How the US midterms will unfold, Part 1: The House of Representatives

Protest outside Trump Tower; Democrats hope an energised voter base will deliver them control of the House.               

Source: Wikimedia CommonsProtest outside Trump Tower; Democrats hope an energised voter base will deliver them control of the House. Source: Wikimedia Commons

On November 6th, Americans will go to the polls to pick their representatives for both houses of Congress. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election, and 35 of the Senate’s 100 seats. Half-way through Donald Trump’s first term, this is the United States’ first chance since the 2016 election to deliver its verdict on Trump, and on the Republican Party (GOP) more widely, which has controlled both the Senate and the House since the 2014 midterms. Without control of both legislative chambers, the President’s administration is hobbled in terms of what it can achieve. During President Obama’s eight years in office, all his major legislative victories, such as the 2009 Bailout, Obamacare, the Dodd-Frank finance regulations and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, were achieved before the Republican House majority, elected in 2010, took its seats.

Americans therefore have the chance to either stop Trump’s agenda in its tracks, or to give it the green light. In an extraordinarily polarised era, for many Americans the stakes have never been higher. If the GOP keeps the Senate, however, Trump will still be able to fill judicial vacancies, including those on the Supreme Court. The recent vicious battle over the confirmation of conservative jurist and alleged sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, is a reminder of the partisan rancour which surrounds such nominations. Kavanaugh’s appointment cements a conservative majority with the potential to weaken abortion, LGBT, and voting rights, and strike down major legislation, as the court almost did twice with Obamacare.

Below is a guide to the key factors and races which will determine the outcome of this November’s House election. Part two will examine the Senate.

The House

Democrats have been feeling relatively bullish about their chances of taking the 25 seats needed to wrest back Congress’s lower chamber. Various factors point to a potential ‘blue wave’ obliterating the GOP’s majority.

  • Donald Trump’s approval rating hovers at an abysmal 40%. He is the least popular President at this point in his term in modern US history.
  • The President’s party normally does poorly in midterm elections. Presidents with under 50% approval have on average lost 37 seats in the midterms. Obama with 46% approval lost a whopping 63 seats.
  • Democrats have significantly overperformed in special elections across the US, winning deep red seats, such as with Doug Jones’ victory in the Alabama senate race. On average Democrats have outperformed their 2016 election percentages by 10 points in special elections.
  • When polling voters as to how interested they are in voting this November, Democrats have maintained a consistent edge over Republicans. There are signs, however, that since the Kavanaugh hearings this ‘enthusiasm gap’ has narrowed slightly. Nevertheless, Democrats appear more fired up about voting – a change from the usual pattern of better Republican turnout in midterms.
  • Democratic fundraising has been off-the-charts, driven largely by small donations, which will pay for more ad buys and get-out-the-vote efforts in key districts. It’s also yet another sign of an energised base, likely to turn out in large numbers. Democrats are likely to raise three times what they did in the last midterms in 2014. In an Arizona seat Democrats did not even contest the past four years, a Democrat challenger has raised $1m dollars. 60 Democratic challengers have raised $1m in the last quarter, with half of those raising $2m.
  • The generic ballot, which tracks the percentage of people saying they’d vote for the Democrats or Republicans, is highly predictive of the final election result. When the Democrats took the House in 2006, they had a 7.9% margin over Republicans. When the GOP took it back in 2010 they had a 6.8% margin. Democrats have a current 7.3% margin for the 2018 midterms, which would be in keeping with a House takeover. Nevertheless, it is worth keeping in mind that largely due to Republican gerrymandering, Democrats need a significantly larger margin than Republicans would to take the House. With a 5% margin, Democrats would only have a fifty-fifty chance to take control.

Races to watch

Democrats are likely to be targeting certain sorts of seats in their efforts to take back the House. Here are two types to watch.

  • Suburban seats: Democrats are hoping to do well in wealthier, often whiter, suburban districts. These districts have high percentages of college-educated voters who have trended away from the GOP in recent polling. A lot of these seats flipped from supporting Romney in 2012, to supporting Clinton in 2016. Orange County, California, is a prime example of this sort of political territory. Formally a conservative stronghold, Clinton was the first Democrat to win the district since Roosevelt’s landslide 1936 re-election. Democrats look to be very competitive in four races there. New Jersey and Pennsylvania are two other states where Democrats are contesting these sorts of seats. The GOP even looks vulnerable in deeper red suburbs, such as Kevin Yoder’s seat in Kansas.
  • Working-class Midwest: A much touted reason for the Democrats’ shock defeat in 2016, was their collapse in support from blue-collar, white voters in the Midwest, or Rust Belt. It looks like the Democrats might, at least for now, be able to reverse the red tide which swept through these areas two years ago. Conor Lamb’s victory in the March special election in a seat outside Pittsburgh, has encouraged Democrats that they have the potential to do very well in this type of race. In seats in Iowa, Michigan and Pennsylvania Democrats are putting up formidable challenges.

The Verdict

The Democrats appear clear favourites to take back the House in the 2018 midterms. Election forecaster 538 puts their chances at 78%, and is predicting an average Democrat gain of 35 seats. Nevertheless, flipping the lower chamber is no sure thing – after all Republicans’ chances of keeping the House are about the same as forecasters put Donald Trump winning the Presidency. What is sure is that these midterms are perhaps the most momentous in a generation, offering radically different directions for the USA. Whatever the outcome, it is a safe bet the midterms will confirm the growing polarisation of American politics. As both parties migrate away from the centre a political chasm has opened up, not only between urban and rural areas, but between genders. CNN puts the Democrat polling margin at 30% among women. Among men Republicans have a 5% advantage, meaning the gender gap is an incredible 35 points. If Democrats do take back the House in November, it will be American women who delivered it to them.