“What, me worry?”
This iconic motto, the catchphrase of Mad Magazine’s equally iconic character, Alfred E. Neuman, could also serve as shorthand for how national Republican strategists are approaching the end of summer and the impending 2018 midterms.
The party has much to worry about. Loss of a single chamber could cripple the Trump agenda; loss of both Houses will effectively end the Trump presidency.
The GOP’s problem is that it doesn’t confront a single problem, but a daunting multiplicity of them. Each of the problems is individually troubling; collectively, they threaten continued Republican rule in Washington.
There are currently five compelling forces that the GOP must neutralize or overcome if they are to continue to hold control over the federal government:
• History of midterms: Democrats need to win just 23 seats to take control of the lower chamber – and political history suggests they will do it. The party holding the White House almost always loses House seats in a midterm election. Since the Civil War, the president’s party has been consistently on the losing end of midterm elections with the losses in the House often exceeding 30 seats. Even more relevant are the recent first midterms following a president’s election. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, every president but one has lost seats in the House. Reagan lost 26 seats, Clinton 54 and Obama led the way with a stunning 63 seat loss. The only exception occurred in 2002 after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. George W. Bush's Republican Party gained eight House seats and two Senate seats.
• Referendum on Trump: All elections are referenda on incumbents; a midterm election is a referendum on the incumbent president. Typically, if a president’s job performance is below 50 percent approval rating, House losses will occur – and they will be substantial. Ominously, President Trump’s job performance ratings have been flashing red for some time. His current positives stand at 43.4 percent on the Real Clear Politics average. Moreover, these approval ratings have been consistent for months, something not seen before in presidential politics. If Trump’s approval ratings do not improve, Republicans in competitive races will continue to be vulnerable.
• Enthusiasm among Democrats: Voting turnout in midterms tends to be relatively low –around 40 percent of eligible voters. Consequently, midterm outcomes are heavily influenced by the degree of enthusiasm that exists among voters. This year, Democrats are enjoying an “enthusiasm gap” over Republicans. In the congressional special elections that have occurred in 2018, the Democrats have overperformed by 12 to 16 points. In the most recent congressional special election, in Ohio’s 12th congressional district, the Democratic candidate trails by less than a single point in a district Trump carried by 11 points in 2016. Similar Democratic enthusiasm has manifested itself in several contested 2018 Democratic primaries. Importantly, Democrats have filed for state legislative and congressional races in record numbers. Likewise, polls measuring interest in the elections show Democrats leading Republicans by substantial margins. Finally, Democratic candidates are raising far more money than their Republican opponents in many cases and three times more then they did in the last midterm in 2014.
• Influence of women voters: 2018 will make the so-called “Year of the Women” (1992) pale by comparison. This year, more female candidates are seeking office than in any previous election cycle. So far, 185 women have been nominated for the House, according to the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The large majority of these female candidates are Democrats, 143 of them. Women are also contributing money to campaigns in unusually high numbers. While the paucity of females in state legislatures and Congress is a motivating factor, strong opposition to President Trump among Democratic women clearly explains much of the current female mobilization. In 2016, there was a 24-point “gender gap,” with women voting Democratic by a 13-point margin, while men favored Republicans by 11 points. Polls indicate a similar or larger gap in 2018 as women increasingly support Democratic candidates.
• A shifting midterm coalition: Midterm voters differ from presidential election voters in many ways. A “propensity to vote” is one of them, with midterm voters much more likely to vote at all. Demographics trending to higher incomes and more education is another key difference. Midterm voters tend to be more affluent and better educated. In 2018, these differences are likely to benefit Democrats since Trump’s 2016 supporters came disproportionately from among white working-class voters without a college degree – precisely the group less likely to show up at the polls on Nov. 6. Moreover, in 2018, college-educated voters have been showing up in large numbers in special elections and among Democratic primary voters. This worrisome pattern for Republicans means the Trump coalition from 2016 is likely to be considerably smaller in 2018.
These five factors, so inimical to GOP hopes, do not guarantee a Democratic wave in 2018. True, some of these are near unalterable features of American politics. The history of midterms and their referendum nature are examples. But other factors can be mitigated by Republicans, particularly closing the “enthusiasm gap,” a broader appeal to women, and ensuring they are not outspent.
In 2016, people learned that “the only poll that counts is on Election Day.” That’s something Republicans should remember and Democrats should not forget.
G. Terry Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael Young is a speaker, pollster, author, and was Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University. Madonna and Young encourage responses to the column and can be reached, respectively, at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.