In U.S. midterm elections, the party out of power usually experiences Congressional gains during the first midterm election of a new President, particularly if the incumbent President's approval rating is less than 50 percent.
For example, at the 1994 midterm election, President Clinton had an approval rating of 46 percent and lost 53 seats in the House of Representatives. In 2010, the year I was first elected to Congress, President Obama had an approval rating of 45 percent and lost 63 seats in the House of Representatives. However, a higher presidential approval rating can help stave off Congressional losses during a midterm. In 2002, when I was Deputy Communications Director at the Republican National Committee, President George W. Bush had a 63 percent approval rating. During that midterm, the President's party gained six seats in the House of Representatives. That result, however, is somewhat of an anomaly. That election was shortly after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and can be viewed as a reflection of the uniqueness of that period in history. Throughout October 2018, President Trump's approval rating has fluctuated between 43 and 47 percent in most polls. In the most recent poll, conducted by NBC and the Wall Street Journal, Trump’s approval rating was at 47 percent, his highest number in that poll since taking office. Still, because Trump’s approval is below 50 percent, the data suggests Congressional Republicans will experience losses in the midterm elections, but there is more to the story.
Midterm Voter Intensity
Midterm elections in the U.S. attract much lower voter turnout than in presidential elections. Success in the midterms, therefore, depends upon the party’s ability to motivate and energize their base voters, making voter intensity critical. After a party’s nominee wins the presidency, the party in power tends to be the more complacent party, and party who lost the presidential election is generally more motivated to regain power.
Republican successes and three consecutive election cycles of Democrat defeats, especially Hillary Clinton’s loss to President Trump, has left Republicans in control. Not only do Republicans control the White House, they also have a slim 51-vote majority in the U.S. Senate and a 235-193 advantage in the U.S. House. At the state level, Republicans control 33 of the 50 Governor’s mansions and 67 of the 99 state legislative chambers, including control of both chambers in 32 states. In addition, President has named two Justices to the Supreme Court. Stung by widespread losses, Democrats are frustrated, angry and motivated.
Observers generally agree that the current political environment favors Democrats over Republicans. The environment is usually measured by a poll question that asks “Which generic Congressional candidate do you favor, Republican or Democrat?” The “generic ballot” in recent weeks has found Democrats to have anywhere from a 6 to 12-point advantage. For reference, in 2006 when Democrats took over the House from Republicans, Democrats had an average advantage in the generic ballot of 11.5 points over Republicans. In 2010, when Republicans won back control of Congress in President Obama's first midterm, they enjoyed an average generic ballot advantage of 9.4 points.
Voter intensity can also be measured by donor enthusiasm. In this category, Democrats have significantly outperformed Republicans in many key races. Democrats have raised 65 percent of total money for the House (excluding candidates that lost in primaries). Not only is this striking because Congressional Republicans have outraised Congressional Democrats in nearly every election cycle dating back to 1998, but also because Republicans have more incumbents, which provides an easier path to fundraising than for challengers.
A few factors in particular have helped Republicans reduce the Democrat’s ‘generic’ advantage. First, Republicans have benefited from the so-called “Kavanaugh effect.” Circumstances surrounding the nomination, hearings, and confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who served with me at the White House during George W. Bush’s Presidency, rallied the Democrat base, but is widely viewed as having motivated Republicans even more. Second, Republicans benefit from a strong economy, and President Trump’s rising approval rating. Further, it is quite common for undecided voters who lean toward one party to move toward their party as the election nears and the reality of their decision sinks in. While both parties exhibit this behavior, it disproportionately benefits Republicans this cycle since GOP voters have been more complacent.
Democrats must win 24 seats in the House to wrest control from the Republicans, and most observers believe that Republicans will lose between 30 and 50 seats this cycle. The Republican challenge is made more difficult due to the 40 House Republicans who are retiring—compared to 20 Democrats—leaving several competitive races in their wake. However, things are looking better for Republicans. The positive movement toward Republicans in recent weeks makes it possible that Republicans could hold the House, but that remains an uphill battle. Twenty-five Republican seats are in districts where Hillary Clinton won the presidential vote in 2016. Those 25 seats alone could provide the margin necessary for Democrats to regain control of the House. Several of those districts are represented by longtime incumbents who are well-suited to their electorate, such as my former colleague Pete Sessions who represents a battleground district in the Dallas area that voted for Hillary Clinton by a narrow 49%-46% margin. I’m not convinced Democrats will win all of the districts that favored Hillary Clinton, so they will have to win elsewhere as well.
The U.S. Senate appears likely to stay in Republican hands. Democrats have far more seats to defend, and several of the most competitive races against Democratic incumbents are in states such as North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana that President Trump carried handily over Hillary Clinton. I expect the Republicans to retain a majority in the Senate, and perhaps even expand their majority by 1-2 seats. While it is possible Democrats could win the Senate majority, it would require some political upsets, and I just don’t see that happening.
The Trump Effect
President Trump is ubiquitous. He dominates social media and the three 24/7 news networks. It goes without saying that President Trump and what voters think about President Trump will play a significant role in this election. I think it is helpful to analyze voters’ view of President Trump in terms of three related but generally separate categories: personality, policy, and disruption.
