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Blue wave or red wall?

With the US midterm elections less than three weeks away, how likely is a Democratic triumph?

Lesley Russell 19 October 2018 2723 words

Blue wave: former president Barack Obama (middle) with senator Bob Casey (left) and governor Tom Wolf at a campaign rally in Pennsylvania, one of the US states recording a surge in enrolments among young voters. Mark Makela/Getty Images

With less than three weeks to go before Americans vote, the outcome of the critical midterm elections is far from clear. While historical precedent and current polls point to the Democrats winning the House of Representatives, the American political landscape has become as unpredictable and changeable as the pronouncements of Donald Trump. The only certainties are that this election will be a referendum on Trump and his performance, and that the president will spin the results, whatever they are, to position himself as the victor or blameless victim.

History indicates that the Democrats will make electoral gains. Since 1970, whenever the president’s approval rating is below 50 per cent (and Trump’s rating currently sits at around 42 per cent), the president’s party has lost, on average, thirty-three seats in the House of Representatives. No first-term president has gone into midterm elections this unpopular since Harry Truman in 1946, when his party lost fifty-five seats in the House and twelve in the Senate.

Polling shows how voting is linked to Trump’s approval rating. Ninety-one per cent of those who approve of his performance are supporting the Republican candidate in their district and 88 per cent of those who disapprove of Trump’s performance are backing the Democrat. A leaked Republican Party survey states explicitly that “research indicates the determining factor in this election is how voters feel about President Trump.”

After the shock of Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, the Democrats have taken nothing for granted for these contests, which they see as crucial for the future of the nation. They have carefully selected candidates appropriate for each district, supported them with diligent fundraising that enables them to outspend their opponents, and worked to capitalise on the anger of women, minorities and those opposed to Trump’s policies (or lack thereof) on key issues like gun control, healthcare and immigration.

As election day approaches, the races are tightening: the Senate looks increasing unwinnable for the Democrats and all eyes are on the toss-up races in the House. A collection of nine sets of predictions on the 270toWin website has anywhere from thirteen to thirty-one House seats in the toss-up category. The predictions for the outcome vary from the enthusiastic — a wipe-out “blue wave” for the Democrats — to a fifty–fifty chance that the Republicans will hold the status quo in the Congress. The FiveThirtyEight forecast gives the Democrats an 84.5 per cent chance of winning the House (they need to win twenty-three seats from Republicans) but only a 19 per cent chance of winning the Senate (where they need to hold all their current seats and win two more).

But nothing is certain in the Trump era. This is not a normal presidency, and so the political advantages and disadvantages may not play out as normal and confidence in the polls is undermined by what has been described as a “deluge” of lower-quality surveys based on suboptimal methodology.

The key factor will be who turns out to vote, and where. According to a Washington Post–ABC News poll, 77 per cent of registered voters say they are certain to vote next month or have already voted, up from 65 per cent in October 2014. Enthusiasm is up across almost all demographic groups, but the increases are greater among younger adults, non-white voters and those who say they favour Democrats for the House.

Until the furore over the Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court, all the enthusiasm and energy was with the Democrats. Since then, at rally after rally, Trump has used the anger that surrounded the hearings to fire up his base and back up his warning cry of the dangers posed by “angry left-wing mobs.”

But the anticipated “Kavanaugh bump” has only been a minor blip in the polls, indicating merely a hardening of already established partisan positions. Political analyst Charlie Cook has called the Kavanaugh nomination process “a colour enhancement event” that has made the red states redder and the blue states bluer. The net effect is that it positions Democrats to perform even better in House races in metropolitan areas but enables Republican gains in Senate races.

Trump’s rallies have certainly energised his base, but they have also been increasingly divisive. They now are so formulaic that even Fox News has stopped running them live. His relentless demeaning of women and his racist attacks, his administration’s policies on issues like health insurance, illegal immigration, abortion rights, environmental protections and tax relief for the rich, and the kowtowing of congressional Republicans have driven away women, minorities, young people and swinging voters.

All the polls show a huge gender gap looming in 2018 as women — especially women of colour and those who are college educated — swing to the Democrats. This swing has been driven most recently by anger over the way women were treated during the Kavanaugh hearings and concerns for what his appointment to the Supreme Court will mean for abortion rights. These women are energised, organising and supporting women candidates. Polling indicates that Democratic women are the most motivated voting group.

