Many are currently speculating we face a wave election in 2018, citing the special election in PA-18 as Exhibit A. While making for an interesting debate for the pundits on cable news, what really is important to be talking about is historical midterm performance, recent GOP performance since 2016, and any implications or lessons we can learn from this headed into 2018.
This memo outlines the environment Republicans across the country face heading into November and the tactics you can employ in your state and/or district to insulate yourself and your allies from “the wave.”
HISTORIC & RECENT ELECTION TRENDS
PRESIDENTIAL APPROVAL & IMPACT AT THE FEDERAL LEVEL
Since the end of World War II, the party in control of the White House has, on average, had a net loss of 26 House seats in midterm elections. Furthermore, since 1938, there have only been two times (1998 and 2002) where the sitting president has gained House seats in the midterm.
House Democrats currently need to win 24 seats to retake the chamber.
- According to Gallup, the average number of U.S. House seats that a president loses when their approval rating is under 50% is 33.
- As of March 11th, 2018, President Trump’s approval rating stood at 39%. For context, the last time a president was under 40% in a midterm was 2006, when President Bush was at 37% and Republicans lost both the House and Senate.
While the House is defending 23 seats held by a Republican incumbent that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, the U.S. Senate map is a much brighter spot for Republicans this year.
For example, Democrats are defending seats in five states that Trump won handily: Indiana (Trump +19.0 points), Missouri (+18.5), Montana (+20.2), North Dakota (+35.7), and West Virginia (+41.7).
The graph below details the history of midterms dating back to 1934 and how each party has fared since on the federal level.
SPECIAL ELECTIONS & DEMOCRAT ENTHUSIASM
Looking at one election in a vacuum can present an incomplete picture of the political landscape because campaigns and candidates still matter. Until the race for PA-18 this week, there have been 95 special elections in 26 states that featured at least 1 Democrat candidate against at least 1 Republican candidate.
- Democrats outperformed their partisan lean (defined as the average difference between how a district voted in the past 2 presidential elections and how the country voted overall, with 2016 results weighted 75% and 2012 results weighted 25%) by 13.2 points.
- Looking at just the 8 special elections at the federal level, Democrats have outperformed their partisan lean by an astonishing 17%. See chart below:
This increase in Democrat performance from the special elections of 2017 and 2018 has continued into the 2018 primaries.
- In the first primary of the 2018 cycle, Democrat turnout in Texas was up 84% from 2014.
- While Democrats cast over 1 million primary votes for the first time since 2002, Texas Republicans also voted in record numbers by casting over 1.5 million votes.
In the days following, many pundits scoffed at the “blue wave” that didn’t hit Texas. However, much like the U.S. Senate maps, not all Republicans running will be able to rely on structural advantages like we have in Texas. Where the pundits got it wrong is to not look at the macro trends like overall turnout in Texas, which is not in danger of turning blue, but instead need to look at micro trends like the fact that 23.7% of the early voters in the top 15 largest counties in the Democratic primary were first time primary voters. These counties are both urban and suburban and signal another sign of enthusiasm by the Democrats. We will continue to monitor the primaries and will get an even clearer picture after May 8th when Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia hold their primaries.
One of the most overlooked stories of the 2018 elections is the legislative seats and chambers at play this cycle. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), 6,066 state legislative seats are up for regular elections this year. That’s 82 percent of all seats – with 46 states having scheduled legislative elections and 87 out of 99 state legislative chambers. Republicans currently hold historic majorities at the legislative level and have essentially crested in the number of seats and chambers we hold.
- Data from the NCSL shows that since 2016, Democrats have netted 40 legislative seats across the country compared to just 4 that have flipped to Republicans.
- The party who has held the White House has lost seats in 27 of the last 29 midterms, averaging a loss of 375 seats nationwide.
- During the last midterm, 11 chambers flipped from Democratic control to Republican while the GOP lost none to the Democrats in 2014.
Republicans are in jeopardy of losing approximately 12 legislative chambers this cycle. See below for detailed breakdown of Republican vs. Democratic control of state legislatures.
It’s important to note that primaries and special elections are not perfect predictors of how a general election will fair and that not all midterm elections are alike. But what cannot be ignored is that there are significant historical and recent trends that indicate Republicans across the country – in both battleground and traditionally safe areas – are headed into a hostile election cycle.
What can you do? Candidates will need to work harder on preparation, build real Name ID, and leverage the best data and analytics available to them to build their path to victory – more so than ever before. By preparing ahead for a worse case scenario, this will ensure you are both persuading and turning out the right voters to reach your vote goal even if you encounter a high Democrat turnout environment. Majority Strategies is well positioned to help candidates, committees, caucuses, and other outside organizations make a real impact during this election cycle. Our suggested tactics include:
Weathering an onslaught of motivated voters and contrasting against opponents requires money. Waiting until the summer to fundraise or begin building a war chest is a fool’s errand in an environment like this. Plus, hoping outside groups spend significantly in your race is NOT a strategy. Raise early and raise often.
IDENTIFY YOUR PATH TO VICTORY
Understanding who the right voters to persuade and turnout will be critical this election cycle. Charting a path to victory and being disciplined on that path will be critical to winning this fall. It is hard to overstate the importance of targeting and audience building for this cycle. Majority Strategies will work with you to analyze historic election performance in your district and the latest modeling to outline what various turnout scenarios look like in your district and how that should impact your persuasion and turnout strategies.
INVEST IN LOW PROPENSITY VOTERS
There will be hundreds of races that are won on the margins this cycle. Campaigns simply can’t wait until September to message voters and hope they turn out. We are seeing trends of once reliably Republican voters moving away from the party. Midterms are about turnout and the best way to bridge the enthusiasm gap is to target and message to low propensity Republican voters beginning this spring and summer.
BUILD YOUR ONLINE PRESENCE EARLY
Building a strong digital presence is one of the most effective investments campaigns and candidates can make. The media’s obsession with the day to day palace intrigue in the White House and glee over doomsday predictions for this fall means that campaigns will have to take their message directly to voters and get their message out. Targeted digital ads that focus on building real Name ID and data collection coupled with 1:1 targeting of voters can create a powerful weapon and help get ahead of the national trends. If voters know and like candidates, they can be insulated from the hostility directed at Washington. Plus, by building this early, your organization can utilize digital effectively for turnout in the fall.
There is no argument this election cycle is shaping up to be historically tough for Republicans. Our advice is to let the pundits debate whether a wave is coming and focus on the fact you might be facing some hazardous headwinds come November. Preparation and starting earlier than ever before for the tough fights ahead will be imperative. We look forward to talking about how Majority Strategies can help you this cycle.