confirmation Hearing (approving his appointment to the Supreme Court) to many voters. Those polled largely followed partisan lines with regards to the hearing, with 79% of those surveyed who agreed with the statement that ‘sexual harassment in this country today is not a serious problem’ choosing a Republican candidate. Republican voter registration spiked after the Kavanaugh hearing, in outrage at his treatment at the hands of the Democrats, with many journalists calling this phenomenon the ‘Brett Bounce’.
This turned into an extremely hot-button issue and had very large repercussions for the Democrats in states that were a toss-up. Almost every Democratic Senator that voted against confirming Brett Kavanaugh and were defending seats in swing states lost their re-election bids. Democratic Senators Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Joe Donnelly in Indiana all lost their bids for re-election in such swing states. On average, 70% of voters said that their Senator’s vote on Kavanaugh had been a factor in their decision. Joe Manchin was re-elected in a traditionally Republican State, West Virginia, and he was the only Democrat to vote to confirm Kavanaugh. This cannot be a coincidence. The Republican Senators have much to thank Brett Kavanaugh for in light of these results.
Despite the triumphant narrative promoted by the Republicans and Trump regarding their Senate race victories, the Democrats had much more success, particularly in House elections, due to their new emphasis on ‘No Drama Democrats’, a position being projected by Nancy Pelosi, soon to be the Democrat Speaker of the House. They emphasised local issues and started polling early to figure out exactly what was driving voters to turnout, resulting in significant wins in the House as outlined previously. If they continue with this effective strategy, it could help their bid for the White House in 2020, candidate permitting.
At the end of the day, if this midterm has shown anything, it is that these campaigns often boil down to the efforts of the national campaign, and the presidential candidate themselves. Whilst names such as Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden are being floated around as potential 2020 Democratic nominees, these are now rather tired figures in US politics. The Democrats are experiencing a drought in the pool of potential national leaders and if a vibrant and charismatic candidate does not emerge soon, there will be little that local tactics can do to prevent a two-term Trump administration.