Can we really expect a blue-wave election in November, with Democrats taking back the House and even possibly the Senate?
On the one hand, there are some encouraging portents. Since the 1840s, the president’s party has lost seats in 41 of 44 midterm elections. The pattern has been for the out party to pick up something like 25 seats in the first off-year election after a new president takes office. Trump is of course far less popular than most of his predecessors. And Democratic activism is at a fever pitch.
On the other hand, we have a level of voter suppression unprecedented since the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ― purges of the rolls; needlessly stringent ID requirements; games played with polling places and their hours; extreme gerrymandering; and questions about whether systems will be hacked — either by the Russians or by Trumpian locals.
According to the Brennan Center, which carefully tracks this mischief, 13 states have added restrictive voter ID requirements since 2010, 11 have new laws making it harder to register, and six cut back on early voting or voting hours. Many of these are the same states.
In addition, according to David Daley’s indispensable Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count, seven Republican-controlled states resorted to extreme gerrymandering for House districts (and also state legislative seats) after the 2010 census, including key swing states such as North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Arizona.
As a consequence, Republicans won just 52 percent of the Ohio popular vote for Congress in 2012, but garnered 12 of that state’s 16 congressional seats. In closely divided Michigan, they took nine of the state’s 14 seats.
So will the combination of voter suppression and gerrymandering abort the supposed blue wave? I think not. Here are the counterforces:
First, there are plenty of vulnerable House seats in states that were not subject to recent voter suppression or gerrymandering efforts. By my count, there are at least 40 such seats, and Democrats need to flip only 23 to take back the House.
There are dozens of Republican seats in play in states such as California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Oregon, Minnesota and more, where voting systems are basically honest, and there have even been measures to make it easier to vote.
Second, extreme gerrymandering, as I’ve previously noted, can backfire ― because it seeks to pack Democrats into a few seats and spread the presumed Republican voters widely to capture the maximum possible number of seats. But in a wave year, there aren’t enough Republican voters to go around, and designer seats are suddenly at risk.
In Michigan, for example, the average Republican member of Congress won their House seat with 57.7 percent of the vote, according to Daley. In a wave year, that’s a flippable margin. Indeed, two Republican-held Michigan seats, the 8th and 11th congressional districts, are considered seriously in play, and three others are potentially vulnerable.
In heavily gerrymandered Ohio, two Republican House seats, the 1st district and the 12th, are in play. We will get a preview of just how vulnerable these gerrymandered seats are and how effective voter suppression is, on Aug. 7. There will be a special election for a vacant seat in Ohio’s 12th, which takes in the suburbs and working class towns north of Columbus. Trump carried the district in 2016 by 11 points, but polls show the Republican candidate only barely ahead.
Further, voter mobilization can offset voter suppression, and all signs point to a banner year for voter activism on the Democratic side.
Polls on the relative enthusiasm and interest in the election point to a wide gap that favors Democrats. Even better for Democrats is that voters say they are increasingly inclined to vote Democratic for Congress as a way of containing Trump. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll in June found that voters, by a 25-point margin, said they’d be more likely to support an anti-Trump congressional candidate.
If you look at special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and Trump’s deepening woes on multiple fronts, this will all come to a head, in a harmonic convergence, on the eve of the November election.
Interestingly, political scientists who study election trends conclude, almost unanimously, that turnout is a somewhat overrated factor in off-year elections, especially the premise that turning out “the base” is a key factor.
Statistically, off-year turnout falls off dramatically from turnout in presidential years, when interest in the presidential race provides focus and drama, but is historically stable within a fairly narrow range from the high 30s to low 40s.
Could this year be different? If you look at the loathing of Trump among Democrats and the heightened interest among all voters, especially those in the Democratic base, notably blacks, Latinos, women and the young, then quite possibly.
Even if the political scientists are right, and base turnout doesn’t rise that much, swing voters are also highly likely to break for the Democrats. Each time I read the projections of the respected Cook Report, a few more seats have slipped from leaning Republican to toss-up, or from toss-up to leaning Democrat.
Now, the best news of all for Democrats is that Trump has promised to go on the road, “six or seven days a week,” to campaign for endangered Republican candidates. In all but hardcore conservative districts, this is likely to backfire as voters look to Democratic candidates to rein in Trump.
Even the Senate looks like it could be in play. In the most recent polls, Democrats are now leading in two Republican-held seats ― Jacky Rosen over Dean Heller in Nevada, and Kyrsten Sinema over Martha McSally in Arizona. Phil Bredesen leads Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee in some polls as well, although he is still well behind in others.
There are four Democrat-held seats at risk, in Florida, Indiana, North Dakota and Montana. (Joe Manchin in West Virginia, sometimes considered at risk, is now well ahead.) If Democrats can hold the at-risk seats, and pick up two GOP seats, they take the senate 51-49. Picking up three would allow them to lose one Democratic incumbent.
As Donald Trump comes into swing districts where Republican incumbents are vulnerable, Democrats should greet him with flowers.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His new book is Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?