Washington Weekly

U.S. Office of Public Policy, 5 October 2018

U.S. Office of Public Policy
Special Washington Update

2018 Mid-Term Elections 

The mid-term elections are now just a month away. Below we address what we believe will be the most noteworthy takeaways from these elections

What are the Mid-Term Elections Really About? Many races are won and lost on local issues and the personalities of the candidates. However, the overriding factor in most races this year will be how voters personally assess President Trump. If they are appalled by his tenure in office, they will very likely vote for the Democratic candidate to punish Trump. If they believe that the President is delivering on promises and effectively shaking up Washington, they'll very likely vote for the Republican on the ballot. We think this is an election that is much less about the state of the economy or the world, as past elections have been, and more about the President's governing style. National polling has consistently shown that Democrats are more energized to cast anti-Trump votes than Republicans are to cast pro-Republican votes, but this enthusiasm gap has tightened in the last week. Whether it continues to narrow will determine whether we see a "blue wave" ushering in a Democratic majority in one or both houses of Congress or Republicans holding onto slight majorities in both chambers.

Can We Rely on the Polling We Hear About? The accuracy of polling has been in question after the last few elections, as some polls have drawn erroneous conclusions. However, polls still serve a useful purpose and are often the only way the public has to gauge how races are shaping up, imperfect as they are. We place more faith in looking at multiple polls, rather than any single poll, to see what common themes are identified in races. Most polls taken over the last month have assumed a higher turnout among Democrats, which is a big reason why they have been more favorable to Democratic candidates. If higher Republican turnout materializes, as hinted above, the polls would have been undercounting Republican voters. If Democrats win the turnout battle, the polls we are seeing now will likely be more accurate. Following the 2016 presidential election, polling was widely seen as dramatically incorrect, but the data really was not that far off. National polling predicted a Clinton popular vote victory by 3.2%, while her final margin in the national vote win was 2.1% -- well within the margin of error. Instead, the polling erred in not recognizing the undecided voters who broke late for Trump in key Midwestern states that helped propel him to victory in the electoral vote. Bottom line: using the averages of multiple polls, rather than just one poll, is a more reliable way to understand how voters are thinking.

Projections on House Races. The magic number for Democrats is 23. If they have a net gain of 23 seats, they will control 218 seats and be in the majority in the House. And, indeed, we would be surprised if Democrats don't win the majority in the House. The bigger question to us is how big their majority will be. Democrats are aiming to get over 230 seats, which would give them a more effective governing majority. Even with their best case scenario of a 20- or 25-seat majority, Democrats will have challenges passing legislation as a unified party since many newly-elected members will try to maintain some distance from the current House Democratic leadership. A more likely scenario is a smaller Democratic majority of 10 or 15 seats. Republicans could still hold onto the majority, but this would require a late surge in turnout that is not suggested by current polling data. Whichever way the House goes, the majority party will have a slim governing advantage – probably too slim to actively pass an ambitious policy agenda next year.

Projections on Senate Races. Republicans currently hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate. This year, there are 35 seats in the Senate up for grabs – 26 currently held by Democrats and 9 by Republicans. Of the 26 seats currently held by Democrats, 10 are in states that President Trump won in 2016. On paper, this should be a banner year for Republicans in the Senate, but President Trump's low approval ratings are limiting their pick-up opportunities. Our sense is that both parties will pick up a couple of seats – the Republicans' best chances are in North Dakota and Missouri, while the top prospects for Democrats are in Nevada and Arizona. Democratic seats in Florida, Montana, Indiana and West Virginia could also flip but probably would not if their elections were held today. The same applies to Republican-held seats in Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas. Senate races will be affected by national issues, such as Judge Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. The Senate is likely to maintain a Republican majority, but many of these elections will be very close. Regardless, the winner will have a very narrow majority, which will make it difficult to pass any legislation next year. Since we also make that observation for the House (above), 2019 is shaping up to be a slow legislative year.

The Key Battleground: Suburbs and Women. Suburban women will be a crucial voting bloc in this year's mid-term elections. Many of the highly competitive House races are in suburban districts with large numbers of college-educated women. Suburban women, who reliably vote but not for any one party, have historically been an important set of swing voters. In 2014, suburban women voters preferred a Democratic Congress to a Republican Congress by two points (46 to 44 percent). This year, the margin has grown to 25 points (58 to 33 percent). Many of these voters cite President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress as their reason for opposing Republicans in this election. According to a recent NBC/WSJ poll, 39 percent of women approve of Trump while 58 percent disapprove. Among suburban women voters, the gap is even larger with 26 percent approval and 71 percent disapproval. These shifts are powerful and could be decisive in many House seats with large suburban areas. When this election story is written, we believe the large number of suburban women voting for Democrats will be a major takeaway.

