In American politics, every even-numbered year hosts widespread federal elections. Though presidential elections understandably garner more attention, in between those contests are “midterm” elections, so-named due to the president being in the middle of his
or her term. Though we obsess over the presidency, these midterm elections should receive as much of our attention; they essentially give the electorate control over our lawmaking body — the United States Congress.
On November 6, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives (whose members have two-year terms) and about a third of the 100 Senate seats (six-year terms) will be up for grabs. Some consider frequent elections a good thing, since it holds our elected officials accountable, while others argue that such a ceaseless cycle forces these officials, particularly in the House, to be more concerned with a perpetually looming election than actual governing.
But here at amoral Presidential Politics for America, we rarely analyze policy and ramifications on the American people. We just love that every even-numbered year gives us a healthy dose of political drama! This even year, 2018, is no different.
Ten months before the 2018 midterms, we want to avoid too closely analyzing them. Ten months is a long time in politics, especially in the turbulent Trump Administration, where one news day feels like a week of news in past administrations, a week feels like a month, and a month feels like an apocalypse. Still, even in January, we can at least figure out what we should monitor between now and November 6.
Let’s start with Congress’s lower chamber, the first political body described in our Constitution.
The House of Representatives
- Republicans: 239
- Democrats: 193
- Vacant: 3 (three resignations — 2 Republicans, 1 Democrat — will be filled in March, April, and November)
- Impending vacancies: 1 (Republican Pat Tiberi, Ohio 12th district, will reportedly resign this month)
- All are up for re-election
- Number of seats needed for a majority in the next House: 218
- Number of seats Democrats need to ADD for a majority: 25
- Number of seats Republicans can LOSE to retain majority (after Tiberi’s resignation): 20
- Direct implications of having a majority — if a majority party votes together, it can:
- pick the Speaker of the House,
- have a majority on conference committees, which bring bills to the House floor,
- control House bills and votes,
- block all Senate bills,
- impeach the president and select members to make a case to the Senate to remove him
or herfrom office.
So while the House doesn’t fully control much, it’s also a necessary link in the chain of government. The Senate or President needs the House to get most things done. President Trump desperately wants to keep the Republican majority in the House, while Democrats perhaps even more desperately want the House majority so it can block the President’s agenda. The stakes are high.
Ten-months-out — sifting through the tea leaves: Can we determine if either side has the advantage this early?
One stat to which I generally give little weight is the “generic ballot,” which is usually a national poll that asks which party a voter is more likely to support in the upcoming Congressional election. Due to President Trump’s record unpopularity at this point in a presidency, the Democrats have a big lead (as high as 18 percent) in most generic ballots.
However, House elections are not national elections. We don’t have a national vote and then allocate seats accordingly. Instead, each of our 435 Congressional districts hold their own House election. Democrats might get 59 percent of votes cast (they won’t), but that won’t translate to 59 percent of House seats unless the distribution of votes is evenly distributed throughout the 435 Congressional districts (which it never is). We can assume rural areas, with fewer people, will still vote Republican. That Republican strength isn’t reflected on a generic ballot.
Instead, just as analyses of presidential elections focus on swing states, the bulk of the analysis should be on swing districts. Of the 435 seats, we can basically guarantee the results of 350 of them, since, thanks to gerrymandering and deepening divisiveness, a record number of districts have become so heavily Democratic or Republican that its minority party has no chance.
I am not making that number up. A bookmarked site for all political junkies is the industry-standard Cook Political Report. Its analysis of the 2018 House election finds that Republicans head into November with 177 solid red districts, while Democrats counter with 174. With 218 as a target number, that means Republicans seek 41 more seats in the 2018 House election, while the Democrats search for 44.
The Cook Report goes further and identifies seats that are “likely” to go one way or the other, explaining they are “not considered competitive at this point, but have the potential to become engaged.” Those break down to 24 for Republicans and 11 for Democrats. If we want to simplify our remaining calculations by awarding those seats unless they actually do become “competitive,” we arrive at 201 safe Republican seats to 185 Democratic ones, with 49 purple districts in play. Republicans need 17 of the 49 to hold a majority, while Democrats need 33 of the 49 to take it from them. As I’ve grown used to saying: that’s a problem for the Democratic Party.
It gets worse for them. Of the remaining 49 seats, 22 currently lean Republican, even with Trump’s low approval and the generic ballot suggesting Democrats have the advantage, while another 17 have incumbent Republicans.
In other words, Republicans need to win just 17 of 39 districts they already hold, and most of the 39 already lean their way. And that’s assuming Democrats retain all their seats, including the leaners and toss-ups. In sum, Democratic House hopefuls need to win twice as many swing districts as the Republicans do, but most lean in the other direction.
That’s why the generic ballot is overrated. It only factors in national approval of the parties, not district-by-district. In the national numbers, most of the anti-Trump vehemence is located in districts where a Democrat is already in power. At the district level, however, it’s Republicans who have the mathematical advantage. (Recall a previous column that outlined the disproportionate strength of rural areas and small states under our Constitution.)
Though that sounds pretty dire for Democrats, they should be heartened by the following:
- The majority always has the incumbency advantage, and yet majorities are regularly lost.
- When are majorities lost? Usually in midterms. Presidents Obama and Clinton both coughed up their party’s majorities two years into their first term. President George W. Bush lost his Republican majority in his second term’s midterm, when he had approval numbers comparable to President Trump’s. His father lost nine House seats and a Senator in 1990. President Reagan’s win in 1980 towed 35 new Republicans on his coattails, but two years later the Democrats took back 27. We can go back further: Carter, Nixon, Ford (Nixon’s midterm), and Johnson all lost double-digit seats in the House at their midterm elections. That covers the last 50 years of presidential administrations — a pretty strong historical pattern.
- Waves, like the one the Democrats currently ride thanks to those presidential approval figures, can dissipate, but they can also turn into tsunamis. If this one continues to build, most of the toss-up and leaner seats can turn blue, and even some of those “likely” Republican seats can turn competitive. Thus, as I’ve written before, Trump himself can be the Democrats’ silver bullet.
We can therefore expect that Democratic attack ads will tie every vulnerable Republican to Trump, and it will be interesting to see to what extent those vulnerable Republicans risk the wrath of Breitbart and distance themselves from their President.
Ten-months-out, way-too-early prediction for the House: Though the generic ballot, midterm history, and President Trump’s current approval rating suggest a Democratic triumph, I think the lack of competitive districts makes it harder for the House to turn over too much. Therefore, though the Democrats will erode the Republican advantage, they will not overcome it. That said, they will be within striking distance of the chamber for the enormously consequential contest in 2020.
Consider the House painted. Next, we sketch the Senate. See you then.