Trying to find evidence of a midterm ‘wave’
Democrats yearn to feel a landslide coming but there’s no sign of it
Democrats’ recent experiences scream “2018 landslide” to them, but reality whispers of much less. Neither Republicans’ past midterms nor current circumstances match those which inflicted huge midterm losses on Democrats. Additionally, it is unclear whether Democrats can reverse their recent midterm disadvantage in core support.
In the past quarter-century, Democrats have twice suffered huge losses in their presidents’ first midterm elections. With Bill Clinton in 1994, Democrats lost 54 House and nine Senate seats. With Barack Obama in 2010, they lost 63 House and six Senate seats.
From Democrats’ perspective, their presidents — each of whom was later re-elected — immediately endured unrelenting Republican opposition. Resulting Republican congressional majorities was then instrumental in denying Democrats their third consecutive presidential terms — despite their candidates winning the popular vote — in 2000 and 2016.
The lessons Democrats have taken from this are these: Presidents’ first midterms are dangerous and all-out opposition works. Added to these history lessons, Democrats see even greater opportunity in an unpopular Donald Trump and Republicans’ frequent inability to work together. As they await 2018, Democrats already are counting the days and sizeable future gains.
The problem in Democrats’ seemingly perfect scenario is that their history does not match Republicans’ past experience or current circumstances.
In 2002, George W. Bush’s first midterm, Republicans gained seven House and two Senate seats. Current Republican numbers in Congress are much smaller than Democrats’ in 1994 and 2010. Democrats’ 1994 and 2010 average was 257 House and 57 Senate seats; Republicans hold just 241 House and 52 Senate seats. Republicans’ lower numbers also reduce their likelihood of losing the number of seats Democrats did.
Further, President Trump won 230 House districts and 30 states last November. This should further help Republicans running in 2018. And 2018’s 34 Senate races decidedly favor Republicans: Democrats must defend 25 seats, with 10 in states Mr. Trump won. In contrast, Republicans must defend just one Senate seat in a state won by Hillary Clinton.
More important, Democrats’ core supporter percentages have fallen — while Republicans’ have risen — in the most recent midterm elections. In 2010 and 2014, Democrat voters fell as percentage of the electorate from their preceding presidential election levels. Republicans as a percentage of the electorate increased in both those midterms. The same pattern holds for liberals and conservatives in those midterms, too.
The last two midterms, therefore, raise the question of whether Democrats’ core supporters will come to the polls without a Democrat running for president. Other questions confront Democrats’ dreams of a big 2018 as well.
One group of questions centers on Democrats’ anti-Trump animosity. It will take more than just today’s anti-Trump intensity to beat congressional Republicans in 18 months. The obvious concern for Democrats: Can it be sustained? A lot can happen in a year-and-a-half. Each of the last three presidents had their lows, but all also experienced significant upticks in popularity during their presidencies. If there is a silver lining in Mr. Trump’s comparatively low ratings now, it is that any upturn will appear comparatively larger.
And even if sustained, high anti-Trump intensity alone is not enough — that intensity must be broadly dispersed. Simply racking up large protest votes against Mr. Trump in blue areas will not change Congress’ balance. Mrs. Clinton’s popular vote win last November proves the pitfall of running up big margins in too few areas.
The anti-Trump intensity must penetrate into Republican areas, and do so enough to elect Democrats — moral victories do not flip seats. That will not be easy when Mr. Trump won a decided majority of states and congressional districts.
Another group of questions centers on Republicans’ intra-party divisions. “Never Trump” Republicans undoubtedly hurt Mr. Trump last November. However, there is no reason to believe these Republicans will not support congressional Republicans in 2018.
For Democrats, voting Democrat doubles as an anti-Trump vote; for Republicans, withholding support for congressional Republicans amounts to cutting off your nose to spite your face. An anti-Trump feeling among Republicans should instead encourage them to vote for congressional Republicans in 2018. For them, congressional Republicans serve as an important counterweight to Mr. Trump within their party. As a result, congressional Republicans could well run ahead of Mr. Trump in many areas, further raising the threshold Democratic candidates must clear.
In theory, Democrats appear to have a golden opportunity to inflict a major 2018 midterm loss on Republicans. The problem is that in practice, things have not worked nearly so well for Democrats in midterms past. And there are several current reasons why Republicans’ past midterm advantage may carry into November 2018. Democrats’ past pains may not predict their envisioned future gains after all.