In about a month or so, the country will vote on 435 house seats, 35 senate seats, 36 gubernatorial seats, and of course a plethora of local city and state offices, along with various important and plausibly game-changing state amendments and voter referendums. They will do so under the watchful eye of politicians, political strategists, opinion pundits, and of course the entire political corner of the twitter-verse looking to see whether the Democrats, banished to the wilderness after choking away 2016, will return back from thenceforth with control of the house and maybe even perhaps control of the senate as well.
After all it’s the first (and some pray only) midterm for President Trump. He has been consistently (and unusually) unpopular since the day he took the oath of office. Even a great economy hasn’t helped his standing. As I’ve written about before, this image problem that (so far) refuses to go away has ended up being an anchor to his Republican party, with Democrats gaining some big moral and electoral victories during the special election season. Couple that with the historic trends of an out of power party doing well during the midterms, and everyone is expecting to gauge whether a blue wave is possibly going to sweep across Washington D.C that November night.
However, control of congress is but one of many story lines one should keep an eye on come election night. There’s many other subplots that could end up just as if not more important. I want to look at all of the ones I find to be the most crucial, not just for what happens for 2018 and into 2019, but what could be story lines that follow us into 2020 and beyond…
Will Democrats Choke Away The House?
Democrats currently stand as moderate favorites to flip control of the House of Representatives, with pollsters and forecasters teasing anywhere between a net gain of just high single digits to possibly as much as forty plus seats if the wave really hits hard. They need 23 to pull off a majority, and are favored to likely get more than they need with many believing a thirty or plus net seat gain is likely. Democrats also enjoy a pretty significant lead in the generic ballot that has consistently averaged at a lead of 7–9 points, with some individual polls even predicting historic double digit margins in their favor. According to Alan Abramowitz’s successful generic ballot model, that would mean a sure Democratic majority.
But while you’d obviously rather be in Democratic shoes right now, the possibility they come up short is there. Yes they are favored to make gains, they are also not poised to get a majority if they have the worst possible outcomes according to these same models, and with 2016 still in everyone’s memory you have to account for the reality that is the margin of error. Not to mention, the fact remains that gerrymandered district lines and structural midterm advantages will give Republicans some room to make Democrats have to work for it.
However, Democrats do have the polling, the forecasting, the history, the environment, the candidate quality, and voter enthusiasm on their side. If they manage to let this one slip away on election night, as if 2016 returned to haunt them again, it could dampen Democratic hopes for 2020 and give Republicans a much needed morale boost half-way through Trump’s stormy term in office and into his anticipated to be tough re-election campaign.
Will Republicans Choke Away The Senate?
But Democrats aren’t the only ones who should be worried about margin of error. Republicans currently sit as moderate favorites to keep control of the senate, largely due to the fact that the class up for this election this cycle is incredibly favorable to them. They are favored to hold just as many if not maybe a seat or two more than they currently have. They are expected to possibly have a loss or two but they are also expected to possibly have their own gain or two to cancel those losses out. Democrats find themselves overexposed here, and Republicans have plenty opportunities to make gains.
However, given how horrible the map is for the blue team, it speaks volumes as to what type of environment this election is being fought under — given how close the battle for control has ended up being here. Democrats only need a normal polling error in one or two critical seats to flip control to their side. Republicans on the other hand have found themselves going from dreams of a possible super-majority to fighting it out in seats that reside in such Trump-friendly territories like Tennessee and Texas.
If the wave truly hits hard and Democrats win close battles in their vulnerable seats, they have a path through Arizona, Nevada, and then perhaps plausible upsets in Tennessee or Texas to suddenly find themselves in control of both chambers of congress. This possibility has been under-reported in my opinion and 2016’s lessons should be applied here as well. All it takes is a string of normal polling errors for Democrats to shock everyone in this one.
The Forgotten Battle— The Governors
Of course the battle for congress is not the only major battle going on come election night. Both major parties have a chance to make some changes to the gubernatorial map, and with plenty of open seat races we’re bound to see a new map of governors to get used to after November. But the Republicans are the ones overexposed here, just as Democrats are in the senate.
