So the Democrats took the House, the Republicans kept the Senate, and we have seven new Democrats as governors. What’s it all mean?
The House is the big story. The composition of the lower legislative body flipped, from 193 Democrats and 235 Republicans to 230 Democrats and 205 Republicans. Though some votes remain to be counted, if everything falls as it stands, the Democrats will have a healthy 25-seat margin on which to rest.
Still though, one branch of the legislature? Not much of a ‘blue wave’, now, is it?
Oh, my sweet friend. Come with me.
To understand the size of this victory, you have to understand how stacked the odds are. The fact of the matter is, Democrats are really, really terrible at enshrining power. The trouble with being pro-federal government is that when you control the government, you actually have to, you know, govern. You spend time doing things like passing an act providing affordable care, or regulating big banks in the wake of giant financial crisis.
On the other hand, if you believe the role of the federal government should be severely limited, when you gain power, you have time for all sorts of other fun activities — like redrawing district lines according to voting patterns to bolster your political allies, erecting obstacles to voting that disproportionately affect communities that don’t vote for you, and confirming judges that will uphold those decisions and your values to lifetime appointments until you bleed gavels.
So while it might seem like Republicans and Democrats are about evenly matched if you look at the outcome of elections, when you look at the whole population, the story is radically different. On the whole, the country prefers Democratic candidates and policies over the Republican brand, but structural advantages afforded to the Republican party result in a conservative government for an increasingly liberal population.
Don’t believe me? Since the creation of our political parties as we know them today, four presidents have won the election while losing the popular vote. All four were Republicans, including Donald Trump, who won the Electoral College 304-227 (a fourteen-point spread), but lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes representing a 2-point spread in the opposite direction. Seat shares regularly diverge from vote shares, a trend that, once upon a time, benefited mostly Democrats, but today leans heavily in favor of Republicans.
The same thing happened on Tuesday. Democrats swept the popular vote in the House, Senate, and governors’ races, but control a majority of only one of those bodies. Here are some charts to show you!
Senate Popular Vote
House Popular Vote
Governors' Popular Vote
So even when Democrats show up and vote their asses off, they still lose. But the problem starts long before the first ballots are cast. The above disparities are mostly a result of gerrymandering — redrawing district lines to isolate or divide communities in order to give one party an advantage — and it’s almost always to the benefit of Republicans. That’s why Northern New Jersey looks like this and I have to share my district with Eagles fans. It’s why Democrats would have needed a 7-point lead in order to break even in the House in 2012.
But a lot of would-be Democrats never make it to the polls. Young people rarely vote, but old people always do. Why? One reason is retirees don’t have school or a job to keep them from voting on a random Tuesday during midterm season. A solution would be to make Election Day a national holiday, or to make absentee voting easier, but the former never passes Congress and the latter has been actively opposed on grounds of preventing voter fraud.
But these are mild compared to instances of active voter suppression, as with the gubernatorial race in Georgia on Tuesday. Stacey Abrams, the would-be first black female governor of anywhere, ran against Brian Kemp, current Secretary of State of Georgia. One of Kemp’s responsibilities in that position? Running the state’s elections. Kemp purged 850,000 voter registrations because they hadn’t voted in the last two elections, and another 53,000 for minor discrepancies on their registration, like an initial in lieu of a middle name. So if you registered to vote for Obama, but didn’t want to support either Clinton or Trump, and you didn’t vote in 2016; or if you used your full name instead of your initial on your registration — sorry, Charlie. No civic engagement for you.
Since 2012, Kemp has shuttered 214 polling locations, disproportionately affecting Black communities. On election day, Kemp’s department delivered electronic voting machines — without the requisite power cords to turn them on. Kemp is in the lead with 50.3% of the vote, but votes are still being counted, and if he dips below 50%, they go to an automatic runoff.
In Florida, until this very election, people with former felony convictions, who had served their time, were barred from ever voting again. Last week, 64% of Florida voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution, re-enfranchising the formerly incarcerated (except those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes), resulting in up to 1.4 million new voters — including 418,000 Black Americans, representing almost 18% of black voters, and disproportionately affecting that community.
So I was interested. We know that populations that traditionally vote Democratic turn out (or are prevented from turning out) at way lower rates, on top of gerrymandering. In Georgia this year, millennials made up 22% of the population, but only 15% of voters — and that’s high. In Florida, Latinos make up 25% of the population, but again, around only 15% of the vote. So what if people turned out proportionally? What if minorities and younger people were able to vote at the same proportional rates as old white people?
All statistics are provided in percentages, rounded to the nearest tenth. Mouse over charts for more info. My data can be found here.
Georgia Population - Age Breakdown
Florida Population - Race Breakdown
Georgia Voter Turnout - Age Breakdown
Florida Voter Turnout - Race Breakdown
Democrats win every race. Using exit poll data from the Washington Post I looked at three races Democrats lost narrowly this: the Texas Senate, between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz; the Florida gubernatorial, between Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis; and the Georgia gubernatorial, between Abrams and Kemp. I re-weighted voting preference by race, and then separately by age. In both scenarios, for all three elections, the vote shifts significantly in favor of the Dems.
