Politics & Policy

Is a Blue Wave Coming?

(John Gastaldo/Reuters)
The House is solidly Republican — but the Democratic tide might be high enough this November to change that.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared at Arc Digital and is republished with permission.

Are we a hundred days from a Congress-realigning blue wave? Is a violent Democratic tide, thrust forward by the dreams of Resisters everywhere, coming to wash away Republican control in the House of Representatives?

Some analysts define a wave election to be an overwhelming, mandate-issuing electoral romp — the kind that leaves the ascendant party with a sizable advantage in seats. I view things differently.

As I see it, if the Democrats win a net total of 23 seats, which is the magic number they need to flip the House, the 2018 midterms should be construed as a wave election, regardless of the fact that this would leave the Democrats with a razor-thin majority, and regardless of what happens in Senate, state-legislature, and gubernatorial races.

There are obvious counterarguments to the suggestion that acquiring a one-member majority in the House of Representatives should represent a “wave,” but none of them are convincing. Here’s why.

If the Democrats pick up 23 seats in the House of Representatives, that is an astonishing achievement in its own right. In other words, don’t look at the resulting distribution; look instead at how many seats were won and what hurdles were overcome to win them.

Let’s take a look at the political landscape in the run up to the midterms, and compare Republicans’ set of advantages to the reasons for Democratic optimism.

How Republicans Hope to Weather the Storm

The hurdles for Democrats are significant. Here are some of them.

The rarity of wave elections in the House 

Could it be that wave elections are the new norm? In 2010, a midterm year, the GOP engineered a 63-seat tsunami to wrest control of the House. Just a few years prior, the toxicity of George W. Bush’s final years in office handed Barack Obama the keys to the White House, but before it did that, in 2006, it also gave the Democrats the keys to D.C.’s other important House. A littler further back, in 1994, the Newt Gingrich–led Republican Revolution turned Bill Clinton’s blue House red.

Historically, however, House wave elections have not been a common occurrence. As the Washington Post’s Amber Phillips notes, the House has been flipped only three times in over 60 years. Obviously, recent political trends are more predictive than what took place in, say, Eisenhower’s day, and Democrats ran the House all the way from 1955 to 1994. But even if we restrict ourselves to elections from 1994 to 2016, the House changing hands only three times in twelve elections  —  three times in nearly 25 years  —  isn’t enough to call something a new norm.

The structural advantages

Then there are the structural advantages that favor Republicans this year, by which I mean factors that have to do with the arbitrary benefits of being in power rather than the substance of the individual congressional races themselves.

One such advantage is the incumbency advantage. In 2010, the year the GOP swept up 63 seats, the incumbent reelection rate was at the subterranean level of . . . 85 percent! In the years since, the rate has climbed back up to typical levels –  90 percent in 2012, 95 percent in 2014, and 97 percent in 2016.

Do the math with me. The Republicans have 236 members in the House to the Democrats’ 193. If the recent incumbent-reelection rate more or less holds, the GOP should easily retain control of the House.

Admittedly, we have not yet factored in all the incumbents who won’t be seeking reelection. Some members are pursuing another line of work, some are angling for higher political office, and others are simply retiring. All in all, there are 36 Republicans who will not be seeking another two years in the House. Since the Democrats need to pick up 23 seats, they should be able to pull in that amount from the 36 individual openings the Republicans are laying out for them, right?

I ran the numbers, and, unfortunately for the Democrats, only nine of those 36 seats are seriously in play, according to data from the Cook Political Report. Out of those nine, six are leaning Democratic and three are considered tossups.

Even assuming all nine seats go blue, the Democrats will still have to siphon off 14 more seats from Republican incumbents to win back the House.

Another structural advantage for Republicans this year  — one far less philosophically defensible than the advantages that accrue from the status of incumbency — is the practice of gerrymandering.

The makeup of the electoral maps for the House of Representatives were in the main put together by Republicans at the state level. Our decennial national census is followed by redistricting, given that updated data on population levels requires a corresponding update in the way our districts look.

Prior to 2010, a census year, Republicans launched an ambitious effort to capture state legislatures, the organs typically responsible for reapportioning and redrawing state congressional districts. They succeeded. And it’s no surprise that, given the state of technology available in 2010 and beyond, Republicans have found a way to draw the districts to remarkable partisan effect.

