Democrats Should Be Very Alarmed by the 2018 Midterm Results


After flipping dozens of seats in the midterm elections, Democrats are set to take control of the House of Representatives. Many pundits and analysts have attempted to frame the race as a referendum on President Trump. Among these, there seems to be a consensus that the president has somehow been “repudiated.” Not so fast.

To be sure, there are reasons for Democrats to cheer: Despite significant structural disadvantages and a difficult Senate map, some great ballot initiatives were passed, state legislatures got bluer in many instances and Democrats won governorships in some key states. These are worth celebrating. Yet, on balance, Democrats should be more disturbed than comforted by how the elections shook out.

For instance, turnout was much higher than in 2014. However, the increased engagement proved to be bipartisan: Trump’s supporters also showed up in force, significantly undercutting the expected “blue wave.” Democrats didn’t peel off districts that Trump won by 5 percentage points or more in 2016.

Yes, Republicans ultimately lost control of the House — but even here, the Democrats’ continued weakness shines through:

It was expected that the Republicans would lose a significant number of seats, irrespective of public opinions about Trump. Republicans had many more difficult House seats to defend than Democrats overall. There were twice as many Republican incumbents defending House seats in states Clinton won than there were Democrats defending seats in states Trump won. Two other GOP incumbents were indicted for corruption just prior to the election.

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Republicans also had more than twice as many “open” House seats to hold onto as their Democratic rivals had: 36 Republican representatives chose not to stand for reelection this year because they were retiring or seeking another office. Seven more resigned or otherwise left office prior to the election. Hence, Republicans had 43 House seats to defend without the benefit of a true incumbent candidate. On top of this, Republicans had three “open” Senate seats, and one more with a pseudo-incumbent (interim Mississippi Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith took office on April 1).

Yet Democrats managed to win surprisingly few of these “open” contests. In the vast majority of cases, a new Republican was elected instead, and they tended to be even closer to Trump than their predecessors. So Trump actually cemented his hold over the Republican Party: Most of his staunchest Republican critics have either stepped down, been removed through a primary challenge or otherwise failed to win re-election. On top of this, Senate Democrats who voted against Kavanaugh from the states that Trump won in 2016 were removed from office and replaced by Republicans.

Historically speaking, Democrats delivered a thoroughly average result in their first round as Trump’s opposition. Going all the way back to the Civil War, there were only two instances when a new party seized the presidency but didn’t lose seats in the House during their first midterm elections: FDR in 1934 (following the outset of the Great Depression) and George W. Bush in 2002 (in the shadow of the 9/11 terror attacks). Even including these outliers, the average attrition during a party’s inaugural midterms is 35 House seats; excluding these two exceptions, the average loss is 41.

Regardless of which number we run with, Trump could end up performing better than average in preserving his party’s influence in the House. He performed much better than his last two Democratic predecessors: Bill Clinton lost control of both chambers in the 1994 midterm elections. Barack Obama saw historic losses in the House in 2010, and lost seats in the Senate as well — the most sweeping Congressional reversal in 62 years.

Yet, not only did Trump suffer far less attrition than Obama or Clinton in the House, his party will gain in the Senate. This may not be surprising given the slanted map against Democrats. It’s also somewhat typical overall: From 1862 to 2016, the president’s party picked up seats in the Senate during their first midterms 56 percent of the time, lost seats 36 percent of the time and broke even once. In other words, there did not seem to be a thorough rebuke of Trump. In fact, there was little exceptional in the results at all, beyond the fact that they were so very normal.

Indeed, although Democratic claims to have “won the popular vote” are largely spurious given that the national popular vote has nothing to do with how Congressional seats are allocated — the fact of the matter is, even the popular vote change was simply average relative to other inaugural midterms.

Shocking, right?

Virtually everything Trump says or does seems so beyond the pale that it becomes difficult for most to imagine that historical patterns may apply, or that meaningful precedents might be out there (want your mind blown? Check out the last major instance of confirmed foreign collusion in a presidential election). Given the extraordinary context leading into the 2018 midterms, it may seem inconceivable that they yielded perfectly ordinary results. Consider Trump’s historic unpopularity, his passionate opposition, our unprecedented levels of political polarization, the approaching migrant caravan, the white nationalist murders just prior to the midterms, the ongoing Mueller investigation and myriad other scandals — Surely, these must matter, right?

Truth told, elections are complex social events, and it is difficult to determine (let alone predict) what matters, how much it matters and in what sense it matters. We’re still arguing over what happened in 2016! Yet one thing we do know is that the 2018 election results were consistent with the norm for a ruling party’s initial midterms. This reality should make Democrats deeply anxious because, as I’ve demonstrated elsewhere, if the 2020 presidential election similarly conforms to historical tendencies, the odds are roughly 8:1 that Trump wins reelection.

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Indeed, the Donald’s inaugural midterm results are eerily similar to those of another entertainment-star turned political gamechanger: Ronald Reagan. In 1982, his party lost 26 seats in the House — but picked up one seat in the Senate. He, too, faced a split Congress. His approval rating going into the midterms was also in the low-40’s. He went on to win reelection by a landslide in 1984.

A version of this article originally appeared in The Washington Post

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Musa al-Gharbi is a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in sociology at Columbia University.