Opinion

Maybe Stu Rothenberg Isn’t So Bad at This After All

2016 was a disaster, 2018 not so much

From left, Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen.-elect Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., talk during a photo-op in Schumer’s office in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Boy, I stunk up the joint in 2016. I was sure that Donald Trump wouldn’t — couldn’t — win the presidency, and I said so without any “ifs” or “buts.” I didn’t pay enough attention to the possibility that Trump could lose the popular vote badly but still win an Electoral College majority. I tried to explain my mistakes as completely as I could in an end-of-the-year Washington Post column.

But this year, watching the midterms from 10,000 feet instead of being in the weeds, I feel pretty good about my analysis throughout the cycle. Maybe it was dumb luck. Maybe it was years of watching campaigns and candidates. Maybe it was some of each.

In January 2017, I noted that Trump’s very fast start almost guaranteed the House would be in play in 2018. Throughout the cycle, I argued that the midterms would be a referendum on Trump, since he was such a huge political figure who made everything about himself. None of this sat well with the president’s supporters, who were kind enough to remind me how wrong I was about 2016.

At least a year before the midterms, it should have been clear that 2018 was going to be about Trump. He polarized the country and the electorate, guaranteeing the midterms were going to be nationalized, not localized as the majority party inevitably wants (since it is easier to keep a majority that way).

Early fixations

Far too many observers watched the generic ballot numbers and Trump’s job performance numbers in the fall of 2017 and early weeks of 2018 as if their daily changes meant something dramatic. Of course, they didn’t, because polls bounce around within (and sometimes outside) the margin of error and most people aren’t giving much thought to elections almost a year away.

Moreover, there is so much time left until balloting begins that over-obsessing about the early numbers is simply an invitation to read too much into them. That’s why the fundamentals of any election cycle are so important.

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But hot-off-the-press survey results, no matter the credentials or track record of the pollsters, make for reliable copy. It’s easy to fill airtime dissecting a 5-point drop in the Democrats’ generic ballot advantage or a 5-point increase in Trump’s job approval — never mind that primaries are still to come, crucial events have not yet occurred, and less partisan voters (who, I have found over the years, vote often on mood and personality) have not yet focused on the candidates or the meaning of the midterms.

I’m sure that some may think that my repeated warnings about the unchanging trajectory of the election cycle was a case of a stopped watch being correct twice a day. But all the early 2018 talk about the Democrats’ generic ballot advantage disappearing (see my column of Feb. 12 here) and the Republican chatter about the blue wave dissipating four or five weeks ago was baloney.

Yes, there was a wave, and it was a sizable one. All the elements of a wave appeared. The election was about something big — the performance of the president. Sure, campaigns talked about health care, immigration and the economy, but at the end of the day, the shadow of Donald Trump hung over the balloting, causing many voters to see their votes — both for and against him — as a part of a referendum on the occupant of the White House.

One party flipped a large number of seats (probably 38-42 when all of the votes are counted), while the other party had minimal takeaways (most likely three seats). The net change was large, in the range of 35 to 40 seats. In addition, the close races fell mostly in one direction, to the Democrats. Swing seats fell, but a few unexpected long shots also flipped (Oklahoma’s 5th District, New York’s 11th and South Carolina’s 1st, for example).

The more things change

Shortly before Election Day, I penned a column expressing my uncertainty about whether the old rules of campaigns and politics would still apply for this midterm. They did. Republican nominees running anywhere from slightly ahead to slightly behind generally lost. Republican turnout was good; Democratic turnout was even better.

Democratic strategists deserve to take a sigh of relief. On the Senate side, losing a net of just two seats when the map was as horrible as it was for Democrats was a good showing. Early in the evening, Republican gains of four or even five seats seemed very possible.

Over on the House side, the folks at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have the right to still be toasting their success. It wasn’t that long ago that political observers were asserting that, given the state congressional maps, it would be impossible for the Democrats to take back the House until at least after the next round of reapportionment and redistricting. Indeed, at the start of the 2018 cycle, few were suggesting that the House would even be “in play.”

No, 36 seats is not 48 seats or 63 seats, but it is a large number historically, and it dramatically changes the political equation for the next two years. The combination of history and the electoral fundamentals suggested for many months that a House wave would arrive in November. The only question was exactly how large it would be. As it turned out, it was big enough to flip the House rather easily but not big enough to completely overcome the Senate map.

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