For most of 2018, Democrats have either been predicting or hoping for a dramatic “Blue Wave”, a rash of anti-Trump, anti-Republican or pro-Democrat (the reason doesn’t matter!) sentiment that leads to gigantic electoral gains. Whether driven by increased turnout by engaged Democrats, ambivalence by Republicans or huge swings in independent votes, Democrats have been counting on some bang-up vote totals nationwide. And all indications are that they are going to get their wish.
Funny thing about that, though…there is a good chance that we will wake up on November 7th with a pair of competing headlines that might seem hard to reconcile:
As of today, the Classic model at FiveThirtyEight.com (which, despite blind shouts of bias from some on the right, is miles better at predicting elections than anyone else) gives Democrats a 77.5% chance of picking up at least the 23 seats needed to win a majority in the House. Republicans are given only a 10% chance of doing better than a loss of 16 seats, which is exactly the same as their chance of losing a catastrophic 56 seats. The FiveThirtyEight model says that Republicans are in for an ass kicking, and at this point we are simply waiting to tally the votes to see how bad it is going to be.
Meanwhile, in the Senate, the picture looks great for the GOP, and seems to be improving by the day. The same model (their two other models don’t really differ enough to warrant discussion) gives Republicans an 81.5% chance of holding at least the 50 seats they need to retain control of the Senate. Within the last couple of weeks, the best-guess of the model has actually shifted to the right, from predicting slight Democrat gains to now predicting slight Republican gains. Democrats’ chances of picking up any seats at all are now pegged at about 33.2%, and they are looking at about a 50% chance of actually losing seats.
There are a couple of obvious reasons for the disparity. First, the 2018 electoral map in the Senate is almost impossibly friendly to the GOP. Of the 35 seats being contested, twenty-seven belong to Democratic incumbents and only eight are Republicans. The post-election headlines are not going to be based on who wins the most seats (Democrats will…by a lot), they will be based on the net change in seats, and it is a lot easier to hold onto your current seats if they are not being contested.
Second, a number of those Democrats are running in states that are naturally predisposed to prefer Republicans. Joe Manchin (WV), Heidi Heitkamp (ND) and John Tester (MT) are Democrats in deep red states. Claire McCaskill (MO), Joe Donnelly (IN), Bill Nelson (FL) and Sherrod Brown (OH) are Democrats in swing states that have recently leaned right, as is Angus King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats in Maine. Debbie Stabenow (MI), Bob Casey (PA) and Tammy Baldwin (WI) are defending seats in blue states that Donald Trump won in 2016. Meanwhile, Dean Heller, running as an incumbent in relatively neutral Nevada is the only Republican in a similar situation.
Third, Senate elections are typically more about the specific candidates running than are House races. Senate elections have bigger budgets, more advertising and much more visibility, leading voters to make decisions based on a more informed opinion of the candidates than they do in House races, which are more heavily influenced by overall feelings about parties and their agendas. More people know who their Senators are than their Reps.
And finally, because Senate seats are only contested every third election, there is a limited ability for any electoral wave to impact the makeup of the body. To use Pat Toomey, Republican from blue-ish Pennsylvania, as an example, if a potential Blue Wave of 2018 materializes, it won’t affect him at the polls unless it sustains itself until he is up for re-election again in 2022. Same goes for similar situations like Rob Portman in Ohio, Marco Rubio in Florida or Ron Johnson in Wisconsin.
Control of the House, therefore, is driven much more by broad, nationwide changes in national sentiment than is the Senate. And recent history shows us that that sentiment changes quite a bit. Despite enormous overlap of candidates from one election to the next, the national aggregate vote of Representatives swings pretty wildly.
From 2004 to 2006, Democrats enjoyed a 10.8% net turnaround. Four years later, Republicans rebounded nearly 17%, which was followed by a Democrat gain of 8% in 2012 and a Republican gain of 7.9% in the very next election. That represents some pretty dramatic seesawing in sentiment about the two parties among voters. Certainly some of the changes are a result of the quality of candidates fielded by each party, but with 435 races, we can largely assume that the aggregate candidate quality is pretty consistent throughout the sample period.
And what does that “national sentiment” look like this year? It looks blue. Very blue. The current median projection predicts an 8.2% Democratic advantage in the overall vote, which would be similar to what Democrats won when they last controlled the House in 2006 and 2008. It is mathematically almost impossible for Republicans to hold the House if Democrats win the overall vote by over 8%, and the most likely outcome if that really is the vote would be somewhere around 230 Democratic Seats.
Conveniently for Republicans, you may notice by looking at that chart that Republicans seat-count tends to be better than their vote share. In 2006, for example, Democrats had an 8% lead in overall voting and won 233 seats. In 2016, however, Republicans won eight more seats than that with only a 1.1% overall vote advantage. In 2012, Republicans won 234 seats to Democrats’ 188 while losing the overall vote. From 2004 to 2006, the allocation of seats more or less flipped, but Democrats needed an 8% advantage in votes in 2006 while Republicans needed only a 2.8% advantage in 2004.
There is a good reason for this, one that Democrats talk about often and which they are right about: gerrymanded congressional districts. Quite simply, while both parties try, Republicans are better at doing this than Democrats are, and the advantages that they hold in State Legislatures and State Houses has allowed them to draw Congressional District maps that give them a big advantage in House representation. In states like North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, Republicans in the State Legislature have drawn Congressional districts that allow their own party to win more seats in Congress than a geographically rational drawing of districts would. The total impact of this is probably on the order of about 4% - Democrats need to win the overall vote by more than about 4% in order to win the House.
All of this adds up to some interesting math and allows for some seriously misleading narratives after the election. On November 6th about eighty million Americans will vote in Federal elections. In Senate races, they will likely elect 25 or 26 Democrats and 9 or 10 Republicans. In the House, where every single voter in every state has a choice to make, they may cast seven million more votes for Democrats than Republicans. The voters who walk into voting booths across the country are going to resoundingly choose Democratic candidates over Republican candidates.
But what are they going to get for it? And what is the debrief on this election going to look like? How will that impact their enthusiasm for and approach to 2020, an election fought on much friendlier terms? They will certainly take joy in winning the House and gaining at least some mechanism to influence legislation. I don’t want to downplay the significance of that change in the power structure in Washington. But their dreams of capturing the Senate will likely come to nothing, their highest-profile NextBigThing, Beto O’Rourke, will be out of a job, and their supporters and donors are very likely to feel like the whole 2018 election cycle was a frustrating underachievement. Despite the overwhelming preference of the voters in this election, they are likely to read about how their message doesn’t resonate, or how they can’t talk to “real Americans”, or how their overreach on Brett Kavanaugh backfired.
And conversely, Republicans are most likely to focus on the outcome, a remarkably positive one given the unpopularity of the President and the tendency of the sitting Presidents’ party to lose seats in midterms. It will be entirely too easy to focus on the good news and ignore the terrible underlying fundamentals. Politicians are nothing if not lazy enough to always focus on the facts that are most convenient for them.
The truth is that this is a massively tilted playing field this year, and the result is going to be, objectively, a very good one for Democrats. In theory, they should be able to build on that enthusiasm as they approach a high-profile Presidential primary that offers the chance to engage their voters anew. Repeating an 8% generic ballot advantage in 2020 would make the Senate (not to mention the White House) look entirely different than it does this year. But I can’t help but think that they are going to suffer from their over-promising in 2018. When you tell your people that they are going to see a Blue Wave, they are going to feel pretty let down with results this underwhelming.
Leave it to Democrats to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.