Sarah Rosier of Ballotpedia.com can’t remember a more active midterm election than today’s. Her organization, which calls itself the “digital encyclopedia of American politics,” has been compiling election data since 2007 and has never seen more interest.
“It’s the most excitement we’ve had,” says Rosier. “In terms of page visitors, views, this is the highest.”
And why not? The first midterm contest after Donald Trump’s election is packed with more drama than we usually see in a congressional election. Ballotpedia rates 80 House races today as battleground, with 71 of those involving Republican incumbents. A big swing is not only possible but highly likely.
In tonight’s TV coverage, the heightened competition will be played up. CNN’s John King will probably develop carpal tunnel syndrome after another marathon night grappling with his famed “magic wall.”
King’s network will have wall-to-wall coverage as we await results on key questions: Will the Democrats retake the House in a “blue wave”? Will Stacey Abrams become the first African American woman governor? Will Beto dispatch Ted Cruz?
Eighty House battleground races is an unusually high number, for a variety of reasons. Some 56 incumbents chose not to run for re-election this year, compared to 40 in 2016, and those 16 extra “open seats” – races not involving an incumbent – significantly add to the volatility.
We also have an unusually high number of “pivot” seats, i.e. districts that have Republican representatives but voted for Clinton in the last election (or vice-versa). Other factors include once-safe Republican incumbents dropping in the polls, redistricting in key states like Pennsylvania, and other issues.
But subtract 80 from 435 and you still get 355 races that are excluded from even Ballotpedia’s pretty expansive list of competitive races. Other sites have put the number of true toss-ups in the 20s or 30s, with FiveThirtyEight.com identifying 34 “highly competitive” races.
That suggests even in a volatile year that’s seen a lot of early voting and is steeped in controversy thanks to our freak-show president, upwards of 82 percent of House districts are likely to be non-competitive.
It’s traditionally worse. In 2014, Ballotpedia rated 26 races “battlegrounds.” In 2016, in the midst of a historically ugly presidential race, that number dropped to 23. Only 5.3 percent of congressional races that year, in other words, were really competitive.
The non-competitive nature of House races has long been America’s dirty little secret. In fact, if you look at the numbers, it’s kind of an amazing story.
In the 1800s, House turnover averaged 45 percent per cycle, and 15 election cycles saw more than half the House turnover, according to Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. After 1882, turnover never again exceeded 50 percent, and the power of incumbency steadily grew.
Incumbent re-election was in the 80 percent range in the 1940s. In the past 27 cycles dating back to 1964, incumbents were re-elected at a rate above 85 percent. From 2006 to 2016, the rate climbed to 92.5 percent, with the last two cycles seeing incumbent re-election rates of 95 percent and 97 percent.
Meanwhile, a certain number of House races every year are literally non-competitive. This year, 42 races — 9.7 percent of all House elections –— contain only one major-party candidate. A full 39 of those seats lack a Republican candidate, while just three don’t have a Democrat running — a vast improvement for the Dems, who had no candidate in 27 races in 2016, and in 36 races in 2014.
Still, there have been 125 districts in 28 states that had just one major-party candidate running at some point in the last three election cycles.
Add to this the overwhelming power of incumbency – which among other things has a lot to do with how fundraising can decide elections – and what you get is a congressional electoral picture in which only a few voters nationwide really get to participate in a meaningful way, at least insofar as the House goes. The two parties marshal their campaign funds very carefully, and effectively concede races in a majority of districts.
Part of the problem has to do with gerrymandering, and efforts are being made (as in Pennsylvania, where courts broke up an absurdly drawn map that disenfranchised urban voters) to correct that problem. But there’s still a Kabuki theater element to congressional elections that typically goes uncovered amid all the fever surrounding the competition.
The “battlegrounds” John King and Wolf Blitzer will be stressing over tonight are essentially those few districts where the two parties have agreed to fight in earnest. Again, in about 10 percent of districts they don’t fight at all, and in a much higher percentage the contest between Democrats and Republicans is mostly symbolic.
Congressional districts have become more polarized, so it seemingly doesn’t make sense for some parties to spend to compete in some places.
But does the electoral map look as stark as it does – wholly blue in urban areas, almost entirely red everywhere else – because the parties by unspoken assent have for so long not been making a case to each others’ voters? Could the lack of competitiveness be a cause of polarization, and not just a symptom of it?
Whatever the reason, a lot of those voting today won’t have the same impact on their national legislature as voters do in countries that have proportional representation systems, like Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Ballotpedia’s Rosier notes one other thing to think about as you watch the coverage today. “We’ll be hearing a lot about how it’s a wave, it’s a wave, it’s a wave,” she says. “But it might not be.”
The Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to regain the House, and this is going to be a big achievement if they do. But the first midterm election after a new president comes to office pretty much always goes badly for the president’s party.
Since 1934, there have only been two midterm elections in which the president’s party won seats in both houses, and even those were just modest gains, by Roosevelt in 1934 and a post-9/11 George Bush in 2002.
The president’s party far more often gets walloped in these situations. Eisenhower’s Republicans lost 18 seats in 1954 and 48 seats in 1958. Ronald Reagan’s GOP lost 26 seats in 1982. Bill Clinton’s Dems lost 52 seats in 1994, and Obama was torn up by the Tea Party movement in 2010 to the tune of 63 House seats.
A big mistake a lot of us in the press made in 2016 was to assume that the mold had been shattered by the presence of reality monster Donald Trump on the ticket.
In truth, Trump eked out a win largely based on capturing the votes even a less insane Republican might have. The few prognosticators who warned that landslides are no longer all that likely and crossover voting is more rare than ever amid a polarized electorate – even with a candidate as far out of the main as Trump – turned out to be right.
In the same vein, it’s probably smart to remember that even with Trump in the picture, America typically votes a certain way in midterm races. Ballotpedia suggests the Republicans would need to lose 48 House seats (and seven Senate seats, and seven gubernatorial seats) for tonight to represent a truly unusual “wave” election.
There’s probably no way the Senate flips that way, but those other numbers are probably in reach. No matter what, we’ll find out a lot about how America feels about Donald Trump tonight, and whether the Democrats chose to fight in the right places.