With the Democrats having won the House of Representatives, and forecast to gain 37 seats (there are currently 14 uncalled races), there is some confusion about what this means. And there is also some debate over what it might indicate for the future of Trump and his party.
Many have pointed to the fact that the president’s party usually loses seats in the House in the midterm elections, and that therefore this loss may be just the normal workings of politics. But it is not so easy to lose seats when the economy is doing as well as it is today: unemployment is at a half-century low (3.7 percent), with low inflation, and real (inflation-adjusted) wages are finally showing significant growth.
Republicans point to the Democrats’ loss of 63 seats in 2010, under President Obama, to make the current defeat look good. But this is not an appropriate comparison: in that election, the economy was just recovering from its worst recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment was at 9.4 percent, and millions of people had lost not only their jobs but also their homes.
A better comparison for the current midterm election is 1998, with Bill Clinton in the White House. Unemployment at that time was at 4.5 percent. The Democrats actually gained five seats in the House. And Clinton himself was deep in the midst of his own troubles: the month after that election, he became only the second U.S. president in history to be impeached.
The economy normally counts for a lot in midterm elections. In some elections there can be events that overwhelm the impact of the economy. In his first term, George W. Bush actually presided over negative job growth, the first president since the Great Depression to do so. But in his midterm election of 2002, he managed to push all the bad news out of the media with a massive public relations blitz leading up to the Iraq War. So the Republican Party picked up eight House seats, and kept the Congress.
But there was no war or major event that dominated this election cycle. In fact, Trump did his best to make himself the main issue―his modus operandi since the 2016 race. Responding to the suggestion that, with unemployment at 3.7 percent, he should speak about the economy, he said, “sometimes it’s not as exciting to talk about the economy.”
For Trump, “exciting” means capitalizing on anger, hatred, racism, and fear. And he campaigned furiously to stir up all of these demons in those who would listen, while lying up a storm, trying to portray a caravan of poor, unarmed Central American refugees as if it were the Chinese army about to roll tanks across our southern border.
It didn’t work, and the Republicans lost the House. The Democrats also picked up seven governors, wiping out most of the gains (11 governors) that Republicans had won in that important arena over the past nine years.
The Republicans are projected to gain two seats in the Senate, but that is in large part a structural problem. This is a legislative chamber where 20 percent of the country (disproportionately rural) can elect the majority, and we have an increasingly polarized rural-urban divide (which Trump has done his best to widen). It’s going to take some extra work to bring democracy to this institution. Not to mention bringing democracy to the presidential election system, where Trump lost by 2.8 million votes.
In fact, the Republicans rely heavily on voter suppression, gerrymandering, and overall disenfranchisement in order to rule this country. The big increase in voter turnout on Tuesday, for a midterm election, was encouraging. But in the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. ranked 26th of 32 OECD countries (a group of mostly high-income nations) in voter participation. We have many laws, rules, and practices that put us near the bottom of the heap. When these are changed, the chances of right-wing minority rule will fall precipitously.
The Democrats’ victory in the House is important not only in the immediate sense that it will provide a check on Trump but also because it could mark the beginning of the end of this nightmare. Trump’s strategy for political survival (which appears to be practically his only concern) is to continuously throw red meat to his supporters. Republicans’ fear of this loyal base limits defections that could potentially lead to his impeachment (in the House) and more importantly his conviction in the Senate. This strategy of focusing almost completely on his base makes him different from any previous president, and indeed most leaders in the world, who generally prefer to expand their political base by appealing to at least some voters outside of their hard-core supporters.
But this strategy also hurts his party and his own chances for reelection, by dragging both him and the Republicans further down to a permanent and shrinking minority of support. This can be seen in the demographics of Tuesday’s vote, as the Republicans lost white suburban voters, women, and Latinxs, and relied more heavily on older white males.
Trump’s loss of the House was the first big step down a political mudslide. There will be more over the next two years.