Did Tuesday’s election bring a blue wave, rebuking President Trump and his party? Or did the electorate send a mixed message by limiting Democratic gains?
Partisans on both sides are furiously spinning these competing narratives to make their team look victorious. However, an accurate understanding of what happened requires stepping back from the spin to look at the big picture, with some help from Political Science 101.
Election outcomes are a function of two factors: preferences and structure.
Preferences are the collective public mood. When citizens express their opinions by voting, which party did they prefer overall? Meanwhile, structural factors are all of the things that intervene between preferences and outcomes. The easiest example is the Electoral College in a presidential election. The majority preference might be for one candidate, but the rules of the game can result in the other candidate winning.
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Tuesday’s outcome was obviously a mixed bag. Democrats took control of the House, ending unified Republican government and hampering President Trump’s policy agenda for the next two years. However, Republicans gained seats in the Senate, enabling Trump to fill judicial vacancies with little push-back and preventing Congress from sending him Democratic-written bills.
However, public opinion was not ambiguous at all. It spoke with a clear voice against the president and his party.
The most compelling evidence of this is the popular-vote margin in the House races. When all of the votes are counted, Democrats will likely win by about 7%, a result as lopsided as the historic Republican wins of 1994 and 2010.
So why did fewer seats change hands this year than in the Republican wave years? That’s where structure comes in.
Because Republicans held a majority of state legislatures after the last Census year (2010), they controlled the federal redistricting process in most states. The result was a pro-Republican bias that required Democrats to win the national vote by an estimated 5-6% to take over the House. They ended up winning the vote by a landslide, and will yield the largest number of new seats for the party since 1974 – but the seat gain would have been much greater if the playing field were even.
Structure also explains why Republicans gained seats in the Senate despite an overall national preference for Democrats. As only one-third of Senate seats are contested in a given cycle, the playing field can tilt toward one party simply by virtue of which states have races.
And the map was the most lopsided we have seen in decades. Democrats were defending 26 Senate seats, while Republicans had just 9 at stake. Worse, only one Republican seat was in a state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, whereas 10 Democratic seats were in Trump states.
Knowledgeable analysts knew that Democrats faced a nearly impossible task, and it is no mark against their performance that they didn’t overcome those odds.
Stripped of partisan spin, the Senate outcome is easy to interpret: Democrats held every Clinton state and won nearly half of the Trump states. That result, though understandably disappointing to Democratic partisans, was only possible in a Democratic wave year.
Further down the ballot, the elections that were free from the national structural biases further corroborated the Democratic preference advantage. Democrats picked up seven Republican-held governorships and flipped at least six state legislative chambers. Notably, most of the high-profile ballot initiatives broke in the liberal direction, doing everything from raising the minimum wage in two conservative states to restoring voting rights to Florida’s ex-felons.
In fairness, outcomes are what determine the composition of the government, and the mixed results have important implications for Congress and the president. In fact, one might reasonably ask, “who cares about the popular vote? That and five dollars will get you a cup of coffee at the airport.”
But preferences matter for governing as well, as public opinion shapes the behavior of re-election-conscious presidents and members of Congress.
In a well-functioning representative democracy, it is crucial to form a clear picture of what message the public was trying to send, even if it got lost in the biases of our electoral system and geography. And on Tuesday, the message was unmistakable: it was a rebuke of the sitting president and his party as big as any we have seen in recent midterm elections.