On the other hand, those women who were enthusiastic for Trump in 2016 have largely maintained their support for him, which will presumably translate into Republican votes. Another factor that will boost women’s turning out to vote is that a record number of women are on the ballot this November. Twenty-three women, fifteen of them Democrats, are running for open seats in the Senate and more than 230 women, 187 of the Democrats, are contenders for House seats.

Trump’s approval among African-American voters is the lowest of any racial group. He won only 8 per cent of the black vote in 2016 and he has done nothing since to change this; 89 per cent of African Americans say Trump is unfit to hold office.

Trump is tone deaf to their dissatisfaction and questions why his party isn’t winning their support. He recently tweeted: “So if African-American unemployment is now at the lowest number in history, median income the highest, and you then add all of the other things I have done, how do Democrats, who have done NOTHING for African-Americans but TALK, win the Black Vote? And it will only get better!”

Three-quarters of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans believe Trump is setting race relations back while only a small majority of white voters believe so. Black women in particular feel insulted by Trump. The minority vote will be critical if Democrats are to win and this explains the concerted voter-suppression efforts by Republican-led states.

In Georgia, a state where less than 53 per cent of the population is non-Hispanic white, Stacey Abrams, a black woman, is running as the Democrat candidate for governor against the current Republican secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who is overseeing voting and voter registration rules for his own election. Reports suggest that Kemp’s office cancelled nearly 670,000 registrations in 2017 under the guise of voter-roll maintenance. There has been a delay in processing more than 53,000 voting applications (up to 80 per cent of them from minorities); voting sites in predominantly black areas have been closed on the grounds they are not wheelchair accessible; and the state’s most diverse county has rejected an unusually large share of absentee ballots. As early voting began this week, forty seniors were unable to board a bus organised by Black Voters Matter to go to a voting centre after the county deemed this to be impermissible political activity.

In North Dakota, a voter ID law will disenfranchise thousands of Native American voters and likely cost Democrat senator Heidi Heitkamp her Senate seat. Most Native Americans who live on reservations don’t have street addresses and use post office boxes, which North Dakota deems not valid for identification purposes. Heitkamp, who is under pressure for her outspoken vote against Kavanaugh, won her Senate election in 2012 by less than 3000 votes with strong support from Native Americans. Some 46,000 Native Americans live in North Dakota, including 20,000 on tribal reserves, and at least 5000 of these people do not have conventional addresses.

On the other side of the coin, providing an example of how traditional expectations should not be allowed to drive voting expectations, polling suggests that Hispanics have become a “maddening puzzle” for Democrats. The fast-growing Hispanic demographic (there are currently twenty-seven million eligible Hispanic voters) has been seen as a “sleeping giant” that would be stirred into supporting the Democrats by Trump’s demonising rhetoric and cruel policies on immigration. But Hispanics do not reject Trump in the absolute way that African Americans do. Trump got about 28 per cent of the Hispanic vote in 2016 and an October poll found that 41 per cent approved of his performance as president.

The Hispanic vote doesn’t reflect its potential power for several reasons. The Hispanic turnout is always low (the last time a majority of eligible voters turned out was 1996), the vote is not monolithic, and much of the population is concentrated in highly uncompetitive states like California and Texas.

Democrats will benefit from the surge in young people registering to vote, especially in states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and Virginia. These voters disapprove of the way Trump and Republicans have handled the issues they care about, particularly gun control, affordable healthcare and climate change. Since the last midterm election in 2014, fifteen million post-millennials — those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one — have become eligible to vote. This age group typically has poor turnout, especially in midterm elections (in 2014 only 17 per cent of this age group voted) but this year might be different.

One driver is NextGen America, which is investing more than US$30 million in a huge voter-engagement effort aimed at college students. Celebrities like Rihanna and Taylor Swift have issued appeals to young people to vote, and many are galvanised by the students affected by the mass shooting at Parkland High School.

Meanwhile, interesting polling trends in the Midwestern states must have Republicans worried. Democrats look set to win some major races in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Trump did so well in 2016. In Ohio, which Trump won by 8.3 points in 2016, his net approval rating is now –3. Many who voted for Obama in 2012 and then Trump in 2016 are switching back to the Democrats. These voters (many of whom were voting against Hillary Clinton in 2016) have not become strong Trump supporters, largely because of his style rather than his policies.

But if you want to see the most obvious signs of Republican worries, you need look no further than their campaign messaging and how they are allocating resources.

