Policy Pub: What Did We Learn from the 2018 Midterm Elections?

Dr. Doug Ahler presented some of these ideas at the November 13, 2018 Policy Pub. You can listen to the Pub here.

Although the midterm election spectacle continues in Florida for the foreseeable future, a week out from Election Day, the dust has settled enough throughout the country to distill some conclusions.

First, the 2018 midterms were a huge win for the Democratic Party. At the national level, Pelosi et al. have flipped 32 seats, with six more still to be determined. This represents the largest Democratic gain in the House of Representatives since flipping 48 in 1974, the first election in the wake of the Watergate scandal and President Nixon’s resignation. They also managed to defend Senate seats in Montana, West Virginia, and throughout the“blue firewall” of Midwestern states that President Trump breached in the 2016 election, while picking up seats in Nevada and Arizona. And while Beto O’Rourke may have lost Texas, he energized a new generation of Democratic voters across the nation.

The midterms were further successful for the Democrats because they gained control of the Governor’s Mansion in seven states,including a surprise pickup in deep red Kansas. These gains extended down the ticket into state legislatures, which will be increasingly important in the 2020 elections—in most states, whichever party wins control of the statehouse also wins control over drawing districts for congressional and state legislative seats for the next decade.

However, there were also glimmers of success for the GOP. Most notably, the party regained Senate seats in traditional strongholds Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. The GOP candidate generally prevailed in elections in which an incumbent Republican member of the House chose to retire—and, importantly, these new representatives are closer to President Trump on most issues than the Republicans they replace.

This is especially true on climate change. As David Roberts at Vox noted, many Republicans who were open to bipartisan solutions to climate change retired (or were defeated) this year. Their replacements tend to be more opposed to the scientific consensus that human activity is responsible for some of the environmental effects we observe today.By contrast, new Democratic representatives are more “hawkish” on the environment than ever. The result on this issue is increasing polarization, and likely even more gridlock—a microcosm of what’s happening across the policy agenda.

While we can compare the Democrats’ gains in the House this year to those in 1974, there’s also an important contrast between the cases.The country was experiencing soaring inflation then, while today’s economy appears quite healthy. Midterms are usually referenda on the president—and Ford’s pardoning of Nixon certain affected the 1974 elections—but the president’s approval rating also hews closely to economic performance. We’re in somewhat uncharted waters right now, and this raises even more questions about how the 2020 election will play out.

I stand by my earlier assessment that this election was broadly viewed as a referendum on the President. Unfortunately, I believe that this was a referendum on our feelings toward the President rather than the policies the White House and the Republicans in the 115th Congress pursued and enacted. Although we are good at justifying our policy positions, more often than not, we adopt them on the basis of how we feel about the politician espousing them. A recent article in the American Political Science Review by Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope shows that this pattern continues in Trump’s America.

Ultimately, today’s political agenda is largely lacking in genuine policy substance—it is almost entirely focused on the character of the President and his fitness for office. This is troubling in light of the very real problems our country faces. Although our unemployment rate is historically low, the share of 25-54-year-olds that is employed has not reached pre-recession levels. Wages are stagnant, and the low unemployment rate belies significant underemployment and gig economy pitfalls. Advances in artificial intelligence will only worsen these problems—to say nothing of its effects on economic inequality. And 100 years after coming out of the First World War as an emerging superpower, America faces an uncertain future as the leader of an increasingly tribal world.

But, for the most part, we didn’t talk about these issues leading up to November 6. Instead, we mostly fought amongst ourselves over the gravity of a single man’s gauche actions and words. For this reason, I concur with Robert Samuelson: until we demand a better politics from our leaders—and the system in which the operate—we will all continue to lose elections in America.


Dr. Doug Ahler is an assistant professor in the department of political science. His research focuses on American politics, public opinion, representation, and political psychology.

The Featured image is from Wikipedia.

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