WWS Reacts

WWS Reacts: 2018 Midterm Elections

Nov 7, 2018
B. Rose Kelly and Michele Epstein
Woodrow Wilson School

Democrats gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives on Nov. 6, while Republicans bolstered their majority in the U.S. Senate.

We discussed the many nuances of this year’s midterm elections with political experts at Princeton University and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Charles Cameron specializes in the analysis of political institutions, particularly courts and law, the American presidency and legislatures. He is a professor of politics and public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School and on the executive committee of the School’s Center for the Study of Democratic Politics (CSDP).

Brandice Canes-Wrone’s research focuses on American politics, political economy and elections. She is vice dean of the Woodrow Wilson School, director of CSDP and the Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs and professor of politics.

Dara Strolovitch's research explores the intersecting politics of race, class, gender and sexuality in a polity marked by enduring, overlapping and structural inequalities. She is associate professor of gender and sexuality studies and affiliated faculty in Princeton's Department of Politics.

Ali Valenzuela's work focuses on public opinion, campaigns and elections, race and ethnic politics, Latino politics, religion in politics and experimental methods. He is assistant professor of politics and affiliated with CSDP and the Program in Latino Studies. 

Q. What is your reaction to the results of the midterm elections? How was this election different than those in the past?

Cameron: The elections have made America safe for messaging legislation. By that, I mean that House Democrats can try to raise the minimum wage, repeal and replace the tax cut and pass ethics legislation without worry of any consequences from surly reality. Similarly, the Senate Republicans are free at last to try and fund the wall, cut taxes yet again and repeal Obamacare for the 99th time (of course, preserving pre-existing conditions), with no blowback from real life. A good time will be had by all. Except possibly the citizenry.

Canes-Wrone: It's unusual for the president’s party to have a solid loss in the House while a healthy gain in the Senate. Right now, the results indicate the Democrats will gain around 32 seats while the Republicans will gain at least three and up to six Senate seats. In recent times, 1982 comes closest, the Republicans gained a seat in the Senate and lost 26 in the House. You have to go back to the early 1900s and 1800s to find the sort of split House-Senate result that we are going to get this year.

Strolovitch: At the risk of stating the obvious, the 2018 midterm elections are distinguished by the number (over 100!) of women who won House races, a distinction that will also result in an unprecedented number of women serving in Congress.  The election is also distinguished by the number of victories that constitute “firsts,” as women, LGBT people, and women and LGBT people of colour earned victories in so many races and at so many levels of government.  These include Jared Polis of Colorado, the first openly gay governor; the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress: Ilhan Omar, in my old district in Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib in Michigan; and the first two American Indian women to serve in Congress: Sharice Davids of Kansas, who is also openly gay,and Deb Haaland of New Mexico.  

Valenzuela: The Democrats achieved big gains in the U.S. House, several governorships and state legislatures, but Republicans retained control of the U.S. Senate and increased their majority there. Ohio and Florida governorships stayed in Republican hands, two states that will play critical roles in the next Congressional redistricting and the 2020 presidential contest. The deep and rancorous political divide in Washington and around the country looks like it will continue undiminished. 

Q. In your opinion, who are the biggest winners and losers?

Canes-Wrone: The biggest winners include the Democrats, who not only decisively have taken the House but also made important inroads in gubernatorial and state legislative contests; Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans, who have expanded their Senate majority to a more comfortable level; Nancy Pelosi, who seems likely to return as Speaker of the House; and moderate candidates who crossed party lines — in contrast to the view that moderation is never rewarded, both parties saw moderate candidates rewarded by voters. This includes Senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia, the only Democrat to vote for Kavanaugh, and Republican House candidate Young Kim in California's 39th District, who has supported Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and student loan forgiveness

Valenzuela: The biggest winners to me are racial and ethnic minority and women Congressional candidates, ex-felons in Florida, and young and Latino voters in Texas. The biggest losers are hardline anti-immigration candidates like Kris Kobach, Senate Democrats and abortion rights.

Strolovitch: I’m not sure whether these are the “biggest” victories and defeats, but I agree with Valenzuela that some noteworthy outcomes include the approval of ballot initiatives restoring voting rights for people convicted of felonies (and who have completed their sentences) in Florida and anti-gerrymadering ballot initiatives in three states; the defeat of a Massachusetts ballot initiative that would have repealed a law extending nondiscrimination protections to transgender people; and Scott Walker’s defeat in Wisconsin. 
Cameron: The biggest winner was election forecasting models. The statistical models did very, very well. As usual, the most enthusiastic pundits were way off. The second biggest winner was Donald J. Trump, as his own campaign manager. His decision to nationalize the elections around the theme of “American carnage” paid off with good results in the Senate. Most likely, we have just seen a preview of the 2020 elections.

