What Do Midterms Tell Us About 2020?

different concepts - orange between apples

Surely the results from the midterms earlier this month can give us some sense of what to expect in the 2020 election, right? As Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast.”

The Final Midterm Results

This week, the last House race finally got called (CA-21, the Democrat won) and the runoff election for the final Senate seat was settled (Mississippi, the Republican won), so the midterms are essentially over.*

🔹The Democrats flipped 40 seats to take the House majority back with a commanding lead: 235 (D) – 200 (R).

🔹The net change in the Senate is minimal, despite a map that was heavily favored for the Republicans. At the start of the 115th Congress (Jan. 2017) the Senate was 52 (R) – 48 (D), and when the 116th Congress is sworn in next year, it’ll be 53 (R) – 47 (D).

🔹The Democrats received 9 million more votes than Republicans in the midterms. (Democrats have over 59M, Republicans had a touch over 50M.)

What That Means for 2020

I think Stuart Rothenberg at RollCall is spot on when it comes to comparing midterms to presidential elections:

Midterms tend to be referendums on the incumbent president, while each presidential election is a choice between nominees. But the existence of an alternative on the ballot makes a presidential year very different from a midterm year.

Yes, there are generalities that we can look at to see if they’ll be in play in 2020. For example, going into the midterms, Trump’s approval rating was under water, and exit polls suggest that a clear majority of voters don’t approve of his job performance. Considering the last two years, it is highly unlikely that he’ll ever be above 50%.

The big issues were the economy and healthcare. In 2018, the economy was good but voters weren’t feeling the effects of a good economy and felt negatively about the Republican tax bill. Healthcare was a big issue and a clear majority want to see big improvements in healthcare going forward. There’s no way of knowing right now what the big issues will be going into 2020.

If you want to look historically at previous midterms and how they were or weren’t indicative of the presidential election that followed, this article at Vox has a good section on that. (News flash: they generally weren’t indicative of the dynamics of the following election.)

If we accept that presidential election years have a very different dynamic than midterm years, what does that mean going forward? It means that even though Democrats voted in record numbers in 2016, even though we made major gains in turning the suburbs more blue, even though Florida always feels like it’s ready to turn blue and then disappoints us in the end (argh), that in the end, we can’t assume that any of these gains will be long-lasting.

I think the lesson we take from this is that if we want to elect an ocean of blue in 2020, we’re going to have to replicate and build on the monumental efforts we made to get our midterm gains. We cannot sit back on our laurels and assume that there is any momentum from the midterms.

Let’s take a short breather, dust ourselves off, and get back into the game.

* There is the curious case of North Carolina refusing to certify the NC-09 election result, which you can read about HERE.

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