Republican Party leaders are clearly bracing for losses in the House. They have abandoned about a dozen vulnerable candidates who have fallen behind in races once seen as competitive, withdrawing resources to shore up candidates in districts seen as critical to holding the chamber, if only by the narrowest of margins. Both the GOP leadership and the White House see the loss of the House as a mortal threat. It would allow Democrats to bring the Republican agenda to a halt, launch far-reaching investigations that would put the Trump administration under siege, ensure that the findings of the Mueller investigation were made public, and perhaps even see Trump under impeachment.

On the campaign trail, candidates have recognised that their opposition to Obamacare is now a hindrance. The provisions of the law they love to hate turn out to be extremely popular, especially the protections for pre-existing conditions, which are supported by a large majority of Americans, including Republican voters.

That has led to much dissembling on the part of Republicans candidates, culminating in an op-ed article on healthcare in USA Today published under Trump’s name. This attack on “Medicare-for-All” — the various proposals to expand Obamacare — also claimed that the administration is defending health insurance for Americans with pre-existing conditions, when actually it has tried to destroy that coverage.

Perhaps the surest sign that Trump and the Republican Party know they are in trouble is that they are now invoking a fear campaign. Trump recently warned evangelical leaders that Democrats “will overturn everything that we’ve done and they’ll do it quickly and violently” if Republicans lose control of Congress in the midterm elections.

A new ad released this month by the Republican National Committee calls “the left” “an unhinged mob” advocating incivility and even violence. This was echoed in a statement by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor, in which he said, “We will not let mob behaviour drown out all the Americans who want to legitimately participate in the policy-making process.” The theme was then picked up by Trump in a tweet this week. “The only way to shut down the Democrats’ new Mob Rule strategy is to stop them cold at the Ballot Box” — a quote from conservative commentator Ben Shapiro.

Meanwhile, away from the glare of national media, a huge number of low-visibility state election campaigns have serious long-term implications for politics at the federal level. It is the states that have the power to set (and to gerrymander) the boundaries for electoral districts based on the upcoming 2020 census. This is a once-in-a-decade opportunity that could determine who controls the House of Representative through to 2030.

In 2010 the Republican Party gave US$30 million to the Redistricting Majority Project (known as REDMAP) to drive partisan gerrymandering in states where there was a Democratic majority but which could swing towards Republican with appropriate redistricting. This has been described as “perhaps the most audacious heist in modern politics.” The only way this can be undone is for Democrats to win more states.

This year Democrats have invested heavily in the battle for state legislatures, with efforts to raise US$35 million. Some twenty-nine governors and more than 800 state legislators who could have a hand in the new maps will be up for election in November. Crucial state-level policy issues include Medicaid expansion, abortion rights and education. Vox sees at least nine states where the Democrats have a chance to take back legislative control, including state Senate chambers in Maine, New York, Colorado and Arizona, along with the New Hampshire state House.

In states where Republicans are likely to maintain control of the legislature, a shift in the governorship could also change the redistricting process. Republicans hold thirty-three governorships and Democrats sixteen (with one independent). The Cook Political Report lists twelve Republican-held governorships as toss-ups or worse, compared with just one held by the Democrats.

While pundits might be tentative about final predictions for the midterms (even FiveThirtyEight is positing the possibility of an upset), the blame game for Republicans and the White House has already started. Congressional Republicans say Trump’s lack of discipline and his continuing controversies have put them at a disadvantage, while Trump’s political team has grown frustrated with the high number of retirements and poor fundraising totals.

An unidentified Republican strategist has been quoted directly blaming Trump, saying, “[The president] is the one taking the party off-message every day. Focus groups show that most voters don’t care about Russia, but what they don’t like is the president tweeting falsehoods and the general chaos that he creates every day.”

In spite of all his bragging about his achievements, Trump also is increasingly looking to shore up his position against election losses. “I think I’m helping people,” he said in a recent interview. “I don’t believe anybody’s ever had this kind of an impact… Some of the people I’ve endorsed have gone up forty and fifty points just on the endorsement.” But then in the same interview he acknowledged that “it’s a tough year” and said it would not be his fault if Republicans lose the House — this after he told supporters at a rally in Mississippi to “pretend I’m on the ballot.”

Trump has boldly accused China of seeking to meddle in the midterm elections. He has also invoked the spectre of impeachment, telling supporters it would be their fault if he is impeached because it would mean “you didn’t go out to vote.”

Pundit Charlie Cook has the best overview of what he calls “a heckuva election.” “I like to characterise this election as what looks like a Democratic tidal wave up against a Republican seawall,” he said last month. “The question is, which is going to be stronger — the Democratic wave, or the Republican wall?” •

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