Not to beat a dead politician, but let’s briefly recall the predictive run-up to the 2016 Presidential election. Nate Silver: 71% Clinton win. Upshot: 85% Clinton. Deadspin: Clinton absolutely, because this election “isn’t close; never was”. New York Times: Clinton 85% and Trump 15% (with a handy-dandy graph showing how much higher 85 is than 15). Reuters: Clinton 90%. HuffPo: 90% Clinton, and by a whopping 323 electoral votes, no less.
One could continue, but the drift is clear: 2016 was a Wave electoral year. Every single expert agreed.
And they were correct. It was a wave electoral year, indeed… only in the opposite direction. Donald Trump became the 45th president of the United States, and he did so quite handily. And while Trump didn’t quite get the 323 electoral votes that the Huffington Post promised Ms. Clinton; he got a very respectable 304. Clinton trailed (badly) at 227.
Notwithstanding the professional debacle that befell the expert pontificators on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, 2015, hope springs eternal. The rosy predictions by the usual media suspects are back in full cry as we approach the mid-term election of 2018.
Consider the hyperbolic predictions over the past few months.
“Why Some Democrats Foresee at 40 Seat Pick Up in the House!” (CNN, December). “There isn’t much doubt”, sniffed the ever-accurate New York Times, “that the Democrats are riding a wave”. A 13 point advantage on the generic ballot looks “extremely good for Democrats”, according to Vox. “The Blue Wave”, crowed the NY Magazine, “rolls back in”! CNN confirmed that Democrats had “solidified their lead in the mid-terms”.
The anticipatory frenzy reached its zenith in this doozy, shared nearly 12,000 times by elated liberals: “Blue Wave May Be Building in Texas”, by The Hill. Just let that one sink in for a moment. Texas. One wonders if anyone from The Hill has actually been to Texas, but let’s just assume from this article that answer is: no.
The reasons, prognosticators are positing, are quite easy to read. Trump is terribly unpopular. The tax overhaul is roundly hated. The Democrats have a massive Generic Ballot advantage. And the Democrat base is far more motivated than the Republicans. The result? A wave election. This is known.
Except. Well, except that most things that are comfortably “known” by the experts are not known at all. Let’s take them, briefly, one at a time.
Trump is unpopular. Well, that depends on whom you ask. Yes, if one asks “all persons” (voters, non-voters, citizens, non-citizens, and the occasional sentient tree), Trump is unpopular, with only 39% approving.
But we are considering this thing called an “election”, in which people need to actually “vote” to elect someone. And so the inquiry must narrow to voters. Among Registered Voters, Trump is a bit less unpopular, with approval ranging in the low- to mid- 40’s. However, turn-out in off-year elections is about 40% of Registered Voters, so the inquiry must further narrow to Likely Voters. And about half of all Likely Voters like Trump.
What does a presidential approval rating predict for an off-year election? Presidents with 50% approval only lose about 12 seat in the House and maybe 1 in the Senate: not enough to even marginally shift the balance of power. And, without getting too far in the weeds, the coincidental division between Democrat and Republican Senate seats up for a vote in 2018 strongly favor, not a loss of a seat, but a gain of several seats for the party of Trump.
Hmm. So much for unpopularity.
So let’s look at the other factors: Tax overhaul; generic ballot; motivation.
Well, the tax overhaul started out to be very unpopular, based primarily upon false stories that taxes were going to increase for the middle class. In fact, as of December 2017, only 29% approved of the tax bill. But only two months later, in February 2018, it was up to 51% with only 37% disapproving (those overwhelmingly Democrat partisans). By November, approval is likely to be far higher, as the misinformation is cleared from the public consciousness.
That generic ballot? Again, without deep weeds, the generic ballot is simply a question to voters whether they would favor a Democrat or Republican, generally and without naming individual candidates. It needs to be at around +11 favorable to Democrats for them to re-take the house in 2018. Unfortunately for the Democrats, their generic ballot advantage is in free-fall. That much-ballyhooed 13 point lead has shrunk to a statistical tie. That’s correct: dead even. The most recent ABC/Washington Post poll shows the Democrat lead completely evaporated as of April 2018.
The difference in motivation between the parties? That same poll shows that factor to be dead even, as well. ABC and WaPo, determined to find the silver lining in a very stormy cloud for the Democrats, are calling this a “good sign”, because Democrats are tied with Republicans in motivation to vote; usually, Dems are a lot more apathetic for mid-terms. But given that Democrat motivation being far higher than that of Republicans was the big advantage predicted for 2018, that silver lining is a bit tarnished.
So, where are we, six months out?
That depends on your affiliation. If you’re a Democrat, you’re quietly putting that surfboard back in the closet. If you’re a Republican, you’re setting up your beach chair at the water’s edge and leaning back to catch a few rays by the calm, calm sea.