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12 Jan 2018

2018 Midterm Election – Blue Waves, House Rules and The O’Neill Exception

Outside of the Mueller investigation, the biggest political question of 2018 is whether Democrats can ride a widely anticipated Blue Wave into a majority in Congress and divide the government. There are similarities to the mid-term wave elections that flipped Congress in 2006 and 2010.

Many compare the stunning Senate special election victory of Democrat Doug Jones over Republican Roy Moore in crimson red Alabama to the equally stunning 2010 victory of Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley in deep blue Massachusetts. Does the Jones win point to a 2018 political tsunami like the Brown election foreshadowed a 2010 red wave? Maybe.

In both cases, the long shot won with the help of a seriously flawed opposition candidate. In Alabama Roy Moore was accused of sexual impropriety with minors, and in Massachusetts Martha Coakley called Curt Schilling a “Yankee fan. This is, of course, not a fair comparison. Coakley’s faux pas was far more egregious to the citizens of  Massachusetts and more damaging to her candidacy than Moore in Alabama. Still the similarities are striking and the punditocracy at MSNBC are positively giddy in anticipation of surfing the blue wave they see on the horizon.

Prospects for Democrats flipping the Senate – Less Than Zero

With Jones in the Senate, the GOP is barely afloat with a 51-49 Senate majority. It doesn’t seem a massive political tsunami should be necessary to flip a leaky Republican rowboat with a mere two seat majority. An energetic GOTV ripple or two might do it. But those numbers are misleading.

There are 33 contested Senate seats in this election cycle. Twenty five of those seats will be defended by Democrats, only eight by Republicans. This class of Democratic Senators were elected on the coattails of Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, and a number of them are in states carried by Donald Trump last year. Only two Republican seats are considered toss-ups and the other six are either leaning or strong Republican. The Democrats would have to take both toss-up seats and defend 100% of their own. It’s just not going to happen.

In the 2010 Red Wave Republicans picked up six seats, but still fell three short of the majority. Unlike 2018, the 2010 election was an even playing field with Democrats defending 19 seats and Republicans 18. The 2006 Blue Wave was also contested on a relatively even playing field, with Democrats defending 18 seats and Republicans defending 15. Democrats picked up six seats and took the majority.

The wildcard for Senate predictions in this election is whether either the extreme left or right successfully primary establishment candidates and run clown candidates that scare the electorate.  As Republicans found in the 2010 and 2012 Senate races and again this year in Alabama, there are limits to what even partisan voters will accept in a candidate. We assume that voters from both parties have learned that lesson, but we could be wrong.  If the parties avoid that mistake and the candidates fall into the normal politician range our Dividist 2018 Senate prediction is that Republicans pick up 1 or 2 seats and retain the Senate majority.

Prospects for Democrats flipping the House – Pretty Darn Good

The House of Representatives is notoriously difficult to flip. Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum “All politics is local” is generally applied to House elections.  Historically, incumbent representatives enjoy 95%+ reelection rates with strong local support, even if Congress is wildly unpopular.  For whatever reason, voters who hate Congress still love their representative, particularly if they bring home the bacon, which they all do.

Despite the entire House being up for reelection every two years and only 1/3 of the Senate at risk each cycle, for over 100 years, since since the Senate was elected directly by voters, the House never flipped unless the Senate flipped first or concurrently. That changed in 2010 when the GOP flipped the House but fell short in the Senate. This was widely attributed to Republicans undermining their electoral advantage by posting a slate of un-electable clown candidates. They did the same in 2012. Eventually they figured it out and took the Senate majority in 2014.

Any rule is only true until it is not. Tip O’Neill’s maxim “All politics is local” was not true in 2006 and 2010 when nationalized wave elections made politics decidedly not local and flipped House majorities.

What does history tell us?

A few years ago, we started looking at the history of flipping House elections, hoping to glean some insight into what nationalizes the electorate sufficiently to throw their favorite sons out of office. We first looked at recent elections, then over the modern era, then at the previous century. Now we’ll finish the job by looking at every single time the House flipped majorities since Republicans and Democrats first faced off in 1856:

In 1856 the Whig Party disbanded and the Republican Party was born. That year Republicans and Democrats faced off for the first time and Republicans won 37 seats. Democrat James Buchanan won the Presidential election, Democrats retained their majority in the Senate and secured a majority in the House with 133 seats. Two years later, in the 1858 mid-terms, Republicans picked up 90 seats and won a majority in the House against the previously unified Democratic government. That was the first flip of a House majority when Democrats and Republicans were the dominant political parties.

Since then, including 1856, there have been 80 Republican vs Democrat elections for control of the House and Senate. Over that period of time the House has flipped majorities exactly 17 times – in 1858(R), 1874(D), 1880(R), 1882(D), 1888(R), 1890(D), 1894(R), 1910(D), 1918(R), 1930(D), 1946(R), 1948(D), 1952(R), 1954(D), 1994(R), 2006(D), 2010(R) and maybe 2018(D?).

A necessary but not sufficient condition.

