With about six months until the 2018 midterms, the conventional wisdom is that Democrats are going to take advantage of President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings and traditional voter apathy during non-presidential elections to take back one or both houses of Congress.
For sure, there are a number of positive signs for Democrats. Each of the nine Congressional special elections held since Donald Trump’s victory have seen Democrats pick up votes, with an average swing of 15 points. This result would flip dozens of seats in November should it occur across the board.
Republicans lost support in every special election since Trump became president https://t.co/0xnVGjrlOm— The New York Times (@nytimes) April 29, 2018
Democrats have also held a substantial edge in polling a generic ballot, an edge that’s been as high as 13 points. Finally, midterm elections are traditionally a time when voters correct for previous elections, as the last four times the House has changed hands have all taken place during a midterm, and the party out of the White House won.
However, a Democratic takeover of the House is not a given. It’s generally difficult for an opposition party to retake one of the houses of Congress, and there are signs particular to this election that should be especially troubling for Trump opponents. Democrats will need to flip 23 seats to take the House, and two seats to take the Senate. Can they? Here are five signs they might not:
There’s a very good reason Barack Obama made undoing gerrymandering, the process of drawing congressional districts to ensure they stay controlled by one party, a priority for his post-presidential career.
Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures every ten years, and 2010 saw Democrats lose hundreds of seats at the state level. As a result, current districts are heavily gerrymandered along racial and political lines to benefit Republicans, jamming Democratic votes together in cities already prone to vote for Democrats.
"To attain a bare majority, Democrats would likely have to win the national popular vote by nearly 11 points. "— Larry Schweikart (@LarrySchweikart) April 30, 2018
From Brennan Center: "Extreme Gerrymandering & the 2018 Midterm" by Laura Royden, Michael Li, and Yurij Rudensky.
One estimate from the Brennan Center for Justice holds that Democrats will need to win the nationwide House vote by 10.6 percent to take the House, a result that hasn’t happened since 1974, three months after Richard Nixon resigned. Other analyses have a lower number Democrats will need to hit nationwide, about 7 percent.
National polls show the Democrats edge dwindling
That 10.6 percent edge Democrats would need doesn’t sound like a problem, given the past year’s special election results, along with generic ballot polling. But that number has dropped precipitously for Democrats over the last few months.
A poll in mid-April from ABC and the Washington Post showed that advantage was just four points among registered voters, though it was still ten points when that field was widened.
That doesn't look THAT dire for Democrats, right? They'll probably be fine. (I actually believed this–at least in 2014–which is maybe why I don't obsessively track public generic ballot average shifts as much as some people.) pic.twitter.com/zuDsAa2i6k— Xenocrypt (@xenocryptsite) April 25, 2018
Four other polls have the Democratic lead at just five points, down from highs of 15 points earlier in 2018 and going back to 2017. There also polls indicating that millennial support of Democrats has dropped nine points in the last two years, though it’s still appreciably higher than support for Republicans.
These numbers are likely to swing both up and down depending on the day-to-day fortunes of the Trump administration, and if the lower number of a nationwide win holds, it might be enough for Democrats to squeak out a win—if everything goes their way.
Top-two lockouts in CA
Given that every seat around the country is likely to be hugely important to the House changing hands, Democrats might have a major problem brewing in California. In June 2010, California voters passed Proposition 14, which made most non-presidential elections in the state top-two primaries. This puts all primary candidates—Republican, Democrat, and third party—on the same ballot, with the two who receive the most primary votes moving on to the general election.
This system has resulted in a number of elections where one party (usually Republicans) is “locked out” of the general election, with write-in votes not allowed.
For 2018, there are as many as 60 Democrats running for the 14 Republican House seats in the state. At least three, CA 39, 48, and 49 are looking like good opportunities for Democratic pickups, but each seat has over a dozen candidates running for two spots—including multiple competitive Republicans.
The closer we get to CA's 6/5 primary, the more I'm convinced: high odds Dems botch/get "locked out" of *at least* one top-two primary in a Clinton/R seat.— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) April 30, 2018
Analysts believe there is a considerable danger that because of the glut of candidates, Republicans could lock Democrats out of races in districts where Democrats actually won a majority of votes.
Not every Republican candidate will self-destruct like Roy Moore
Democrats have justifiable confidence in their ability to pick up difficult seats thanks to winning a Senate seat in Alabama and a House seat in a conservative Pennsylvania district. But these elections had extremely qualified Democrats running against questionable Republicans, including the Roy Moore fiasco in Alabama. Even with the unceasing sexual harassment and assault allegations against Moore, he still lost by only 22,000 votes.
BREAKING- Judge Roy Moore files lawsuit claiming political conspiracy against him.— Nick Valencia (@CNNValencia) April 30, 2018
The other Democratic flip was in the Pennsylvania 18th, where Republican candidate Rick Saccone ran a campaign that expressly paralleled Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency. And despite controversies regarding his advocacy of torture, his support of Roy Moore, and spending public money as a state senator, Saccone only lost by 650 votes.
Democrats around the country are unlikely to face nominees as controversial as Moore and Saccone, and many will be running against entrenched incumbents who already have an advantage.
The Senate is still a big problem
Even if Democrats are able to take the House back, the Senate map is a particularly hard one in 2018. Of 36 seats up for election in November, including two special elections, Democrats already hold 25. Ten are in states that Donald Trump won, and early polling indicates many are at risk.
At least five of the “Trump ten” show a deficit for the incumbent Democrat running against either a named or generic opponent, and several other races are very close.
So while Democrats have a good chance of taking seats in Arizona and Nevada (and possibly Tennessee), Republicans could actually gain ground in the Senate while losing the House, further entrenching the partisan warfare that’s plagued Congress for decades.