Can we really expect a blue wave election in November, with Democrats taking back the House and even possibly the Senate?
On the one hand, there are some encouraging portents. Since the 1840s, the president’s party has lost seats in 41 of 44 midterm elections. The pattern has been for the out-party to pick up something like 25 seats in the first off-year election after a new president takes office. Trump is of course far less popular than most. And Democratic activism is at a fever pitch.
On the other hand, we have an unprecedented level of voter suppression—purges of the rolls, needlessly stringent ID requirements, games played with polling places and their hours, extreme gerrymandering, and questions about whether systems will be hacked—either by the Russians or by Trumpian locals.
According to the Brennan Center, which carefully tracks this mischief, 13 states have added restrictive voter-ID requirements, 11 have laws making it harder to register, and six cut back on early voting or voting hours. Many of these are the same states.
In addition, according to the authoritative book on extreme gerrymandering, David Daley’s indispensible Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, seven major Republican-controlled states resorted to extreme gerrymandering for House districts (also state legislative seats) after the 2010 census, including key swing states such as North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Arizona.
As a consequence, Republicans won just 52 percent of the Ohio popular vote for Congress in 2012, but garnered 12 of that state’s 16 congressional seats. In closely divided Michigan, they took 9 of the state’s 14 seats.
So will the combination of voter suppression and gerrymandering abort the supposed Blue Wave? I think not. Here are the counterforces:
First, there are plenty of vulnerable House seats in states that were not subject to voter suppression or gerrymandering. By my count, there are at least 40 such seats, and Democrats need to flip only 23 to take back the House.
There are dozens of Republican seats in play in such states as California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Oregon, Minnesota, and more, where voting systems are basically honest, and there have even been measures to make it easier to vote.
Second, extreme gerrymandering, as I’ve previously noted, can backfire—because it seeks to pack Democrats into a few seats and spread the presumed Republican voters widely to capture the maximum possible number of seats. But in a wave year, there aren’t enough Republican voters to go around, and designer seats are suddenly at risk.
In Michigan, for example, the average Republican won a House with 57.7 percent of the vote, according to Daley. In a wave year, that’s a flippable margin. And indeed, two Republican-held Michigan seats, the Eighth and 11th Districts, are considered seriously in play, and three others are potentially vulnerable.
In heavily gerrymandered Ohio, two Republican House seats, the First District and the 12th, are in play. We will get a preview of just how vulnerable these gerrymandered seats are and how effective voter suppression is on August 7. There will be a special election for a vacant seat in Ohio’s 12th, which covers the suburbs and working-class towns north of Columbus. Trump carried the district in 2016 by 11 points, but polls show the Republican candidate only barely ahead.
Further, voter mobilization can offset voter suppression, and all signs point to a banner year for voter activism on the Democratic side. If you look at Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and Trump’s deepening woes on multiple fronts, this will all come to a head, in a harmonic convergence, on the eve of the November election.
Polls on the relative enthusiasm and interest in the election on the part of Republicans and Democrats point to a wide gap that favors Democrats.
One of the best pieces of news for Democrats is that voters say they are increasingly inclined to vote Democratic for Congress as a way of containing Trump. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in June found that voters, by a 25-point margin, said they’d be more likely to support an anti-Trump congressional candidate.
Interestingly, political scientists who study election trends conclude, almost unanimously, that turnout is a somewhat overrated factor in off-year election, especially the premise that turning out “the base” is a key favor.
Statistically, off-year turnout falls off dramatically from turnout in presidential years, when the interest in the presidential race provides focus and drama. Historically, off-year turnout has bounced around in a fairly narrow range from the high 30s to low 40s.
Could this year be different, due to the loathing of Trump among Democrats and the heightened interest among all voters, especially those in the Democratic base, notably blacks, Latinos, women, and the young? Quite possibly.
One of the leading scholars of this question, Christopher H. Achen of Princeton University, told me in an email exchange:
We might see a wave of Democratic turnout in 2018, since Democrats are pretty unhappy. But in the past, those differential turnout effects have often proved to be small.
Vote shifts at midterms are more often driven by what independents do. They drop out more at midterms, as many studies have shown, but those who do show up swing the election.
Even if the political scientists are right, and base turnout doesn’t rise that much, swing voters are also highly likely to break for the Democrats. Each time I read the projections of the respected Cook Report, a few more seats have slipped from leaning Republican to toss-up, or from toss-up to leaning Democrat.
The best news of all is that Trump has promised to go on the road, “six or seven days a week,” to campaign for endangered Republican candidates. But in all but hard-core Tea Party districts, this is likely to backfire as voters look to Democratic candidates to rein in Trump.
Even the Senate looks possibly in play. In the most recent polls, the Democrat is now leading in two Republican-held seats—Jackie Rosen over Dean Heller in Nevada, and Kyrsten Sinema over Martha McSally in Arizona. Phil Bredesen leads Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee in some polls, and is well behind in others. There could be another possible pickup in Arizona, depending on the mortality of Senator John McCain.
There are four Democrat-held seats at risk, in Florida, Indiana, North Dakota, and Montana (Joe Manchin in West Virginia, sometimes considered at risk, is now well ahead). If Democrats can hold the at-risk seats, and pick up two of the possible GOP seats, they take the senate 51 to 49. Picking up three would allow them to lose one Democratic incumbent.
As Donald Trump comes into swing districts where Republican incumbents are vulnerable, Democrats should greet him with flowers.