The 2018 Midterms: Reflections From Herman's Toteboard!

Originally released December 12, 2018

Astonishingly, it has been more than a month since the midterms, but the votes have still not all been counted, and at least one house race seems destined for a Mulligan. Nevertheless, the dust has settled enough to make some sense of the results, and inquiring minds must surely be asking what the Toteboard sees as the main takeaways from last month’s drama.


The short version is that the forces of good can breathe a sigh of relief . . . but can’t really celebrate.


Yes, the victory in the House was impressive, and it’s encouraging that the voters seemed to send a pretty clear message against Trumpism (how appalling that that’s actually a thing now). But as progressives learned over the last few years, there is a big difference between a momentary majority and a lasting mandate, and all victories, even apparent “waves” or “landslides,” have to be viewed as pretty tenuous when 42% of the people in this country think Trump is doing a good job and actually share his paranoid, predatory view of reality. If you’re not disturbed because it’s “only” 42% of the country, you might want to put that into some perspective. Think of how comforted you would feel to learn that “only” 42% of judges are taking bribes, or that only 42% of your intellectual stimulation comes from watching reruns of “Three’s Company,” or that “only” 42% of the students at St. Lawrence University are rich, white, anti-intellectual preppies. So yes, it is hugely important that the democrats now have an important systemic check on Trump’s power, but that doesn’t change the fact that the wacko fringe is smack dab in the mainstream and still wields considerable political power. There will be no respite from divided government. Or from a deeply divided country.


These prolegomena aside, the Toteboard is now ready to offer its takeaways from the midterms, in terms of 1) how to interpret the results statistically, 2) what the implications are politically, 3) and what if anything these results portend for 2020.


Takeaway One: Statistical Interpretation


Despite a few ups and downs during election night itself, things went very much as the numerically driven analysts expected. The democratic victory margin in the house tracked very closely to the generic ballot polls over the previous four or so months,the eventual number of seat pick-ups fell right in the fat part of the bell curve, and individual races broke mostly as expected, with the anticipated “toss-ups” going both ways. The democrats may have had a good night, but Nate Silver had a great one.


If you are not convinced of the extent of the democratic dominance on election night, consider the following:


1) The turnover of 40 seats (possibly 41, depending on what happens in North Carolina) is the largest democratic midterm victory since the post-Watergate election shortly after Nixon’s resignation. True, this sounds a little more impressive than it actually is – this was only the sixth midterm election since then with a republican in the white house, so the sample isn’t all that huge – but hey, the dems still did something last month they hadn’t been able to do during the previous five cycles.


2) They managed to unseat a number of real political swine–like Dana Rohrbacher, Kevin Yoder, Mimi Walters, and Georgia’s own Karen Handel – though Duncan Hunter, Steve King, and a few other notables still live to roll in the mud another day.


3) The cumulative popular vote victory margin in the House now stands at 8.6%, and it may even knock on the door of 9% once the final votes are counted. That’s a nice chunk of change.


4) The democrats successfully defended 98% of the House seats they held going into the election. Phrased differently, the republicans were able to knock off only 2% of the democratic held seats. By contrast, the republicans successfully defended only 82% of their seats. That means the democrats picked off a whopping 18% of republican seats.


5) Even though the democrats lost seats in the Senate, they actually did better statistically with the unfavorable map than the republicans. The democrats defended a lopsided 26 seats, retained 22, and lost four, meaning they had an 85% success rate, even with one key loss almost certainly courtesy of Florida democrats’ uncanny ability to bungle ballot designs. That’s not great, but on the other hand, the republicans did even worse with only 10 seats to defend, losing two, for an 80% success rate. It would have been nice to pick off a few more, but the firewall was pretty deep red. Remember, Cindy Hyde-Smith still walked away with her election in Mississippi, even after channeling the Ghost of Lynching Past.


Takeaway Two: Political Implications


Looking at things practically, it is very much as Peter Sagal said, i.e., that it’s like the government got a divorce and the Democrats got the House. So this would be a good time for everyone to start googling the respective responsibilities of the House and Senate, because it’s really going to matter over the next two years which chamber has which task. Whatever you find, there is at least one way in which the power-divide makes for some especially distressing news, as the full power to stack – uh, I mean “staff” –the courts falls upon the senate. And now that the republicans hold 53 seats, the occasional burst of sanity and/or conscience from a Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski won’t be sufficient for derailing some really, really dangerous appointments (see Kobes, Jonathan). With the chamber de-moderated, the filibuster defanged, and the republican majority hellbent on a reactionary makeover of the bench, some (more) very scary stuff could be happening once the new class has its convocation. But at least there won’t be a wall.