Q. There were a lot of tight races. In your opinion, which were the biggest upsets? And why?

Cameron: Life is a bit random; you should just expect it. Broadly speaking, everything last night looks like a reasonable stochastic draw. That doesn’t mean no disappointments! Plenty of ow-ies, my goodness, but no big surprises, in my opinion.

Valenzuela: Laura Kelly in Kansas defeating Kris Kobach in the race for governor.

Strolovitch: They may not be the biggest upsets, but a few of the many consequential “flips” include Barbara Comstock’s (R-VA) defeat by Democrat Jennifer Wexton, Dave Brat’s (R-VA) loss to Democrat Abigail Spanberger, and Democrat Donna Shalala’s victory over Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has held that seat since 1989.

Canes-Wrone: Democrat Kendra Horn’s upset in Oklahoma’s 5th District, which represents Oklahoma City, is a classic upset. The district has been held by a Republican since 1975 and was seen as a likely Republican win until last night. Horn defeated incumbent Rep. Steve Russell. 

On the Republican side, Mike Braun’s sizeable victory over Joe Donnelly in the Indiana Senate race came as a surprise. The polls gave a slight edge to Donnelly heading in, and the decisive margin of victory for Braun, which was 9.7 points, counts as an upset.

Q. What, if any, recent events or communications (e.g. Pittsburgh, Trump rallies, etc.) played a role in the outcome?

Canes-Wrone: Midterm elections are largely determined by the incumbent president's popularity and the state of the economy. Trump’s approval rose with the Kavanaugh hearings and declined in the face of the attempted mail bombings and Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.

Valenzuela: The 2016 election and its consequences hung over 2018 unlike any recent midterm. Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans across the country mobilized in what look like record numbers to offer President Trump a sharp rebuke of his leadership. But the president is unlikely to see it that way because of the gains Republicans made in the U.S. Senate. 

Cameron: Unlike the Comey Memo, which almost surely cost the Democrats the presidency in 2016, no particular event was decisive last night. If there had been no migrant caravan, Trump would have found some other bloody flag to wave. 

Strolovitch: I don’t think that we can attribute particular results to particular events, but I do think that Trump’s defeat of Hillary Clinton, his behavior before and since taking office, and the #MeToo movement are at least partly responsible for the number of women who ran for state, local and national offices this year and for the decline in Republican vote share among white women, at least in some regions.

Q. What are the implications of the midterm results for 2020?

Valenzuela: Trump's dark and dishonest anti-immigrant campaign messages in the closing weeks of this election sought to replicate his approach in 2016, and since it seemed not to hurt (and perhaps helped) Republicans in the Senate, expect to see more of this over the next two years and especially in 2020. Starting in January, House Democrats will have important investigative and subpoena power that they appear eager to use as a check on Trump. Investigations into the president’s tax returns, Russian meddling in the 2016 election and presidential emoluments seem high on Democrats’ agenda and may hurt the president politically going into his reelection campaign. 

Strolovitch: I’m not comfortable making predictions about 2020 per se, but there are a few results that we should think about going forward. Among these are the close gubernatorial races in Florida and Georgia and the close Senate race in Texas, which bode well for their future candidacies and suggest that there are the possibilities for partisan shifts in those states, particularly in Florida, where almost a quarter (23 percent) African-American adults cannot currently vote due to a previous felony conviction but will soon be re-enfranchised by the ballot initiative I mentioned above.

Cameron: We just saw a dress rehearsal for 2020. If the Democrats can find an “Obama-lite,” they can beat Trump. If they don’t, they won’t. At least, that’s the way to bet at the moment. In the meantime, Democrats should pray for Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. For sure.

Canes-Wrone: That depends on what happens from here on out. Does Trump adjust and pivot? Do the House Democrats seem to be more of a check on Trump or do they overreach and remind voters why they voted Republican in 2016? If no one adjusts their behavior, the results bode well for Democrats given their gains in the House and state houses.

Q. Do you have any comment on how people used or interpreted polling before the midterms? Any impact on turnout and results?

Cameron: Quantitative journalism has gotten amazingly good. Traditional political journalism looks worse and worse. The old guys (mentally if not chronologically) need to up their game.

Valenzuela: Rigorous political science research shows that forecasting predictions are widely misunderstood by the public and contribute to lower turnout when the forecast predicts a blowout. But forecasting is a big business now and Nate Silver and other media pundits have thus far refused to acknowledge their roles in contributing to this negative effect. 

Strolovitch: Not exactly, but I do think that it is time for scholars and other analysts to stop using terms like “blue wave.” Tropes like that draw eyes and ears to websites and TV screens but also help to construct narratives that are either alarmist or triumphalist and that contribute little to actual political analysis.  

WWS Reacts is a series of interviews with Woodrow Wilson School experts addressing current events.