The new normal in politics
On election night analysts try to make sense of the results, put them in some sort of context, and describe whatever patterns and forces have produced electoral outcomes.
Good luck following that script in 2018.
Indeed, the 2018 election is not following any normal midterm script.
Turnout expectations illustrate the non-normal character of this year’s election. By consensus, the turnout of Pennsylvania voters Nov. 6 will be close to or set a new midterm record.
But that record turnout won’t be driven as might be expected by hotly contested top of the ticket statewide races — or even the usual hot button issues infusing national politics.
That’s because there are none. In the governor’s and senate race, the only two statewide contests, the Democrats have commanding leads in races widely panned as among the most boring in state history. Normally the governor’s race dominates midterm elections in the state, reaping the lion’s share of media coverage as well as fundraising and spending. Not this year. Not even close. The U.S. Senate race has been equally soporific as well as equally underwhelming.
Then there is the state legislature where all house seats and one half of senate seats are up for election. Despite predictions of record turnout, not one independent analyst believes the state legislature will undergo any party change. At the end of the day, Republicans will remain firmly in control of the state legislature, with the only question being how firm that control will be.
So, the two statewide races are so listless that many voters are only dimly aware of them, and state legislative elections are virtually guaranteed to continue the status quo.
Still, the turnout is expected to be enormous. Why?
Two compelling reasons: competitive elections and a combative Trump.
As many as nine competitive congressional races across the state will help drive turnout as Pennsylvania voters play out the dramatic role assigned to them at the epicenter of the battle for control of the U.S. House.
Historically, competitive house races in Pennsylvania are an anomaly. Even more unusual is Pennsylvania’s key role in the national results. More typically incumbents breeze through their re-elections, eliciting little voter interest — excepting, perhaps, in an open seat or two. In 2012, for example, Republicans captured 13 of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional seats. The Republicans held this same 13 to 5 edge after the 2106 election as well..
The 2018 drama, however, is being created by a new congressional map, issued by the state Supreme Court earlier in the year. That corrected a grotesquely gerrymandered older map. The new map has thrust the campaigns over the state’s 18 seats into the national spotlight, generating more national coverage than any time in modern history — perhaps any time in state history. Consequently, Pennsylvania will be among a handful of states likely to determine control of the U.S. House, dramatically altering the arc of the national government.
Aiding and abetting is the president, one Donald J. Trump, not on the ballot, but very much on the mind of many voters.
Normally midterm elections are almost always a referendum on the incumbent president, even incumbents that try to stay out of them. But few if any midterms have generated more voter interest, nor polarized more voters than the current one. Trump has jumped in with both feet, holding dozens of raucous rallies across the country, while seeking to obliterate the middle ground many voters normally find in a mid-term. He has made a de-facto referendum on the president into a virtual one, possibly producing more straight party voting among both parties than seen in many decades, while driving turnout to record heights.
If every election is a referendum on the last election, this one is also going to tell us a lot about the next one. What it tells us now is that 2020 is going to be one of the most tumultuous, hard fought and polarizing in political history.
It’s also becoming the new normal in American politics.
G. Terry Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael Young is a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University and managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.