Published November 15, 2018 in Warp & Woof
2018 Election Recap
Blue Ripple or Wave?
It didn’t take long after the 2016 election for organizing to start. The Women’s March the day after the Inauguration was an affirmation of public disdain for the newly elected president and everything he stood for. So angry, yet so positive. The packed Mall was a marked contrast to the nearly empty Mall the day before, for the Inaugural. And, true to form, the new president lied about it, creating his own narrative out of whole cloth. It was the beginning of “alternative facts,” which we would see much more over the next two years.
As expectations headed successively lower for this president, planning for the 2018 midterm elections became a major preoccupation. The first nationwide referendum on the Trump era would be held on November 6, 2018. But it became apparent that not all voters agreed about him. How many would care enough to vote? Which ones? Which specific awfulness would motivate them most? Would there be so many that voters would just throw up their hands in disgust, and refuse to participate?
The Democratic Party needed a strategy. They needed to discover what would motivate voters most viscerally, much as the Republicans (and Trump himself) had succeeded in doing the last two election cycles.
Would it be the piggishness toward women? The semi-overt racism? Charlottesville or Vladimir Putin? How about the attempted repeal of Obamacare? That one was a wider Republican disaster, not just the President’s. Had Bernie Sanders brought enough socialists “out and proud” to make inequality and class struggle cool again? (After 100 years!)
In 2017, something eye-opening happened in Virginia. A huge blue wave was coming toward the Old Dominion. Was it a dress rehearsal for the nationwide elections the following year? In the event, it was more about fresh faces, and women, than about issues. But we have seen Medicaid expansion and dedicated funding from Richmond for Metro despite the wave not being quite complete in the General Assembly. It needs to wait until next year.
In 2018, the two-year-long organizing of the Resistance was about to meet its first real test. There were so many organizations: Indivisible, Our Revolution (the Berniecrats), PDA, PCCC, DFA, OFA, and DSA (Democratic Socialists of America, sounding almost like a third party, but not quite). Indeed, from the viewpoint of one of those newly “out and proud” socialists, it seemed that the left had not seen better days in the USA for just about a century (certainly not since the New Deal).
The results of the November 6 elections did not, in the end, support such giddy optimism. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a big media splash after winning her Democratic primary but has been punching above her weight class ever since – we wish her the best, but it’s going to be a long, hard slog on Capitol Hill.
The Bret Kavanaugh hearings did galvanize women, likely contributing to many female Democratic candidates’ victories. But there may have been a reverse effect as well, in some races (North Dakota?).
This year’s results, like last year’s in Virginia, were spectacular in the House, and more than impressive in statehouses and governorships (six statehouse flips, seven governorships so far). Many states, especially red ones, were willing to jump on non-partisan ballot initiatives. Had they relied on a Democratic candidate to push them, many would likely have failed.
A gun control measure passed easily in Washington. Decriminalizing recreational marijuana passed in Michigan, medical marijuana in Missouri and Utah. Minimum wage increases passed with ballot initiatives in Missouri and Arkansas. Voting rights were restored to ex-felons in Florida. All these initiatives passed easily — even as Democratic Senators went down to defeat in Missouri, and maybe Florida, too.
More than ever, it seems that whether you vote for a Democrat or a Republican depends on where you live and who you are. It isn’t really about issues, it’s about tribes. Tribalism is growing, not subsiding. Sometimes, however, demographics do change. Virginia is now a classic example: it is more diverse, more suburban, better educated than twenty years ago. It’s seen a bluification. But some rust belt and rural states in the Midwest are undergoing redification.They experience a brain drain and decline of their cities and educational infrastructures. This seems to be true of Ohio, Indiana, and Missouri. But, even here there continue to be blue oases within those red states (i.e., cities). House seats can be won by Democrats in such places, and in this year’s elections many were.
Certain indicators can predict accurately how you will vote. And, the myth of telecommunications bringing us closer together was clearly exposed in these last two election cycles. The Internet age has contributed to greater tribalization, not less. The indicators are:
- · How old are you? (18-to-29-year-olds are Democrats, if they vote; 65+ are mostly Republicans)
- · How close do you live to your next-door neighbor? (if more than 200 yards, you’re a Republican)
- · Where did you go to school? (it’s too much to say that only non-college-educated are Republicans, but education does matter)
- · What color is your skin? (this one is at the end of the list on purpose, because it’s well-known, but is not as decisive for brown people as you might think)
It would seem this makes pollsters’ jobs easier. But, for some reason, they still crank out those polls every election. Why don’t they just look at Census Tracts? The answer lies in the eternal uncertainty of who will show up to vote!
This election, turnout was huge – rivaling presidential years. But, contrary to Democrats’ assertions, large turnout, in some states at least, went against them. You can’t assume that “the people,” when engaged, will vote Democratic. See the list above. Many people in many states are afraid, afraid of a future where they may not enjoy the privileges they have always known. They live in anticipation of an ebbing of their influence. They’re old and dying, as is their way of life. And they are still voting. They vote for candidates who project their fears, “Make America Great AGAIN”.
These people didn’t vote for or against health care, breaking up big banks, the minimum wage, or even “socialism”. They just wanted to be younger! They wanted things the way they used to be.
But, then, many looked forward rather than backward. They likewise didn’t vote for specific issues, just the future in general. For both groups, it came down to personalities, and a non-rational message of hope. It may have been delivered by either an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or a Steve King.
In the end, and it hasn’t ended yet (recounts still going on), Democrats will likely pick up more seats than any time since the post-Watergate midterms of 1974. Perhaps, even more seats than Republicans flipped in 1994 or 2010. And, with pick-ups in governorships and state legislatures, the 2018 midterms were clearly more than a ripple. Those ballot measures were all leftish (except some new taxes, which failed). Looks like a wave to this observer!
Locally, the Virginia Congressional delegation, formerly seven Republicans and four Democrats, reversed to seven Democrats and four Republicans. Deep blue Arlingtonflipped its sole County Board seat not held by a Democrat to a newcomer, young Matt de Ferranti.
Whatever losses Democrats incurred in the Senate, after all recounts, can probably be made up in 2020, when Republicans must defend some difficult seats, just as Dems did this time. Beto O’Rourke can try again vs. John Cornyn. And, the field of Dem candidates will only increase.
In the meantime, the House can investigate the administration, looking at Elijah Cummings as chair of the House Oversight Committee. It can block legislation, yes, a “do nothing” Congress might be the right prescription in these times. And, Nancy Pelosi, as presumptive Speaker, is at least as talented a politician as Paul Ryan.
Most important now, Democrats must frame a message that can resonate with voters in 2020 to burnish their brand – even in those red states — if they want the wave to continue.