Here is the interesting bit. Of those 17 flips over 160 years only three elections, 1880, 1888 and 1948 flipped against a divided government. All of the other 14 flips were against unified one party rule of the opposition party. Exactly like we have now. In addition, the three exceptions of 1880, 1888, and 1948 all occurred during Presidential election cycles (Garfield, Harrison, Truman). The House has never flipped majorities in a midterm election against a divided government. In the entire history of Republican vs Democrat elections, the House has only flipped against unified opposition party governments in a midterm election. Moreover, the House has never flipped against a divided government in the Modern Era since 1948. We call this electoral phenomena…

The O’Neill Exception:

  •  The House majority never flips against a divided government in a midterm election. Most of the time unified one party government is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to flip majorities in the House of Representatives and is always a necessary condition to flip during midterms. 

This may be the most reliable rule of thumb in politics that no one knows. Historically speaking, the table is set for the Democrats to take the House majority in 2018. But as noted, the O’Neill Exception is a necessary but not sufficient condition.   Other elements must also be in place to nationalize the election and flip the House. As I explained in a previous post about this phenomena:

“The interpretation of this phenomena is pretty clear. A nationalized  i.e. – not politics is local – election requires a national focus to energize the voters. A sufficient “wave” election needs an organizing principle to power the kind of tsunami that can flip the House. Focused anger/blame on a unified party in power does the trick. A divided government distributes the blame and blurs the electoral focus.  A divided government cannot drive a sufficient nationalized election groundswell to overcome local favorites and local politics.
We conclude that, as we’ve stated repeatedly, a one party unified government is a necessary but not sufficient condition to flip the House majority.  Still, a unified government can remain in place for many years without a reaction against the concentrated one party rule. Additional factors, above and beyond one party unified government rule, must come into play to precipitate a wave election.  In general it takes an additional combination of corruption, overreach and/or arrogance on the part of the unified party in power to align voters in opposition and nationalize the House election.

Because Trump won, and because the Democrats managed to snatch Senate defeat from the jaws of victory when the Senate playing field was slanted decidedly in their favor, we now have Unified One Party Republican Rule. And because we have Unified One Party Republican rule, the conditions now exist for Democrats to flip the House in 2018. The Democrats need to gain 25 seats to flip the House in 2018. Not as many as the 2006 Blue Wave when they picked up 31 seats. Not as many as the 2010 Red Wave when Republicans picked up 63 seats. Not as many as 1858 when Republicans flipped the House against Democrats for the very first time with a pickup of 90 seats. Doable, even likely.

What are the sufficient conditions to flip the House?

The most popular test for the prospect of a nationalized wave election flipping the House, is the generic partisan poll. Decision Desk HQ has a great detailed analysis of the prospects for a Democratic flip in 2018 utilizing a variety of analytical techniques, including an average of the Generic Polls:

2018 Generic Republican Democratic Poll

On the basis of an average ~9% Democratic edge in the Generic Poll, they are currently forecasting the Democrats to net 32 seats and a narrow majority. That is encouraging for Democrats and Dividists, but we must strike a cautionary note.  The Generic Poll is not a good forecasting tool, particularly this far out from the election.

Late in 2013, the Democrats also had a ~9% lead in the generic poll, prompting a lot of triumphalist tweeting about the prospects of Democrats reclaiming Congress.  One year later the GOP picked up 9 Senate and 13 House seats in the 2014 midterms. That said – it’s different this time. In the 2014 midterms, the Democrats were up against a divided government and the historical precedence of the “O’Neill Exception.” In the 2018 midterms the Democrats are facing a unified one party rule Republican government, and the “O’Neill Exception” has their back.

Above and beyond the necessary condition of running against a Unified Government to nationalize the election, history offers additional conditions common to prior House flips that sufficiently offend the electorate to vote against the party in power. In short, the unified party in power has to cooperate by demonstrating some combination of egregious legislative overreach, blatant corruption, and/or arrogant abuse of power. This is the Trump One Party Rule Unified Republican Government – so no problem. Those conditions are met.

The Dividist 2018 House of Representative prediction is the Democrats will pick up around ~35 seats and take majority control of the House. 

Another key for Democrats will be forging a nationalized campaign organized around a unifying message in opposition to Trump administration overreach. Just like they did successfully in 2006 against the Bush/Cheney administration. And they should avoid running the kind of brain dead, electorate fracturing, identity politics campaign that so many of them love.

If they do that, Democrats can wrest majority control of the House of Representative from the GOP, restore divided government, moderate government policy, and provide real oversight for the balance of the Trump (or Pence) administration.

Hope Floats (on a Blue Wave).

Author Details
Mike “The Dividist” Wallach – Social liberal, fiscal conservative, civil libertarian, independent dividist, discordian provocateur – is a long-time blogger at ‘The Dividist Papers’.
Mike “The Dividist” Wallach – Social liberal, fiscal conservative, civil libertarian, independent dividist, discordian provocateur – is a long-time blogger at ‘The Dividist Papers’.

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