Today’s projection from FiveThirtyEight is that Republicans will pick up 2 Senate seats and Democrats will pick up 39 House seats. Democrats are also still projected to win the House popular vote by about 7%. This means that the political science forecasting models (which, when averaged, predicted a 2 seat Senate pickup for the GOP and a 36 seat pickup for Democrats in the House) were almost exactly spot on. In terms of interpretation, Democrats will likely exceed historical out-party midterm gains by 15 seats (higher than it was looking on election night). The historical average is about a 24 seat loss for the president’s party in midterm elections, and even less so when the economy is relatively strong as it currently is. Thus, Democrats won somewhere between 20-25 more seats than they usually do when the economy is strong. I thus revise my earlier interpretation of the election results of a “slight-to-moderate” negative referendum on President Trump to a “moderate-to-strong” negative referendum on his performance, especially combined with the much higher than normal turnout for a midterm election. If President Trump had a higher approval rating (or if the GOP had nominated someone like Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush in 2016), it’s entirely likely that the GOP would have minimized their losses and kept control of the House, thereby enabling them to continue pushing their legislative agenda and perhaps minimizing whatever Congressional oversight may eventually occur as a result of the eventual final report of the Mueller investigation.
ORIGINAL POST, ELECTION NIGHT:
How did the polls do?
House Democrats were predicted to win the popular vote by about 9% nationwide. As of about 1 AM EST, Democrats are projected to win the popular vote by about 7%. Based on these polls, Democrats were predicted to pick up about 39 House seats, not far off from the 30-35 final projected pickups, as of the time of writing). The polls predicted that Senate Republicans would pick up about 1 seat, pretty close to the final projected result of about 2-3 seats (as of the time of this writing). Not a terrible showing when taking a broad view.
How did the political science forecasts do?
An average of political science forecast models of the election results predicted that Democrats would pick up about 36 seats in the House and thus also the majority. As of about 1 AM EST, Democrats were projected to pick up about 30-35 seats or so. These same models also predicted that Republicans would pick up 2 seats in the Senate which seems to be right in line with the likely outcome as of the time of this writing, give or take 1 seat.
These models are based on a few key variables: whether it’s a midterm election, presidential approval/disapproval, and prevailing economic conditions. Right now the economy is generally in pretty good shape and, all other things being equal, the president’s party tends to lose about 25 seats. The 30-35 seat loss for the president’s party is consistent with an unpopular president with a reasonably strong economy.
What do these results mean?
A key question for me is what the results imply about how “normalized” President Trump and his brand of illiberal populism has become in the American electorate. Roughly two-thirds of voters said that their vote was to either express approval or disapproval for President Trump. If the House vote was more or less in line with historical averages (about a 25 seat loss), I’d interpret that as a net neutral outcome as far as a presidential referendum goes and a normalization of Trumpism for voters.
A 30-35 Republican seat loss is somewhat higher than what we would expect given other key variables that tend to correlate highly with midterm election outcomes. In other words, if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio had won the Republican nomination and maintained a 47-48%-ish approval rating with the same economy, we’d likely see more like a 25 Republican seat loss.
Thus, I interpret the additional 5-10 GOP seat loss as a slight-to-moderate “Trump penalty,” or negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism. The slight GOP gain in the Senate moderates that slightly. Also, Trump has a historically low approval rating considering the state of the economy and Democrats just won the national Congressional popular vote by about 7%.
To me, this suggests that Trump and Trumpism has become somewhat, but not entirely normalized among American voters. At the same time, it has not entirely shifted the boundaries of what is considered normal and legitimate in our political system.
What does this mean going forward?
Given that the House will be controlled by the Democrats and Senate by the Republicans, it is unlikely that much substantive legislation will be passed during the next two years.
On the Senate side, the most important implication of continued GOP control is that President Trump will continue to be able to successfully appoint conservative justices to the bench.
On the House side, the most important implication of Democratic control is the beginning of aggressive oversight of the Trump administration: investigations, hearings, etc. For the past two years the Republican House has largely declined to exercise any meaningful oversight over one of the most controversial presidents in modern history. The Democrats are ready to hit the ground running.
What are the normative implications of the results?
I tend to distinguish political actions, policies, and priorities between those that are normal in a liberal democratic political system (e.g. disagreement over taxes, budgets, abortion access, etc.) and those that are abnormal and harmful to a strong democratic system (e.g. using totalitarian rhetoric like “enemy of the people” to refer to free media institutions, referring to Nazis as “very fine people,” alienating democratic alliances in Europe while praising authoritarian dictators around the world, etc.).
President Trump is the legitimately and duly elected president based on our Constitutional Electoral College system. While his judicial appointments are certainly strong conservatives and strict constructionists, these are not outside the boundaries of traditional presidential judicial appointments. For the GOP to maintain control of the Senate means that the president’s judicial appointments will continue to be regularly confirmed. This is, in my view, entirely consistent with proper and legitimate liberal democratic outcomes.
On the other hand, President Trump has also engaged in numerous actions which by any standard are characteristic of illiberal democracies and authoritarian political systems (see here, here, and here, e.g.). That the American electorate produced only a moderate negative referendum on Trump and Trumpism is, in my view, disappointing. It suggests that Trumpism has become somewhat normalized in the public mind. Today’s election results showed that many segments of the American public are willing to tolerate a good deal of illiberal populist Trumpism and, for the most part, do not view the erosion of our democratic institutions and norms as a pressing concern.
In my perspective, the most important national priority right now is to counter illiberal populist Trumpism as strongly as possible, helping steer American conservatism back to its honorable history of support for small government and traditional values while adhering to liberal democratic principles.
At the Congressional level, though, I am more optimistic. Over the last two years the House of Representatives has largely declined to provide any meaningful “check and balance” against any of the illiberal excesses on the part of President Trump. As I have written, I believe that actions that weaken our democratic norms and institutions are a great deal more important than the regular disagreements over policy that are part of a normal and healthy democracy.
Thus, regardless of policy differences between Democrats and Republicans, I view it as a very, very, very good thing that a Democratic majority in the House will begin to exercise meaningful oversight over President Trump for the first time in his presidency. This is perhaps the most important long-term implication of Tuesday’s election results.