Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Will There Be a 2018 Wave Election?

Common wisdom in DC is that the days of the Republican congressional majority are numbered. The 2018 election will be a wave election that gives the Democrats control of both houses. I've written about this before on general terms but details are emerging warranting an update.

The case for a wave election is based on a few suppositions: Waves are inevitable, Changing American demographics favor the Democrats, The electorate wants more socialism, and The voters will be so repulsed by President Trump that they will turn on the Republicans.

Waves are Inevitable. Obama and Clinton both entered office with majorities but had wave elections in their first midterm that delivered both houses to the Republicans. George W Bush entered office with a majority but lost it in his second midterm election. Going back further, the Republicans too the Senate when Reagan won in 1980 but lost it in his second midterm. That makes it seem like Congress is up for grabs. A longer look tells a very different story.

Here's a chart showing which party controlled Congress since the founding of the Republican party.

 This tells a very different story. The Republicans controlled Congress most of the time from its founding until the Great Depression. The Democrats dominated Congress until the 1994 wave Since then the Republicans have controlled the House and the Senate has been split but slightly favoring the Republicans. This shows that wave elections do happen but are not as inevitable as the Democrats expect.

Changing American demographics favor the Democrats. Also known as Identity Politics, this is appealing to minority voters as a block. The percentage of straight, white voters is declining and the Democrats hope to pick up the minority vote by appealing to specific causes important to the minorities. The biggest push on this has involved illegal immigrants, a subject important to Hispanic leaders. Hillary Clinton's campaign strategy was to appeal to the Obama coalition while trying to discourage Trump supporters from voting. While this may be a viable long-term strategy, current demographics don't support it. Obama won by mobilizing a record minority turnout. Many of these people were not voting for Obama's policies (in fact, videos taken during the election showed that many voters had no idea what Obama's policies were). They voted for the first black candidate and the son of a sort-of immigrant, Even Obama's coalition weakened between his first election and his reelection and it fell apart completely when Obama was replaced by a rich white women. At the same time, the Democrats' identity politics drove away the white working-class that had been their backbone for decades.

Identity politics might be the wave of the future but the Democrats have to survive as a party until that future arrives.

The Democrats have another problem - the minority vote is highly concentrated. This is often chalked up to gerrymandering but it's also a voting rights issue. In order to maximize the number of minority candidates in Congress, the lines are drawn to make minority/majority districts. This is great for minority candidates but bad for the Democrats.

The electorate wants more socialism. In the wake of Bernie Sanders's campaign, many Democratic strategists have decided that they need to outright attack capitalism and propose sweeping socialist reforms. While most people see Obama as the furthest left president since LBJ or possible FDR, they see him as a disappointment. The loss of four special elections convinced them that the candidates should have campaigned further to the left and that this is the future for the party.

There are real problems with this approach. When the Democrats retook Congress in 2006, it was by recruiting moderate candidates to run in conservative states. These so-called Blue Dog Democrats were purged from the party as it drifted left and the last of them were defeated in the 2010 Republican wave. Hillary Clinton ran well to the left of her husband and lost the election.

Enthusiasm for socialism varies by state and the states that support it the most are already solidly Democrat. It doesn't do the party any good to win over more voters in California (as Hillary found when that state gave her the majority of the popular vote).

There's also the problem that socialism doesn't work. California is falling apart and other socialist pushes such as the $15/hour wage are failing as economic reality sets in.

The voters will be so repulsed by President Trump that they will turn on the Republicans. This one should seem familiar. A bit over a year ago the Democrats were convinced that Trump was so unpopular that he would pull his entire party down with him giving them total control of the government (after Clinton appointed a liberal justice to replace the conservative Scalia in the Supreme Court). We can see how well that worked out for them.

Trump might drag the party down eventually but it will be his policies that do it. Clinton and Obama pushed hard-left policies in their first terms and were punished for it at the polls. Bush's war in Iraq and the financial crisis dragged the Republicans down in 2010 and 2012. Trump's approval ratings are low but this is misleading. The people who voted against him really, really hate him while the people who voted for him are milder in their support. And the Democrats, particularly minority leader Nancy Pelosi, are just as unpopular.

The Democrats have also spent the last year denigrating anyone who voted for Trump. Last September it was Clinton's "basket of deplorables". After the election, memes were flying around social media condemning anyone who voted for Trump as a racist and sexist. People were demanding that any Trump supporters remove themselves from their feeds. Now the Democrats expect that same group of people to support them. This is not a winning message.

The truth of the election is that it is really out of the Democrats' hands. The election will be a referendum on the performance of Trump and the Republicans. The strength of the economy and the overall satisfaction on health care are big factors. Trump made several big promises. If he's seen as keeping them and presiding over a strong economy then the Democrats are in trouble. If a recession hits or Trump involves us in an unpopular war then they will make gains.

Even their resistance can hurt them. If things go well then they will be seen as hurting progress and the Republicans will run against their obstructionism.

The bottom line here is that the 2018 Democratic wave might not happen at all and there's little they can do to change things

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