G. Terry Madonna & Michael Young: A better crystal ball for midterms
“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future” is one of Yogi Berra’s best-known quotes. It’s succinct, witty and captures a universal truth, universally ignored in an age of pollsters, pundits and other would- be prognosticators willing to share their crystal balls with us.
No one knows the future — no one.
In forecasting elections, the best we can really do is identify the factors that might influence electoral outcomes. In 2018, four of these factors loom large: the midterm curse; turnout; women candidates; and the role of President Trump.
The midterm curse, the bane of almost every administration back to the Civil War, will almost inevitably inflict electoral pain on Republicans. The question is how much pain — and how much will it matter. Several recent midterms paint bleak prospects for Republicans. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, every president but one has lost seats in their first House midterm. Reagan lost 26 seats, Clinton 54, and Obama led the way with a stunning 63 seat loss. On the other hand, not every midterm has been this bad for the ruling party. George W. Bush’s Republican Party actually gained eight House seats after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, while George H. W. Bush in 1990 lost only eight and Obama in 2014 lost only 13. In 2018, all three of these latter midterms would have preserved Congress for Republicans since Democrats now need to pick up 23 seats to win the House. In short, the vaunted midterm curse may be more of a bump in the road than a roadblock for Republicans aspiring to keep control of Congress.
Election turnout projections figure in virtually every Election Day scenario. The current consensus expects widespread Democratic enthusiasm to produce a so-called “blue wave” of voters that will banish Republicans from the U.S. House and maybe the U.S. Senate. But a “red wave” cannot be ruled out, driven by Trump’s campaigning and lingering GOP anger over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination fight .
Women candidates have emerged as major factors in 2018. Almost 50 percent of the Democratic candidates for the House are female. Despite recent gains, women still constitute only about 20 percent of the House, and about 25 percent of state legislatures. But more women (309) are running for Congress and state legislatures (2,380) than ever before , many of them running very strong races . Unknown is how they will do against entrenched incumbents (who tend to be male). Among voters who express a preference, Republicans prefer men about 2 to 1, while Democrats prefer women about 7 to 2. Clearly, Democratic support for female candidates will be the key to women’s electoral fate in 2018.
Donald Trump is not on the ballot, but he is the dominating presence of the campaign. His anemic approval rating earlier in the year seemed to make this a huge plus for Democrats. Lately, however, Trump’s approval rating has moved up, reaching some 44 percent in the RealClearPolitics average , slightly less than Obama in his 2010 midterm . More importantly, he has campaigned aggressively among his loyal base urging them to vote in an election many historically skip. The “Trump factor” is a genuine wild card in 2018. Among his base he almost certainly is helping Republicans in close races — while among voters who dislike him, he is toxic. Hardly the first president to be a mixed blessing along the campaign trail. Trump has reveled in his infamy while celebrating his celebrity. It’s just not what voters feel about Trump, but the intensity of those feelings may turn out to be the most important factor in the race.
These five factors leave us with questions rather than predictions — how important will mid-term history be, the influence of women, the salience of the health care issue, the role of President Trump and what turnout will be.
But all get answered on Election Day.
That’s a prediction even Yogi might make.
G. Terry Madonna is a professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael Young is a speaker, pollster, author and was a professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State.
They can be reached at [email protected]
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