Republicans for their part have a real chance to take the Alaska seat back, thanks to a split in the opposition between the embattled incumbent Independent governor and the Democratic candidate. They also have an outside shot at flipping Connecticut, Oregon, and Rhode Island as the Democrats have shown some softness in these states.
But if the wave really does hit, Democrats could see some real huge victories and net gains. They are looking more and more like slight favorites in Wisconsin where a big GOP name in Scott Walker could find himself forced into being term-limited by voters, as polls have shown him consistently down. In Illinois, the Republican governor is a heavy favorite to lose his seat. In Michigan and New Mexico, Democrats are favored to flip those open seats to their column. In Florida, a state where Democrats haven’t held the gubernatorial seat in two decades, a dark horse Democratic candidate has shaken up the race and seems to be poised to become the state’s first African American governor barring a late second meltdown. On top of that, Republicans have shown softness in such places as Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Ohio, Oklahoma, and even in South Dakota.
Obviously, these aren’t federal races so you’ll get some strange results such as the fact that Republican incumbents are currently moderate to heavy favorites in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Vermont?—?all states the President is deeply unpopular in and lost by big margins. But some of these races could give Democrats veto power in the 2020 redistricting process, and if the right amount of polling/forecasting error occurs in certain states we could see the blue team being able to boast of having a majority of the gubernatorial seats come the day after an election day wave. Do not overlook the chance for Democrats to have some earthquake results here.
The Forgotten Voters — The Independents
Everyone has been battling over the growing gender gap and white working class types that seem attracted to Trump, but the Independent voter has been overlooked. Independents have been crucial for Republicans; ever since they turned against Obama and Democrats in 2010, these voters have become on-the-fence Republican voters. Both Mitt Romney and Donald Trump won them over. They aren’t the be all, end all voter demographic but they are important enough especially when a race is as close as, say, 2016 — Hillary sure could have used them.
Of late, Independents seem to be shifting. After backing Trump’s election, they have been among the biggest part of his coalition that have shown frustration and disapproval with his time in office. His numbers with them have sunk, and in turn they are poised to shift left for the 2018 midterms. If Independents truly do go Democratic on election night, it would be the first time Republicans lost them nationally since the 2006/2008 blue waves. And thus losing them could be the catalyst for another blue wave a decade later.
However, if Republicans find a way to keep them in the fold or if Independents don’t leave at the kind of pace some pollsters have been showing, they could become a critical part of how the red team limits the damage. But if they can’t limit the damage, and if they truly do start losing these voters, Trump’s razor-thin coalition has some rebuilding to do looking towards 2020.
Is The “Red Wall” Already Cracking?
The President was dragged across the finish line by winning rust belt states that Democrats had once considered part of their “blue wall”. This lead to some overconfident Republicans declaring a “red wall” may now be in place, given Trump’s strength with the white working class voters there.
But in 2018, Democrats who are defending and challenging for major seats in this area are actually favored to get a near sweep of this region. In the Senate, Democrat incumbent senators who were once seen as potentially vulnerable are favored to hold on in Michigan, Minnesota (in two races nonetheless), Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Their embattled incumbent in Indiana is also holding his own, leading in the latest polling. For the gubernatorial seats in this region, Democrats are looking at real chances to flip or hold seats in Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. Plus they have chances in close states like Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin with polls showing them possibly ahead in all but Ohio.
It’s not to say the President’s touch with these voters is gone if Republicans do so badly with them this year. After all, former President Obama and President Clinton had a similar touch with them and their party got clobbered in this region during the midterms. But I think all should agree this is an important swing region, and if there’s a sign of Republican weakness here, there’s going to be a whole lot of eyeballs on whether Trump can get these voters back to the fold come 2020.
The Year Of The Woman Part II
1992 is famously known as “The Year Of The Woman” when it comes to the number of female candidates. But 2018 will make that year look chauvinistic in comparison. Whether it be because of Trump’s antics, the GOP’s anti-woman image, the heartbreaking loss for some of them of the first major female candidate for President, or the #metoo movement, women are poised to run for office at historic levels — and most of them will be Democrats.
