Is the 2018 Democratic Wave Receding?

The Donkey Party awaits a wave that’s still likely but too far in the distance to discern clearly. Photo-Illustration: Daily Intelligencer; Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images

In America’s hothouse political environment, people overreact to single events all the time. The latest special election or primary; the latest poll; the latest over-the-top boast or cry of panic from a party leader — you can be sure multiple confident predictions of future political trends will emanate from multiple voices, only to be ignored or walked back when the next big thing happens.

There already seems to be an overreaction under way to the results of four state primaries on May 8, and especially to a potential Republican catastrophe that did not occur: a West Virginia Senate nomination for renegade ex-con and all-around eccentric Don Blankenship. Yes, had Blankenship won, Democrats’ slim chances of defying one of the worst Senate landscapes in history and taking back control of that chamber would have gone up significantly. And Republicans are now moving the goalposts to make Senate control part of the definition of a successful year for the Donkey Party, as shown by this remark from conservative activist Terry Schilling:

For the Democrats to truly ride a “blue wave”, they would need to recapture both the House and the Senate. And, despite the hype, math is not on their side for either objective.

Now Axios seems to be accepting that dubious premise in a piece with the highly suggestive headline: “Reality Check: Anti-Trump Midterm Wave Could Be More of a Ripple”:

[The midterms] probably won’t be a wave of historic proportions, based on Cook Political Report’s latest predictions. At best, it could allow [Democrats] to win the House while barely shifting the Senate at all.

There’s no universally accepted definition of a “wave election,” but every definition is usually characterized by party gains, not some arbitrary objective like control of one or both congressional chambers. The most frequently cited definition of a “wave” is from veteran election forecaster Stu Rothenberg: an election where there is a net gain or loss of 20 House seats. He doesn’t include Senate seats in his definition at all, for the very good reason that only a third of that chamber is at stake in any given election, which means the partisan landscape can vary enormously. The one for 2018 is so bad for Democrats that actual losses this year are entirely consistent with a national “wave” that delivers the House gavel to Nancy Pelosi, as David Wasserman recently pointed out:

So it makes sense to put the Senate aside in discussions of a November “wave” or “trickle” for Democrats.

The other phenomenon to which there has arguably been an overreaction has been the positive shift for Republicans in early 2018 in both the president’s approval ratings (a big factor in shaping midterm “waves”) and in the generic congressional ballot (the poll question simply asking voters which party they want to control the House) as compared to the last quarter of 2017. In retrospect, those terrible numbers for Trump (approval ratings down into the 30s) and his party (frequently a double-digit deficit in the generic ballot) were a brief departure from a relatively stable public opinion landscape that have made a reversion to the mean look exciting to Republicans.

From a longer perspective, things look different. Trump’s approval ratings have not, so far, made some sort of ever-ascending climb, as Nate Silver noted earlier this week:

[O]ver the whole course of his presidency, the range Trump’s approval ratings travel in has been remarkably narrow …

Trump’s 8-point approval-rating range is the narrowest of any [post-World War II] president to this point in his term.

And as Alan Abramowitz pointed out this week, the same is true of the generic ballot:

On average, Democrats led by 7.1 points over the past year, and Democrats have led in almost every individual poll. The monthly average ranged from 6.2 points in February 2018 to 10.1 points in December 2017. The December result was clearly an outlier, however, and may have led to a misinterpretation of more recent results as indicating a significant decline in the Democratic lead. Except for the December results, the monthly averages have fallen within a fairly narrow range of 6.2 to 7.8 points.

Experts vary on how big a national House popular vote (the measurement that the generic ballot approximates) margin Democrats would need either to reach Rothenberg’s 20-net-House-seat-gain standard for a “wave” election, or the 23-net-House-seat-gain they’d need to take over the chamber. Abramowitz thinks a Democratic advantage as small as four points could flip the House. Wasserman thinks it might require more like 7 percent.

All these theories about the election landscape from 30,000 feet must eventually play out in individual races, and a lot of Republican hopes ride on the idea that incumbency and gerrymandering will save the House for them even if they lose the national House popular vote decisively. These very real GOP assets, however, have been eroded by a near-record wave of GOP retirements and by the stunning Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that rewrote the map for that heavily gerrymandered state in a way that significantly improves the odds for big Democratic gains.

More importantly, there are simply a lot more ripe Republican than Democratic targets as we approach the general election season, a warning sign that is highly consistent with “wave” election dynamics that tilt the playing field and create more competitive districts in previously safe territory. According to the Cook Political Report’s House ratings, of the 59 genuinely competitive races, 54 are currently held by Republicans and just five by Democrats.

Republicans aren’t the only ones, however, who are in danger of overreacting to positive news that may be less significant than they think. The great talisman for Democrats heading toward November has been the consistent over-performance of their candidates in special elections, which suggests to some that the polls aren’t adequately capturing Democratic “enthusiasm.” While there is historically a significant correlation between House special elections and subsequent regular elections, there is some reason to wonder if Democrats will be able to maintain their “enthusiasm gap” in the context of regular midterm elections in which key components of their coalition (young people and Latinos, in particular) have traditionally failed to vote in numbers proportionate to the older white voters now leaning Republican. And there is another whole set of questions about polls and “enthusiasm,” though 2018 polls that screen out voters who did not participate in the pro-GOP 2010 and 2014 midterms could overestimate GOP odds in a big way.

The bottom line is that we all need to buckle up for the long haul and exhibit some patience in figuring out what this election cycle will produce. A Democratic “wave” that flips or nearly flips the House and minimizes Senate losses is still the best bet. Overreaction to one poll or one primary is still going to happen, of course, but it makes about as much sense as just flipping a coin.

Is the 2018 Democratic Wave Receding?