Who won the midterms? Both Republicans and Democrats have made competing claims after Tuesday’s vote, as one might expect. Democrats won control of the House, even if the “blue wave” never really materialized and all they got was an average midterm correction. Republicans are pointing to Senate gains, even though all of them except an expected pickup in Florida came in deep-red states they should have won in the first place.
Donald Trump thinks he won the midterms, and The Hill’s Niall Stanage argues that he’s not entirely wrong:
When one questioner — Cordelia Lynch of Britain’s Sky News — prefaced a question with the assertion that the results were “not an absolute victory” for Trump, he cut her off to insist that “I’ll be honest: I thought it was a very-close-to-complete victory.”
Highlighting GOP wins in Georgia and Florida, Trump recounted his own involvement on the campaign trial and said “I think we’ve done an amazing job….It was a great victory.”
Democrats would dispute that on the basis of their gains in the House — a tally that is not final yet, but seems likely to fall near 35 seats.
The Democratic winning margin in the popular vote is projected by the New York Times to be about 7 points once all the votes are counted. That margin is very similar to the Republican advantage in 2010, which was seen as a huge wave election.
Still, in terms of seats, the GOP losses in the House were well within the parameters of historical norms — and offset by gains in the Senate. That’s one reason why it’s so difficult to settle on a single narrative about what happened.
That’s true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In both chambers of Congress, the fields were highly tilted — in favor of Republicans in the Senate, and in favor of Democrats in the House. In the end, though, both parties mainly gained where their strength already lies. Democrats picked up suburban districts they lost in 2010 after going all-in on ObamaCare that year; Republicans didn’t make any gains outside of red states except Florida, and didn’t even convert in Montana or West Virginia.
The biggest takeaway, I write in my column at The Week, is the reversion of Trump country in the “blue wall” back to its political identity — a reversion that has serious implications for 2020. It’s a reminder of the real issue in 2016, which wasn’t that Trump expanded GOP horizons as much as Hillary Clinton shrank Democrats’:
In all these states, Republicans did better than four years earlier, but Democrats got fired up as well. This points to a key weakness that many forget about Trump’s 2016 win, especially in the blue-wall states. Trump didn’t win by turning out a new segment of disaffected voters as much as Hillary Clinton lost by failing to turn out Democrats.
In 2016, Clinton won 1.37 million Minnesota votes. Barack Obama had won 1.55 million four years earlier. Trump only added 2,000 to Mitt Romney’s 2012 total, hardly much motion at all. But that was enough for Trump to come closer than any Republican since Ronald Reagan to winning the state. However, he did it by standing still as Clinton underperformed. When Democrats show up to vote, Minnesota reverts back to its blue-state identity.
The same formula holds in the other three “blue wall” states. In Wisconsin, both Clinton (-238,000) and Trump (-5,000) underperfomed 2012’s results. Clinton dropped almost 300,000 votes from Obama’s 2012 performance in Michigan, which produced 131,000 fewer votes between the two major-party candidates than in the previous cycle. Pennsylvania is alone in having a higher combined 2016 vote total over 2012, but Clinton still came up short of Obama’s performance in the earlier cycle by 64,000 votes — and lost the state by 44,000.
That’s not to say that Trump had no effect on voters, either in the midterms or in the 2016 election. The two House pickups in rural Minnesota were in significant part inspired by Trump, and the GOP’s better Senate results were clearly driven by Trump’s barnstorming in the final weeks of the midterms. But there again, what Trump did in those states was to produce a return to basic political identity in red states and red House districts, while Democrats used Trump and hot-button political issues such as health care to do the same in blue states and blue House districts.
That raises big questions about any path to Electoral College victory in 2020. If Trump didn’t expand the GOP’s footprint in blue states, then the next Democratic presidential nominee has a blueprint to retake the “blue wall” and perhaps a few other states on the bubble as well. The Wall Street Journal issues a warning to Trump — find a way to reach out, or face defeat in the next cycle:
The House defeat is also a message from moderate Republicans and independents, especially women put off by Mr. Trump’s rancorous style. A question in the October Wall Street Journal-NBC poll puts this problem in sharp relief. While 44% of voters approve of Mr. Trump’s policies, some 20% like his policies but dislike him personally. That 20% is five times the percentage who disliked George W. Bush but liked his policies when he lost the House in 2006, and 10 times the share that disliked Barack Obama in 2013.
Worse for Mr. Trump, the share of voters who dislike him personally but like his policies increased in the past two years. This is extraordinary for a new President and reveals his missed opportunity. Some two-thirds of voters on Tuesday expressed satisfaction with the economy, and these are people he’d win if he didn’t alienate them with his narcissism and petulance.
Unlike Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, Mr. Trump has made no effort to build a larger coalition than the minority who helped win the Presidency narrowly over Hillary Clinton. Instead he has played constantly to his base who are already loyal. If he wants to be re-elected, he will have to win over more suburban Republicans and independents.
The costliest mistake will be a failure to recognize that the most significant reason Trump won in the blue-wall states was Hillary Clinton. Trump has about eighteen months to start building on the opportunity Hillary left him to win moderates as a means of holding off an opponent with better talent at turning out voters. Time, however, is running short for that effort, and these midterms demonstrate that what he’s been doing isn’t working in that regard.
Update: I’m not the only one sounding the siren over 2020 Electoral College prospects:
Of course, Tuesday was a very blue night. But if you shift every state toward Republicans by 6 points, which roughly reflects what you'd get in a neutral political environment, here's what the map looks like. This looks like a pretty fair fight for the Electoral College. pic.twitter.com/HKe1z66C22
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 8, 2018
Read the whole thread.