By now a lot of professional Democrats—campaign consultants, party leaders and the like—are probably wishing they’d never heard the term “big, blue wave.” It set expectations so high for the next election that almost any outcome short of a total rout of the GOP will go into the record books as a disappointment.
If the parties fight to a draw—GOP ends up in control on both sides of the Capitol with a diminished majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and better numbers than it currently enjoys in the U.S. Senate, and the number of Republican governors and GOP-led state legislative chambers does not change appreciably (which is how things would probably turn out were the election held today)—then the Democrats will have been seen to have suffered a major defeat.
Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and other leading Democrats had hoped to nationalize the election by making it a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first two years in office. They may still get the opportunity to do that—Trump, as the events on the U.S. border with Mexico reminds us, is often his own worst enemy. Nevertheless, most of the news is good as the economy has roared back to life and created enough jobs that the unemployment rate has dropped to 3.8 percent, the lowest in nearly a decade.
With the nation experiencing a long-overdue economic recovery, the idea that all politics is local, as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass. famously said, may be outdone by all politics being of the pocketbook. If people are voting, as Ronald Reagan urged them to in 1980, on whether they’re better off now than they were two years ago, Trump may win that argument hands down.
His policy successes are reflected in the poll numbers. The presidential job approval number is holding steady in the mid-40s, depending on the poll and the methodology. And if he’s doing better among voters judged likely to vote in the next election, as appears to be the case compared to his approval among registered voters or all adults, so much the better for Republican candidates for Congress who choose to stand close to him rather than staying as far away from him as possible while remaining in the frame.
Exhibit A for this proposition is in South Carolina’s solidly Republican 1st congressional district where former governor and multi-year incumbent Mark Sanford, who proudly considered himself a “never-Trumper,” was defeated in the first round of balloting by a St. Rep. Katie Arrington. Her campaign centered on support for the president’s agenda and her promise to work to support it in Congress rather than going on television, as Sanford had done repeatedly, to criticize Trump.
That the president weighed in with a last-minute endorsement of Arrington over Sanford may have pushed her over 50 percent of the vote, obviating the need for a run-off, but he was only piling on where the die had already been cast.
The news in other states is, for Democrats, just as bleak. Progressives are winning primaries in suburban seats where mainstream Democrats should be expected to perform better. The American suburbs don’t like radicals and it’s the suburbs where the balance of power is held. If they want change, it happens, which is why Republicans should find comfort in the latest right track, wrong direction numbers suggesting many Americans are satisfied enough with the way things are going that November 2018 will not be a change election.
According to the latest Gallup Poll, voters now happy with the direction the country is headed comprise 38 percent of the electorate, one point higher than the historical average for the question, first asked in 1979. Thanks in part to good job numbers and a visibly stronger economy, that number jumped nine points between April and May of this year, up from 28 percent.
Who are the voters who are increasingly happy? Most of them are Republicans, but there are also a considerable number of self-described independents (a bloc that in truth may include a number of former Republicans who left the party over Trump) and they, we have been told in election after election, hold the keys to the kingdom in their hands. The nation is still closely divided and, as commentator Michael Barone has explained frequently and in detail, the trend over recent elections has been toward more straight-ticket voting and away from ticket splitting.
Another indicia is the generic ballot test. On that point, where respondents are asked which party they would vote for in the upcoming congressional elections, the split is now, according to a recent Monmouth University poll, seven points, Democrats on top of the Republicans.
On the surface that may look bad for the GOP, but that figure represents a decline by the Democrats from a lead that was in double digits earlier this year. At one point, the two parties were actually running even and, reality being what it is, a seven-point lead on the generic ballot is not enough to sustain a “big blue wave.”
On Election day in 1994, when the Republicans were on their way to a sweeping, historic, once or twice in a generation victory in the battle for control of Congress, the Democrats were still leading the generic ballot by a couple of points.
The outcome of the November 2018 election remains uncertain. There’s a lot of time left between then and now for either party to mess their own nest in the minds of the voters but, as things are now, all the things that need to happen for the Democrats to meet or exceed the expectations they set as this election season was getting under way aren’t materializing.