Members Only | November 7, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Unpopular President Lost

Midterms are referendums whether or not Trump admits it.

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Today is the day when pundits, pollsters and politicos tell you what the midterm elections are supposed to mean. A lot of it will be very interesting. A lot of it will be meaningless bunk. For the most part, think Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation isn’t guaranteed to be right, but it’s probably the closest we’ll get to the truth.

Another way of putting this: beware of narratives. There were many before and there will be many after, and many more all the way until the next presidential election. Narratives are useful tools in creating the illusion of coherence out of a fantasia of incoherence, but even good-faith narratives distort political reality in ways that make it challenging, if not impossible, to govern ourselves. In my view, stories are worthless in and of themselves. They have meaning only and when they have utility.

So what’s the simplest and best explanation?

The president is unpopular, first and last. He has been unpopular for two years running. His unpopularity and his unpopular agenda are what drove many otherwise GOP-leaning voters in America’s suburbs to vote blue this time. The Democrats had been courting those voters since they went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The party’s investment in those districts paid off with Democratic control of the US House.

To be sure, unpopularity didn’t stop the Republicans from flipping three Senate seats, increasing their control of the upper chamber. Democratic incumbents Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Joe Donnelly (Indiana) and Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) all lost to GOP challengers. But the Senate is not a measure of popular consent.

And the odds of the red-state Democrats holding their ground in this polarized era were slim. The odds of Democrats increasing their Senate numbers were even slimmer. Some will argue Trump’s campaign rampage saved the Senate. That could be true. Malarkey is just as likely. (Yes, there are still races waiting to be decided, but even if, say, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson wins, it won’t change who controls the chamber.) I’m disappointed that the Democrats didn’t do better. Am I surprised? No.

You could say that if Trump is so unpopular, why didn’t the Democrats ride a “blue wave” the way they said they would? The president said something similar this morning, saying he defied history by keeping the Senate and minimizing losses.

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is the Democrats had to drive out the vote in such numbers as to overcome the GOP’s gerrymandered advantage. Whatever numbers they put up were going to look less impressive than they were. The numbers themselves do show a “blue wave.” But waves don’t matter. Winning matters.

Occam’s Razor: The Democrats control the House. The Republicans control the Senate. These are the best results liberals could expect, and they should be proud. That expectation is, moreover, in keeping with history. The party that wins the presidency almost always loses the House in the first election of any president’s first term.

Occam’s Razor: this year’s midterms were the same as nearly every midterm for the last century, a referendum on the president no matter who he is or what he does. Trump must now decide whether to heed the will of the American people or ignore it. Odds are he’ll ignore it. Indeed, in saying that he defied history, he’s ignoring it.

Do the midterms suggest anything about 2020? I don’t know and I would recommend ignoring anyone who says he does. Two years is a long time in politics, and given that Trump is Trump, I’m guessing we’ll experience approximately 9 billion news cycles between now and then. (Yes, to be honest, this awful president could be reelected; I see no reason to think otherwise at this point.) What’s interesting is what these midterms suggest about changes in the parties. We are witnessing a historic realignment.

While the Republicans refuse to grow their base of power, preferring instead to scare the bejesus out of grandma and grandpa, the Democrats are expanding their base of power to include not only the Great Lakes region, where Democrats up and down the ballot won handily last night, but states historically dominated by Republicans.

Though the Democrats lost senate seats in Missouri, North Dakota, and Indiana, in deindustrialized Midwestern states with older whiter populations relative to the rest of the country, they picked up one in Nevada, a state with a younger and more diverse population. That could be—stress: could be—a harbinger of things to come.

Beto O’Rourke lost to Ted Cruz, but he showed two things in coming so close: that the right candidate can compete in the heart of Texas and that the GOP’s grip on the Sun Belt may be waning. Same goes for Andrew Gillum—an African-American candidate for governor of Florida who lost by a hair. Same goes for Stacey Abrams—an African-American candidate for governor of Georgia, who’s in a race that’s still, as of this writing, too close to call. These are particular cases in a more general trend.

As the AJC’s Jay Bookman wrote this morning:

“You look at those numbers, and you look at what’s happening around the country, and it’s almost impossible to imagine where Republicans can now turn to reverse these trends. They are fighting a desperate rear-guard action against history, demographics and the actuarial tables, and against enemies that implacable, the inevitable can be put off only so long.”

Will “the inevitable” happen in 2020? I don’t know.

No one does.


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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.

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