October 2018

By Karen A. Tramontano

To understand where the 2018 U.S. midterm elections may be headed, it helps to understand what voters were doing in 2016. Conventional wisdom holds that voters were angry and that only Trump understood that voters were angry—and it was these angry voters who determined the election’s outcome.

What pundits fail to acknowledge is that a significant percentage of voters in every election are angry and most, if not all, candidates understand why they are angry. Typically, candidates try to address citizens’ anger with promises to change policies that hurt them and improve policies that benefit them. Obviously, Trump’s response to citizen anger was quite different.

That said, the 2016 election was no more ‘the year of the angry voter’ than any other election year. It also was not the angry voter who determined the 2016 outcome. Instead, it was voters who did not vote or who voted for one of the alternative candidates—these citizens actually determined the 2016 outcome.

Non-voters who declined to be full participants in the democratic process did so for a myriad of reasons. Some simply did not like the choices. Others believed that Hillary Clinton was going to win and that there therefore was no need to vote. Some believed that because President Obama had been elected twice that the country had conquered racism and that Trump was not a threat. Still others believed that because Hillary had been nominated, the country had conquered misogyny and a misogynist could not be elected. Some were victims of voter suppression and others of Russian misinformation. And millions of other eligible voters lodged a protest vote for candidates they knew could not win.

The fact that over 95 million voters (or 42% of eligible voters) did not vote is significant. Election analysis should have tried to determine why voters did not vote. It did not. It also ignored the contamination of citizens’ enthusiasm to vote and the misinformation that caused their misunderstanding of the issues.

With more clarity about the impact of the 2016 election, many non-voters have joined together with those voters who did vote, but who do not like the election results, to organize a more full-throated democratic response to the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. These voters—collectively and individually—have decided that they want more control of their political destiny and want to put the nation back on what they perceive is the “right track.” They’ve decided that they want their voices heard, whether by participating in and supporting movements such as Black Lives Matter or #MeToo or by individually running for elected office or by supporting candidates at every level of government. And it’s not only women (although they may be the majority) who have decided to re-engage; men too are taking a stand about the kind of society in which they want to live.

So what does this all mean? No one will really know for sure until the midterm elections happen. But if we are to believe the numbers, there are far more people interested in change—change that moves the country forward, not backwards.

In a majority of the U.S. states that have held primary elections (candidates from each party seeking their party’s nomination), there have been huge increases in Democratic party turnout, compared to only a slight increase among Republican voters. To demonstrate the significance, the most relevant comparison is to compare voter turnout data in the 2014 midterm election with voter turnout data in 2018. That data shows an increase of 78% for Democrats voting in primaries, while showing Republicans only increased their primary vote by 23%. Overall, Democratic primary election turnout was 53% of the primary ballots cast. In 2006 when the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, their party made up 54% of the primary ballots.

While Trump has turned conventional wisdom on its head, the U.S. president’s party typically, at least since the mid-1930s, has lost an average of 29 seats in the first midterm election after a president’s election victory. The Democrats need 23 seats to take control of the House of Representatives. President Trump’s low approval rating is expected to contribute to a poor showing for his party. And the fact that Democrats are outpacing Republicans in raising campaign contributions—although Republicans are known for dropping lots of money in Congressional district races closer to an election—outpacing Republicans at this stage will impact the end results.

Adding to these factors is the fact that 44 House Republicans are retiring, making those once encumbered seats now open and competitive. All said, the geography for control of the House is expansive and, unlike in previous midterm elections, includes many more competitive seats—in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Texas, California, New Jersey, Kansas, Michigan, and Washington.

While Republicans hope it is meaningful that their party held on to the eight or nine seats in special elections—seats vacated by Republicans prior to the midterm elections—Democrats saw a 10-point shift in favor of their candidates even in those districts, districts President Trump won by double digits. Added to that shift, there are 25 districts that Republicans currently hold that Hillary Clinton won, in some cases by double digits.

Two other factors will influence the 2018 midterms that pundits fail to mention: the decline of voters who identify as Republicans; and the role of voters who identify as independent. In the United States, the percentage of voters who identify as Democratic has remained at 44% since 2016, while the percentage of voters who identify as Republican has decreased from 42% to 37%. Why does this matter? First, if voters are leaving the Republican party, those voters are far less likely to vote for candidates who identify with the party they have left. Second, 19% of voters who identify as independent—clearly enough to “swing” an election—are growing increasingly dissatisfied with Trump and with Congressional Republicans and are much more open to voting for Democrats than in previous elections.

The Senate, with statewide elections and many more Democrats (23) up for re-election than Republicans (7), is unlikely to “flip” from its current Republican majority. Although there are multiple scenarios that could produce Democratic control of the Senate, of the 23 seats that are being contested, 10 seats currently held by Democrats are states that Trump won in 2016. And, of those 10 seats, eight are very competitive and voters in three of those states continue to support the president.

The eight states to watch include West Virginia, where currently Senator Joe Manchin has a solid lead over his Republican contender but where Trump support is well over 60%. Other states where the race lead shifts within the margin of error on a weekly basis and are too close to call include: Indiana (Senator Joe Donnelly) where Trump approval is below 50%; Missouri (Senator Claire McCaskill) where Trump approval is below 50%; and North Dakota (Senator Heidi Heitkamp) where Trump approval is above 50%.

Senators who, despite Trump’s 2016 win in their states, are several solid points ahead of their Republican contenders include Senator Tammy Baldwin (Wisconsin), Senator Jon Tester (Montana), and Senator Sherrod Brown (Ohio). Florida, where Trump eked out a victory and his current support is at 41%, is experiencing a very expensive midterm contest between the incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and the retiring Republican Governor Rick Scott. While Trump’s approval rating in Florida is at 41%, the polls show that this race is close.

There are several Senate seats currently held by Republicans (either retiring or running for re-election) that could be “pickups” for Democrats. Those seats are in Nevada were Senator Dean Heller is considered very vulnerable, Arizona, where a conservative Democrat, Representative Kyrsten Sinema, is vying for Republican Jeff Flake’s seat, who is retiring, and Tennessee, where former Governor Phil Bredesen, a moderate Democrat, will be facing former Representative Marsha Blackburn.

Currently, Republicans have a very slim 51-49 margin in the Senate. Democrats need a net win of two seats to take over control of the Senate. While Democrats could achieve a net two seat gain, the odds are stacked against them. To get there, they would have to win most of the eight competitive seats and, for any seat they lost of the eight, they would not only need to pick up a seat in Nevada, Arizona, and/or Tennessee but also gain two seats. It’s a very difficult task to achieve.

But then there is Texas where Senator Ted Cruz is facing a mounting challenge from Beto O’Rourke. Statistical models forecasting the race in Texas are divided about whether Cruz or O’Rourke will win. But that fact that the race is as close as it is should be a warming sign to Republicans who now have to put resources—resources needed in other races—towards a race that they should be winning handily.

At the very least, November 6th will prove to be an interesting evening. Hopefully, it will also give U.S. leaders a better understanding of the values held by voters and their aspirations for the country.