Wednesday, 7 November 2018

The US Midterm Results: Looking ahead to 2020

## Edit: after publishing this piece, a number of developments in the House contest have significantly upgraded the projected Democrat House performance, and have also thrown into question the decision by many broadcasters and markets to call Florida, Arizona, and Georgia Senate seats for the Republicans before the vote count was finished. The Democrats could now end up picking up around 40 House seats, and could even (though highly unlikely) still pin the Senate back to 50-50. I have adapted the section on evaluating my predictions accordingly.

As the dust settles from yesterday's Midterm Elections in the United States, the process begins of unpicking exactly what happened, and trying to build - where possible - narratives of the results and their implications for 2020.

In terms of my own on-the-night (entirely gut feeling) predictions, I expected:

  1. The Democrats would rack up a fairly high number of gains in the House (toward the high end of median expectations) and end up with a decent majority, comfortably taking the lower chamber of Congress back from the Republicans.
  2. The Senate would fall about 50-50, with seats flipping each way (including Nevada, North Dakota, Arizona, and Missouri).
  3. The Democrats would have a good night in the Governor contests, most likely taking seats such as Kansas, Wisconsin, and Georgia along the way.

If correct, all of this would point to a very strong Democrat challenge in 2020 and an intriguing electoral map which could have left them with all three arms of government under their control.

On the first point, the Democrats have indeed taken control of the House and, as I write, could end up with somewhere around 235 seats to the Republicans' ~ 205. This would constitute around 40 pickups for Democrats, which while indeed creating a comfortable majority actually sits at around just above the mean value of most pre-election forecasting.

On the second, the Republicans have taken full advantage of the highly favourable electoral map for control of the upper chamber of Congress and have significantly increased their majority there. At the time of writing, the scoreboard is likely to finish up at something like 53-47 in favour of the GOP.

On the third, the Democrats did indeed have a pretty good night in the gubernatorial races, but not quite as strong as they might have been hoping. While they did indeed win in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Nevada, Democrats failed to make gains in places such as Georgia and Ohio.

A mixed night for me (and my guts), then! But overall, pretty good. The Democrats will take a comfortable majority in the House, and win a nice (if a little lower than expected) number of Governorships. The Senate however will end up more Republican than before the vote, further polarising US politics.

A very good night overall though for polling and US political scientists, who have been very accurate (it seems) with their forecasting. Kudos!

Zooming back out (and away from my pocketbook), we can talk a little about what this all means in the here and now and moving into 2020 for US politics.

There will be many narratives from all sides about the results and what these results show and who 'won' and 'lost', but probably the best of such takes will be the simplest.

Namely: much attention should be focused on the fact that President Trump now has an effective 'check and balance' on his power, with one arm of Congress now firmly set against him (House of Representatives).

This will make the second half of his term even trickier to navigate - in terms of getting the more controversial and extreme elements of his policy manifesto through - than the previous two years, which already saw him knocked back and take significant hits from a Republican Congress on healthcare for example.

Policies such as the Mexican border wall, for instance, look highly unlikely to pass under the split government scenario that we now have.

This potential forthcoming paralysis I think is the most important and significant story to come out of the results last night. Donald Trump billed himself as 'a dealmaker'. Can he do any deals with a Democratic House? Will the Democrats be able to take advantage of their control of Congress' lower chamber and make some effective changes? Or will we walk slowly and painfully toward 2020 with little getting done on either side? And what does all of this mean for the ongoing investigations and accusations levelled against Trump regarding Russia?

Much has changed regarding these crucial questions now that the Democrats control the House.

Also, regarding that 'blue wave' and whether indeed it happened or not, there are two ways to see this.

One take is that there was no 'blue wave' at all, and instead a 'blue stream' meandered its way through the House map, picked up a few pebbles and branches here and there, and delivered (an entirely expected) modest flip of the House.

On the other hand, current projections have the Democrats up by somewhere between 5 and 10 points in the 'popular vote'. If this figure eventually falls toward the latter, this would outstrip anything seen in US midterm elections for decades. A 'popular blue wave' certainly seemed to sweep the country last night, if not an electoral one. The only reason we are not talking about a 'blue tsunami', one might argue, is a gerrymandered and disadvantageous 2018 electoral map for the Democrats. Having said that, they also look to have picked up around 40 additional House seats, which is really a pretty good result (if somewhat expected).

As well as arguments about various interpretations of the results from last night, a lot will be made of the extent to which we can look through to 2020 based on these mid term results.

Again, there are two ways to look at it, in my opinion.

Firstly, we could see it as a worry for Democrats that the supposed 'blue wave' seemed to get stuck on the rocks coming in, and that the Republicans were able to mount such effective defences against the midterm opposition in so many areas. If this is current form, then you could argue that there is little to suggest that Donald Trump should be hugely worried about the Democrats sweeping him out in 2020.

That said, the new electoral map provides, in my opinion, more encouragement for the Democrats than might otherwise be apparent.

Specifically: looking at the Midwest and Rustbelt states, while there were obvious disappointments in Indiana (Senate) and Ohio (Governor), the Democrats performed well in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, and Pennsylvania - and indeed the Senate race in Ohio. Across these battleground states, the Democrats won plenty of key House contests and gubernatorial races, and performed strongly in the Senate votes.

These old industrial heartlands were so crucial to the story of Donald Trump's 2016 success. So, if the Democrats can demonstrate their ability to reconnect with voters there who previously abandoned them, then Trump really does have something to worry about looking ahead.

Lastly, the Democrats performed well Nevada (winning both the Senate and Governor contests), and continue to make Texas and Arizona more and more competitive with each electoral cycle.

Of course, there is a long time between now and 2020, and so much can happen in such a short time in politics, but there is definitely a pretty mixed bag of very useful insights into the current state of play US politics that we can draw from these fascinating midterm results.

Though things might not have gone quite as well as expected for the Democrats, I think they should still feel pretty good about what transpired last night both for now and looking ahead to 2020.

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