Last month’s midterm election produced the sort of split-decision satisfying few.
Democrats, eager for a dramatic shift that didn’t come in early results but improved for national races after mail-in and absentee ballots were counted and close contests were eventually decided, turned off the television on election night and went to sleep without fanfare or celebration.
In the end, though, Democrats had their best national midterm performance for U.S. House seats in more than four decades.
Republicans took solace that, even while losing the House as expected, they expanded their margin in the Senate as also anticipated. The GOP additionally won marquee races in several high-profile states that were hotly contested, and generally performed according to pre-election polling and predictions despite losing support in suburban areas and among women.
Both major political parties, however, are likely to take away the wrong lessons.
A desire for a modest and moderating corrective adjustment guides those favoring back-and-forth shifts and results from low ideological loyalties, weak political affiliations, and centrist beliefs. Neither party seems inclined to accommodate those voters.
Self-identified independents with scant affinity or strong allegiance for either party, now a large and growing plurality of voters who actually decide national elections, tilted Democratic this time and backed a divided government. There’s no guarantee they’ll go all-in with one party again after doing so in 2016.
The mixed midterm outcome was the result of a standard “swing” to the opposition party rather than a massive “wave” Democrats hoped for and Republicans feared. Voter participation soared, a welcome change from the usually low off-year turnout, but was due to both parties exceeding ground-game expectations.
While total votes for Democrats were more than eight points higher than the Republican tally nationwide, the left continues to see its votes hyper-concentrated in specific areas, predominantly urban, where the largess is largely worthless. Gerrymandered districts, benefiting both sides depending on region, currently produce a notable edge for Republicans in House seats and many state legislatures. Key to future Democratic gains is the enhanced opportunity to favorably re-jigger district maps in states newly controlled by the party following the decennial census, adding future guaranteed wins.
In addition to reversing their fortunes in the House, Democrats also began to claw back some of the more than 1,100 state legislative seats throughout the country lost to Republicans during the Obama administration, re-capturing about one-third of them. Those wins, along with retaking some governorships, will be important to the party as it works to rebuild a localized political infrastructure and develop a “farm team” of elected officials to advance up the electoral ranks.
Early prognostications regarding the 2020 presidential contest are already proliferating, producing projections for a surprisingly competitive race. The upper industrial Midwest may again decide the outcome.
Nothing is certain, of course, and will ultimately depend on whom the two major parties each nominate and whether there is a strong independent competitor.
The 2020 presidential race will be arduous for candidates and voters alike. As many as 46 potential Democratic nomination contenders have expressed interest in competing, and a large number will ultimately share a super-sized debate stage. It could prove to be a mind-numbing blur.
No one knows whether President Trump will avoid indictment, impeachment or removal during the remainder of his first term, but chances are good he will – and again be nominated, should he seek to be, by a Republican Party he now controls. Whether sufficient voters in a split-screen nation can continue to countenance his primitive political style, renegade personal manner, and controversial positions remains to be seen.
The danger for the ascendant Democrats is mistakenly fantasizing that lurching further toward the extreme left by espousing economic proposals and other policies unacceptable to centrist voters provides a path to victory.
The political party or insurgent candidate failing to appeal to now-alienated and then-exasperated moderate and independent voters is likely destined to lose.