What did the midterms tell us? Not a lot

Again this November, just as in every even-numbered year, the media histrionics were breathless, predictable, and meaningless.  Beginning with election night the punditocracy, or "chattering classes" as the Brits call them, invariably do two things:

Moloney covers politics & world affairs for us

Moloney covers politics & world affairs for us

First, SPIN the results to reflect their own bias and second, PREDICT what those results assuredly mean for the next election. There are a couple of problems, though.

Spin is fatally flawed, simply because it is impossible to know what millions of people voting in literally thousands of separate elections across this continent sized nation were thinking or desiring regarding a host of highly disparate candidates and issues.  The best we can do is count and add up the votes, and as we have been reminded again even that can be a dicey proposition in some places.          

And prediction is also a fool's errand, because the electorate that shows up in presidential years is dramatically different from the electorate of the midterms, and on average half again as large.  Voters in 2020 will be looking at countless new candidates, reacting to many new issues, and the world and their own viewpoints may have significantly changed in the previous two years.          

Nonetheless for those who feel compelled to opine about the deeper meaning of everything, the safest guide to the future is, as always, the past. So, what does history tell us that might aid our interpretation of November 2018?            

In a nutshell the 2018 midterm was a very average, very ordinary election that fits neatly into the remarkably consistent pattern of midterms in the last one hundred and fifty years.  It most definitely was not among the tiny handful outliers that could be called "shocking,” such as 1946 or 1994.

The Washington Post put it succinctly: "The Great Blue Wave- the massive repudiation of Trump that the Democrats hoped for - simply did not happen".           

In a similar vein The NY Times: "Democrats will cheer their capture of the House majority, while Republicans will celebrate expanding their Senate majority; all else is far less certain".        

The validity of these verdicts is amply supported by the record of the last century and a half (1866-2018).  Consider the following:

1.  Since the end of the Civil War (1865) the President's party has lost House seats in 35 of 38 midterm elections.  The 3 exceptions-FDR gained 9 seats in 1934, Clinton 5 in 1998, and Bush 8 in 2002- all occurred in the midst of singular external events- The Great Depression, unpopular Impeachment Proceedings, and 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror.       

2.  Since the 17th amendment (1913) ordained the "popular" election of U.S. Senators (previously chosen by state legislatures) the President's Party lost or failed to gain seats in 22 of 27 midterm elections. The 5 exceptions- Wilson gained 3 seats in 1914, FDR 9 in 1934, Kennedy 4 in 1962, Nixon 2 in 1970, and Trump 2 in 2018- all occurred in the midst of singular external events- outbreak of World War I, the Great Depression, the Cuban Missile Crisis, peak of Vietnam War, and crises involving border security and an explosive Supreme Court nomination.            

3.  Since 1918 the average losses for the President's party have been 32 House seats and 5 Senate seats.          

4.  In 2018 the President's party lost 38 seats (two still unreported) but actually gained 2 Senate seats.          

5.  Democrats gained 7 governorships in 2018, but Republicans won in four states critical to Presidential elections- Iowa, N.H, Ohio, and Florida- and retain an overall advantage 27-23.            

6.  Democrats picked up at least 350 state legislative seats, but fell far short of regaining the 914 seats lost during the Obama years.

Finally, if one needs conclusive proof of the general worthlessness of midterms as a predictor of subsequent Presidential elections, consider the following data points recorded by the Gallup Poll on the day of the midterm elections:          

Exit polls this November showed President Trump's approval rating at 45%.  Compare that with Reagan 1982 (42%), Clinton 1994 (46%), and Obama 2010(45%). Right on par.            

Then recall that both Clinton and Obama were comfortably re-elected two years later – and that Reagan despite being constantly vilified by the media as incompetent, senile, dangerous, etc. was re-elected in a 49 state landslide.

Which suggests, among other things, that the American people in their sublime wisdom take the pundits with a very large grain of salt.

Bill Moloney's columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post and Human Events.