President Trump’s larger-than-life personality made him a celebrity in American life, and while it excites his supporters, it drives his opponents crazy. The President’s provocative and unorthodox use of Twitter, for example, has at times fueled his critics and caused consternation among his defenders. His bluntness stands in stark contrast to past presidents, which offends some and energizes others. The President’s opponents are highly motivated by what they see as his violation of presidential norms, but his supporters are delighted by his unconventional approach or focus instead on his policies and penchant for disruption.
From a policy standpoint, there were many unanswered questions about President Trump headed into his first term. Several of his high-profile policy stances, issues such as trade and immigration, were a departure from previous GOP Presidents. But nearly two years into his first term, President Trump’s policy actions have been largely consistent with Republican orthodoxy such as the corporate and individual tax cuts and the large-scale rollback of many of the Obama administration’s regulatory policies. Regardless of what correlation one might draw between policy and performance, the fact remains that consumer confidence and optimism skyrocketed when Trump was elected, and we are currently experiencing record economic growth and unemployment. The Senate has worked swiftly to confirm many of President Trump’s appointments to the federal judiciary, including two coveted seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. While a repeal of the Affordable Care Act failed by a single vote in the Senate and an infrastructure funding package has failed to gain traction in the Congress, most of President Trump’s supporters are pleased with his policies.
Fully understanding the Trump Presidency is impossible without factoring in that he won the election in large part because voters wanted to shock the political system and upset the status quo. Republican and Democrat leaders alike had failed to address what many American perceive as persistent problems such as a porous southern border with Mexico and unfavorable trade policies. President Trump has delivered on disruption: For decades, Presidents of both parties expressed their support for moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but President Trump was the one President who made it happen. Many observers would have warned against an American president meeting with the dictator of North Korea, but it is difficult to argue that his approach has been any less successful than his Republican or Democratic predecessors. President Trump has bucked the conventional wisdom of trade on both parties. He has relied on tariffs to punish nations with whom he disagrees and worked to renegotiate existing trade deals, while seeking out new trade deals with friends and allies such as the United Kingdom. Voters that voted for disruption—especially Republicans—got it, and they like the results.
Early voting has begun in some states, and two weeks from election day President Trump is still shaping the narrative: He has effectively seized upon the potential migration of thousands of Central Americans into the Southern United States—what he is calling the “Caravan Election”—as an opportunity to emphasize the Democrats weakness on the rule of law and their affinity for open border policies.
What If the Democrats Take the House?
How will a Democrat takeover of the House impact the Trump agenda and Trump presidency? If history is a guide, Democrat control of the House will not likely have a significant impact on the quantity of legislation that President Trump signs into law, but it will significantly change the substance and ideological profile of the legislation. Bipartisan legislation will be required. The most drastic change will be in the shift to the Democrat’s oversight and investigation-driven agenda.
I don’t expect the quantity of bills President Trump signs into law with a Democrat House to decrease significantly. The 115th Congress under President Trump has passed just 270 bills into law. This total ranks lower than any two-year period under the Obama presidency and far lower than the 385 bills passed during the 111th Congress and the first two years of President Obama’s first term. President Obama’s party lost control of the House during his first midterm, but during the 112th Congress, President Obama signed more bills into law with a Republican House and Democrats in control of the Presidency and the Senate than during the last two years of united GOP governance.
Bipartisanship will continue to rise—for better or worse—if the Democrats take the House. Despite the deep polarization of the electorate and the conventional wisdom about Washington being broken, bipartisanship is actually making a comeback under President Trump and the current Congress. Axios reports that 23.4% of the bills introduced by the House have been bipartisan, which is the most Congress has seen since 2005-2006. In the Senate, 25.7% of bills have been bipartisan, the highest seen since 2007-2008. And among bills that are signed into law, the 115th Congress boasts the highest percentage of bipartisan laws enacted since 2007-2008. If Democrats retake the House, all bills that become law will, by definition, be bipartisan.
Given President Trump’s reputation as a deal maker, it is entirely possible that a divided Congress could conceivably pass more pieces of legislation than one controlled entirely by one party. President Trump, one of the least ideological presidents in modern history, is likely to pursue a transactional, pragmatic approach that could produce more bipartisan results. However, the 2020 presidential election will start the day after the midterms and pose significant obstacles to more ambitious bipartisan legislation.
Much attention has been paid to the impact a Democrat victory in the midterms would have on legislation and policy, but the real change a Democrat victory could bring is regarding Congressional oversight and investigations. I served as a Senior Investigative Counsel on the House Government Reform Committee from 1997-1999 under then Chief Investigative Counsel and now Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA). I have seen firsthand the power of the gavel when it comes to investigations and the impact they can have, both good and bad, on the opposing party. A change in House leadership will produce all new committee chairs, with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) chairing Financial Services Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) chairing the Oversight Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) chairing the Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) chairing the Intel Committee. Democrats have already promised to and will aggressively use their committee oversight powers to thoroughly investigate the Trump Administration. They also have a long list of policy priorities, such as addressing drug prices, strengthening consumer protection laws, enacting restrictions on guns, increasing regulation on campaign finance, and overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, all of which they will pursue through investigations. And yes, despite the Democrat leadership’s attempts to squelch it, Democrats will find talk of and action on the impeachment of President Trump irresistible.
Tim Griffin is a Senior Counselor at Brunswick Group, based from our Washington, D.C. office. Tim is currently serving as lieutenant governor of Arkansas (Republican). He was previously elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served on the Ways and Means Committee, was Deputy Majority Whip for the Republican caucus, and was Vice Chair for Strategy and Communications at the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). These notes are his personal views.