What does all of the above mean? Consider the fact that, historically, the Democrats would have needed to win the nationwide popular vote for the House by four points to secure a 23-seat pick-up. This year, however, a four-point win in the national vote is good enough for only a seven-seat bump. To reach their magic number this year, Democrats would need to win the popular vote by an absurdly high margin: over ten percentage points.

What does all of the above mean?

The bad news for Democrats is that the map, as currently drawn, is just not very democratically responsive. The Democrats could win the national popular vote by nine percentage points — a staggering number — and fail to secure a majority in what is supposed to be the most democratically responsive institution within the federal government.

The final structural advantage has to do with the location of the battleground districts. As Nate Cohn puts it:

If there’s an upside for Republicans, it’s that the fight for control will often be fought in Republican-friendly districts where the president won in 2016. Republicans can reasonably hope to gain in some of these districts once the campaigns get going and pull voters back into their traditional camps.

A humming economy under a Republican president

Let’s not forget the state of the economy, which should redound to Republicans’ benefit.

Two months ago, the New York Times ran an article by Neil Irwin headlined, “We Ran Out of Words to Describe How Good the Jobs Numbers Are.” A week later, almost reflexively, Irwin ran a follow-up infused with the requisite measure of skepticism that a New York Times writer ought to show when determining how little credit Donald Trump should receive for any positive development. “How Good Is the Trump Economy, Really?” was less suggestive of Trumpian triumph that Irwin’s prior article:

So what is the most honest way of talking about the Trump economy? It goes like this: The president inherited an economy that had come a long way toward healing. During his administration, the economy has continued growing at about the same rate it did before he took office, pushing incomes, employment and output to yet higher levels.

Here’s the thing, though: Voters don’t typically think along these lines. They form an impression about the economy, attribute the operations of it to whoever has political power, and vote accordingly.

Undeniably, one of the most powerful arguments for backing Trump’s party in the upcoming elections is the growth rate of the economy. A 2.2 percent growth rate in the first quarter was fine enough; last week’s news that second-quarter growth topped 4 percent is shout-from-the-rooftops material.

In another Times essay, a fictionalized imagining of what the newspaper’s report would look like the day after the 2020 election, an election in which Trump defeats his rival, Elizabeth Warren, to win a second term in office, Bret Stephens writes:

In the end, a bitterly fought election came down to the old political aphorism, popularized during Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 run against George H.W. Bush: “It’s the economy, stupid.” This time, however, it was the Republican incumbent, not his Democratic challenger, who benefited from that truism.

In short, the state of the economy matters, and this is a problem for Democrats this November.

The president’s rising approval rating

Donald Trump’s approval numbers are historically awful for a president at this stage in his first term. They have, however, crept back to the low-to-mid 40s, levels last seen near his inauguration.

Why is this important?

Prior to the November 2016, Trump’s favorability numbers were in the high 30s. Contrast that to Obama, whose favorable-unfavorable breakdown in the days leading up to the 2008 election was 68 percent to 27 percent, respectively. And yet Trump still won. A case could be made that, despite being low in absolute terms, Trump’s favorables suggest that he’s in an even stronger political position than he was in November of 2016.

One important counterargument here is that this time there isn’t anyone on the Democratic side as despised and distrusted as Hillary Clinton to act as Trump’s foil. This is why Republicans have worked so hard to inject Nancy Pelosi into as many races as possible; the specter of a Pelosi-led House worries a great many people, and while she may not have the name recognition of Hillary Clinton, lots of voters know who Pelosi is and have a negative opinion of her. According to Gallup, Pelosi is the least popular congressional leader of either party by a significant margin.

Why Democrats Think They Can Take the House

If the Democrats are able to clear these hurdles and win back the House, it will be on account of the following factors.

Democratic electoral enthusiasm

No factor is more critical for turnout than Democratic enthusiasm. This is especially true during midterm years, which tend to bring fewer people  —  specifically, fewer Democrats  —  out to the voting booths.

