A Political Kick-off to 2018

As we kick off 2018, we’re diving into some of the considerations each party faces heading into the 2018 midterm elections.

High Level

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats are going to try to make the November election about President Trump, given his unpopularity in the polls. Republicans, on the other hand, are going to try to make it all about the strong economy.

The Challenges

Of course, it’s not as simple as these two competing messages, and there are many unanswered questions.

Will Democrats be able to win elections without offering their own vision, or can they adopt the “Had enough? Vote Democratic,” theme successfully? History gives us examples of both approaches working, with House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich deploying the 1994 Contract with America and gaining 54 House and nine Senate seats, and perhaps the most effective midterm slogan to date, the 1946 GOP plea: “Had Enough? Vote Republican.” It remains unclear which approach Democrats will, or will need, to take.

From the Republican perspective, it is a fair assumption that President Trump’s poll numbers will not quickly rebound, most of all because of his “tweetstorm” behavior. Yet the White House hopes to increase the president’s low approval ratings by focusing on his actions – e.g. deregulations, the tax bill, chipping away at the Affordable Care Act – and using the booming economy as a centerpiece of its political message this year.

Combine the trends of declining unemployment with a rapidly growing stock market and the passage of tax reform, plus individual and business confidence in the economy is climbing. If the tax bill results in Americans seeing an average $80 increase in each paycheck, the rhetoric of tax reform benefitting corporations and the wealthy could ring untrue. For many Americans, that increase adds up in meaningful ways – it’s a lot of groceries!

Both parties face challenges with their constituencies as well. Democrats will have to be careful to not get sidetracked in their own intramural disagreements between the liberal, progressive members of the caucus and their more conservative colleagues. Will identity politics distract Democrats from picking up seats in 2018? Do the demands of some of Democrats’ constituencies – minority groups, women’s groups, DACA supporters – prevent Democrats from making the election a referendum on President Trump? Will youth become the new disillusioned, with student debt piling on top of concerns about climate change, employment, home ownership, and the direction the president is taking the country, combined with their general lack of party identification? Will Republicans be able to overcome the dominance of the ultra-conservative, and avoid their own intra-party disputes?

Looking at the Senate electoral map for 2018, it’s hard to imagine a rosier outlook for Republicans than the one they have next year. Already in control of the Senate, Republicans will defend only eight seats (maybe three competitive) next year to Democrats’ 26 (at least six are vulnerable). While incumbents traditionally have an advantage over their challengers, this may not be the year to be a Republican incumbent. To date, 56 members of Congress have resigned or will be leaving their positions at the end of the 115th Congress. Furthermore, with the way House districts are currently constructed, Democrats must win significantly more than 50 percent of the public vote (including estimates of as much as 58 percent). According to RealClearPolitics 2018 generic congressional vote, the average Democratic lead over the past three weeks has been 11.4 points, down from 13 percent for all of December. Some other things to keep in mind: in the past 21 midterms, the president’s party has lost an average of 30 seats in the House and four seats in the Senate. That number is even higher for presidents with an approval rating below 50 percent - 36 seats on average. In only two of these elections did the president’s party gain seats in both Houses. As the political pendulum swings faster, President Barack Obama also saw some of the greatest losses in the House and Senate since President Harry Truman. This also could be President Trump’s fate.

Furthermore, while turnout for midterm elections tends to favor Republicans, if you look at the results of last fall’s Virginia Governor’s race and the special election for the Alabama Senate seat, you will note that Democrats have a lot to cheer about, with suburban women, suburban college graduates, African Americans, and young people playing an enormous role in the outcome of those elections. Perhaps the thing to watch most closely is the enthusiasm number, which current favors the Democrats by ten percent.

In the last ten months before the 2016 election, nearly 1,000 women contacted Emily’s List about running for office or getting more politically involved. This time around, that number has grown to over 33,000. The rise of the #MeToo movement has immensely strengthened women’s political participation. Furthermore, 10 months out from the election, Democratic candidates have filed in all but 20 House districts held by Republicans, while Democrats in 80 districts do not have a Republican opponent.

These days, the country is often (and we’d argue, accurately) described as “two Americas” that view the world in vastly different ways. Recent polling shows that Republicans are hopeful about 2018, while Democrats are fearful about the year ahead, both personally and globally. In a recent Hart Research Associates summary of their 2017 polling, they concluded that only one percent of adults say that the country is “totally united.” Could there be clearer evidence that we have a divided country? When looking at independents’ positive attitudes toward the parties, only 16 percent have positive feelings toward the Republican Party and only 18 percent have the same for the Democratic party.

It’s too early to say whether the 2018 elections will be a referendum on President Trump, the economy, or any number of other issues: Mueller investigation, international incident, taxes, healthcare, immigration, sexual misconduct allegations, etc., or how additional retirements impact the electoral landscape.

The next true insight may come in March, when voters turn out for a special election in conservative-leaning western Pennsylvania to fill the seat left vacant by former Representative Tim Murphy (R). President Trump won the district by 20 points in 2016, but Democrats are running Marine veteran Conor Lamb against Trump-supporting state Representative Rick Saccone. Keeping in mind that Democrats need to flip 24 seats to gain control of the lower chamber, and with this week’s addition of a Democratic senator from Alabama, they need to flip two seats in the upper chamber to gain control, combined with a myriad of political, geographical, and policy issues, 2018 is going to be an interesting ride!