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A midterm election as fraught as any in modern times

Why We Wrote This

Feelings about President Trump – both positive and negative – are fueling unusually intense interest in today’s vote. As many see it, the nation’s values and very identity are on the line.

John Minchillo/AP
Voters cast their ballots at the Glen Echo Presbyterian Church polling location in Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday. Across the United States, voters headed to the polls in one of the most high-profile midterm elections in decades.

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President Trump frequently says that while he’s not on the ballot, he really is. And that’s true, in a broad sense. If Democrats retake the House, they’re likely to launch investigations that will tie up the White House for the remaining two years of Mr. Trump’s current term. If educated white women, turned off by Trump’s persona, continue to move toward the Democrats, a great party realignment may result. Pundits will surely interpret, and probably over-interpret, the 2018 results as a harbinger of the 2020 presidential race (which begins in earnest Wednesday, and is likely to make 2018 look civil and restrained by comparison). In that context, Tuesday’s vote is a resumption of electoral struggle – the first chance for Democrats to respond to the shock of Hillary Clinton’s loss at the ballot box, the first chance for Republicans to defend the man who now dominates their party and is bending it to his own positions. Voter interest in the midterms has soared to unprecedented levels. “It’s not unusual to see this much hyper-enthusiasm for a midterm on one side. It’s really unusual seeing it on both sides,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

Two years into a tumultuous presidency, United States voters on Tuesday go to the polls in a midterm vote as pressured and contentious as any the nation has experienced in modern times.

If the old political truism was “all politics is local,” now all politics is national – at least as long as President Trump is in office and pushes to make it so. His controversial actions have thrilled supporters and hardened opponents against him, exacerbating existing partisan splits into a kind of continental divide of polarization.

The White House and a portion of Senate seats aren’t on the ballot, but much else in American politics is. And the anger and exaltation Mr. Trump has unleashed have made voters eager to demonstrate their feelings about his policies and conduct – with the midterms their vehicle at hand. Sixty percent of registered voters say they’re using their vote in 2018 to send a message, according to a recent Gallup poll. That’s the highest such percentage of all recent midterms.

Trump has encouraged this focus. At rallies, he frequently says that while he’s not on the ballot, he really is. And that’s true, in a broad sense.

If Democrats retake the House, they’re likely to launch investigations that will tie up the White House for the remaining two years of Trump’s current term. If educated white women, turned off by Trump’s persona, continue to move towards the Democrats, a great party realignment may result. Pundits will surely interpret, and probably over-interpret, the 2018 results as a harbinger of the 2020 presidential race (which begins in earnest Wednesday, and is likely to make 2018 look civil and restrained by comparison).

In that context, Tuesday’s vote is a resumption of electoral struggle, the first chance for Democrats to respond to the shock of Hillary Clinton’s loss at the ballot box, the first chance for Republicans to defend the man who now dominates their party and is bending it to his own ethno-nationalist positions. Voter interest in the midterms has soared to unprecedented levels.

“It’s not unusual to see this much hyper-enthusiasm for a midterm on one side. It’s really unusual seeing it on both sides,” says Jeffrey Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University.

Few precedents in history

If there’s a historical precedent to today’s vote, it might be the 1946 midterms. The president at the time – Harry S. Truman – was very unpopular, with an approval rating in the low 30s. It was the first midterm after the end of World War II and the death of F.D.R., so voter interest was high. The incumbent Democrats suffered large losses and Republicans seized control of both the House and the Senate.

But the 2018 midterms are singular in their emotional saturation. Fear is the dominant feeling on both sides. Trump has campaigned on stoking anger and fear about immigration, Nancy Pelosi, trade deals, NATO, and more. False statements – the border wall is being built, the GOP tax cut was the largest in history – are a staple. Democrats, for their part, have emphasized fear of Trump – warning that his loose relationship with the truth and authoritarian tendencies are eroding the foundation of American democracy itself.

Trump’s message is nostalgic – let’s go back to the way things used to be. The Democratic message is more oriented towards the future – let’s keep going towards change that is remaking our society. 

Since 1945, whenever US elections have been framed as the future versus the past, the future has won – with one exception, according to Professor Engel. That exception was 2016.

“Does the United States look forward or look back? That’s the question, both for this election, and the next one,” he says.

A 'blue wave'?

As voters head to the polls, the range of possible outcomes remains wide. Democrats have a good chance to take control of the House, according to many polls and data projection websites such as FiveThirtyEight. The Republicans’ chance of keeping their House majority is being calculated at about one-in-eight. That’s equivalent to a batter whose average is .123 – getting a hit is rare, but far from impossible.

If Democrats take the House, and Republicans maintain their hold on the Senate, Congress will remain jammed in gridlock and highly unlikely to move big pieces of legislation. The biggest change might be an explosion of Democratic-led investigations into Trump administration activities. Many congressional Republicans worry that the White House has not yet come to grips with how disorienting a surge in House subpoenas would be, and the extent to which investigations might come to dominate the second half of Trump’s first term.

It is also entirely possible that one or the other party wins both congressional chambers. A normal polling error in either direction could produce such an outcome. That would be a surprise, but far from an unprecedented event.

If the GOP maintains its House and Senate majorities, Trump is likely to read the outcome as a triumph for his style of politics and governance and behave accordingly. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation could become a casualty. Democrats would be plunged into despair and might engage in bitter internal recriminations that could rip the party apart.

If Democrats win the Senate as well as the House the “blue wave” narrative will dominate cable news postmortems. This would be a seismic shift in US politics, turning Trump into a lame duck in an instant and raising questions about his ability to win reelection two years hence.

The media whirlwind of Trump era

All these scenarios assume that the trench now dividing American politics remains as wide as ever after two years of the wild Trump presidency, in which outrage and scandal succeed scandal and outrage, in a whirl that moves so fast the phrase “news cycle” seems quaint. Today we’re living in a news blender, a news whirlpool, a news cyclone. Remember the North Korea summit? Remember Stormy Daniels? Remember the op-ed from an anonymous administration official outlining alleged Trumpian dysfunction? Remember Brett Kavanaugh, even? It all seems, somehow, very long ago.

Trump was a highly polarizing figure in November 2016, and he remains a highly polarizing figure today. His approval and disapproval ratings are close to what they were early in his administration. That’s despite the fact that the nation is enjoying a roaring economy – and the special counsel has been investigating possible Trump campaign links to a foreign power.

“One of the remarkable things about Trump is that very few minds have changed about him since before he was elected,” says Gary Jacobson, emeritus professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego.

In that sense, today’s midterms are just a preview of what’s to come – batting practice before the epic clash that will be Trump’s reelection effort over the next two years.

Permanent realignment?

If there’s one big thing we might learn from the midterm results, it’s the extent of an ongoing realignment in US politics. Underneath the stable top lines of the polls, there’s an ongoing demographic shift. In 2016, working-class white males heavily backed Trump, helping power his victory. In 2018, that trend is being matched by the reactive movement of white college-educated females into the Democratic Party.

In a recent CNN poll of generic congressional preferences, college-educated women preferred a Democratic candidate to a Republican one by a hefty 18 percentage points.

Their animosity toward Trump could move them permanently away from the GOP, particularly if the party morphs into a more ethno-nationalistic entity, in the president’s image.

Younger voters are also now heavily Democratic, and that preference may stick as they get older. Voters who were young during President Reagan’s “Morning in America” years tend to be more Republican, and the reverse might be true for the era of “Make America Great Again” red hats.

“People tend to display the imprint of the politics that existed when they were coming of age,” says Professor Jacobson. “That’s likely to affect party alignment for years to come.”

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