Opinion
08.11.18

Dems are big winners in midterms, but both parties have something to brag about

Mark Hallerberg offers insight into the 2018 election and a look ahead to 2020.

In this election, both the Democrats and the Republicans have something to brag about, although the Democrats were the bigger winners. They took the House of Representatives, while in the last two years the Republicans have held essentially everything – in a system in which there is a heavy emphasis on the division of labour.

The Republicans have held the House, the Senate, the Presidency - and de facto also the Supreme Court, where conservative judges are now in the majority. The Democrats now control the House, and important legislation like budgets can only pass if there is bipartisanship. That is, you probably need a majority of Democrats in the House and a majority of Republicans in the Senate to pass a bill.

Another result of the election is that Democrats in the House can now start investigations into President Trump – many people are saying they would like to subpoena Trump’s tax return, and they probably have the right to do so. The Democrats will also control the intelligence committee, which is important to the continuing investigation concerning Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

The campaign effect

Trump can, however, claim some victory in the midterms because he campaigned in several states where Republican senators won – for example in Florida, where Rick Scott, the current Republican governor, narrowly won a seat in the Senate. Further West, in Missouri, the Democratic candidate Claire McCaskill, and in North Dakota, Heidi Heitkamp, both lost. These Senate seats switched sides, and they are in states where Trump campaigned.

In addition, many of the candidates who lost on the Republican side were moderates – that is, people who backed Obamacare as Republicans. So a greater share of those in the House are die-hard Trump Republicans than before. Even there are fewer Republicans now, those who remain will be more loyal to Trump; and because some of them won in states where Trump campaigned, he can claim they owe him loyalty.

The art of the deal

How will this play out in terms of legislation? The parties will indeed have to make some deals because things like the budget must pass every year. In the last two years there have been budget agreements - even though the Republicans held both houses. This usually meant that both sides got more spending -  the Republicans for defence and the Democrats for certain social programmes. I expect that to continue for the next two years, but I also anticipate it will be difficult to obtain agreement on other issues like immigration or healthcare.

One interesting point is that back in 2016, the Republicans won by one percentage point, but this year lost by 7 percentage points, so that was about an 8 percentage point swing. It is unusual to have such a large swing in a year when the economy is doing so well – there is very low unemployment, below 4 percent, and steady growth. If people had voted simply on the economy, they probably would have voted Republican. So given that Trump is wildly unpopular in some parts of the country, he might have done worse if the economy weren't in such a good state.

A country divided: Who will show up?

It appears the country is divided into two camps and the question for elections has become: which camp will show up? That explains why Trump in the last weeks of the campaign emphasized immigration issues, why he ran an ad that even the right-wing Fox News said was racist. This was an attempt to get hard-core fans to show up, not an attempt to get Democrats or swing voters to switch sides. Yet suburbia voted against Trump – places that a decade ago were solidly Republican. Trump’s rhetoric may have hurt him in the suburbs. But at the same time it may have helped him in the South - in Georgia and Florida.

It is surprising that three left-leaning Democratic candidates in gubanatorial races - Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida - came within three percentage points of winning. I would not have guessed that could happen two years ago. I think Democrats will hope for all three states to continue to change demographically – to have more African American and Hispanic voters – and a few years down the road they will win by a narrow margin, just as the Republicans did now. There is a big division across parties nationwide. The Democratic Party is becoming more diverse. The Republicans are becoming whiter and more male. For democracy, I would prefer that both parties would become more diverse and that both would compete for a more diverse set of voters. The way it looks now is worrisome.

Looking ahead, the next two years will be about who is running for President, and this will depend on which way the Democratic Party goes. Some guess that up to 20 candidates may run – resembling the Republicans two years ago, when there were 15 or 16 candidates.  Trump was the most unorthodox to emerge from that field and made many of the others look like plain vanilla. Some people wonder if that may happen to the Democrats now.

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More about the author

  • Mark Hallerberg , Dean of Research and Faculty and Professor of Public Management and Political Economy