I’ve been a bit behind on my election updates, in part because an election brings up so many things we have to work on here at TPM beyond writing about it. But it’s also been because of the contrariness of the polls and other election indicators. In the nature of things, I get asked a lot to predict the political future. In the last two weeks I’ve felt a creeping anxiety about the outcome of the November election. But it is less because of what I think is likely than the stakes that are involved. Let me try to explain what I mean.
Winning control of the Senate now seems like a longshot. It’s doable. And I see some signs that it may be getting more doable in the final days of the campaign. (We’ll return to that in another post.) But almost all the key races are in deeply red states. By any reasonable measure just holding their own is a big achievement for the Democrats. But the two most critical things for the next two years are putting a break on more Trump Republican legislation and creating a power of oversight and accountability over the executive branch. Those things are critical. And though the House and the Senate would be great for this, really only the House is critical for it.
If the Republicans hold on to the House it will have a series of dire effects. The first is the simplest one: no end to what we’ve seen over the last two years, which is a lawless President running roughshod over the constitutional system at home, creating chaos abroad and further rigging the entire federal government for far-right and plutocratic rule – not only for today but locking in power well into the future.
That’s plenty bad. But in my mind it’s not the worst outcome. If Republicans are able to maintain control over the House after the last two years, with the President as unpopular as he’s been, with all the signs of Democratic energy, Republicans and President Trump will both draw the lesson that they are invulnerable. Even under the most adverse conditions they didn’t pay a real price. That conclusion will make the President and the increasingly Trumpite Republican party be far more aggressive and lawless going forward. Why wouldn’t they? They’ll have evidence that they did and will pay no price. For parallel reasons, Democrats will face a crisis of demoralization. All of this work, all under such favorable circumstances, and it came up short.
These are all frightful and dangerous eventualities to contemplate. But as we are it is important to keep in mind a key point. There is a general consensus among election observers that the Democrats will need to win the aggregate vote for the House by 6 or 7 percentage points just to win a bare majority of seats. If you’re watching closely, you know this. But after a while it starts to seem like a given, just part of the landscape. But it shows the challenge Democrats are up against. They have to win by a massive margin, maybe as much as 10 percentage points to win a healthy majority. This comes after President Trump became President after getting millions of votes fewer than Hillary Clinton. These are profound challenges and liabilities and Democrats will have to win elections under these skewed rules before they can get power to try to change them.
With all this, I still think Democratic odds in the House are somewhat better than recent press reports suggest. And it’s fair to say that press reports treat it as largely a given that the Democrats will take the House. But there have been a raft of ‘the GOP still has a shot at the House’ stories out in recent days. They largely focus on a supposed Kavanaugh bump and activation of voters in hard red districts and states allowing Republicans to shrink the House playing field and all but lock up the Senate. But this seems at least somewhat out of date. It made some sense in the week or two after the Kavanaugh storm. But it doesn’t seem born out now by the polls I’m seeing. I’m given somewhat extra confidence in this take by the fact that it’s mirrored in Nate Silver’s projection models, in which I put a lot of stock. One point is some of the advantage he gives Democrats stems from their historic fundraising advantage. That’s another point we’ll return to in another post.
We should also be paying very close attention to the governors races across the country, particularly in the midwest and southeast. The Senate is critical because if the Republicans maintain control there they will be able to continue the Court packing they’ve been doing for the last two years. That’s a big deal. But the governorships may be even more important. Democratic control of governorships ranging from Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to Florida and Georgia can have massive repercussions on both the 2020 presidential campaign and all important redistricting in 2022. Democrats are in strong positions in many of these races.
Again, though, it’s all about the House. From what I see, Democrats are the heavy favorites. But it’s not a lock. And given the stakes, truly higher than I’ve seen in any election in my lifetime, anything short of a lock is a source of great concern.