Georgia Gubernatorial Actual
GA Gubernatorial Age-Weighted
GA Gubernatorial Race-Weighted
FL Gubernatorial Race Actual
Texas Senatorial Race Actual
FL Gubernatorial Age-Weighted
TX Senatorial Age-Weighted
FL Gubernatorial Race-Weighted
TX Senatorial Race-Weighted
So what’s the takeaway? Republicans are punching way above their weight, benefiting from a variety of structural advantages accrued over decades of gerrymandering and efforts aimed at voter disenfranchisement. So if we want our government to more accurately represent our population (sort of key for a democratic republic) or even if you just want the Democrats to win in 2020, we need to focus on turnout and getting people to vote. But that means far more than simply posting about it on Facebook and linking vote.org — it means actively fighting voter suppression and rethinking the ways we enshrine equality (or the prevention thereof) in our institutions. It means fighting restrictive voter ID laws and ‘exact match’ policies and, yes, encouraging people to vote.
There’s a huge debate going on right now within the Democratic party: how do we win in 2020? Should we run the moderate candidate that can grab middle-of-the-road voters from the GOP? Or should we run the lefty liberal firebrand? Clinton or Sanders? Old guard or new?
Literally everyone and their mother thinks this election decisively decided that debate — but it’s not altogether clear in what direction. This guy says that it’s clear that progressive candidates are the way forward (despite Abrams and Gillum’s losses) by saying that strategies focusing on turnout were more successful than those focusing on swing voters, but fails to show why that couldn’t be espoused by a moderate candidate (which literally happened in Arizona). On the other hand, these folks say that it was moderates who performed well, pointing to 23 races in which candidates endorsed by the moderate New Democratic caucus flipped seats, while ignoring farther left, non-establishment candidates like Stacey Abrams, who, in spite of active voter suppression efforts, garnered more votes than any Democrat in Georgia — ever.
I looked at every House seat that flipped last Tuesday, and of the 36 that changed hands, 33 went to the Dems and 3 went red. I looked at the candidates, and whether they had had any prior public service as a metric for how “establishment” they were (i.e. politics, former military, campaign staff). Of the 33 new Democratic seats, 14 were won by people with no such experience, while the remaining 19 were won by candidates that might be considered less revolutionary, perhaps pointing to the prurience of a moderate methodology.
This debate extends into the discussion of how Democrats should use their newly-regained power in the House. Should they take the high road, re-elect Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, play nice, and compromise in order to get infrastructure legislation? Or should they shut down the government, block any and all bills out of the Senate, and impeach Trump? Reasoned bipartisanship or righteous anger?
Beware anyone who gives a simple, straightforward answer. America is neither simple nor straightforward — and our solutions shouldn’t pretend to be. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could not have won Kyrsten Sinema’s seat in Arizona, but she did manage to win in Queens by a larger margin than her predecessor had in 2012 and 2014, and as a result, our political discourse now includes proposals like guaranteed employment and student debt forgiveness. Likewise, it would be foolish of the Democrats to impeach Trump and spend the next two years isolating themselves — with only the House under their control, they can only obstruct, and play directly into the Republican tale of the rabid liberal snowflake — but to roll over and legitimize an administration that is actively working to dismantle American democracy would make them complicit. The Democratic base is rightfully angry, and their representatives should reflect that.
The Democrats won’t be able to legislate without the Senate. There may be space for compromise, but it will be slim. They can launch investigations, perform oversight, and impeach — though they can’t remove anyone, again, without the Senate.
Here’s what I would do: re-elect Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, with the explicit promise to replace her within one year. She’s the most effective manager in Congress, and no one can raise more money than she. But, her image is damaged — she’s toxic for Democrats running on a platform of change, and the Republicans know it, given Trump’s support of her. Leaving her in place would be bad for the Dems, but they don’t currently have a viable replacement (which is Pelosi’s own fault, to be fair). By promising a replacement, you maximize her potential early on, get her out of the way in advance of 2020, and train up a new leadership.
Next, reaffirm your confidence in the Mueller investigation. Double down on your support of his work, and refrain from launching a duplicate House investigation. Instead, use oversight capacity in the House to reign in the President’s worst tendencies. If the Mueller probe is shut down, get your hands on whatever report is produced, and leak it. If it’s unfinished, that’s when you get to investigate.
Offer to cooperate on infrastructure. It’s the one area of policy that might fly for both parties, and then, when it fails in the Senate because Republicans have promised not to spend another dollar (but tax cuts are fine!) you say “They walked away — not us.” Tap into that Michelle Obama “we go high” energy. You don’t want to be the first to walk away from the table.
Finally, pass bills in the House that outline your vision. None of them will make it through the Senate, but it will give the American people a sense of what they’ll get if Democrats take the White House and Senate in 2020. Define your agenda.
Here’s what’s likely to happen: Pelosi will win reelection as Speaker, and some new investigation against Trump will get going, maybe into his tax returns. This will play poorly for the Dems among moderates and Republicans. They’ll cooperate on infrastructure — which will anger their base — until Trump demands the wall be included, which will derail the whole thing. But, they will pass those bills necessary to outline their agenda for 2020: more expansive healthcare, minimum wage maybe, and almost certainly something on immigration.
2020 is going to be a hard election. You want to feel like it’s inevitable that Trump will not win reelection, but it could happen so easily. The next two years will define America’s future. I’ve said it before, but Trump as a one-term president vs. a two-term president are two very different things.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… well, I don’t want to be fooled twice. #fpf