If it feels like midterms have lasted since the day after Donald Trump was elected on November 11, 2016, well, that’s because they have. So almost 723 days, 17,352 hours and a record $3 Billion in political ad spending later, voters across the country will deliver their verdict on the first two years of Trump governance and single-party control. Mind you, for the most part, Republicans we spoke to in the field last week would rather be talking about 250,000 jobs created, 3.7% unemployment and the most robust wage growth over the past decade of 3.1% - instead the numbers they are talking about are the 3,000 - 4,000 migrants in the caravan, 15,000 active duty troops being sent to augment border patrol troops (not so fast says the Defense Department over the weekend) at an estimated cost to the U.S. of $200,000,000 - and sadly the 11 remarkable and beloved human beings slaughtered in the great American city of Pittsburgh, PA. Not exactly a winning formula for Republicans in suburban purple House districts where healthcare dominates the landscape, but red meat to red state Republicans running to unseat Democrats locked in the tightest races in the country.
Headed into the final weekend before election day with political heavyweights and the occasional Hollywood star crisscrossing the country, Democrats have the winds at their backs in the battle for control of the U.S. House of Representatives despite the favorable geography for Republicans. In a conference call this week with David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, we discussed the tough political environment in those districts – created by a record number of Republican retirements in districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. As of this weekend, Cook and others have the universe of toss-up seats pegged at ~72 [ 66 Republicans, six Democrats].
Cook Political Report
To capture a majority of those districts to reach the magic 23 needed to retake the House, Democrats need 8% more votes than Republicans with the generic Congressional ballot showing a consistent seven to nine point lead (on September 4, Democrats led by 8.9 points; on October 4 they led by 7.7 points; and today they're leading by 8.1 in toss-up districts) since the spring of 2018. The data below by Morning Consult gives us a wide lens into the election and not a head-to-head comparison of specific candidates, but it highlights the growing playing field the Republicans must defend with a number of seats being added to the toss-up column in areas not in play as recently as last week.
There are a few reasons we think that the Democrats will take back the House. One of the most important reasons is the natural shift that tends to occur in midterms. Specifically, in midterm elections, the president’s party typically loses seats. In fact, going back to 1934, the president’s party has lost seats in the House 86% of the time in midterm elections. Another factor discussed with Wasserman that we’ve played close attention to this past year is the staggering surge in turnout by Democrats over the course of the primary season as well as with special elections held since Trump’s election. Over the years, the bane of the Democrats has been their inability to win key Congressional battles (and recently the White House) due to low or poor turnout. If Democrats match the enthusiasm/anger in many of these races in the next 24 hours and if polling numbers hold up, then they’ll very likely exceed the 23 seats needed with a 35-40 seat pickup becoming more likely. And unlike 2016, Hillary Clinton is not on the ballot this year.
Political history suggests that with a Republican president in office, the Democrats already have a natural advantage with the party holding power historically losing seats. This is amplified by the fact that President Trump has relatively weak approval ratings. Currently, according to the Real Clear Politics Presidential Job Approval aggregate, Trump is sitting at 43.9% approval. While this is obviously not great, it is above his all-time low of 37.2 in December 2017. Trump’s approval rating has also been in decline over the past ten days since the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and the bomb threats came into focus.
On the other side of the Capitol, Republicans have been holding onto a slight lead in red states over vulnerable Democrats in the race to hold the Senate. As mentioned, Trump’s focus on border security and immigration have had the opposite effect with Republican voters in those states who were reawakened by the furor over the Kavanaugh hearings back in September. In many of those states, Republican voters list border security second only to the economy on issues of importance to them. The wildcard in these red states with competitive Senate races is the extent to which border security/immigration will also serve to motivate women, non-white, millennial and independent voters - the demographics working against Republicans in this cycle.
While Republicans are still favored to hold the Senate and/or pick up one to two seats, Democrats will have to thread the needle to win that chamber hoping that an anticipated surge in confidence in blue and purple states blows in their direction in toss-up races in Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, Arizona and Florida with Montana and maybe even Tennessee back in play. Not impossible in this environment. Real Clear Politics latest state of play in the Senate:
We've mentioned over the course of the year how the Senate map has favored the Republicans who are defending 10 seats compared to the Democrats who are defending 23 seats - many in states Trump won. But, when it comes to the Governor's races, the deck is stacked against Republicans who are defending 13 states won by Clinton in 2016. Democrats will very likely make up significant ground on this front - as well as with state legislatures - both of whom took a drubbing in the Obama years. Two reasons this matters to us - if Congressional predictions hold up, we could see gridlock in Washington for two years while Governors advance their own policy agenda, and with reapportionment/redistricting on the docket in many states, state legislatures will play a major in role (along with Governors) in crafting and approving new electoral maps impacting the 2020 races and beyond. It's also worth noting that there are 30 state Attorney's General races tomorrow - and should Democrats make gains here as expected, and trends from the past two years continue, expect them to mount additional legal battles against the Trump Administration; coupled with subpoena power and promised investigations by House Democrats should they take that chamber, one can see where this is headed.
Record turnout for a midterm election is expected with both Republicans and Democrats pulling out their mobilization playbooks - early voting has already broken records in over 21 states and counting, dwarfing 2014 stats. Approximately 35 million people nationwide have already voted. Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who tracks participation and early vote tallies estimates that midterm turnout "could be as high as 50 percent of the population, a peak last reached in the 1966 midterm elections." With this year being more volatile than any other year in recent memory and reliably unpredictable polls unable to predict the outcome on Tuesday, we are expecting our share of surprises on election night.
What does this mean from a policy perspective?
If the House flips and the Senate remains in Republican hands, the biggest change could be related to the focus of legislation. Issues that are more partisan in nature are likely to be passed over, such as healthcare and immigration/border wall funding (to be previewed in the lame duck session of Congress just days away). Meanwhile, issues like infrastructure, drug pricing, antitrust, data privacy, and trade could become more of a focus with the hope of some bipartisan collaboration. As always, expect a healthy dose of drama when it comes to the debt ceiling, sequestration and the budget and appropriations bills.
Don't expect a hiatus from politics after the midterm madness is over - White House hopefuls will be packing for Iowa and New Hampshire before you can say MAGA. Did we mention that Election Day 2020 is only 1,457 days away?