The party in control of the presidency typically loses seats in the House and Senate in midterm elections. Since Jimmy Carter, the presidential party has on average lost just over 20 seats in the House and just under four seats in the Senate. An average election (which they never are) would see the Republicans hold onto the House by a narrow margin, and would see the Democrats take control of the Senate. But with 23 Senate Democrats up for reelection in 2018, plus two independents who caucus with the Democrats, and only eight Republicans, it looks to be a tough slog for Democrats to replicate historical averages, and pick up the Senate.
More than the math and the state-level politics, which heavily influence congressional races, however, Democrats seem intent on handing the GOP a good shot at surviving the midterm elections, and making it a tougher road to the White House for any Democrat in 2020.
First, the leftward lurch of the Democrats may play to an excited, motivated party base. And that’s not unimportant. But it’s lousy electoral politics.
One can concede that a broad swath of the Democratic base might be changing, becoming more liberal, even socialist. But movements in the tails of voter distributions, by themselves, don’t necessarily change election outcomes. Changes in the median voter—the voter who provides the one vote over 50 percent– and shifts in the relative position of candidates to that median voter is what changes election outcomes.
Here’s an exercise appropriate for a cocktail napkin: Draw a line and place nine points on it, all equally spaced. Call the line the left-right spectrum. The winner in a two-candidate election with these nine voters needs the critical middle, or median, voter to win the election.
Now, take four of the voters on one side of the median, and move them way out to the extreme. Even bunch them up on the extreme if you wish. The median doesn’t move. The winning candidate still needs to persuade that middle voter to win the election.
This doesn’t just apply to changes in voters on one side of the spectrum. Take the four voters on the other side of this electorate, and move them way out to the other extreme. You’ve just made your electorate more polarized. But, still, the candidates still make their pitch to the voter in the middle despite movement to the extremes amongst the other 89 percent of electorate. To be sure, in the real world candidates need also worry about turnout as well, but they worry about turnout because that affects who the median voter is, and so it affects the location of the median voter.
The question for the Democrats is whether the respective median voters in the different states (and congressional districts) are moving left as quickly as the Democrats are. If not, then despite the demand of a good part of the Democratic base for the party to move left, it’s a terrible move for the party electorally.
Indeed, the Democrats tried this strategy in the past, and it didn’t work. The party went for increased ideological purity with George McGovern, and the candidate got pasted. Michael Dukakis tried to run as non-partisan technocrat, but let Bush label him as a “card carrying liberal,” and got destroyed. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton ran as centrists, and got elected. Even though Barack Obama governed more on the left than Carter or Clinton, he nonetheless campaigned as a moderate.
While there is turmoil among voters in both parties, there is as yet little evidence that state-level and district-level medians are moving significantly, or, at least, that they’re moving to the left as quickly or as far as many in the Democratic base want the Democrats to move.
Secondly, there’s the deal Trump cut with Pelosi and Schumer on the debt ceiling, and some sort of a discussion about a compromise on DACA. Wow. I understand Republican lawmakers feel whip-sawed by the President. But another few congressional “wins” like that for the Democrats with Trump and they will completely demoralize the most energetic swath of their base, or push them into even more extreme opposition to Trump (if that’s at all possible).
Trump is poison for many in the Democratic base. Many have moved from the normal condescension with which Democrats treat Republicans, into pure hatred. They make GOP “Never Trumpers” look like subscribers to American Greatness.
Demoralizing the rabidly anti-Trump portion of the Democratic base means some won’t turn out to vote. In turn, decreased turnout among the Democratic base would mean that the location of the median voter moves to the right. On the other hand, if Democrats become even more extreme, then it moves the party even further away from the median voter, making it easier for GOP candidates to position themselves to win the critical pivotal voter. In either case, this is good news for the Republicans.
To be sure, a more-pure leftwing Democratic Party might articulate a cleaner, less muddled ideological message, and so persuade the respective medians to move left with them. Bernie Sanders, after all, polled well against Trump through election day. But those were hypothetical matchups. I am reluctant to believe that the moderately center-right median American voter, if faced with the serious prospect of following Bernie Sanders’ over the precipice into socialist paradise, would actually accept the invitation. Of course, it always depends on what the alternative is.
In any event, the Democrats may be doing what the Republicans seem unable to do: saving the Republicans from themselves.