The 2018 congressional midterm elections, which began shortly after Donald Trump was projected as the winner of the 2016 presidential race, are finally over. They shattered all turnout records for midterms, as an estimated 114 million Americans voted, and drew global attention comparable to most presidential campaigns. The days before the election were punctuated by letter bombs targeting high-profile opponents of the president and the deadly attack at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. Given all this, perhaps the strangest thing about these midterm elections is how normal they were – at least with regards to the results.
For many Democrats this midterm was, at its heart, a battle for American democracy. Republicans, for their part, campaigned on the idea that Democratic victory would lead to socialism, or at least a devastating recession. The Republicans ran on a slogan of “jobs not mobs” while scaring voters into believing that hordes of immigrants, funded by philanthropist George Soros, were preparing to storm our country’s southern border. Over all of this loomed the personality, tweets and rallies of President Donald Trump.
The impact of Tuesday’s election will be far-reaching. The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will be able to block proposed legislation before it can get to the Republican-controlled Senate, meaning that Trump is no longer free of constraints in Washington and that conservative bills have little, if any, chance of becoming law. There’s also a very real possibility that the House could vote to impeach Trump after the conclusion of the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference or over possible business conflicts of interest. The Republican majority in the Senate won’t vote to convict him, but a House impeachment could still be a political blow. In addition, Trump’s reelection campaign has unofficially begun and well over a dozen Democratic candidates could emerge as strong contenders to oppose Trump.
Nonetheless, these unpredictable times still gave rise to predictable results. The Democrats were the clear winners on Nov. 6, as the party that does not control the presidency has been in almost every midterm election since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in the White House in 1934. (The exceptions were in 1998 and 2002.) However, the blue wave that many Democratic activists were hoping for never came. The Democrats will pick up around 30 seats in the House and probably lose only two or three Senate seats in the face of a very tough map, but relative to most other recent midterm elections this hardly constitutes a wave. The reason for that was the economy. The blue wave crashed on to the shores of the strong economy and the result could be called the blue splash.
If you had been in a political science seminar 20 or 30 years ago and had been told only that in 2016 the president was a Republican and the economy was pretty strong, you would have projected this outcome, or something very similar. Earlier midterms that drew much less attention and were not dominated by a president who reveled in confrontational and divisive rhetoric have had similar results.
This ordinary outcome to an election that was anything but highlights a contradiction between an American polity that by most measures seems to be in flux and voting habits and outcomes that don’t always reflect that. The Republican Party is transitioning from a traditional conservative party to a populist one, while the Democratic Party is finding new support in once solidly Republican suburban communities. A president who has broken numerous norms of American democracy and whose personality and behavior has dominated the media for more than three years found that at election time the fate of his party, like that of almost all presidents, was determined by an important, but comparatively mundane issue: the state of the economy.
It is also apparent that for many if not most Americans, partisanship is still the main driver of their vote. In every election this century, the popular vote has been relatively close with neither party enjoying a real landslide in well over 20 years. I encountered this while speaking to voters in a swing district around Columbus, Ohio, in the final days of the campaign. Democratic voters expressed a desire to restrain Trump, but most Republican voters simply explained their vote to me by saying “I’m a Republican,” in the same matter of fact tone they might use if they were stating their preference for Ohio State’s football team. High levels of that kind of deep partisanship, even when not driven by anger or great passion, locks the country into close elections with little opportunity for waves. The midterm result shows that both sides can mobilize their voters and that despite what appears to be a time of intense turmoil, longstanding truisms of American politics – or at least some of them – still apply.
Lincoln Mitchell is a writer and scholar based in New York and San Francisco. He teaches in Columbia University’s Political Science Department.