Noah Harrison: An uneven wave

Monday, November 12, 2018 - 6:01pm

Noah Harrison

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The Michigan Daily

The 2018 midterm elections have concluded, and while the outcomes of several close races have yet to be officially determined, the broader results are clear. Democrats have retaken the House, while Republicans built on their previously-narrow majority in the Senate. As the results came in, both sides publicly claimed victory, with President Donald Trump calling the night a “tremendous success” while Democratic leaders celebrated taking control of the House. Political analysts will comb thoroughly through Tuesday’s results in the coming weeks, but here are some early takeaways.

This was a Democratic wave, but not a nationwide wave.

Democrats had not won the House in a decade, and not once since the maps were redrawn in 2010, so regaining a majority in the lower chamber represents a significant accomplishment. Due partly to gerrymandering, Democrats have faced an uphill battle to retake the House in recent cycles — in 2012, the GOP maintained a 33-seat majority despite losing the House popular vote nationwide.

Nonetheless, Democratic challengers unseated dozens of longtime GOP representatives, including many in right-leaning but anti-Trump districts that Clinton won in 2016. Pundits devoted considerable attention over the past two years to the stunning gains by Democrats in various special elections relative to their performance in 2016, and these gains were replicated in the actual midterms. U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, R-Ga., known for defeating Jon Ossoff in a high-profile 2017 special election, lost her seat to a new Democratic challenger. The flipping of the House confirms that signs of voter dissatisfaction, including Trump’s low approval ratings and Democratic success in special elections, were indicative of broader Democratic momentum.

Still, the cycle wasn’t all good for Democrats. The average House district swung 10 points in favor of Democrats, which is slightly smaller than the 2006 Democratic wave and only half the size of the 2010 Republican wave, enabling Republicans to retain a sizable number of House seats deemed toss-ups prior to the election. Furthermore, on the Senate side, Democrats lost ground, surrendering seats in Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri, and whiffing on chances to pick up seats in Texas and Tennessee. The sole Democratic pick-up of the night came in Nevada, but Arizona went blue yesterday with Kyrsten Sinema declared the winner. The race in Florida has yet to be called and will determine the extent of the GOP’s gains. Democrats needed a truly massive wave to flip the Senate, and while it isn’t surprising that such a wave failed to materialize, it is nonetheless discouraging that the GOP was able to extend their majority.

While Trump is unpopular overall, he remains very popular with his base and enjoys net-positive approval ratings in most red-leaning states. Flipping the House proves this was a wave year for Democrats, but as the Senate results show, that blue wave did not hit everywhere.

Democrats are facing extreme institutional challenges.

It is no secret that Democrats face institutional obstacles in their quest to regain power. Tuesday’s results underscore this reality. Democrats were facing an extremely tough Senate map in which they were defending 24 seats, many in red and purple states won by Trump in 2016. Furthermore, only nine Republican seats were up for election, limiting opportunities for pick-ups. Even in a good year for Democrats, GOP gains were probable.

Looking forward, these institutional challenges are not going away. The GOP’s strong performance casts doubt on whether Democrats have a realistic shot of retaking the Senate in 2020, another year with limited opportunities for pick-ups. In the long term, Democrats are at a disadvantage in the Senate. It’s simple math: Every state is represented equally in the Senate and there are more red states than blue states. The Democratic majority in the Senate from 2006 to 2014 was enabled by Democrats’ ability to win seats in red states. That didn’t happen this year but will need to happen in the future if the Democrats are to retake the Senate.

Democrats’ institutional disadvantages aren’t limited to the Senate. At the presidential level, Democrats have won the popular vote in six of the past seven presidential elections, but have only actually won four of those elections. Furthermore, the GOP dominates the state legislatures, leading to advantages during redistricting season.

Trump and the GOP are losing the middle.

Democrats despise Trump, whereas Republicans have coalesced around him. More significantly, independents are beginning to abandon him. A largely overlooked aspect of the 2016 presidential election is that Trump beat Clinton among independents 46 percent to 42 percent. Since then, independents have turned on Trump, with polls finding Trump’s approval ratings among independents to be as low as 31 percent. Exit poll data from Tuesday shows independents supported Democratic House candidates by a margin of 14 points — an exact reversal of the margin independents supported Republicans in the 2014 midterms.

Trump has two years to regain favor with independents, and he will need to if he wants any legitimate shot at re-election.

Demographic change is not saving the Democratic Party... yet.

Democrats hope that shifting demographics, namely a growing share of the electorate that is Hispanic and African-American, will allow the party to win races in traditionally conservative states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona. After Trump won these states by relatively modest margins, many expected Democrats to flip them in 2018. Though the margins were once again historically close, Democrats lost the Texas Senate race and appear likely to lose the currently uncalled Georgia gubernatorial race.

Alarmingly, in some states, Republicans performed relatively well among certain minority demographics. In Florida, the Democratic candidates for Senate and governor won the Hispanic vote by just a 10-percent margin compared to the 28-percent margin Clinton enjoyed in 2016.

These results show that Democrats are further away from winning these states than many hoped. While many red states are becoming more competitive due to demographic change, Democrats appear to still be several cycles away from actually winning statewide races in Georgia, Texas and elsewhere, suggesting that Democrats’ best strategy for 2020 is rebuilding the “blue wall” that Trump shattered in 2016, rather that relying on demographic change to win these emerging battlegrounds in the South.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.

 

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