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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

May 3: Midterms a Silver Lining To the Dark Clouds of 2016

In thinking about what’s ahead and what might have been, I offered a counterfactual take at New York:

It is perfectly natural for Democrats to think of the midterm “wave” election they are hoping for in November as representing a righteous repudiation of the particular characteristics of the 45th president — his constant lies and provocations, his manifest lack of respect for the rule of law, his perpetual racial and ethnic appeals, his chaotic approach to decision-making, and his oppressively omnipresent personality. But in fact, the kind of midterm backlash to the White House that appears to be shaping up is entirely normal, even if Trump is not.

To recapitulate: the party that controls the White House almost always loses House seats in midterm elections. There have been just three exceptions in the last century (in 1934, 1998, and 2002), all of them occurring when the president had unusually high job approval ratings and when something else unusual was going on (the Great Depression, for which Republicans were persistently blamed, in 1934; the impending impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998; and a security-conscious reaction to 9/11 in 2002). When the president’s party is in theory “over-exposed” in the House by recent success (e.g., the big Republican wins of 2010 and 2014), the odds of losses are even higher. And while there is a less systematic carryover to Senate elections because of the high variability of the particular “class” of 33 or 34 senators up in any one midterm, an anti-White House midterm “wave” affects those outcomes, too — particularly with partisan voter polarization steadily increasing.

So had Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz or John Kasich won in 2016, we’d almost certainly be looking at a very good Democratic midterm performance this year, albeit probably one with lower levels of fear and anger among the Democratic voters flocking to the polls.

And the flip side of that reality is plain as well: Had Hillary Clinton eked out an Electoral College victory in 2016, we would almost certainly be looking at a very good Republican midterm in 2018.

The size of that hypothetical GOP advantage when it comes to the House or down-ballot races is debatable, and largely dependent on things we can never know. Presumably the economy would be doing relatively well, as it was in much of Barack Obama’s second term. But in the partisan climate that existed before the 2016 election (Lock her up! Lock her up!), and that would have been intensified by divided control of the federal government and the certainty of perpetual investigations and accusations aimed at a chief executive the GOP loves to hate — the odds of a President Hillary Clinton being able to accomplish a whole lot, or enjoying robust job approval ratings, would have been vanishingly low. And that would have very likely translated into at least modest, and perhaps larger than modest, House losses, and consolidation of the already large GOP advantages in governorships and state legislatures (a big deal as the next decennial round of redistricting grows nigh).

The Senate landscape for 2018 in a new Clinton administration would have been potentially catastrophic for Democrats. As FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich observes, this is the most vulnerable Democrats have been in a Senate cycle since at least the 1980s:

“2018 could be not just bad, but a veritable armaggeddon for Senate Democrats. They should count their lucky stars that their worst-case map looks like it’s going to coincide with their best-case turnout environment.”

Even so, matching their best post-1990 Senate overperformance (in 2012) would leave Democrats with a net loss of two seats this autumn. And if the wind was blowing the other way, as it undoubtedly would have been had Clinton won in 2016, Democrats could have lost virtually all their red-state senators (heavily concentrated in the class up for reelection this year), leaving the party at a disadvantage in the upper chamber for a long time.

“One bad election cycle for this class could virtually eliminate red-state Democrats from the Senate in one fell swoop. That would give Republicans something like a 20-seat majority in the upper chamber — probably too wide for Democrats to overcome in any single future election cycle. Our current sense that the Senate could switch hands in any given election year would be no more, potentially emboldening the Republican majority to pass more conservative policies. In order to regain control, Democrats would not only need to rebuild their standing in red states from the ground up but also sustain that success over multiple election cycles.”

Add in some marginal considerations like the fact that with a Clinton presidency Jeff Sessions would not have resigned a Senate seat Democrats subsequently captured in a strange special election, and the “Clinton won” scenario could have endangered even routine Senate confirmations for her and possibly for future Democratic presidents. And a bad 2018 midterm for Democrats could have made confirmation of a Supreme Court appointment — the big, permanent prize associated with control of the White House — extremely difficult and perhaps even impossible.

Democrats’ fundamental problem in the Senate, of course, is the institution’s small-state bias; given the current demographic foundations of both parties, there is a built-in GOP advantage. Rakich estimates that all other things being equal, Republicans should control 62 Senate seats. It is rarely discussed, but the same factors give Republicans a natural majority in state governments, which in turn have a disproportionate control over U.S. House and state legislative redistricting. All the interminable and redundant talk about Democrats “collapsing” outside Washington to a considerable extent reflects an illusion caused by the disproportionate power of conservative states. At the moment, a fifty-fifty national electorate logically means about a sixty-forty GOP margin in the Senate and in state governments controlled.

In that context, Democrats really need a great 2018 midterm, both to avoid an almost irreversible disadvantage in the Senate, and to give it a fighting chance to do well during the momentous redistricting cycle just on the horizon. For reasons that have almost nothing to do with her leadership abilities and other sterling qualities, a President Clinton would have made a great 2018 midterm for her party extremely unlikely, and a debilitating defeat quite possible. (The same would have been true, to be clear, with a President Sanders or a President Biden). A President Trump could make an inevitably bad midterm for his party really bad.

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