Midterm elections for the House are usually major defeats for the party of a newly elected incumbent president, and that bodes poorly for Trump and the Republicans, right? Well, sort of. But there are lots of crosscurrents that could swamp this basic rule of American politics.
For starters, Trump is no ordinary Republican president. He is unpopular in the country as a whole, but wildly popular among his base. More than most presidents, Trump is trying to turn the midterms into a referendum on himself.
Normally, that would be a dubious idea for a president whose popularity has never broken 50 percent. But it’s probably a smart idea for the Republicans this year, since it could spike the crucial variable of Republican turnout.
Turnout in midterms invariably falls relative to presidential elections. But it doesn’t fall uniformly. Other things being equal, Republicans tend to vote in midterms at higher percentages than Democrats.
That’s why the recent Democratic losses in a new president’s first midterm elections have been absolute blowouts—they lost 63 seats in 2010 under Obama and 52 seats in 1994 under Clinton—while in 2006, the sixth year of an increasingly unpopular Bush presidency, the GOP lost a relatively mild 30 seats. In 2002, in Bush’s first midterm, thanks to his use of the attacks of September 11 to rally the flag, Republicans actually gained eight seats.
Here is one statistic that should chill Democrats: In the 2014 midterms, according to political scientist Andrew Hacker, just under 36 million Democrats turned out to vote in the House elections. That was a drop of more than 33 million from the 2012 presidential election when Barack Obama was re-elected.
By contrast, more than 40 million Republicans showed up that year to vote for House seats, a drop of just 22 million from the presidential year of 2016. That was 11 million fewer stay-at-home Republican voters than their Democratic counterparts.
If the Democratic and Republican fall-off in 2014 from 2012 had been roughly the same, Democrats would have gained House seats. In fact, they lost 13 seats.
Why do Democrats tend to stay home in greater numbers in midterms than Republicans? One reason is that presidential years, especially when the candidate is a galvanizing figure like Barack Obama, tend to attract voters from demographic groups who are more loosely attached to the electorate, such as young, black, and Latino voters. Those voters tend to drop off in midterms.
So the $64 million question for 2018 is whose core voters will turn out in greater numbers—the hard-core Trump voters, or liberal voters, especially women, minorities, and young people, appalled by everything Trump stands for, most recently the party-line vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court and the appalling treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
Depending almost on the day of the week, there appears to be good news or bad news for either side. Since the Kavanaugh confirmation, Trump has been appearing at rallies, doubling down on his tactics. Trump’s overall ratings have improved, to a high of 47 percent.
On the other hand, this may not translate into advantage on Election Day. The authoritative and usually accurate site FiveThirtyEight now gives the Democrats an 85 percent chance of taking back the House, up significantly since the Kavanaugh confirmation.
A Wall Street Journal poll shows that 50 percent of voters support a Democrat for Congress, compared with 41 percent who back the Republican. That’s about the same as it was before the Kavanaugh hearing. The Journal poll also finds that interest among young people, whose turnout is so crucial for Democrats, is now at over 50 percent, substantially higher than the last two midterms.
And Nate Cohn in The New York Times also reports good news on the turnout front. Democrats and groups that support them appear poised to turn out at record levels for a midterm. Yet Cohn admits that Republicans have a 6-point advantage with voters who turned out in the 2014 midterm, while Democrats have a 10-point advantage among voters who did not turn out last time. So turnout of the party base will evidently be the whole ballgame.
Well, not quite the whole game. Another factor is swing voters. While party-line voting has become more prevalent in the past two decades, independent voters repelled by Trump are likely to vote Democratic for Congress this time, as Republican incumbents have a hard time distancing themselves from Trump.
Likewise many Republican-leaning and independent women, who didn’t like Hillary Clinton in 2016—but she is not on the 2018 ballot. According to the Journal poll, women voters as a whole now favor a Democrat for Congress by a huge margin of 57 to 32, and women’s interest in the election is surging.
The other imponderables are voter suppression and the use of Russian trolls and fake social media campaigns. An indictment recently unsealed in response to the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller reveals that meddling by Russian intelligence is just as active in 2018 as in 2016.
So the most recent news on the midterms turnout should be more comforting to Democrats than some headlines about a Trump surge may suggest—but not too comforting. It’s going to be a nail-biter right up until election night.