The stakes are high in the upcoming midterm elections, as Democrats and Republicans vie for control of Congress. A complex set of factors – party affiliation, presidential popularity and issues among them – will determine the outcome. In the following question-and-answer session, Wilkes political science professors Thomas Baldino and Kyle Kreider examine some of the questions at play as Election Day approaches on Nov. 6.
Midterms are often thought to be a referendum about the performance of the current president. Is this likely to be intensified with the Trump presidency?
Baldino: Let me take a moment to explain why midterms are often considered referenda on the presidents. Voter turnout for presidential elections is always higher than any other election, and the winning presidential candidate often helps candidates of his party farther down the ballot win their offices. This is known as presidential coattails. The bigger the winning presidential margin, the more likely other candidates of his party down ballot will win their races. Since the entire House is also on the ballot, the winning president often aids a number of his party’s candidates in winning marginal or competitive district races, normally defined as districts where the incumbent won the seat by less than 5 percent. So there are usually 10-20 newly elected members of Congress who owe their victories to the President. Two years later, the president isn’t on the ballot, and the president’s popularity is often lower than it was on Election Day, so those freshmen members are most vulnerable to challengers who will use the president as an issue against the incumbent. This is often the case when the economy is weak, or there is some major national issue on which the president is on the wrong side. Since 1910, there have only been three instances where the president’s party didn’t lose seats in the House: 1934 (FDR’s New Deal successes); 1998 (backlash against the Republican shut down of the government); 2002 (the public rallied in support of Bush after 9-11).
However, there are several factors that could reduce the number of seats that Republicans could lose in the House, namely gerrymandered districts and incumbency advantages. As Republicans hold a majority of state houses and governorships, they were able to control drawing district lines in 2010 so that many House districts are drawn to favor Republicans. Incumbency advantages (over their challengers) are name recognition, fund raising, case work (helping constituents with their problems), and lots of free media, among many others. Thus, if there is a blue wave in 2018, the size of the wave is unlikely to be as large as the waves of 1994, 2006 or 2010.
Turning now to Trump and 2018, it appears likely that Republicans will lose some House seats, but with Trump’s approval rating improving and Republican voters’ enthusiasm growing, I doubt that we’ll witness a wave election. There are fewer marginal seats for Democrats to flip and the greatest unhappiness with Trump is centered in deeply blue states rather than evenly distributed across the US.
Kreider: I believe that will be the case, primarily due to the increased effect of party sorting and the impact of negative partisanship. Party sorting is when conservatives increasingly identify as Republican and liberals increasingly identify as Democrat. Negative partisanship is when individuals vote more so out of dislike or hatred for the opposition party than they do out of fealty or strong agreement with a particular candidate in their party Party sorting is high in 2018, as is negative partisanship. Therefore, the 2018 midterms seem to be about which political party gets its base out to vote. With President Trump’s approval rating ticking up into the 42 percent+ range, it appears that the GOP might be able to hold back an overwhelming blue wave.
Is Trump’s endorsement of Republican candidates helping or hurting?
Baldino: Since his election, Trump has enjoyed far more success when he endorses a candidate in a Republican primary election; he’s been disappointed more frequently when he’s backed a Republican candidate in a general election. See, for example, the Senate race in Alabama and the House race in Pennsylvania in 2017, both of which drew a great deal of national attention. Even when the Republican candidate won with Trump’s endorsement, as in Arizona and Ohio, the victories were narrow in districts that were solidly red. In the 2018 elections, Trump has strategically avoided holding rallies in districts where he is unpopular, choosing instead to focus on those districts where he is very popular. If Trump’s endorsements are as unsuccessful as Obama’s were during his first round of midterm elections, more Republicans will lose than win.
