Friday, November 09, 2018

2018 Election Recap: It Ain't Over Yet!

In this age of instant hot takes and pre-written post-mortems, it's frightfully gauche for a political analyst to wait more than a minute before weighing in on a major national event. But while unrelated professional responsibilities prevented me from updating the blog until now, perhaps I can take advantage of having had a little more time to assess the evidence before adding my voice to the chorus of electoral interpreters. After all, it's been amusing to watch the conventional wisdom evolve from "the Democrats are underperforming in the House vote" to "the Democrats did fine in the House, but have to be disappointed by the Senate and governors' races" to "the Democrats engineered a big House wave, plus they also held their own in the Senate and made key gains downballot" over the 48 hours that elapsed after the first returns arrived on Tuesday night.

Besides, the election itself isn't exactly over: plenty of ballots remain to be counted in California and Arizona, while both major statewide contests in Florida are headed to recounts that have already plunged into legal challenge amid charges of fraud and maladministration. Those of us with students too young to have consciously experienced the extended postgame in 2000 will surely welcome the opportunity to guide them through a remarkable replication played out in real time over the rest of the current academic semester. And with that, some initial observations on the results of the 2018 midterm elections—or at least the results so far—with more to follow in the coming weeks:

1. The shifts in party fortunes that resulted from this week's vote are of course important, but not enough is being made of the astounding voter turnout rate—now estimated at 48.5% of eligible citizens, which would be the highest level in a midterm election since 1966 (before the national voting age was lowered to 18) and would even approach the 51.7% of Americans who turned out for the 1996 presidential election. The opposition party is typically well-mobilized in a midterm year, and Democrats certainly succeeded in stimulating exceedingly high participation by those dissatisfied with the ruling regime. But Republicans also marched to the polls to defend a president whom many had only reluctantly supported in 2016, just as pre-election indicators of interest and engagement had suggested, and succeeded in salvaging control of the Senate and a majority of state governors and legislative chambers from the national Democratic tide.

Whether they land on the pro or con side, Americans are thinking, talking, and doing politics much more since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Trump's ubiquity is, in general, a massive liability for his party—given the state of the economy, the Republican House majority would surely be intact today had virtually any other 2016 presidential candidate won the office instead—but it does have its specific uses, such as a super-charged rural vote that helps to deliver midwestern and southern Senate seats and governorships into Republican hands. From today's vantage point, the turnout rate in 2020 seems likely to hit or exceed 65 percent (it was 60 percent in 2016)—which would represent the highest proportion of eligible citizens participating in a national election in more than 100 years. It sure looks like we've found a solution for the much-lamented "vanishing voter" problem of past decades; weirdly enough, though, few people these days seem to be cheering that American civic virtue has been restored to a robust state of health.

2. Trump's alienation of previous Republican supporters among the white-collar professional suburban class (especially the female members thereof) continues to leave its marks on the electoral map. Most of the gains made by Democratic House candidates were located in the nation's largest metropolitan areas: greater New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Seattle, and Los Angeles all produced at least one (and, in some cases, much more than one) R-to-D seat flip. (And in metro Boston and San Francisco, there simply are no remaining GOP-held seats for Democrats to capture.) But many of these shifts are either located in states that are already solidly blue (like New York and California) or are potentially neutralized by countervailing trends in smaller cities or towns elsewhere (as in Florida or Pennsylvania), limiting the consequences for state-level partisan alignments—which remain quite stable.

And while Democrats have reason to be encouraged by rising electoral strength in Sun Belt population centers from Georgia and Texas to Arizona and Nevada, their performance in the Midwest—while markedly better than its 2016 nadir—still stopped short of a full rebound to Obama-era levels. In fact, while the pre-election polling was for the most part impressively accurate, it consistently underestimated Republican strength in statewide races in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and Missouri. The Midwest will remain the nation's biggest battleground in 2020, but it's clear that Democrats can't simply depend on Trump's New York-style brashness pushing the region's voters back in their direction. (And this observation, in turn, has associated implications for a Democratic presidential nomination contest that will soon kick into high gear.)

3. While the 2018 election was largely a referendum on the president, the identity of the individual candidates still mattered as well—as confirmed by the margin of victory in the Texas Senate race. Departing, perhaps out of necessity, from its usual practice of favoring veteran elected officials in its candidate recruitment efforts, the national Democratic Party managed to assemble a very strong assortment of "not a typical politician" congressional challengers who, for the most part, proved good fits for their districts and convinced the electorate of their qualifications for office even as they lacked long public records ripe for mining by the Republican opposition.

What we don't yet know, however, is how many of these self-styled new voices will attempt to keep their distance from older generations of Democratic leaders once they take their seats in the Capitol. There's little reason to expect a collectively demanding and persistently unruly class of House freshmen à la 1995 or 2011, but the number of Democratic candidates who promised not to support Nancy Pelosi for speaker on the campaign trail this year suggests the perceived political value that lies in maintaining public independence from the existing congressional party. Pelosi herself may be safe, at least for a while—among her other advantages, there doesn't appear at present to be a clear alternative candidate for the speakership from within the Democratic ranks—but the newly-elected members will need to be given some kind of visible accommodation once they arrive in Washington, and the question of what the post-Pelosi future looks like will hang in the air even if she successfully reclaims the speaker's gavel.