The downside of setting out my criteria for a Blue Wave ahead of time is that, given the results, I look like a curmudgeon if I stick to those, which show the Democrats just a hair short of my reasonable, but arbitrary, standards. In any event, the measure is not unambiguous and by any standard, the Democrats had a strong election. To recap:
U.S House I said a wave would be a pick-up of 40 or more. As I write this, Democrats have won 37 and may pick up one or two more.
U.S. Senate I said a wave would be a net loss of 1 or fewer. Assuming Mississippi turns out Republican, the net loss will be 2—but only by the barest of eye-lashes. And, as FiveThirtyEight points out, even in states they lost, Democrats overperformed in terms of the state’s historic “lean”.
Governorships I said a net pick-up of 5 or more would constitute a wave. The pick-up was 7, including a number of states Trump carried—Michigan and Wisconsin among them.
Legislatures I said a net pick-up of 5 or more legislative chambers would constitute a wave and the net pick-up was exactly 5.
In other words, as close to hitting my criteria as possible without actually making it.
What do I take away from this?
- Impressive gains but still a lot of work to do. Republicans strengthened their hold on the Senate and will therefore continue to control the judicial appointment process. The current margin in governorships favors Republicans 27-23. Legislative chambers are even more lopsidedly Republican, 62 to 37.
- There is no evidence the divides in the nation narrowed. Several analysts have offered a “red got redder, blue got bluer” Even in places where there were obvious gains in the Democrats’ vote totals, it was less a change of minds than a change of people. Specifically, cities continue to grow and the suburbs are changing. The 20 largest metro-hubs account for more than 1/3 of the population and the percentage of suburban voters with college degrees increased. Georgia had more overall Democratic votes than previously, but rural Georgia appears every bit as hostile to Democratic values as it was 2, 10 or 50 years ago. It’s just they have a little less sway.
- By any measure it is clear that a lot more people voted for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates. However, the way the American political system is constructed gives large advantages to small states and in larger states a combination of gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, and other tactics magnify the voting strength of Republicans. (Democratic senatorial candidates received 12 million more votes than Republican candidates, but Democrats will lose 1 or 2 seats.) Given these structural considerations and given the strength of the Trump electorate, it would be foolish to assume that he could not repeat in 2020.
- The Democratic party looks much more like the nation as a whole than the Republican party. Democrats elected many more women, many more people of color, and members of more ethnic groups. Fragmentary evidence indicates that voting increases—this was the highest percentage of eligible voters voting in a midterm for more than a century—were particularly heavy among younger and older Americans. And the role of women was particularly striking. No analysis yet on minority votes. But the degree of diversity in the party is an advantage only to the extent that people vote.
I think this election raises three big questions:
- What should a Democratic House do? I am not sure there is a broad generalization about whether more liberal or more center of the road Democrats did better. My read is that it depended on local circumstances and individual candidates. That being said, it seems that a moderate approach over the next two years would position the party better for 2020. I believe the party of the future is the one that best offers a credible position that it is a party trying to unite the country rather than divide it. In that context, I’m taken with the agenda laid out by Ronald Klain in the Washington Post. First, he argues that leading with anti-Trump investigations, as called for as they may be, is not likely to be productive. Second, he suggests focusing on a smaller agenda that includes raising the minimum wage, attacking voter suppression, strengthening the ACA, a “non-porked-up” infrastructure package, and granting legal status to Dreamers. This agenda is well within what virtually all Democrats can support and can be constructed to be a unity agenda as opposed to a divisive agenda. Many of these things will die in the Senate, but if the House passes them it will force votes that clarify positions heading to 2020, when the Democrats have much favorable Senate map.
- What does this tell us about the 2020 presidential race? Not much beyond that it will be bloody. It does remind us we must stay focused and energetic if we actually want to beat Trump. The popular vote margin in New York or California will make a heck of a lot less difference than the popular vote in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and maybe Ohio. I am not sure if Democrats would be better if there were an anointed front runner or not. Trump is much more dangerous running against people than running against himself. It would be nice if Democrats didn’t savage themselves, but political campaigns do get testy. Andy Borowitz suggested, in one of his satirical columns, that the Clinton campaign was upset that Bernie Sanders was actually trying to win the nomination. My guess is there will be lots of Democrats actually trying to win the nomination. But, maybe, with the field so relatively wide-open at this point, candidates will feel able to acknowledge their common positions and approach the campaign minimizing violence against each other. Most Democrats are more concerned about defeating Donald Trump and his Republican-enablers, than about what wing of the party a winner comes from.
- What needs to happen at state levels? The biggest thing is probably to limit harm. While Democrats picked up control of a net of 5 chambers, they were not in states that are most guilty of disenfranchising voters and other legislative atrocities. Several of the biggest advances for Democrats were not where they gained control of a chamber, but where they took away a Republican supermajority or gained a Democratic supermajority. No where is this more important than in North Carolina where the legislature has outrageously hamstrung the Democratic governor. Governor Cooper may still have difficulty getting his agenda through, but without Republican supermajorities in both chambers, he has more latitude to stop some of the worse ideas from the Republican Legislature. With redistricting looming after the 2020 Census, it will be crucial to Democrats to keep focused on the state races in two years.
One of the most striking things about Donald Trump is that he holds power by being divisive. There is clearly an element of the electorate that is fine with that. They are not going to be voting Democratic any time soon. Moreover, they will try to justify their position by arguing that Democrats are just as divisive because of their condescending attitudes. While there might be some argument that certain Democrats are insufficiently sympathetic to real problems, there is a qualitative difference in what “divisive” means. Donald Trump promotes divisiveness on racial and gender lines. He routinely looks for ways to demean opposition instead of finding commonalities.
Democrats will do best when they can come up with ways of presenting themselves that are focused precisely on overcoming the “us versus them” attitude that Republicans have sunk into. In truth, Hilary Clinton had the right idea—“Stronger Together” and a series of specific policies that made gradual improvements on many fronts. Unfortunately, she was the wrong messenger for the times. Everything about the midterm elections suggests to me that a carefully repackaged return to these themes—along with lots more enthusiastic organizing—might make huge changes possible through gradual steps.