With the terrifying rise of far-right populism throughout the western world, politics has acquired a new air of urgency. While the policy impacts of the rise of Trumpism have been severe, they have spawned a positive tertiary phenomenon: record political engagement.
f the rise of Trumpism have been severe, they have spawned a positive tertiary phenomenon: record political engagement. Voters are turning out to the polls like never before, and far more people are keeping up to date on the pressing political issues of the day. These shocking trends–a stark reversal of the political apathy that has underpinned politics for much of the 21st century–will finally bear fruit today, when voters in the United States will flock to the polls in one of the most pivotal elections of our lifetime. Here are a few factors to keep your eye on to be a smart election observer.
Turnout for What?
There is no factor more crucial in American elections than turnout. In countries like Australia or Belgium, where voting is compulsory and those who fail to show up the polls can get slapped with a fine, turnout is something of a negligible factor. However, in a country as politically apathetic and unengaged as the United States–which typically trails most developed countries in this particular criterion–the difference of just a few percentage points in voter turnout can be all that decides which party takes power.
The conventional wisdom–essentially the blatherings-on of the pundit class–dictates that higher turnout favors Democrats. This would make sense on the surface; affluent, white, older, and suburban voters, who tend to vote Republican, turnout in higher numbers, whereas minority, urban, and younger voters, who tend to vote democratic, typically have mediocre turnout. On this basis, we can assume that higher turnout means a high proportion of folks from low-turnout demographics are voting, thus benefiting Democrats.
To some extent, this seems to be true in early voting. States like Georgia and Texas have seen the youth voter rate quintuple, while black and hispanic turnout has doubled. But results have not been unambiguously positive for Democrats in other early voting states. In Florida, for instance, Republicans have outnumbered Democrats in early voting so far–although their lead is shrinking. Several other states have seen a similar phenomenon, which has thrown a wrench into the popular narrative that Democrats will sweep to an unequivocal victory next Tuesday. While, on its face, this does not forecast doom and gloom for Democratic prospects in the sunshine state, it is certainly a damper on their enthusiasm coming into the final stretch.
The Trump Factor
As with most off-year elections, the 2018 contest has been cast by many as a referendum on President Trump and the Republican-controlled government over which he presides. Much of the statistical evidence we have favors this view. Take for example the generic congressional ballot: a poll that measures the national congressional popular vote share of the two major parties. Currently, FiveThirtyEight’s generic ballot has Democrats leading by 8.5 points, which is similar to the -13 point gap in Donald Trump’s approval rating.
As in many off-year elections, the opposition party–in this case, the Democrats–are expected to make gains. In 2006, for instance, Democrats made enormous gains in the House and the Senate thanks to the unpopularity of Republican President George Bush. In 2010 and 2014–the two midterms of the Obama presidency–Republicans had their own wave elections, and gained control of congress, as well as state legislatures and governorships. 2018, by contrast, is actually expected to somewhat dwarf those relatively large waves, at least in terms of the national popular vote.
This is due in large part because of Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and governance style, which has made him a divisive and easily vilified figure. Another factor contributing to Democratic enthusiasm is a myriad of unpopular or lukewarm policies put out by the Republican congress. These include the push to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with the comparatively unpopular American Healthcare Act, and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 which eliminated the state and local tax deduction, much to the chagrin of blue state residents. Voters have also been dissatisfied with the general lack of independence and oversight from the Republican caucus towards the Trump administration on issues like the Russian investigation, cabinet corruption and even proposed unconstitutional actions.
Trump’s state-by-state approval is particularly detrimental to Republican hopes in both the Senate and the House. According to Morning Consult, which polls the popularity of the President, Senators and Governors every three months, Trump is underwater in nearly every swing states, and even some states that voted for him by large margins. Iowa, for example, voted for Trump by 10 points, but now disapproves of his job performance by an 8 point margin. Meanwhile, in states like New York, Illinois, California, and Washington, solidly blue states with many key house races, Trump is down by double digits. It’s safe to say that if this election is truly a referendum on Trump, he will not be very happy with Tuesday’s results.
How much longer can Democratic Senator Jon Tester last? Montana is an extremely rural state: 150,000 square miles containing 1 million people and 2.6 million cows. It is essentially ground-zero for Trumpism, having voted Republican by just 2 points in 2008, but 21 points in 2016. It is now, at least in Presidential elections, a solidly red state.
