Midterm elections: Can Republicans weather the storm in 2018?

Release Date: January 29, 2018

BUFFALO, N.Y. — James Campbell, PhD, is a UB Distinguished Professor of Political Science at the University at Buffalo. He is an expert in campaigns and elections, American political parties and election forecasting. In 2016, he published his fourth book, titled “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.”

Campbell gives his thoughts on the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

Importance of the 2018 midterm elections:

"If you look at the presidential ratings, it’s usually a good barometer of the public’s mood for the in-party. There are two things involved in the change of midterm elections. To some extent, it’s a referendum on the in-party’s performance and to some extent it depends on how well the in-party has done in the previous election."

Can Republicans weather the storm in 2018? They did in 2016:

"Republicans who are in the House, the Senate or governor’s chairs around the country, did not have much help from their party when they last ran. House members ran in 2016 with a very unpopular presidential candidate, who was not able to get a majority of the popular vote. So if Trump was anything, he was, in general, kind of a drag on the votes of Republicans in 2016. So we shouldn’t expect many losses because of that.

"Senate Republicans last ran in 2012 when Obama was re-elected, so most Republicans didn’t get much help from Mitt Romney’s candidacy. So the crop of congressional Republicans up in 2018 won’t suffer from losing support of having a popular presidential candidate previously heading the ticket."

On the other hand….

"If you look at the second component of midterm elections, and that’s the referendum on the performance of the in-party. This looks pretty bleak for Republicans. President Trump’s approval rating in Gallup at this point is in the mid to high 30 percent range. You would expect a presidential approval rating around 50 percent or better at this point.

"We’ve seen in the past, the only way the in-party has been able to avoid losses in midterm elections is if the president has been very popular at the midterm. We have two cases of that; Bill Clinton in 1998 when the Democrats were able to pick up a few seats in that election and his approval rating was in the mid 60’s. And George W. Bush in 2002, when his approval ratings were in the mid to high 60s at that point.

"Those were the only times since Franklin Roosevelt’s 1934 midterm election, in which the president’s party has actually avoided losing some seats. Based on Trump’s approval rating, there is good reason to expect significant Republican losses in House seats."

Will the Democrats take back the House?

"If we look at prominent handicapping of individual House races around the country, at this point the Republicans have 39 House seats in trouble and the Democrats only have nine House seats in trouble. So that’s a 30 seat advantage for the Democrats.

"Historically, this only gets worse for the in-party. What I’ve found is that parties can expect to lose five seats, for every four seats that are in trouble. Since Democrats only need 24 seats to regain majority in the House, this looks like it’s within their grasp — maybe more likely than not."

Republicans have good shot at winning the Senate:

"In the Senate, Democrats are defending 24 seats and Republicans are only defending eight. Even though Democrats need to only gain two Senate seats, they have so many seats to defend and Republicans could potentially knock off a few Democratic incumbents which would make the two-seat gain for Democrats much more difficult.

"In terms of the handicapping, Democrats have four Senate seats in trouble, while only three Republican seats are in trouble. We have a long way to go, but it looks more likely that the Republicans will hold the Senate. That’s a very tentative forecast. It’s more of a reading where things stand at the moment."

There are two kinds of midterm elections:

"What we’ve seen is that there are two kinds of midterm elections. Beginning in the mid-1980s, we went through a lot of midterm elections where the congressional changes were minimal, in single digits in the House for many of those years.

"I think we have a hollow-out center of competiveness that are pretty well in the hands of the Democratic side and pretty much in the hands of the Republican side. Because of that, you get a lot of status quo elections. But if you have a substantial wave, you sweep in a lot more change seats. You’re affecting the elections not just in the competitive middle, but now you’ll have Democrats taking Republican seats or Republicans taking Democrats seats.

"In 2006 and 2010, we had substantial Republican gains. I think we might see something approaching that (this year). In 2010, we had something like a 60-seat swing. It was one of the biggest swings in modern election history for the Republicans. I don’t see quite that happening this time for the Democrats, but the Democratic gains are going to be substantial."

Will Trump hurt Republicans running this year?

"The reason why I don’t think it will be in a 40-seat range change in the House, a lot of these Republicans survived in 2016 when they had the top of the ticket a candidate who was very controversial.

"Trump was not only controversial for Independents and Democrats, but he was controversial amongst many Republicans too. He wasn’t helpful for a lot of areas of the country for Republicans and they were able to survive that anyway. I don’t think there are many Republican candidates who have to count on help from the top of the ticket. They can survive on their own, or at least weather the storm of Trump’s tweets."

Will motivated Democrats bring a higher voter turnout?

"I expect the turnout to be a little bit higher than some midterm elections in the past. I don’t see it will be a large change. I think what we tend to see, is the turnout effect is not an across-the-board rise or drop – it’s the differential between one party and the other.

"A lot of Democrats are incensed and they want to strike back at Trump and avenge Clinton’s loss. So I think they’ll be particularly motivated.

"You’ll also see some of that on the Republican side, a lot of people coming to the defense of Trump, thinking that the media has not played fairly with him or mischaracterize what he says. I also think you’ll get some Republicans, disenchanted and upset with the party’s leadership or that they haven’t accomplished more in Congress or with the president."

Democrats and Republicans both look to rally their parties:

"I think some of those may be dispirited Republicans. A lot of the election will depend on the ability of Republicans to get other Republicans energized.

"A lot of them came out in the end of the last election for Trump. A lot of them thought Trump was terrible, but in the end it was a choice, and the choice was between Trump and Clinton. Between the two, they held their nose and voted for Trump. They won’t have to do that now in this midterm election. The midterm elections don’t bring anywhere close to the same turnout as a presidential election."

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Doug Sitler
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drsitler@buffalo.edu