Most pundits don’t need opinion polls to predict that Democrats will score major gains in November’s midterm elections. But the predictions of a Democratic takeover of Congress are premature, likely wrong and growing increasingly unlikely.
First, the history.
Looking at the modern political era (post-President Harry Truman, inclusive), the average loss for the new president’s party is 26 House seats in the first midterm election, while the Senate average is only two.
But simply finding the mean doesn’t tell the entire story, according to Jim Ellis, who analyzes election data for major corporations, associations and legislative advocacy firms. He is president of Ellis Insight LLC and a columnist with InsideSources.
He makes these points:
• The six Democratic presidents — Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — have averaged a 35-seat loss, while the average GOP downturn for its five post-World War II elected presidents — Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush — is only 15 seats.
• The averages are skewed because three Democratic presidents — Johnson, Clinton and Obama — saw massive losses during their first midterm. Democrats under Johnson lost 47 House seats in 1966, while 54 were dropped under Clinton in 1994, and 64 when Obama had been the nation’s chief executive for two years in 2010. These numbers contrast greatly when compared to the three Republican presidents losing the most seats in their first midterms: Reagan, 26; Eisenhower, 19; and Nixon, 12.
• While all presidents’ political parties have absorbed House seat losses during the first midterm vote after a president’s initial election, the same is not true for Senate elections. In fact, in four presidents’ first midterm (Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush), the “in party” actually added Senate seats. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan saw two-seat Senate gains, while Nixon and Bush each found Republicans adding one.
In 2018, Democrats face a major challenge in taking over the Senate. They must defend 25 of the 33 in-cycle Senate seats. That alone makes it unlikely the GOP will lose control.
In the House, Democrats need a net gain of 24 House seats to obtain a one-seat majority. But Ellis notes that because the trend indicates a low number of open seats and incumbents retention ratios are high, Democratic prospects may not be as good as opinion polls have led Americans to believe.
To make matters more questionable, Alex Roarty of Tribune News Service reports that a leading Democratic group, Priorities USA, is warning party leaders they could squander a strong political climate in 2018 if they don't start to emphasize pocketbook issues over loose and unfocused critiques of President Donald Trump.
According to internal polling by the super PAC, the president’s approval rating climbed to 44 percent in the first week of February, compared to 53 percent who disapprove. That mirrors Trump's improving position in public polls.
In November, the same survey found his approval rating at 40 percent, with 54 percent disapproving.
The group's survey also showed the Democratic Party's generic ballot advantage had shrunk, with 46 percent preferring Democrats to 42 percent for Republicans.
The memo says that a broad range of metrics show the political climate is still favorable for Democrats. But it also makes an unambiguous diagnosis for Trump's recent rise: Democrats this year have stopped focusing on economic and health care issues, topics that demonstrably hurt his approval during his first year in office.
"While still on track for a successful November, the extent of Democratic gains will be blunted if Democrats do not re-engage more aggressively in speaking to the economic and health care priorities of voters," the memo stated.
As much as the outcome on issues such as immigration could be key in the months between now and November, concluding that Republicans are doomed is a mistake. And so is underestimating Donald Trump’s ability to surprise.