Kreider: This depends on the dynamics of the particular race and where the race is located. In swing districts with a lot of suburban women voters, a Trump endorsement is not likely to help. In states or districts that are more solidly Republican, a Trump endorsement is likely to help get the base out to vote. Take the Casey vs. Barletta Pennsylvania Senate race as an example. In order for Rep. Barletta to beat Sen. Casey, Barletta needs swing, independent voters from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs and Lehigh Valley. When President Trump holds rallies for Barletta, they are never in those areas because he is likely to scare those voters off. What is very interesting to me is that the Trump rallies remain focused on Trump, not the particular candidate the rally is supposedly designed to help. The strategy appears to be about cultivating anger in the base, designed to spur voter turnout in November.
What are the chances of Democrats taking back the House or taking back the Senate?
Baldino: These are two very different sets of races. Democrats are trying to nationalize the House races, and rather than running against Trump by name, they argue that Republicans are on the wrong side of health care, the economy, energy and the environment. Republicans, except in a few districts, are avoiding any direct reference to Trump; instead, they are trying to stake out positions against illegal immigration, cracking down on crime and supporting access to health insurance for those with preexisting conditions. For the reasons stated in question #1, I think the Democrats will win enough House races to hold a five to ten seat margin. At this moment, Nate Silver (statistician and founder of FiveThirtyEight) has the odds of the Democrats taking the House at 6/7, which are good odds.
Because the Democrats are defending a number of Senate seats in states won by Trump in 2016, the chances of the Democrats gaining a majority are slim to none. The Democrats are likely to lose seats in North Dakota, Florida and Missouri, but might win in Nevada, but this leaves the Democrats down by three instead of by one as they are now. Nate Silver estimates the odds at 1/5 that Democrats will retake the Senate.
Kreider: Model forecasters are predicting around a 75 percent chance (or higher) that the Democrats will take back the House of Representatives. It’s looking less likely with the Senate since Democrats have to protect seats in various conservative states, like Missouri, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana. Democrats are also not doing as well as they had hoped to in Arizona and Nevada. The Democrats’ chance of taking back the Senate is looking less likely by the day.
What issues have emerged as key in this election?
Baldino: Access and affordability of health insurance, the economy as perceived by middle and low income workers, and immigration, with foreign policy a distant fourth. Each issue tends to be more salient or important to members of one party or the other. For example, immigration tends to be cited as more important by Republicans while health insurance is referenced more often by Democrats.
Kreider: Of course there are some local or regional issues that differ state to state, but in terms of the national issues, Republicans are arguing that the economy is in good hands under President Trump and the Republicans. Immigration is also an important issue for many Republican candidates. On the other hand, many Democratic candidates are talking about the Russia investigation, health care, foreign policy, among other things.
You have co-edited a book about minority voting in the United States. Do those groups hold influence in midterm elections in general – and in this one in particular?
Baldino: Political scientists have identified what’s been called a “gender gap,” that is, the difference between men and women voting for the same candidate, stated as a percentage. Since 1992, the difference has indicated that women are less supportive of Republican candidates, on average, than men. This gap holds in general elections but much less so in primary elections. If a gender gap appears in 2018, it will benefit Democratic candidates, particularly in close races. Other minority groups, such as African and Latino/Latina Americans tend to favor Democrats, but they also tend not to vote in large numbers. In 2008 and 2012, Obama’s candidacy dramatically increased turnout among African American voters, but in 2016, their numbers declined, which likely contributed to Clinton’s loses in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Because these groups tend to be concentrated in certain districts, they could help Democratic candidates in those districts, but only if they turn out. There have been recent articles in The New York Times and Washington Post in which reporters interviewed Latino/Latina citizens who appeared apathetic or cynical about voting, which strongly suggests that Democrats will not benefit from their numbers. So the questions really is, will minority groups turn out to vote? If they do, they could be critical to the Democratic Party winning the House and holding the Senate, but historically, minority voters tend not to vote in great numbers, especially in midterm elections, when turn out of all voters is routinely lower than in presidential election years. One last group to consider is young voters, those 18 to 30. The average turnout for this age cohort is under 40 percent. Obama increased that percentage in both his elections, but in 2016, their numbers declined. Democrats hope young people will support them in great numbers. Again, if they turn out, their support could help Democrats in close Senate and House races.
