News and Commentary

2018 Midterms Could be Really Bad for Democrats, But Let’s Not Get Ahead of Ourselves

The 2016 presidential election is still burning bright in America’s collective consciousness, yet some are already looking toward the 2018 midterm elections.

In total, 33 Senate seats will be up for grabs in 2018, 25 of which are currently occupied by Democrats, or Independents who caucus with the Democrats. Only eight available seats are currently occupied by Republicans.

Thursday, Town Hall published a piece titled: “The 2018 Senate Map Is Beautiful,” in which author Jason Hopkins breaks down the most vulnerable Senate seats held by Democrats. According to Hopkins, seats in Indiana, Montana, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, North Dakota, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania have the best potential to be flipped in 2018.

Hopkins’ analysis rests almost entirely on the 2016 presidential and senatorial results. For example, regarding Pennsylvania, he writes:

This is last of the three major Rust Belt States in play in 2018. Sen. Bob Casey has been involved in Pennsylvania politics for quite a long time. It’s actually a family affair- his father held office before him. Republican Sen. Pat Toomey proved all the polls wrong by winning against his Democrat challenger in 2016. On top of that, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the Keystone State since 1988. This is a light-blue state that may be turning red with the Rust Belts.

Given Donald Trump’s stunning victory on November 8, it’s not illogical to believe that states in which the president-elect did well might be soft targets for Republicans in 2018. That said, there are quite a few mitigating factors that should be noted.

1. It’s Not Trump Versus Clinton Anymore

In 2016, it’s very likely that in states in which Trump won, Republicans voted down-ballot “R.” In Pennsylvania, Trump got approximately 293,000 more votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012. In contrast, Clinton had nearly 63,000 fewer votes than Obama.

Nearly 300,000 Pennsylvanians voted for Trump that didn’t vote for Romney in 2012–there was a discernible enthusiasm bump. On the opposite side, there was a clear enthusiasm gap for Hillary Clinton. It would be naive to think that this energy–or lack thereof in Clinton’s case–didn’t also affect various Senate races.

Going into November 8, RealClearPolitics had Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) two points below his rival, Katie McGinty (43% – 45%). In the end, however, it appears as though Toomey benefited from the excitement surrounding Trump, garnering 2,893,833 votes to McGinty’s 2,793,668. That 100,000 vote gap is likely due, at least in part, to the Trump movement that turned Pennsylvania red for the first time since 1988.

Trump won’t be running in 2018, and the fervor he generated will likely have evaporated by then.

2. Midterm Elections Bring Out Fewer Voters, and Those Voters Usually Rebuke the President’s Party

According to Pew Research, for over 170 years, midterm elections have brought out fewer voters than presidential elections:

Voter turnout regularly drops in midterm elections, and has done so since the 1840s. In 2008, for instance, 57.1% of the voting-age population cast ballots–the highest level in four decades–as Barack Obama became the first African American elected president. But two years later only 36.9% voted in the midterm election that put the House back in Republican hands. For Obama’s re-election in 2012, turnout rebounded to 53.7%.

Moreover, Brian Knight of Brown University writes about the “presidential penalty,” which has historically meant that the party of the sitting president will lose seats in the midterm elections. Pew writes that “since 1842, the President’s party has lost seats in 40 of 43 midterms–the exceptions being 1934, 1998 and 2002.” Including the 2014 midterms, that tally rises, as Democrats lost even more Senate seats.

If history is any guide, Republicans may actually see losses in 2018.

3. Trump Hasn’t Succeeded or Failed Yet

Donald Trump has yet to take office. As of right now, he’s already walked back multiple policy promises, from a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to the deportation of illegal immigrants.

The point is that we don’t know what Trump will do during his first two years as president. He’s an unknown quantity. He may be wildly successful, which would certainly help Republicans in the midterms. On the other hand, he may be a disaster, which would only embolden Democrats, many of whom are fuming at Hillary Clinton’s loss.

Victory for Senate Republicans in 2018 cannot be assumed because of Trump’s 2016 win. Trump is an aberration in the narrative, and he must be treated as such until further evidence proves otherwise. He may well represent a new trajectory, but in all likelihood, 2018 will fall back in line with previous trends.

It would be fantastic if good, conservative Republicans could take Democratic seats in 2018, and it’s certainly a cause worth fighting for. However, basing assumptions on the success of an unknown quantity like Donald Trump is perilous–especially when those assumptions deal with situations two years in the future.