In the week since the midterm election, close races around the country that have yet to be decided continue to raise the stakes for partisan competition in the House and Senate. These surprising races and unlikely results were the focus of the panel discussion held Tuesday night titled “Election 2018: What Happened?” sponsored by the University of Michigan‘s Institute for Social Research. Three election experts attempted to break down last week’s results, highlighting the role of progressive candidates and social media in the races.
In Michigan, voters elected Democrat Gretchen Whitmer as governor by an 8-point margin, and passed all three policy proposals on the ballot including legalizing recreational marijuana and the establishment of an independent redistricting commission. Additionally, two Republican incumbents lost their seats on the University of Michigan Board of Regents to Democratic challengers, making the board‘s composition 7 Democrats to 1 Republican.
“I think there’s something new that may be happening here,” Political Science prof. Vince Hutchings said to the audience Tuesday. Overall, the panel found that 2018, though not a presidential election, still revealed telling information on voter sentiment and behavior.
Hutchings was joined by Walter Mebane, a professor in the Department of Political Science, and Kenneth Goldstein, professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco. Each of them presented on their own niche of election analysis, to provide a commentary on effects of the elections on the future of American politics, specifically for the Democratic Party in 2020.
Goldstein presented an analysis of voter demographics based on categories such as gender, race or education, responding to the refrain of the “blue wave” Democrats predicted would win out in races.
“The big question on everyone’s mind is, ‘Was this a wave?’” Goldstein said. “It feels wave-ish to me.”
Among independent voters, Goldstein noted, Democrats did better than Republicans for the first time since 2008. This kind of energy, he believes, is something that Democrats will attempt to duplicate in 2020 by campaigning heavily in states like Wisconsin, which Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton largely ignored in 2016.
Mebane presented next on “election forensics,” or the use of “statistical methods to determine whether the results of an election accurately reflect the intentions of the electors.” He analyzes Twitter users’ posts regarding the election.
“I liked hearing about Twitter,” LSA junior Sydney Moore said of the event. “There were a lot of young people there and that’s the medium a lot of us use so I thought that was very interesting.”
LSA junior Alexis Miettinen appreciated the fact that despite a generational difference, scholars can acknowledge the salient influence social media has on U.S. voters.
“I think it’s interesting to see academic people who aren’t really into that realize how important it is in elections and in daily life,” Miettinen said.
Due to social media users’ inclination to surround themselves with others who are like-minded, Mebane said, “people aren’t even seeing the same world.” He calls this tunnel vision a “communication silo.”
“I don’t expect that that source of this polarization is going to go away any time soon,” Mebane said.
As the final presenter, Hutchings brought attention to the fact that though Democratic support undoubtedly increased in this year’s election, the extra push came from younger and more educated voters, rather than women or racial minorities as many would have thought or predicted. In Ann Arbor, campus precincts cast 4,977 votes last week, up from 1,541 votes in the 2014 midterms.
It is surprises like these, the panelists agreed, that show just how important it is to have a conversation following elections about what happened and how it should be addressed moving forward.
“Elections are about narratives,” Goldstein said. “And the narratives and trends influence how our elected officials govern in the future.”
Additionally, Mebane said analyzing elections brings attention to administrative errors that need to be fixed such as broken machines or long lines. He also stressed the importance of keeping attention on the election while the final races are finishing and, in cases like some races in Florida and Georgia, recounted.
“The election isn’t over by any means,” Mebane said.
Even after all the votes are in and problems addressed, this event showed that election season is never really over. These midterms feed immediately into 2020, and political scientists are already thinking about the future.
“At the end of the day, we can barely remember what happened last week,” Goldstein said. “Who knows what we’re going to be talking about?”