Over 250 women will be nominees for congress. Many are in agreement that it will lead to a historic amount of women representing the nation’s voters in the legislative branch. And with 197 of them being part of the blue team, you can bet many of them can ride a would-be blue wave into office.
And it’s not just congress; various states have a chance to elect first time female governors. By the time election night is over we could be talking about not just a Democratic wave but a historic wave for female representation in major parts of government in this country.
Speaking Of, What About That Gender Gap?
American women first got the right to vote in the 1920s. For a while, they basically voted as their husbands and partners did. Eventually, though, a gap in voting among the genders began to show up. For some time, the gap has been within normal parameters. But of late the gap is becoming historic. Men and women today obviously tend to have completely different views on public opinion, government policy, and electoral choices. In 2018, that gap could become a problem for the GOP.
In 2016, Trump lost women by 13 points and Republican house candidates lost them by a slightly better margin of 10 points. Not a good margin but not historically awful either: they’ve actually done even worse with women in previous elections. And when you win men by 11 points as Trump did or 12 points as Republican house candidates did, you can cancel that out some. However, polls have been indicating that in 2018 men may be softer and weaker Republican-leaning voters and women are looking to perhaps give Democrats a margin that would be one for the record books. Some polls have teased a twenty plus point blowout margin among this group in the blue team’s favor.
Obviously it’s better to lose the share of the gender that votes more than their opposite sex by 10 points than by double of that, and with men not supporting the GOP at such margins this gap among the genders could be a doomsday prophecy for the GOP. Maybe it’s just a one cycle phenomena, after all there is a historic amount of women in the running this year. However, if this gap cannot close beyond 2018 Trump, the GOP have to be praying and hoping men will soon start showing such huge margins in favor of them, if they are to overcome a legion of angry female voters in future elections.
And given the long-term implications, the GOP better be hoping their female voter problem doesn’t extend past whenever Donald Trump isn’t around anymore.
Will Pollsters And Forecasters Have Egg On Their Faces… Again?
While 2016 polling was not as statistically disastrous as some believe, rightly/wrongly it was seen as an off-night for the polling and forecasting world. And with 2018’s midterms inching closer and closer, and polling and forecasting once again bullish on Democratic hopes, it’s understandable if some are wondering if polling is about to have another “polling is dead” moment.
Now to be clear, polling since 2016 has been better than good. The kinds of errors we saw in 2016 seem to have become more and more rare, and some pollsters have even begun to report transparent sample results for folks to gauge the margin of error involved. However, polling since has also seemed to show Democrats and not Republicans as the party that has been over-performing expectations races of late. For Republicans hoping for another 2016 type debacle, they can’t be happy with that trend.
But let’s say polls do have another embarrassing night. Let’s say there’s enough error going one way that the overall picture on election night seems completely different than what we expected. What if Republicans do end up holding on to the house? What if Democrats come up short in battleground senate race after battleground senate race? What if that expected rust belt near sweep by the blue team becomes another set of GOP stunners? The overall image of polling took a hit in 2016, and whatever their excuses may be pollsters would really like not to have to explain why they were wrong again come the day after the election. Their possible restitution is just as much a story on election night as would be the Democratic party’s.
In conclusion there are many other story-lines to look for this November other than who controls what in congress. Gubernatorial races across the country will decide the new face of governors for the coming years. The important Independent vote may start to switch allegiances again. The rust belt may follow up their backing of Trump with a double down on Democrats in the senate and new Democrats as their governors. A historic amount of women are running for office, and a historic gender gap may come along with it. And how will pollsters and forecasters redeem themselves, if they do, after the 2016 miss?
These are but a few of the many plots and the many dramas that will play out on election night. And we’re not even accounting for the likely election night surprise or two that we seem to always seem to get every year or two.
And all we have to do to get answers to some of these cliffhangers is to wait for the votes to be counted…