Forecasting 2018 Midterms: Outside Money, Contested Primaries, and The ‘Blue Wave’

Even the casual observer of political history can see the parallels. In the 2010 midterms, the Republicans were coming off a two-term presidency that ended with a the Democrats coming into power. The new administration faced low approval ratings, energizing the recently-spurned Republican base. The result was a “red wave” that saw the House of Representatives flip by 63 seats (the largest shift in a single election since 1948) and the Senate shift six seats closer to GOP control.

The wave was equally prominent at the state level, as Republicans gained 680 seats in statehouses across the country, breaking the previous record by either party of 628 in the 1974 elections right after Watergate.

In 2018, the situation appears to have been reversed. The Democrats are not yet two years out of a two-term presidency of their own, the wounds are fresh, and in an increasingly polarized political environment, Republican President Donald Trump is deeply unpopular in large segments of the country.

This raises an obvious question: Is a “blue wave” coming this November? The answer, at least based on the polling data so far, appears to be a decidedly unsexy “kind of.” Here are the key factors at play.

Turnout is up…for both sides

Let’s go back to the 2014 midterms. In contested primaries that year, according to the Pew Research Center, there were an average of 35,246 Democratic voters per contest versus 44,186 for Republicans. At a similar point this year, those figures have jumped to 48,768 for Democrats and 51,095 for Republicans. That’s a bigger increase for Democrats — 38 percent compared to 16 percent for Republicans — but still an improved figure for both sides.
Naturally, this is good news for Democrats, but it means Republicans are continuing to engage their base as well and turn out votes at an increased clip. Overall this has translated into an increase of 6.2 million Democratic primary voters from 2014 versus an increase of 1.9 million voters on the GOP side.

When the lens is scaled back to gubernatorial and senatorial elections, the numbers start to even out. The increase in primary voters for Senate elections is up about 2.5 million for Democrats and 2 million for GOP candidates. However the numbers flip in races for Governor, where Democrats have enjoyed a 2.9 million-vote increase from 2014 compared to 3.6 million on the Republican side.

One of the major causes of this year’s growth in primary voter turnout compared to the last midterm elections is the spike in contested congressional primaries, which have increased from 251 in 2014 to 340 in 2018. The vast majority of that growth is due to a huge two-thirds increase in Democratic candidates contesting primaries (122 in 2014 to 203 this year). With multiple candidates from the same party competing against each other in more elections, soliciting contributions, and getting out the vote, it makes sense that more Democratic voters have been engaged.

The Democrats’ fundraising surge

Given the increase in contested primaries, it’s no surprise that Democrats have seen a corresponding surge in fundraising this cycle. Democratic House candidates, for example, have raised well over $400 million this year versus less than $250 million in 2014. This is due in no small part to an increase in small dollar donations from around nine percent of total contributions in 2014 to upwards of 17 percent this year, according to the New York Times.

That’s a significant jump.

“A good share of Democratic small donor enthusiasm is a response to Trump,” Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks political donations, told the New York Times. “Another aspect is the enthusiasm around this crop of candidates, especially since they’re younger, bringing in younger donors.”

Krumholz adds that most of these sub-$200 donors are probably people who are newly engaged in the political process and weren’t donating before. If anything portends a blue wave, this may well be the greatest signifier.

“A large number of small donors if they come from your district is better than a small number of large donors,” said Krumholz. “Because they’re more people, they’ve already supported you, they’re likely to fill in the dot, pull the lever.”

Due to fundraising disclosure regulations, there’s no way to tell how many of these small donations are coming from inside the districts of their respective candidates. It’s reasonable to assume that many if not most of these smaller donations spring from local support, but the fact remains that a significant majority of campaign contributions to congressional candidates come from outside their district (with the exception of a few candidates), according to an Axios analysis of Federal Elections Commission data. For Democrats, this ratio is slightly higher than Republicans. Seventy percent of campaign contributions to House Democratic candidates come from outside their district, versus 63 percent for GOP candidates. So as a rule of thumb, Democratic candidates this election cycle tend to receive more support from outside their district than their Republican opponents.

An analysis of 13 of 43 contested congressional races in districts held by Republicans conducted by the Times, adds an additional wrinkle to understanding fundraising numbers. In each of the races analyzed by the Times, Democratic candidates cumulatively enjoy a fundraising advantage, but when the leading fundraising Democrat is pitted alone against the lone Republican incumbent, the GOP representative enjoys a fundraising edge every time.

Tsunami, wave, or ripple? To recap, we’re seeing an uptick in voter turnout from both parties compared to the 2014 midterm elections, but more so for Democrats largely thanks to more contested primaries. Democratic candidates also have seen a surge in the percentage of smaller campaign contributions, which suggests that more local Democratic voters are getting involved in their congressional races. At the level of senatorial and gubernatorial races, however, the increases in turnout numbers appear more equal.

Will this translate into Democrat victories in historic GOP strongholds? In Alabama, Alabama Daily News publisher Todd Stacy is skeptical.

“The Alabama Democratic Party is a shell of its former self,” Stacy wrote in August, noting that after a decade of election drubbings and “Tammany-style hard-knuckle politics” by state party leaders (Sen. Doug Jones’s victory notwithstanding), the state-level party apparatus hardly even constitutes a “legitimate political organization.”

In other words, all politics is local, and if the anti-Trump energy of Democrats does travel into red territories where it lacks a longstanding infrastructure, a new wave of elected officials won’t show up in the halls of power. As Stacy poetically summarizes, “if this ‘blue wave’ does come, it won’t matter unless Alabama Democrats are prepared to catch it and ride it.”

All of this leads us to political strategist Stefan Hankin’s middle-of-the-road prediction: “Right now, the most likely outcome still remains a closely divided House, although the Democrats probably have a slight edge on the question of which party is most likely to control the chamber in January 2019. A big wave does seem more likely than a successful night for Republicans, which right now seems incredibly remote as a potential outcome.”

Postscript: While this article has focused on Congressional races, the purported “blue wave” has equally important implications for state governments. In many state houses, it would not take a large wave to tip the balance of power toward Democrats. Eager to tout a narrative of momentum, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee notes that a strategic gain of just “17 total seats could reverse eight state Senate chambers – in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, and Wisconsin.”

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