December 2018

By Karen A. Tramontano

With the final tallies now in, it may be helpful to respond to the frequently asked question—who actually won the 2018 U.S. Midterm elections?

On the eve of Election Day, it was not clear whether Democrats would take over leadership of the House from the Republicans—who have held it since 2011—and, if they did become the majority party, whether it would be a so-called “blue wave,” effectively sweeping Democrats into power. Early predictions soundly declared that there would be “no blue wave” and, despite the fact that Democratic candidate victories were trickling in every day, the discussion in the days and weeks that followed seemed only to lead to further confusion about which party had actually won. In fact, it was not until December 6th when we learned that Democrats would hold a 40-seat majority in the House of Representatives.

Because of the slowness of the results and the early “no blue wave” declaration, the easily digestible conclusion for the public was because Democrats had lost the Senate, Republicans would maintain control. In this veritable “fog,” the slow but steady stream of seats piling up for House Democrats was all but ignored. And, by oversimplifying the results, many midterm election detailed were missed. They deserve a second look.

What actually occurred?

The 2018 U.S. Midterm elections produced a record turnout of over 49%—it was the highest voter turnout in a U.S. midterm election since 1914. House Democrats received over 60 million votes, to the Republicans’ 50.6 million votes. This exceeds the only other time in U.S. history (1970) where the party not in control of the White House received nearly as many votes in a midterm election as the sitting president received. (President Trump was elected with less than 63 million votes in 2016.)

In the Senate, Democrats were defending 24 seats, of which they won 20. That Democrats would win 20 seats was hardly certain. In fact, less than one year ago, political prognosticators argued that Democrats would likely lose at least 9 seats in the Senate: the 4 seats that they lost—Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, and Florida—and the 5 states that President Trump won in 2016: Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

The Republican Party had an easier playing field in this midterm election, having to defend only 9 seats. They won 7 seats and by “flipping” 4 additional Senate seats held by Democrats, the Republicans won a total of 11 seats. Democrats were also able to “flip” 2 Senate seats previously been held by Republicans. 

Although Senate Republicans successfully framed the election results as a victory, their continued control of the Senate was not an unexpected outcome; the only unknown was their margin of control. In the end, the net gain for the Republicans in the Senate was just 2 seats, over last term’s previous 1 seat margin of 51 – 49. The incoming Senate will be a 53 – 47 Republican majority, with the Democrats joined in their voting by the two Independent Senators, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine.

In the House, the Democrats had a net gain of 40 seats. This is the highest number of seats Democrats won since the post-Watergate midterm elections of 1974 and a larger gain than Democrats achieved in the so-called “wave” elections of 1982 and 2006. Democrats also won by the largest margin of votes in any U.S. midterm election ever—receiving 9.5 million more votes than Republicans—breaking the previous midterms’ margin of victory record of 8.7 million votes in 1974, following President Nixon’s resignation.

Ultimately, these results where neither predicated nor easily achieved. Initially, Democrats targeted the 23 Republican House districts that Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election. Victories in those 23 districts would not ensure Democrats would have a majority in the House. To gain control of the House, Democrats had to compete and win in those districts where President Trump won in 2016, including some where he won by significant margins. In the end, the 40-seat margin came because Democrats won 17 so-called “Trump districts,” including long-held Republican districts in Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and Oklahoma.

Analyzing the results

Analyzing the midterm results—understanding who voted and why—is always controversial, but nonetheless worth discussing. Reviewing a cross-section of exit polls illustrates, contrary to many press reports, that these midterm elections were not only about Republicans losing suburban college educated white women; it was also about Republican support declining in nearly every voter cohort.

For example, white non-college educated women who, in 2016 voted Republican by 61 – 34 %, in 2018 voted Republican by a lower margin of 56 – 42 %. Similarly, white college educated women who voted for Democrats in 2016 by a margin of 51% – 44%, in 2018 increased their margin of support for Democrats by a margin of 59% – 39%.

Typically, the media tends to highlight voting shifts only when a political party is able to gain a majority of support of a voting cohort—for example, white men, college educated women, etc. Rarely, however, does the media report movement within voting cohorts where that voting cohort represents a minority of a party’s support. But ignoring shifts within those cohorts discounts movement that could cost a candidate an election.

For example, while a majority of white men voted Republican in the 2018 U.S. midterms (51% to 47%), the shifts for college educated and non-college educated white men was +10 and + 14, respectively. In 2016, college educated men gave Republicans a margin of 53% to 39%. But in 2018, that margin shrunk to 51% to 47%. Further, non-college educated men voted overwhelming Republican in 2016 by a margin of 71% to 23%, but in 2018 their margin of support for Republicans decreased to 66% to 32%.

There were also shifts of support to Democrats among rural and suburban voters. In 2016, rural voters voted Republican by a margin of 61% to 34%. In 2018, that margin shifted from 56% to 42%. This 13 point shift reduced a 2016 Republican 27 point advantage to a 14 point advantage in 2018. In parallel, in 2016, suburban voters gave Democrats a slight advantage of 48% to 45%. In 2018, that margin jumped to 53% to 45%.

Each margin for a campaign could mean the difference between victory and defeat for a party’s candidate. And, while campaigns are focused on increasing the majority of supportive voters across cohorts, they are also focused on decreasing the margin of non-supportive voters. Examining these underlying and shifting voter patterns—especially in states critical to the 2020 Electoral College—will be essential to shaping a winning presidential campaign for either political party.

What does it all mean?

What do these midterm elections results mean? And what do they predict, if anything, about the 2020 U.S. presidential election? An honest answer is that it could all mean nothing. While political leaders and pundits try to draw various conclusions, the results of midterm elections have not exactly foretold the results of a presidential election. Remember 2010 when Republicans had one of their largest victories ever—when they gained 65 seats? At the time, every political analyst predicted the end of the Democratic Party and declared President Obama a one-term president. That did not happen. In 2012, President Obama won re-election with 51% of the popular vote and 332 Electoral College votes.

That said, there are lessons to be gleaned from the 2018 midterms. Voters are energized and they want Congress to get to work to solve problems, especially those related to healthcare and employment. The 60+ million voters who voted for Democrats in the House of Representatives did so to put a check on the power of the Executive Branch. Based on the 2018 midterm results, including elections for Governors and Attorneys General, Republicans—when defending 22 Senate seats in 2020—may face robust challenges in Maine, Arizona, and Colorado. Likewise, 2018 House and state-wide election results appear to demonstrate a changed political landscape for Republicans in Iowa, North Carolina, and Kentucky.

Thus, if the Democratic Party’s 2018 successes are predictive of state Electoral College wins in 2020, the Republicans may have difficulty getting to 270 Electoral College votes, even if they win Florida and Ohio. Like all elections, however, what happens two years earlier is far less important than who the candidates are, what their vision for the country is, and what the voter turnout will be. These are the factors that always determine the final outcome.