2018 midterm recap: A clash of two waves


At Grassroots Pulse we were wary about the bullish predictions of a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterms, and we wrote as much in the months leading up to Election Day, suggesting that a wave was “kind of” going to happen. As the dust settles (with the exception of a handful of tight House and Senate races that are still being counted) here are a few big-picture observations about how the landscape of Congress has shifted post-Election Day.

Look for our recap of state legislative races later this week.

A clash of two waves

Speaking in broad strokes, the results were summed up well by Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat. “A liberal blue wave did roll in for Tuesday elections, at least in the suburbs,” Westneat wrote immediately following most of the returns Tuesday night. “But a conservative red wave simultaneously coursed through the rural areas. As hard as it may be to imagine, Tuesday’s election mostly showed that our yawning urban-versus-rural divide is only getting wider.”

This indeed appeared to be the consensus among mainstream analysts. Elaine Kamarck, Founding Director of the Center for Effective Public Management, went so far as to say that it was as if two separate elections were happening: one favoring  Democrats in suburban Congressional districts around metropolitan areas and the other boosting Republicans running in rural, conservative states.

“When the dust settles after Election Day, we will most likely see that the root of polarization in America today is not politicians but, in fact, we the people,” Kamarck wrote in a blog post for the Brookings Institution. “We remain a deeply divided country. This division shows up in the closeness of heavily contested elections in big states like Florida and it shows up in the dramatically different results in rural, urban, and suburban America where the red states seem to be getting redder and the blue states bluer.”

While reclaiming the House certainly made Tuesday a good night for Democrats, it’s less clear what the election results mean for Republicans.

With Democrats’ gains in the House largely coming in suburban areas of traditionally conservative states in the South and across the Plains, a post-election analysis by The New York Times argues the results “made it clear that the Trump-induced difficulties Republicans are suffering with once-reliable voters are hardly limited to blue states and could make it substantially harder for the president to remake his upscale-downscale coalition in 2020.” This suggests a weakening of the party that will only grow leading up to the next election.

On the right, Jim Geraghty of National Review begged to differ, contending that despite losing the House, the midterms were anything but a disaster for the GOP across the country. If they had been, he said, “there would have been a much greater appetite for a GOP challenger to Donald Trump in the 2020 primary. The president’s approval among Republicans would have taken a hit, and the anti-Trump voices within the party would have argued, ‘Look, we tried his approach and it failed. His win in 2016 was a fluke. We’re going to get demolished at every level in 2020 if we re-nominate this guy, it’s time for something different.'”

Instead, Geraghty notes, states like Ohio and Florida still lean red, and purple states such as Iowa and Wisconsin don’t feel all that far out of reach for for future Republican ambitions.

Moderate Democrats carry the day

Despite a hard shift to the left in recent years (in no small as a reaction against the emergence of Trump as the standard bearer of the GOP) it was moderate Democrats that carried the day for the party. Candidates espousing progressive populism and democratic socialism, by contrast, made few waves in the primaries and were nearly shut out in competitive general elections.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Jim Kessler and Lanae Erickson of Third Way, a center-left think tank, explain this trend in detail:

“To start, despite some electric wins by ultra-progressives in cobalt-blue House districts, the real story is how well mainstream and pragmatic progressive Democrats fared in both the primaries and general election contests. The moderate New Democratic caucus in the U.S. House endorsed 37 candidates in primary races, and 32 earned the nomination — an 86 percent win rate. By contrast, Our Revolution, the grass-roots organization founded and run by Bernie Sanders’s backers, had a win rate under 40 percent in the primaries. Once the general election rolled around, 23 New Democrat-backed candidates flipped House seats to help gain the majority, while not a single Our Revolution-endorsed candidate captured a red seat. Zero.”

Kessler and Erickson go on to note that of the two candidates in competitive House districts who ran campaign ads mentioning either Medicare-for-all or single payer health care, neither won.

Instead, Democrats’ gains in Rust Belt states and semi-rural Northeast districts appear to have been won through pragmatism and a rejection of hardline “partisanship.” Rather than promising radical reform on healthcare and other issues, these mainstream candidates touted the more popular features of Obamacare and promised to protect the system that is already in place, a telling sign of what a successful party platform could look like in 2020.

Polls hold up despite unprecedented turnout

Lastly, there’s the surprising accuracy of the polls. After Donald Trump’s victory over Hilary Clinton in 2016 stunned many pollsters and analysts, a big question leading into the 2018 midterms was how accurate the polls would prove to be. In 2016, many of the standard polling models went wrong because they failed to account for the mobilization of less frequent voters achieved by the Trump campaign in key states.

This year’s midterm elections also proved to be an anomaly. Roughly 113 million votes were cast in 2018, shattering the previous midterm high of 83 million in 2014 and making this the first midterm election in U.S. history to surpass 100 million votes. This massive groundswell of active voters complicated traditional polling models, which rely on prior trends. Despite the innate unpredictability of 2018’s uniquely large turnout, however, most forecasts of a Democrat takeover of the House with modest gains for the GOP in the Senate ended up being fairly accurate.

“We knew it would be record-high turnout, but we had to figure out who the extra voters would be,” Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told the New York Times. “Still, the polls were very good indicators of what was going to happen. The misses weren’t huge.”

Humbled by 2016, many pollsters this year made a point to be more transparent about their process and used more qualified, nuanced language to clarify that their results did not amount to hard and fast predictions.

“You saw a definite tamping down on the expectations that polls would produce a clear outcome,” Courtney Kennedy, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, told the Times.

They did, however, seem to recover at least some of their dignity and credibility.

Image Credit: “The Unblinking Eye” by Darron Birgenheier is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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