Statewide, however, the political situation is a mixed bag for Republicans. Democrats have consistently held onto the Governor’s mansion since 2005, and, between 2006 and 2014, held all but one of Montana’s statewide offices. Montana Democrats could teach a masterclass in tailoring a party to suit a conservative, rural statewide electorate. However, as partisanship becomes more of a crucial factor in voting, and, as a result, split ticket voting becomes increasingly rare, Democrats like Tester are seeing diminished chances of holding onto their offices.
But Tester has been both extremely tactful and lucky. For his part, he is a perfect fit for his state as far as Democrats go. A 300 lbs rancher with 7 fingers (three were sliced off by farm equipment), Tester has made a name for himself as the quintessential “regular joe” of congress. Moreover, he has amassed a fairly centrist voting record–he is the 4th most conservative Democrat in the Senate, according to Govtrack–which he can point to as just one example of his independence from the Democratic caucus. That is a must for any red state Democrat.
Finally, his opponent, Matt Rosendale, is one of the Republicans’ worst recruitments this cycle. He moved to Montana quite recently from Maryland, a much more urban, diverse, and affluent coastal state on the other side of the country. Tester has also ridiculed him for essentially lying about being a rancher to try and cultivate a more down-home image. So, it seems Tester might just slip away from destiny this cycle. But, as he is forecasted to win by just a few points, he is likely to end up with a few cuts and bruises.
Similar races to watch: Florida, Missouri, North Dakota
Does candidate quality matter when faced with the obstacle of an overwhelming partisan advantage? That’s just one of the questions that Democratic Senate candidate and political rock star Beto O’Rourke has set out to answer with his highly publicized underdog bid to unseat Ted Cruz. Cruz has just about as bad an image as it gets–and not just among Democrats.
A poll in February found that Cruz, a Republican, has a negative approval rating among Texans, who lean quite Republican on average. He has been blasted by colleagues as “arrogant and self serving,” and was once called “lucifer in the flesh” by former speaker John Boehner, a member of his own party. And yet, he is largely forecasted to win reelection by around 4 points, a relatively small margin for a Republican in such a red state.
For his part, Beto O’Rourke has been an immaculate candidate. He has run on his centrist record in congress to appease swing voters–a necessity in a purplish-red state like Texas–while preaching progressive policies and values guaranteed to energize and turn out his base. He has raised a record-breaking $69 million as of mid-october, compared to $40 million for Cruz (which, admittedly, is still an eye-popping sum).
Beto has also employed ideal tactics for a dark horse campaign; he has held countless town halls and rallies, taken road trips across Texas’s vast tracts of land and offered a youthful, vigorous image of the modern Democratic party, leading some to compare him to Barack Obama in 2007. If any race is going to confound polls, forecasts, and expectations, it’ll be Texas.
Similar races to watch: Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee
House races to watch
Whereas the Senate is expected to stay in Republican hands, the House is expected to flip to Democratic control for the first time since Republicans swept into power in the wave election of 2010. Democrats are likely to gain large swaths of seats from blue states like California, New York, and Pennsylvania, while also picking off Republican-held seats in Florida, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington and Kansas. Here are some key races to keep an eye on to understand which way the House will go, and what implications these elections will have for future races.
New York’s 19th
The 19th district of New York, which covers large swaths of land in the river valley about 70 miles north of New York City, is an Obama-Trump district. Having voted for Obama by healthy margins twice, it swung to Trump by about 7 points in 2016. Incumbent Republican John Faso has voted for enough of Trump’s legislation–including the reviled AHCA, which would’ve repealed and replaced Obamacare–to effectively tie himself to Trump. That is not good for Faso, as Obama-Trump regions, such as those in the rural midwest, have been making a rapid swing back to Democrats this cycle.
The Democratic candidate, Antonio Delgado, represents the changing face of the American electorate–young, black and Hispanic, and socially progressive. He has raised enormous sums which, combined with his charisma and speaking ability, makes him a particularly potent challenger. If Faso gets knocked off early in the night–which seems increasingly likely, as a New York Times poll shows Delgado leading–that may forsage disaster for Republicans, who will be hoping to hold many of these rural Obama-Trump districts in their quest to keep the House.