Key States to Watch. There are a few key states that have a concentration of competitive races that make them especially important this year. Florida has eight competitive House races and a Senate race that could lock in or deny Republican control, not to mention a significant gubernatorial race. Pennsylvania has eight competitive House races, while New Jersey has four House races in play along with an emerging Senate race. Texas could be a sleeper state to watch as Democrats could pick up a few House seats and on a good night, be competitive in unseating Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX). If control of the House majority goes down to the wire, California, which has nine competitive races, could have the final say. These five states will have a decisive role to play on election night and their results, which will be reported gradually (due to different time zones), will tell us which party will win the majorities in the House and Senate.

Late Results Worth Watching. You'll probably need to stay up later than your usual bedtime to know the full story of which party wins control. Democrats should win enough House seats in states in the eastern and central time zones to boast of a new majority, but they may need success in the late-reporting California seats to put them over the top. Determining control of the Senate may be more complicated. There are several competitive races out west, including Arizona, Nevada, North Dakota and Montana. These late races (if you are from the east coast) may not be officially decided until absentee and overseas military votes are counted, a process that could take days. Moreover, in another possible scenario, one of the Mississippi seats might not be decided until after Thanksgiving since a November 27 run-off election would be needed if none of the candidates wins a majority on election day. We should know who controls the House on election night, but the Senate may take longer to be sorted out.

Record Number of Women Likely Coming to Congress. The mid-term elections will be record breaking for women this year. Currently, women occupy 84 seats in the House, 23 in the Senate and 6 governor's offices. Of the nearly 300 races where women are currently running for these offices, 56 are guaranteed to be won by a woman (either women running unopposed or against a female opponent). An additional 51 seats are likely to be won by a female, while another 44 are in competitive races. Women are especially likely to make inroads into the House, where they are expected to eclipse the 100 number. While women will set a record for their number of victories this year, representation of women in the House and Senate will still be relatively low – about 20% in each the House and Senate. Nonetheless, this will be an election marked by a big step forward for women candidates and representation in elected office.

State Races are Really Important Too. While most people are focused on which party will get control of the House and Senate, the implications of the gubernatorial and state races may have a more lasting impact. With the 2020 census around the corner, elected officials in the states at that time, which will include officials elected this year, will be involved in the very important process of redistricting. States will be required to update the boundaries for congressional districts in response to population shifts, an inherently political process that benefits the party in power. States that have a governor and a legislature from the same party are in a particularly strong position to affect this process. Five states with full Republican control currently -- Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin – feature very competitive gubernatorial and state elections and will be important to watch. Those states alone will be revising the lines for dozens of districts (they currently hold 79 seats) in the House, which is nearly one-fifth of the chamber. While the results of the House and Senate will set the agenda for the next two years, the results of many state races may have more significant long-term implications given their importance to the looming redistricting process.

The Likely 2019 Agenda in Washington. Regardless of which parties are in control of the House and Senate, we expect very little to happen legislatively in 2019. If Republicans keep the House, their majority will be so small they won't be able to get much passed in light of their unity challenges. If Democrats have the majority, they may be able to pass some legislation, but most of it would be rejected by the White House. The majority in the Senate, regardless of the party in charge, will not be close to the 60 votes needed to pass most legislation, and stalemate will very likely result. Instead, the majority party will promote more symbolic measures that are designed to send voters a message about what it stands for. If Democrats control either or both chambers, they will hold regular oversight hearings on the President, his family, his finances, his cabinet and his policies in an effort to reinforce their campaign theme of a "culture of corruption" in the White House. Optimists will point to potential bipartisan deals on infrastructure, trade deals, immigration and prescription drug pricing, but we think a very acrimonious relationship between Democrats in the majority (House, Senate or both) and the President will prevent the two sides from agreeing on most new legislation. The two years are likely to be a period of executive orders and actions, very little legislation and a set-up for the 2020 presidential election.

Looking to the 2020 Presidential Election. A lot will happen over the next 760 days that will shape the results of the next presidential election, but we'll tell you what we think this far in advance. All of the energy and momentum in both parties are with their populist wings – President Trump with Republicans and Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) with Democrats. The Democratic primary election in 2020 will be crowded, much like the Republican field in 2016. And, like the Republican primary election, the loudest and biggest advocate for change in Washington will have the best chance to win. So, Trump could very well square off against a populist from the left in a contest that won't give many voters a satisfying choice. Somewhat credible third or fourth party candidates could get a second look and receive enough protest votes to make their candidacies relevant to the outcome – not in winning but in denying one of the two major candidates enough votes to win. The 2020 election, unlike the 2018 mid-term elections, will be less about President Trump's governing style and more about his record of accomplishments and the state of the economy, whatever they may be at that time.