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History Tells Us Democrats Should Win in 2018


The days after an election bring feelings of happiness or sadness with the illusion that the victory or defeat is permanent. Since November 2016, the Democrats I speak to still wonder if their party will ever be competitive again.

I too have experienced this, but from a different viewpoint. As an idealistic Republican intern, the days after the 2004 election were filled with happiness. I walked into the Republican National Committee building to see a large hoisted sign to remind us of the victory, W still the President. I had just witnessed the reelection of George W. Bush and increased Republican majorities in the House and Senate. It was a coming together of the 1980s Reagan Revolution with the 1990s Gingrich “Contract with America.” I thought it would be permanent. Two years later, the Republicans lost the House of Representatives and Senate in a landslide; and four years later the White House to Barack Obama.

Looking to the 2018 elections, will this trend repeat itself? Will Democrats be competitive? History tells us both yes and not necessarily.

Since 1918, the President’s party has lost an average 29 House of Representatives seats and 4 Senate seats in midterm elections. Given the Republicans’ narrow majority in both chambers, applying this historical average will see the Democrats pick up both, as they only require 24 House seats and 2 Senate seats.

The change in the majority party in both chambers has happened under the last three presidents. Under Barack Obama, the Democrats lost their House majority in 2010 and their Senate majority in 2014. Under George W. Bush, the Republicans lost their House and Senate majorities in 2006. Under Bill Clinton, the Democrats lost their House and Senate majorities in 1994, which was significant as it brought an end of a 40-year majority rule by House Democrats. History tells us Donald Trump will become the fourth successive president to experience his party losing the House, the Senate, or both.

But to further simplify, let’s examine recent midterm elections history – what led House majorities to change?

The president’s approval rating sheds some light on this topic. According to a Gallup Poll in the midterm elections in 1994, 2006 and 2010, Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama had job approval ratings of 46 percent, 38 percent and 45 percent, respectively. In 1998 and 2002, when the president’s party won seats, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush job approval ratings were 66 percent and 63 percent. Presidential approval ratings therefore directly correlate with midterm election results. As written on Larry Sabato’s blog from the UVA Center for Politics, “Unpopular presidents, or even those with middling approval ratings, uniformly see their parties do poorly in the midterm.”

So based on history and opinion polls, what can we expect in 2018?

First, Donald Trump’s job approval rating does not help the Republicans. Gallup currently estimates his job approval rating at 36 percent. His highest job approval rating since taking office was 46 percent, in January 2017.

Second, a growing number of House Republicans are not seeking re-election. To date, 39 House Republicans have announced their retirement or are seeking higher office. That number is rising. This spells trouble for Republicans as an incumbent running for re-election has the advantage of name identification, fundraising organization and policy (pork barreling) achievements. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 97 percent of House incumbents were reelected in 2016. Without incumbents running, the Democrats have an even playing field in some key districts.

But the Senate race presents a considerably large workload for Democrats. They have 23 Senate seats up for election, compared to Republicans who only have 8. David Catanese of U.S. News & World Report predicts a scenario where “The House could turn on the dissatisfaction of swing voters in suburban districts, but the Senate map still favors Republicans dramatically.” The reason the Democrats have three times more Senate seats up for election is due to the last election they faced in 2012, a good year on the back of Barack Obama’s reelection. Ten of the 23 Democrat-held seats are in states Trump won in 2016. The Democrats’ best chance of winning the Senate would be to hold what they already have; and pick up a Republican held Senate seat in a state that Donald Trump won in 2016. This is a possibility after the Democrats won the special Senate election in Alabama in December 2017, a state Trump won by a very large margin in 2016.

Lastly, as the minority party, the Democrats can link Republicans with the president to make the midterm election a referendum on the presidency. In 1994, the Republicans won campaigning against Bill Clinton and promoting a “Contract with America”; in 2006 the Democrats won campaigning against George W Bush and the Iraq War, as well as a “Culture of Corruption” of Republican scandals; and in 2010 the Republicans won campaigning against “Obamacare” and high unemployment following the global financial crisis. In 2018, the Democrats will try to link the Republicans to Donald Trump. After Republicans passed the tax plan several weeks ago, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned it would “be an anchor around the ankles of every Republican.” Last week, Democrats blamed Donald Trump for the government shutdown. This scapegoating will likely continue on more policy issues ahead of the midterms.

So who will hoist a large victory sign the day after the election? Recent history, presidential job approval ratings, and Republican House retirements are all good signs for the House Democrats. But with Democrats defending three times more Senate seats than Republicans, they will need to be very strategic allocating campaign resources. I wouldn’t recommend any sign-making for the Democrats, well, just not yet.


Matthew Cross is a Master of Public Administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. Prior to studying, he has been a political adviser in Australia to senior elected officials. In completing his undergraduate degree at University of Sydney, he wrote his thesis on “An analytical comparison between 1994 and 2006 United States Congressional elections.”


Edited by Matt McCalpin

Photo by Emmad Mazhari on Unsplash