Similar races to watch: New York’s 22nd, Maine’s 2nd
New York’s 27th
Just how corrupt or scandalous does a Republican in a safe Republican district have to be in Trump’s America to lose their seat? We’ll find out on Tuesday, when Republican Chris Collins, who was arrested and indicted on charges of insider trading in August, faces an unexpectedly tough challenge from Democrat Nate McMurray. While the 27th, which encompasses some of the most rural areas of upstate New York, voted for Trump by 25 points, it seems to have essentially evened out as a result of Collins’ scandal. The latest New York Times poll shows Collins up by 4 in a race he should be winning by 30.
McMurray, a newcomer to the national political stage, has distinguished himself as an upbeat, on-message, and tough campaigner. Collins’ scandal and McMurray’s competence have combined to turn the 27th from a safe Republican district to one that just leans Republican. This means it has great potential to flip, especially if the night goes well enough for Democrats. However, it still means Collins is favored to win. If he does manage to win reelection despite the looming possibility of his conviction, it may embolden bad actors in Congress to continue with their misdeeds, safe in the knowledge that their constituents will return them to Congress on a partisan basis.
Similar races to watch: Montana-at-large, California’s 50th.
West Virginia’s 3rd
The 3rd district of West Virginia is about as Trumpy as it gets. It voted for Trump by a whopping 40 point margin. That’s after voting for Mitt Romney by 32 points, John McCain by 14 points, and George Bush by 13 points. The last Democrat to have won this district was Al Gore all the way back in 2000. Gradually but surely, the Democratic brand has become toxic in this district, as it has in much of West Virginia and indeed throughout rural Appalachia. This is a land that hasn’t seen the prosperity of the 2010s: where coal jobs and other economic opportunity has dried up and folks feel betrayed by “coastal and Washington elites.” However, just as West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat, is keeping his head above water statewide, so too is Democrat Richard Ojeda putting up a formidable bid for a seat originally thought to be off-limits for Democrats.
Ojeda’s performance will ultimately serve as a litmus test for the viability of a new strand of rural, Appalachian populism practiced by Ojeda, Tim Ryan and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Amy McGrath of Kentucky and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts. Some of these politicians, like Ojeda himself, actually voted for Trump, and hold some conservative social views–in line with those held by many voters in states like Kentucky and West Virginia–while still espousing left-wing rhetoric on economic issues. Ojeda, like Trump, decries the influence of elites such as pharmaceutical executives, who he believes perpetuated the opioid crisis in his district. While not favored to win, Ojeda has, against all odds, kept this race to single digit margins. His success, or lack thereof, may very well help to determine the future of the Democratic party.
Similar races to watch: Kentucky’s 7th, Virginia’s 5th
At the time of this writing, Texas’s 7th district is a pure tossup. The FiveThirtyEight House forecast has the Democrat and Republican candidates both at exactly a 50% chance of winning. The latest New York Times poll had Republican incumbent John Culberson up by just 1 point over his opponent, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Make no mistake, that is bad for Republicans. This is a district that they should be winning. It has been represented by Republicans in Congress since 1967, including former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican. It covers much of the affluent suburbs outside of Houston, TX, which itself relatively blue oasis in an otherwise reddish state. But typically, suburban districts in Texas like the 7th have swung for Republicans in both congressional and Presidential contests; it voted for Romney and McCain by around 20 points. But Trump lost it by 1.5 points in 2016, following a trend of suburban districts swinging from voting for Republican Mitt Romney in 2012, to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
If Fletcher can overcome the institutional challenges facing her bid–that is, being a Democrat in a historically Republican stronghold–that will bode very well for Democrats on election day. If she wins, it almost certainly means Democrats will be able to pick up other suburban seats in California and Washington later in the night. Factors helping her include dissatisfaction with Trump by white, college educated, suburban women, who were particularly put off by the Kavanaugh affair. If national trends of suburban voters moving to the Democratic party finally come to a head on Tuesday, this is where we will see the greatest impact of that. Stay tuned.
Similar races to watch: Georgia’s 6th, California’s 49th
The only poll that matters is the one on Tuesday
The midterm results will have reverberations in both American and international politics for years to come. Some has speculated that a good night for Republicans will mean a more emboldened Trump administration, which could manifest itself into regressive social legislation, further risky trade measures and perhaps even a more hawkish foreign policy. By the same token, a victory for Democrats, especially in the Senate, will bring the chaotic and as yet unfettered governance of Trump’s GOP to a screeching halt, and could prompt the reversal of many of the gains Republicans have made over the last few cycles. For those reasons–and many more–you should keep your eyes glued to your screens on Tuesday. What you see may very well change the world.