Midterm Elections in the US: Analysis
By Robert Mikkelsen, published October 26, 2018 (published by Cappelen Damn, Access to English, Social Studies)
What is a Midterm Election?
Elections for federal offices are held in the United States every two years. Since the President of the United States is elected for a four year period, one of these elections will occur in the middle of the President’s four year term of office. It is these elections that are known as “midterm elections.”During a midterm election all the 435 members of the House of Representatives are up for reelection and one third – or a minimum of 30 – of the 100 members of the Senate. The reason only one third of the Senate is up for reelection is that Senators serve six year terms of office and the writers of the Constitution wanted to assure that they were not all shifted out at one time.
In addition to these federal offices, state and local elections are held throughout the United States at the same time as midterm elections. These include some state Governors, parts of all state legislatures, local mayors, city councils and many other officials in the estimated 89,000 units of government that make up the American political system. Americans have a blizzard of elections to keep track of every two years.
Characteristics of Midterm Elections
Perhaps the clearest characteristic of midterms is the fact that far fewer people vote in them than during years with a Presidential election. Presidential elections excite and engage people much more than midterm Congressional elections do. Many Americans do not bother to follow the local election campaigns or to vote in midterms.
Another characteristic of midterms is that the political party of the sitting President traditionally loses some Congressional seats in these elections. This reflects the wear and tear of actually governing – that is, of actually making decisions or taking actions which some people are bound to disagree with. This almost always favors the political opposition. This was certainly the case in the last midterm elections of 2014 in the middle of President Barack Obama’s second term of office. In that election the Republican Party increased its majority in the House of Representatives and for the first time in eight years won a majority in the Senate.
In 2018 the tables are turned. Now it is the Republicans who have held power and must answer to the electorate for their actions, particularly because they have controlled both branches of government – Congress and the Presidency – since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. They will be held responsible for what they did and did not do. This makes them vulnerable. In addition, in 2016 Republicans actually lost seats in both the House (–6) and the Senate (–4), despite Trump’svictory. Normally the party winning a presidential election picks up seats in Congress with its candidates said to be riding into office on the “coattails” of the new President. Trump had short“coattails.” Taken together, these factors suggest that the Republicans may be weak in 2018. Certainly, the Democrats hope so.
What is at stake in 2018?
In the eyes of many Americans there is a great deal at stake in the midterm elections of 2018. The divisive Presidency of Donald Trump has galvanized the electorate into bitterly opposed camps the likes of which have rarely been seen in American politics. This has recently been seen in the battle that raged around the Senate confirmation of Trump’s appointee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh.
If the Democrats win a majority in either the House or the Senate, they could block many of Trump’s polices, programs and legislation. They would be able to do this because the President can only suggest legislation. Both chambers of Congress must pass it for it to become law. If Democrats win both the House and the Senate they could in addition block Trump’s appointments to the Federal courts, including the Supreme Court. Either result could weaken the chances of the President Trump being re-elected in 2020.
On the other hand, if the Republicans keep control of Congress, it would be a confirmation of their conservative policies and they would be free to continue to pass conservative legislation and confirmTrump’s Federal court appointments. This would most likely strengthen Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020. If they lose the House but win the Senate, however, the stage would be set for some knock-down drag-out conflicts between the Democratic House on the one side and the Republican Senate and White House on the other. What the results of such conflicts would be is difficult to predict. Only one thing would be certain, both sides would blame each other for the trouble.
What is the situation today?
As this article is being written most political commentators and polls favor the Democrats to win the House and the Republicans to win the Senate. Why this split? Well, all the 435 members of the House are up for election. According to polls, at the moment the Democrats hold a 9% point advantage over the Republicans among voters nationwide, so this should translate into more seats in the House, probably enough to win a majority of 218 – up from 194 today. In the Senate, however, only one third of the 100 members are up for reelection – 33 seats this year (three extra because of death or retirement). Of these 33, only 8 are held by Republicans.
The remaining 25 seats are held by Democrats or Independents who support Democrats. That leaves few opportunities for the Democrats to “flip” a seat from Republican to Democratic and many for the Republicans to “flip” a seat the other way. This will make it difficult for the Democrats, but not impossible. The majority that the Republicans have in the Senate is razor thin – 51 to 49 – so if the Democrats can just win a total of two seats, they could also win the Senate. It will all come down to Senate elections in a handful of states where there is a chance for a “flip” either way.
The most important single factor that will determine these elections will be voter turnout. As mentioned above, voter turnout has traditionally been low in midterm elections. This has favored the Republicans who are generally wealthier and more active politically, and therefore vote in larger numbers than Democrats.
This year may be the exception, however. The electorate is fired up. 65% of registered voters are reporting high interest in the midterm election, the highest in 12 years. Of these, it is the population groups that favor the Democrats that seem the most motivated – Latino voters, women voters, college educated voters, black voters, young voters (ages 18–34). This is the coalition that brought Barack Obama to power. If the Democratic Party can get these groups out to the vote, it will stand a good chance of gaining control of the House, and perhaps the Senate as well.
On the other hand, the Republicans have been improving their overall position during the past few weeks. Two factors appear to have bolstered their chances. First, the uproar around the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court seems to have motivated Republican voters who were sitting on the fence, unhappy with the Trump White House, but now angry at the Democrats. Second, the economy has been doing well with strong growth and the lowest unemployment in many years. Americans “vote their pocketbook,” so this has helped improve President Trump’s approval rating. Some polls put it at 47% as this is written. These factors give the Republicans some wind in their sails. But will it be enough to keep their majority in the House and the Senate? For the moment, at least, most voters continue to favor of the Democrats.
What to look for on November 6
With regard to the House of Representatives, the most important thing to keep track of is voter turnout. If it is high, that will probably favor the Democrats. If they can get their coalition of groups to the voting booth in numbers, then they will have a good chance of gaining a majority. If the voter turnout is low, it will probably favor the Republicans, who vote more regularly than the Democrats. You can follow this while the election is progressing across the nation on November 6 by keeping track of the “exit polls” reported by the media, These are based on interviewing voters as they leave (exit) the voting stations and provide a rough estimate of who has turned out to vote and in what numbers before the actual results come in.
With regard to the Senate, as mentioned above, there are just a handful of states that will probably determine which party ends up with a majority when the dust settles. Six of the states that “are in play” and may “flip” to the other side are Arizona, Montana, Nevada, Indiana, Missouri and Florida. Keep your eye on these on election night. The remaining 27 Senate seats will probably stay within the party they now represent.
However, please note the word “probably” in the last sentence. It relates to all that has been said in this article. Nothing is certain in politics – as the election of Donald Trump in 2016 proved. Despite all the commentators and all the polls, as one wit put it, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” By the time you read this, some basic indicators may have changed. New events may have affected the voters. As the saying goes, “One week is a long time in politics.”