The current electoral map of the United States illustrates the precarious nature of the political landscape. With 435 seats contested in the House of Representatives, the 2018 midterm elections will provide a clearer picture of public opinion on the Trump administration and the Washington estate. In 2016, Democrats faced their biggest loss in the presidential election since the rise of the Tea Party. This year, they need to win at least 24 seats in the lower chamber to win a majority by appealing to predominantly Republican districts and working-class voters.
Candidates from either side of the political aisle will be faced with a number of obstacles. The campaign strategy for Republicans depends on their desire to ride the President’s coattails or to distance themselves from the executive office. On the one hand, whilst many conservatives enjoyed the latest tax cuts and protectionist policies, Mr. Trump’s use of racial rhetoric, defamation of his opponents, and appeal to hard-liner conservatives have encouraged candidates to openly criticize the executive branch without retribution. On the other hand, a tweet of endorsement from Mr. Trump may convince undecided voters, just enough to make a difference. With his current job approval rating at 42%, his highest since May 2017, Republican candidates may not have a choice but to adopt a Trump-like rhetoric to appeal to his voter base.
Across the political aisle, Democrats who wish to replace incumbent Republicans will have to court financially conservative voters whilst promoting a progressive social agenda. This approach is critical in white-collar suburban areas who may be socially liberal but vote with their wallet and adhere to lower taxes on the wealthy. In 2016, the Democratic Party failed to appeal to blue-collar workers who would have benefited from progressive policies and government entitlements. If they are going to emerge victorious, Congressional candidates will have to do better and present themselves as a strong alternative to Republicans in non-educated whites in rural areas sympathetic to harsh immigration policies and tariffs on foreign imports.
The implications for this election are critical as Democrats are two seats away from gaining a majority in the Senate. A Democratic majority would permit liberals to push funding for public education and healthcare as well as block Mr. Trump’s judicial nominees from being confirmed. Then again, a divided government will most likely lead to gridlock, particularly with Mr. Trump’s tendency to refuse to engage in negotiations. However, if Republicans maintain a majority in the House and gain additional seats in the Senate, they will push for an additional repeal of the Affordable Care Act, order more tax cuts, and increase defence spending at the expense of environmental protection. Additionally, with Paul Ryan’s upcoming resignation, the Speakership will most likely be filled with a hard liner conservative, sympathetic to Mr. Trump’s brand of conservatism thereby pushing the Republican Party further to the right.
In addition to Congressional elections, voters will also need to pay attention to gubernatorial and state legislature elections. There are currently 27 states in which Republicans control the governor’s office, the state senate, and the state house – compared to eight states with a Democratic trifecta. This ideological composition of state legislatures will prove critical with the upcoming 2020 census. Local governments will control the redistricting process which will impact the 2022 presidential election and subsequent congressional elections. Whilst they may be several years away, the redistricting process is highly politicized as Republicans and Democrats alike practice gerrymandering – drawing congressional lines with the intent of maximizing their voting strength in each district whilst spreading the electoral support of the opposing party in as many districts as possible in order to weaken their voting power. District lines are approved by a state governor, a supermajority, or a joint resolution in the state legislature. This practice protects each party from the potential opposition in state elections by minimizing the voice of targeted demographic groups. With most governors serving four-year long terms, the decision made by American voters this year will impact their votes for the next ten years.
Whilst the 2018 midterm elections have long-lasting consequences, the lack of turnout in previous elections reduces the likelihood of turnover in the legislative branches at the state and federal levels. In 2014, the voter turnout rate was 41,9%, down by 3,6 points from the 2010 elections. With low turnout, the voices of few determine the fate of the majority. In this case, the voices of the senior voters speak for the youth. In 2014, 23,1% of 18-to-34-year-olds voted in the midterm elections compared to 59,4% for senior voters. In 2016, 70,9% of 65 years and older voted compared to 46,1% of 18-to-29-year olds. Older voters lean Republican while younger people are more likely to vote for Democrats. If the latter want to win back Congress in 2018 and present a strong front against President Trump, they must appeal to newly registered voters who lack political awareness.
Mr. Trump won the 2016 presidential election by refusing to play by Washington’s rules. He was an agent for change who promised salvation to working-class Americans left behind in the wake of President Obama’s message of hope. The presidential elections demonstrated the ability of Republicans to court right-wing voters by adopting a radical discourse. Democrats ought to attract voters on the left by popularizing the virtues of socialist policies. To win back the votes they lost to Republicans, they just might need to adopt similar rhetoric used by Bernie Sanders in 2016.
Heloise Martorell is a Senior Political Analyst for American politics and foreign affairs at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. An Alumni (’17) of Concordia University with a Bachelor of Arts with Distinction in Political Science and Human Rights, Heloise is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in American History and Politics at University College of London. Former positions include Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Political Affairs as well as Editor for the Arts and Science Federation of Associations. Her thesis will be on the American speakership and political polarisation.