What will happen next week.
The 2018 midterm elections are next week, and political pundits have done their best to emphasize their importance. David Corn of Mother Jones labeled the 2018 midterms the “most important election of our lives.” Philip Klinkner at the Washington Post agreed: “what happens this year may be just as important as President Trump’s stunning rise in 2016 and whatever happens in 2020.” Eric Levitz at New York Magazine created a list of 11 issues that the midterms will help decide, especially for young voters, including abortion, marijuana, immigration, and governmental corruption. “Millennials,” he pleaded, “Vote. Please. You have everything to lose if you don’t.” These pronouncements are based on the current status of Republican consolidated rule and the utter inability of Republicans to check the Trump administration. Democratic control of the House would mean near-constant investigations of Donald Trump’s finances, his ties to Russia, and the corruption of his administration. Democratic control of the Senate would mean an end to Trump judicial nominations and a greater chance for impeachment. These stakes have been reflected in the massive amounts of money being spent on the election and, unfortunately, events of political violence that have been tied to heated pro-Trump rhetoric.
With stakes so high, pundits and writers are wary of making predictions about the results. To support this reticence, they point to 2016. The pundit class was certain of a Hillary Clinton victory in the weeks and days prior to the 2016 presidential election. Jamelle Bouie of Slate wrote articles at every turn arguing for the impossibility of a Trump victory, including after Brexit and bad weeks of polling. A group of political scientists at the Princeton Election Consortium even declared that Hillary Clinton had a 99% chance of victory, the closest to certainty academics will ever come in an election prediction. After being proven wrong so spectacularly, most pundits this time around have given platitudes about the importance of turnout or the general trends in favor of one party or the other.
To me, this reticence is an overcorrection. It is perfectly acceptable to make a prediction based on historical precedents, political trends, and current political momentum. My prediction for the 2018 midterms is that the Democratic Party will win 225 seats in the House and lose one seat in the Senate, securing divided government for the rest of President Trump’s term.
The history of the midterms helps to characterize and inform this prediction. A common theme in my writing has been the idea that Donald Trump, for all his unique attributes and ability to break precedent, is a historical figure. Like all other historical figures, he is subject to trends and can be understood in context with his predecessors. And on the question of his midterm performance, his historical predecessors did not perform well. 15 out of the past 27 midterm elections have led to a swing of more than 23 seats, the number of seats Democrats need to pick up in order to win control of Congress. What about the 12 races in which the opposition party did not gain 23 seats? Several of those elections occurred at exceptional moments in American history (the aftermath of World War I, the Korean War, and the 9/11 attacks being prominent examples), and nearly all of them were under presidents with a higher approval rating than Trump.
Furthermore, the historical trend of House races during midterms is nearly as strong as the historical trend against three-term single-party rule that Hillary Clinton faced in 2016. Since 1912, there have been only three scenarios of three consecutive presidential elections being won by the same party, with two being influenced by extraordinary events (the aftermath of the First World War bolstering the Republicans in the 1920s, and the Great Depression sinking their hopes in the 1930s). Other events, including a unequally growing economy and a poor Clinton campaign, overcame what pundits believed was widespread disgust at Trump’s actions. In many ways, 2016 was not a historical aberration, and a House Democratic victory in 2018 would not be one either.
Political science and polling also inform my prediction of divided government. Several other factors suggest this midterm election will match that of most midterms in which the party in power loses more than 23 seats. 26 Republican incumbents have retired already rather than face re-election, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. Retirement involves giving up the benefits of incumbency and makes party seat retention significantly more difficult.
Those who remain are facing polling headwinds in what they considered to be some of their safest districts. A recent poll found that Steve King, a leading far-right fringe congressman, was within the margin of error against a nearly unknown challenger in an R+11 district. Several candidates in riskier races have already had their funding cut off by the GOP. Speaking of funding, Democrats have consistently outraised and outspent their Republican competitors across the country. As Jim Newell of Slate argued, “The most pressing problem for Republican incumbents is that their Democratic challengers have constructed a mint this cycle that allows them to print unlimited money.” Pundits are right when they argue that increased spending did not help Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. But there is no fundraising comparison between 2016 and 2018. No amount of money could have changed American opinions of nationally known, prominent celebrities like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. On the other hand, a million-dollar ad buy for Amy McGrath, Randy Bryce, or Matt Longjohn could define that candidate, advocate their positions on health care, and make the difference in a close race.
Of course, my prediction is not ironclad. As James Comey taught us, campaigns can easily be decided by events in the final week and even in the final days before election day. Voter turnout, voting machine problems, and the instability of the Trump presidency could all lead to a shocking outcome. But according to historical trends and current data, the Democrats are poised to win the House. And, if they can properly investigate and subvert the president’s agenda, that may be all they need to defeat Trump.