2018 Midterms: The President as Campaign Supporter

Just over a month ago, I was discussing the question of whether Democrats would be able to remain in the lead which exists according to pollsters regarding the midterm elections taking place on November 6, 2018. In early August of 2018, Democrats maintain a generic congressional vote advantage of 6.9% on average over Republicans.

A different picture emerges when looking at the gradual narrowing of the gap between the two major parties in the United States since December 2017: At that time, 49.1% of potential voters said they wanted to vote for Democrats in their respective constituencies, while only 36.1% wanted to vote for Republicans.

Varying Compositions Influence Results

While surveys are increasingly subject to criticism in Germany, the initial situation in the United States is already different. For example, various institutes refer to registered voters as their sample – among them, 33% identify themselves as Democrats and 26% as Republicans. On the other hand, only 29% consider themselves Democrats and 27% Republicans in telephone surveys.

Given that on an average 32% of the electorate voted Republican and 34% Democratic in the last four presidential elections, it is evident that results change as the composition of the survey changes. In addition, midterm polls are generally less precise, which is particularly due to the fact that polls closer to the midterms are conducted more frequently by partisan organizations, thus confirming possible advantages for the supported candidate.

Returning to the initial question: Things are still looking good for the Democrats as their generic ballot advantage over the Republicans has been increasing again in recent weeks. At one point, results were almost even. The “blue wave” has, thus, not broken, if one looks at the United States as a whole.

As of now, the Republican Majority is Already Thin

However, a closer look reveals that the midterms could produce an advantageous result for either side. While Democrats are reporting an increasing influx to their internal primaries, Republicans are starting from a position of relative strength, especially in the House of Representatives. The majority they have held in the house since 2011 has been retained throughout the 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections. This majority is also a more pronounced electoral mandate than it was during the majority period between 1995 and 2007.

Especially in Democratic primaries, the number of voters is on the rise – (C) Pew Research Center

Rather than the House of Representatives, the future composition of the Senate is a major problem for the Republicans. With a majority of only one vote and several senators who do not align themselves in various ways with the President (such as Sen. John McCain) or the rest of their caucus (Sen. Rand Paul), it is already unclear as of now to what extent legislative acts sought by the President will still have a chance of implementation.

Based on surveys aggregated by RealClearPolitics, only seven seats in the Senate remain undecided. Three of these seats would have to be won by Republicans to retain their thin majority. Geographical distance and fundamental differences to the US electoral system in particular lead to a generally rough overview of the American situation in Germany.

Decision Between President and Party

This situation is indeed interesting and uncertain, even when it comes to senators known in Europe, such as Sen. Ted Cruz, the Republican Senator from Texas who ran in the 2016 presidential primaries and was temporarily seen as a potential Supreme Court Justice. Long considered the top dog in Texas, Cruz is, on average, only 6% ahead of his challenger Beto O’Rourke, who has been representing his Texan constituency in the House since 2013. At times, this lead has already shrunk to 2%.

The President’s views, sometimes differing from the Republican Party average, lead to a struggle in which Republican candidates come under pressure to choose between the party line and the President. The efforts made by the President to support candidates in the primary elections do not ease the challenges. However, the power of the President should not be underestimated: Despite an ex-governor, several senators and a dozen other Republicans in favor of his intra-party rivals, President Trump’s endorsement was enough to secure Corey Stewart in Virginia the nomination for the Senate election.

Successful Lame Duck?

The area of tension between the President and Republican members of Congress lead to a situation in the run-up to the November 6 elections in which some German voices are – some of them hopeful – discussing the end of the Trump system or, at least, a defeat in both chambers. Doubts may be cast as to whether this scenario will occur – the fact that President Ronald Reagan never had a majority in the House of Representatives speaks for itself.

In the last two years of his presidency, Reagan’s Republicans had lost the majority in both chambers. Nevertheless, Reagan succeeded not only in nominating a Supreme Court judge as a lame duck – even before that, he was required to uphold a fiscally conservative agenda against the political heavyweight Tip O’Neill, his opponent in the House of Representatives.

Even a change in power in Congress will not lead to any major changes in US foreign policy – even domestic policy could follow the example of Reagan and O’Neill: within six years, eight government shutdowns with a total duration of two weeks took place. Despite Reagan’s poor starting position, the president with no House gathered enough decision-making power to perpetuate himself as one of the most popular presidents of the United States. Things will remain suspenseful until 6 November – and beyond.