Kreider: Many political observers are closely watching the Hispanic vote. On the one hand, you might expect that many Hispanics will cast Democratic votes in 2018 due to President Trump’s sharp rhetoric on immigration and sanctuary cities. However, many political operatives are experiencing indifference in Hispanic communities in key states. In addition, even though candidate Trump uttered harsh words about immigration in 2016, the percentage of eligible Hispanic voters who cast ballots in 2016 actually declined compared to 2012. It’s difficult to predict whether Democrats will be able to harness the Hispanic vote in key states like Nevada and Arizona.
Much has been made about women’s issues being important in this election after the Women’s Marches, #MeToo and the recent issues that emerged around the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Have they been issues during the midterm campaigns – and are they likely to be important drivers at the polls?
Baldino: The Kavanaugh confirmation hearings galvanized interest in the midterms, but not just among women. It appears that Republican voter enthusiasm increased as well, including Republican women. What seems to differentiate women’s opinions about what happened during the confirmation hearings is education, with women holding college degrees or higher more likely to have been offended by Dr. Ford’s treatment, while women with less education more concerned about Kavanaugh’s treatment. I don’t think the confirmation battle itself will be an issue for many women, but it is more likely to be a factor that drives people to vote in the midterm elections.
Kreider: It turns out that the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings have benefitted the Republicans. I believe the reason for this is because, while Democratic enthusiasm to vote was extremely high prior to the confirmation hearings, Republican enthusiasm was muted. However, the hearings have boosted Republican enthusiasm. Since Democratic enthusiasm is already so high, this could only benefit the Republicans.
Are there “races to watch” because of what they reflect about the current political climate or certain issues?
Baldino: In Pennsylvania, the state’s Supreme Court tossed out the previous congressional district boundaries and ordered new districts drawn, creating districts more favorable to Democratic candidates than the previous, heavily gerrymandered districts. In addition, several Republican, incumbent congressmen decided to retire, leaving seats open in some of the newly drawn districts, which increase the Democratic Party’s odds of picking up some seats. The Pennsylvania districts to watch closely are mostly in the southeast. The 1st, where incumbent Republican Fitzpatrick faces Democrat Wallace in a district that was competitive before being redrawn and is even more so now. Then there are four open seats that bear watching: the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th. Finally, in Pennsylvania, the 17th in the west pits two incumbents against one another in a newly drawn district: Lamb the Democrat and Rothfus the Republican.
In New Jersey, two open seats are of interest: the 2nd and the 11th; plus there is the 3rd in which incumbent Republican MacArthur is challenged by Democrat Kim.
Finally, two races, one in California’s 50th district and the other in New York’s 27th district, are interesting as both have incumbent Republican congressmen seeking reelection while under federal indictments for serious offenses. Both men, Hunter in California and Collins in New York, are in districts that are considered safely Republican, but should either lose their races, it would be an indication of a blue wave election.
Kreider: For the Senate, the key races to watch are Nevada, Arizona, Missouri, North Dakota and perhaps Florida and Tennessee. For Democrats to stand a chance to win back the Senate, they will need to flip a combination of Tennessee, Arizona, and Nevada, while holding onto North Dakota, Missouri, and Florida. For the House, because there are so many races to watch, I am keeping a close eye on the Democratic candidates who have been endorsed and supported by the People’s House Project (PAC). After the 2016 election, Democrats engaged in a long and serious discussion about how the party can better appeal to working class voters across the country. The People’s House Project has led efforts to recruit Democratic candidates who are less establishment and more grass roots. I am curious to see how these candidates will do, specifically Richard Ojeda in the 3rd district of West Virginia, Randy Bryce in the 2nd district of Wisconsin, and J.D. Scholten in the 4th district of Iowa.