Unfortunately, the reality is that democrats falling behind the eight ball on court appointments is just a symptom of a much larger crisis, i.e., that they’re basically playing whack-a-mole with a party that shamelessly slithers from one unethical means of obtaining and abusing power to another. By the time the democrats got wise to systemic partisan gerrymandering, the republicans were already off shrinking early voting periods (popular among blacks and other minorities), and waiving photo ID requirements for absentee ballots (popular among whites and other majorities). And while the democrats busy themselves fighting those moral abominations, republican house legislatures will be stripping power from incoming democratic governors, republican secretaries of state will be purging voter rolls, and republican candidates will be devising ever more sophisticated and illegal methods of ballot-harvesting (a la North Carolina). So now it’s just a question of how many steps the republicans can stay ahead of the democrats on all of these diabolical attempts to grab power and undercut democracy. It’s truly unbelievable that a party can get away with this in the 21stcentury, but it’s not going to get stopped by the courts the party has worked so hard to pack. To take license with the title of a running column from a chess magazine many years ago, “we’ve got problems."


Takeaway Three: To 2020, and Beyond


Although the results of a single election cycle, especially midterms, are not necessarily predictive of future elections, it is nevertheless worth noting that the democratic house victory map (i.e., the cumulative house popular vote in each state) did look an awful lot like Obama’s victory map in 2012. This does suggest at least the possibility that the results two years ago were an aberration, and that the country as a whole may be swinging back to its usual, more predictable, and more sane, voting patterns. That said, here are a few of the more interesting trends to watch:


1) The Blue Base holding firm, mostly. That is to say, all of the states that the Toteboard had identified as part of the democratic base in the previous presidential elections went comfortably blue this time around. This includes even the states in the “wobbly base,” i.e., New Hampshire, Iowa, and the three biggies that Trump barely picked off in 2016, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, although Iowa was fairly close and reinforces the idea that the state has been purpling over the last several years.


2) The continued blue-ing of the Indigo Three. Democrats racked up secure margins in Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia, suggesting that these three may be starting to look more blue than purple. Tim Kaine won the senate race in Virginia with 57% of the vote, and Jacky Rosen handily bumped off the incumbent senator in Nevada, even as polls had shown it be a tighter race. We’ll know in another few cycles whether these states are ready to join New Mexico as a once-reddish but now reliably blue state.


3) The purpling of Arizona, and perhaps Georgia (and maybe Texas?) a little further down the road. Kyrsten Sinema’s 2.5% victory for Jeff Flake’s seat may just be the canary in the coal mine that shows Arizona will indeed be a competitive state in the near future. It may be a little early for it to join in with North Carolina as the Burgundy Two, be we may have a better read on that in 2020. The Toteboard is reluctant to put either Georgia or Texas in that category until the democrats actually win something there (seems like a reasonable criterion), but those are definitely states to watch if you’re not in a hurry.


4) The reddening of at least one, and possibly both, of the Big Cahunas. Ohio may not yet be a lost cause (a la Missouri), as Sherrod Brown did win reelection fairly easily, but the cumulative house vote was pretty red. And while the democrats narrowly won the house vote in Florida, they equally narrowly lost the two big state-wide races during a big blue year. Although the news for democrats is generally good, they may have to envision presidential roadmaps that don’t include either Ohio or Florida.


And as long as we’re looking ahead, perhaps we should also take a first look at the 2020 senate map. The dems are down three seats, and are almost certain to lose Doug Jones’s seat in Alabama (unless the republicans nominate Roy Moore again, or some other unreconstructed child molester), so their target is four seats if they can beat Trump, five seats if they can’t (however appalling a thought that is). It won’t be easy, but certainly not as hard as the map this last time around. Here are the most likely targets:


Colorado: An indigo state with an incumbent republican (Cory Gardner) who has tethered himself closely to Trump. This is theoretically the democrats’ best shot, if they can find the right candidate.


Arizona: There will be a special election for John McCain’s seat, which will be the first and best test of whether or not this state has really purpled. The republican governor will probably appoint defeated candidate Martha McSalley (and her dog) to replace John Kyl, who is keeping McCain’s seat warm, and then run her in the special election. The democrats have a worthy bench there, and it would be interesting to see what happens if ex-congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, decides to give it a shot.


Maine: Will Susan Collins pay for her vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh? She’s still popular in this quirky blue-ish state, but her bipartisan appeal has taken a hit, and it’s not clear if at age 68 she’ll be up for what could a fairly blood-letting contest, at least by Maine-iac standards.


Iowa: Freshman senator Joni Ernst won Tom Harkin’s old seat against a weak candidate. She’s popular in Iowa, though not sky-high, and she has promised to run as a Trumpian in 2020, which may or may not play well in this politically uneven state. The Toteboard would like to see former governor Tom Vilsack take a shot at her.


North Carolina: Freshman Thom Tillis won his seesaw seat in a Burgundy state. His eventual opponent’s fortunes will probably be closely tied to the fortunes of the eventual democratic presidential candidate.


Georgia: Georgia is still Georgia, and freshman David Perdue has that kind of arrogant redneck quality that fits in so well down here. But he’s not the most likeable jerk in the world, evidenced by some public fracases caught on cellphone video, and not a few Georgia democrats would like to see Stacey Abrams take him on.The Toteboard apologizes for this lengthy missive, but there was a lot to cover. And so for now, farewell until 2020.