Why a Democratic Wave May Not Be Inevitable
The underlying premise of many of these updates is that, amidst the ever-louder media landscape, it can difficult to cut through all of the noise and understand what is really happening in the United States, both politically and in terms of policy. But there exists a fundamental truth about American politics that long predates President Trump’s surprise election in 2016, the rise of social media or even hanging chads in Florida eighteen years ago: the American electorate, though increasingly steadfast in their respective political ideologies, are incredibly...elastic when it comes to their support of a particular candidate or party. It is this elasticity that has long plagued political pollsters tasked with forecasting election results months before an election and which is now beginning to create some doubt about what we might expect in November.
The generally accepted narrative in the press – with exceptions for right-leaning outlets – suggests that the Republican Party and its leader, President Trump, should expect a proverbial bloodbath in the mid-term elections. We are told that the GOP’s majority in the House is either in serious danger or already irrevocably lost in November, and that the Democrats have a legitimate opportunity to pick up a majority in the Senate. This argument is supported by both quantitative and a qualitative data. For example: The aggregate of all major polls indicates that President Trump’s job approval rating is about 9.5 points underwater. Among likely voters, almost 10 percent more disapprove of the President’s job performance than approve. And, in terms of both the sheer number of House Republicans who have announced their intention not to seek re-election in 2018 and their seniority in Congress, we are seeing a historically significant run to the exits of the Capitol. More than 40 incumbent House Republicans have decided not to face the voters this November.
Incredibly, the retirees include the chairmen of nine out of the House’s 20 standing committees and, of course, Paul Ryan (R-WI), the Speaker of the House. Members of Congress toil on the backbenches and carefully maneuver among their colleagues for years to ascend to a chairmanship or leadership position. Surely these influential Congressmen and women wouldn’t abandon their posts unless they saw a wave on the horizon.
Demographics also appear to support the narrative. Amy Walter, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report’s national editor, refers to 2018 as “The Year of the Woman.” Among the more than 50 most competitive House seats up for grabs in November, precisely half feature at least one female candidate – a record high. Women that aren’t running are still engaged politically: Through the end of the first quarter of 2018, 31% of all political contributions to candidates for the House of Representatives were made by women; a rise from the previous high of 27% in 2016. And the polling indicates that, as a demographic, women are the most determined to turn out to vote in the midterms and that, among those expected to vote, a significant majority will support Democratic candidates. Historically, women have constituted somewhere between 51% and 53% of midterm voters. Even a slight bump in female voter turnout would produce a meaningful boost for the Democrats in November.
But the American electorate is elastic, and there are early – but important – signs that a Democratic wave isn’t a sure bet.
Just four short months ago, aggregate polling indicated that the average American voter favored a generic Democratic candidate by more than 12 points over a generic Republican candidate. Though, as we have discussed previously, this metric isn’t an entirely accurate predictor of election outcomes, it is an instructive one that tends to capture the political mood of the country. Since mid-January, the Democrats’ 12-point lead over the GOP has been cut in half, to six points. And although President Trump’s job approval numbers are upside down, a growing number of Americans believe that the country is on the “right track” – a deliberately subjective term pollsters don’t define to allow prospective voters to make their own determination as to its meaning. Buoyed by growing signs of a potential peace on the Korean peninsula and a strong economy, 10 percent more of the American electorate believe today that the country is on the right track than did at the lowest point of President Trump’s presidency last October. As you might logically expect, voters who believe the country is on the right track are significantly more likely to cast their ballot in favor of the status quo. In 2018, that status quo is GOP control of Congress.
Lastly, this week’s primaries provided us with an early opportunity to dig into real, rather than theoretical, data. As we’ve seen time and time again of late, polling can be misleading for any number of reasons. Data from actual elections, though, is indisputable. Ohio’s Democratic primary for Governor on Tuesday was the political equivalent of a heavyweight fight. Richard Cordray, the former Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a one-time Attorney General of Ohio, faced off against Dennis Kucinich, a former presidential candidate and member of Congress. Both enjoyed strong progressive support during their respective campaigns: Cordray won the strong backing of Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) for his work at the CFPB, while Kucinich, who rose to prominence during the George W. Bush administration for his strong, vocal opposition to the Iraq War, had the implicit support of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his backers. But for all of the excitement amongst Democrats in a highly-publicized primary, 70,000 fewer voters showed up to vote in the Democratic primary on Tuesday than voted in a significantly less-hyped GOP primary, where Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine (R-OH) cruised to victory as expected. Though it is political malpractice to draw a national conclusion from turnout in one state’s primary, Democratic turnout in Ohio this week should give the party pause.
If the past is prologue, there will undoubtedly be quite a few twists and turns as we wind our way towards November 6. But even before any October surprises, the outcome of the midterms may be more difficult to predict than the mainstream narrative would have us believe.