My Midterm Prediction?


Okay, I’m kidding, but taking Mr. T out of context is vague enough that it probably works as a midterm prediction.

Slightly more seriously, I did want to keep to my habit of writing about elections beforehand, to help keep myself honest. So my midterm prediction is this this: No one will learn anything.

The reason that’s a prediction rather than a mere statement of fact is that we could have a Truly Unexpected Result. Democrats could pick up over 58 seats, or fewer than 20. The voters’ overall verdict would be clear beyond spin in those scenarios. But they are unlikely scenarios.

Absent an outlier result, we are likely to see something between a Blue Wave (not tsunami) and the GOP narrowly holding onto the House.  If the results land closer to one or the other end of that spectrum, the “losing” side’s activists will go into Green Lantern mode. “If only my party had fought harder, pursued my agenda, things would have been different,” they will say. “We were stabbed in the back.  If only those squishy establishment figures had clapped harder, Tinker Bell would be alive today.” Conversely, the “winning” side will tend to believe that their hyperbole and hysterics were validated by the voters before waiting to see whether the data bear it out.

To demonstrate how the midterm commentary is going and will go astray, consider Republican Trump critic Bret Stephens. He notes that: wages are rising, unemployment is at a multi-decade low, ISIS is largely beaten, Iran seems contained, Russia was sanctioned (rather than coddled), and Dems overreached in attacking SCOTUS nominee (now Justice) Brett Kavanaugh. His conclusion? “Democrats should be walking away with the midterms. That they are not is because they have consistently underestimated the president’s political gifts, while missing the deeper threat his presidency represents.”

If you hadn’t noticed, “Democrats should be walking away with the midterms” does not exactly follow from the political fundamentals Stephens catalogued.  “Jobs, Not Mobs” is a slogan with two components.  Attributing the GOP’s results solely to Pres. Trump’s culture war is the sort of thing one might expect more from Steve Bannon than Bret Stephens, but here we are.  Conversely, it would probably be a mistake to attribute the Dems’ results solely to their frothing anger when leadership has tried to keep their candidates focused on issues like health insurance.  If we do not get a Truly Unexpected Result, untangling these factors will take more work than much of the commentariat seems willing to do.

Beyond activists confirming their biases, let’s consider the Conventional Wisdom of Dems winning 30-40 seats in the House, along with a number of governorships and statehouses — while the GOP picks up one or two seats in the Senate. Because it’s the CW, there may be a tendency to be blasé about it.  But the GOP lost 31 House seats in 2006, burdened with the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, etc. To lose that many seats in 2018, amid peace and prosperity — and to gain only two Senate seats with the most GOP-friendly Senate map in recent memory — should be seen as a rebuke of Pres. Trump, while keeping in mind that Clinton and Obama got their rebukes (and W didn’t in 2002 mostly because of 9/11).

Despite those rebukes, Clinton and Obama went on to re-election, which is why there’s a limit to learning things from midterms, even a big wave election.  That said, Obama was the first president since Washington to get re-elected with less support than his initial election.  Trump, having threaded an Electoral College needle in 2016, has less margin for losing votes and yet continues to play to his biggest fans.  Nevertheless, even if that strategy were to fail tomorrow, he could still win 2020 if Dems learn enough of the wrong lessons from these midterms.

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