Since 2000, each presidential-to-midterm cycle has seen enormous drops in turnout for both Hispanics and African Americans. For Hispanics, from 2000 to 2002 there was a 35 percent decrease in turnout; from 2004 to 2006 a 41 percent decrease; from 2008 to 2010 a 43 percent decrease; and from 2012 to 2014 a 51 percent decrease. For African Americans, from 2000 to 2002 there was a 29 percent decrease in turnout; from 2004 to 2006 a 40 percent decrease; from 2008 to 2010 a 40 percent decrease; and from 2012 to 2014 a 46 percent decrease.

Another demographic category that is important for Democrats, younger voters, has also proved problematic during midterm years. The 18–29 and 30–44 age groups have experienced a steeper decline in participation from presidential to midterm elections than older Americans. This age-cohort turnout gap is significant because it greatly favors the Republican party.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Trump 55 to 37 among those 18 to 29 years old, and 50 to 32 among 30- to 44-year-olds; on the flip side, Trump held an eight- to nine-point advantage over Clinton among those 45 and up.

But enthusiasm has a way of counteracting these downward trends and may serve to buoy Democrats.

Beyond the eye test, how can we tell if energy levels have significantly increased on the left? Just look at Democratic mobilization in the elections that have taken place since Trump won the presidency. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee cites 44 seats at the state-legislature level that have flipped from red to blue. In special elections for congressional seats, Democratic turnout has far exceeded that of past midterms. 

RealClearPolitics currently shows the Democrats in possession of a seven-point lead in the generic ballot, which is an indirect indicator of partisan energy levels. 

Less Democratically inclined voters are likely to vote for Democrats in 2018

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week shows that while 88 percent of Republicans approve of the president’s performance, only 36 percent of independents feel the same way (down seven points from June). The same poll reports that “independents prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress by more than 20 points.” This is a massively significant statistic.

Let’s assume that independents constitute 15 to 25 percent of the voting pool (estimated based on their share of the electorate in past midterm wave elections). If independents are gravitating away from Trump, that could spell doom for the GOP’s chances at retaining the House. 

High fundraising levels

Fundraising is a function of the partisan energy that exists in our political environment. If Democratic voters and donors are energized enough to take back the congressional reins, we should expect to see formidable fundraising efforts on the part of Democratic candidates. When you add in the sheer intensity of the Left’s distaste for Trump, the prospect of well-funded challengers to his agenda only increases. 

Politico’s Elena Schneider paints a stark picture for Republicans:

Democrats in 56 House districts surpassed Republican incumbents in second-quarter fundraising, according to a Politico analysis of the latest Federal Election Commission filings. Sixteen of those House Republicans finished the quarter with less cash in their campaign accounts than Democratic opponents, while no Democratic members lag their Republican challengers in cash. . . .

The picture is even grimmer for Republicans in open, battleground districts, where a slew of retirements has put even more seats up for grabs. More than two dozen Democratic candidates in those districts also topped GOP opponents in fundraising, and 19 of those Democrats also led in cash on hand.

What’s more, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reports that over half of its donations in June came from grassroots sources. That speaks to the intensity levels, referenced above, that are so crucial to Democratic success.

Rust Belt reconsideration

Another point of optimism for Democrats is the potential for a serious waning of interest of Rust Belt Americans toward the president’s agenda, which they famously backed in 2016.

If this segment of Trump’s coalition favors a Democratic Congress, then this spells trouble for the GOP. Unfortunately for Trump and his party, an NBC News/Marist poll indicates that voters are moving away from Republicans: In Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, voters now favor Democratic control of Congress by near double-digit margins. 

Midterm Elections Tend to Function as Rebukes to the Party in Power

The following chart takes a look at how the sitting president’s party has fared during that president’s first midterm  election —  going back to Eisenhower.

As you can see, the president’s party tends to suffer losses during his first midterm election. If you set aside George W. Bush’s wartime status in 2002, we’re looking at a near total congruence on this point.

This trend does not necessarily carry past the midterms and into the next presidential election; it has, of course, been more common for presidents to be reelected. It’s almost as if the American people use the first midterms to push back against the president, only to quickly rediscover that the opposition party they’re using as the instrument of rebuke is itself a politically disappointing entity.

But since we’re talking about 2018 and not 2020, the points stands that it’s highly likely that voters will use November to vigorously push back against whatever it is they find unseemly about the sitting president.

Is a wave coming? I think so. Then again, I thought Hillary was a lock last election.

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