Why the Democrats didn’t do bet­ter in the midterms

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - LIN­COLN MITCHELL

The 2018 con­gres­sional midterm elec­tions, which be­gan shortly af­ter U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was pro­jected as the win­ner of the 2016 elec­tions, are fi­nally over.

They shat­tered all turnout records for midterms, as an es­ti­mated 114 mil­lion Amer­i­cans voted, and drew global at­ten­tion com­pa­ra­ble to most pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns.

The days be­fore the elec­tion were punc­tu­ated by let­ter bombs tar­get­ing high-pro­file op­po­nents of the pres­i­dent and the deadly at­tack at a Pitts­burgh sy­n­a­gogue, the worst act of anti-Semitic vi­o­lence in Amer­i­can his­tory. Given all this, per­haps the strangest thing about th­ese midterm elec­tions is how nor­mal they were – at least with re­gards to the re­sults.

For many Democrats this midterm was, at its heart, a bat­tle for Amer­i­can democ­racy. Repub­li­cans, for their part, cam­paigned on the idea that Demo­cratic vic­tory would lead to so­cial­ism, or at least a dev­as­tat­ing re­ces­sion.

The Repub­li­cans ran on a slo­gan of “jobs not mobs” while scar­ing vot­ers into be­liev­ing that hordes of im­mi­grants, funded by phi­lan­thropist Ge­orge Soros, were pre­par­ing to storm our coun­try’s south­ern bor­der. Over all of this loomed the per­son­al­ity, tweets and ral­lies of Pres­i­dent Trump.

The im­pact of Tues­day’s elec­tion will be far-reach­ing.

The new Demo­cratic ma­jor­ity in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives will be able to block pro­posed leg­is­la­tion be­fore it can get to the Repub­li­can-con­trolled Se­nate, mean­ing that Trump is no longer free of con­straints in Wash­ing­ton and that con­ser­va­tive bills have lit­tle, if any, chance of be­com­ing law.

There’s also a very real pos­si­bil­ity that the House could vote to im­peach Trump af­ter the con­clu­sion of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sia’s 2016 elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence or over pos­si­ble busi­ness con­flicts of in­ter­est.

The Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity in the Se­nate won’t vote to con­vict him, but a House im­peach­ment could still be a po­lit­i­cal blow.

In ad­di­tion, Trump’s re-elec­tion cam­paign has un­of­fi­cially be­gun and well over a dozen Demo­cratic can­di­dates could emerge as strong con­tenders to op­pose Trump.

Nonethe­less, th­ese un­pre­dictable times still gave rise to pre­dictable re­sults.

The Democrats were clear win­ners on Nov. 6, as the party that does not con­trol the pres­i­dency has been in al­most ev­ery midterm elec­tion since Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt was in the White House in 1934. The ex­cep­tions were 1998 and 2002.

How­ever, the blue wave that many Demo­cratic ac­tivists were hop­ing for never came. The Democrats will pick up around 30 seats in the House and prob­a­bly lose only two or three Se­nate seats in the face of a very tough map, but rel­a­tive to most other re­cent midterm elec­tions this hardly con­sti­tutes a wave.

The rea­son for that was the econ­omy. The blue wave crashed on to the shores of the strong econ­omy and the re­sult could be called the blue splash.

If you had been in a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence sem­i­nar 20 or 30 years ago and had been told only that in 2016 the pres­i­dent was a Repub­li­can and the econ­omy was pretty strong, you would have pro­jected this out­come, or some­thing very sim­i­lar. Ear­lier midterms that drew much less at­ten­tion and were not dom­i­nated by a pres­i­dent who rev­eled in con­fronta­tional and di­vi­sive rhetoric have had sim­i­lar re­sults.

This or­di­nary out­come to an elec­tion that was any­thing but high­lights a con­tra­dic­tion be­tween an Amer­i­can polity that by most mea­sures seems to be in flux and vot­ing habits and out­comes that don’t al­ways re­flect that. The Repub­li­can Party is tran­si­tion­ing from a tra­di­tional con­ser­va­tive party to a pop­ulist one, while the Demo­cratic Party is find­ing new sup­port in once solidly sub­ur­ban com­mu­ni­ties.

A pres­i­dent who has bro­ken nu­mer­ous norms of Amer­i­can democ­racy and whose per­son­al­ity and be­hav­ior has dom­i­nated the me­dia for more than three years found that at elec­tion time the fate of his party, like that of al­most all pres­i­dents, was de­ter­mined by an im­por­tant, but com­par­a­tively mun­dane is­sue: the state of the econ­omy.

It is also ap­par­ent that for many if not most Amer­i­cans, par­ti­san­ship is still the main driver of their vote.

In ev­ery elec­tion this cen­tury, the pop­u­lar vote has been rel­a­tively close with nei­ther party en­joy­ing a real land­slide in well over 20 years.

I en­coun­tered this while speak­ing to vot­ers in a swing dis­trict around Colum­bus, Ohio, in the fi­nal days of the cam­paign.

Demo­cratic vot­ers ex­pressed a de­sire to re­strain Trump, but most Repub­li­can vot­ers sim­ply ex­plained their vote to me by say­ing “I’m a Repub­li­can,” in the same mat­ter of fact tone they might use if they were stat­ing their pref­er­ence for Ohio State’s foot­ball team.

High lev­els of that kind of deep par­ti­san­ship, even when not driven by anger or great pas­sion, locks the coun­try into close elec­tions with lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for waves.

The midterm re­sult shows both sides can mo­bi­lize their vot­ers and de­spite what ap­pears to be a time of in­tense tur­moil, long-stand­ing tru­isms of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics – or at least some of them – still ap­ply.

The midterm re­sult shows both sides can mo­bi­lize their vot­ers

Lin­coln Mitchell is a writer and scholar based in New York and San Fran­cisco. He teaches in Columbia Uni­ver­sity’s Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence Depart­ment. The opin­ions ex­pressed here are his own.

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