The 2018 Election – A Tale of Two Elections

Throughout 2018, Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy, veteran political scientists and authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century, have written about the mid-term election. This latest post is their end cap on the coverage. You can read their previous pieces here:

Following the 2018 Election – A Preview

Following the 2018 Election – Why Elections Matter

Following the 2018 Election – Why Money Matters

The Shape of the 2018 Election – New Volunteers, New Movements?

The Shape of the 2018 Election – The Blue Wave in 2018

The 2018 Election – A Tale of Two Elections by Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy

The Blue Wave came, especially in many Midwest states, but it did not sweep away Trump or Trumpian Republicanism. When the dust settled, the Republicans still controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives.

The Democrats made gains most importantly in the suburbs. Republicans became ever more entrenched in the rural areas.

The youth vote grew almost exponentially and the Latino vote expanded dramatically. Still many of the elections turned on the persona of the candidates and issues that mattered to different local constituents. As Speaker Tip O’Neal famously said, “All politics is local.” And that was true of the 2018 elections. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all election despite issues discussed nationally such as pre-existing conditions in health care, the caravan approaching the border, or immigration more generally.

It was the most expensive mid-term election in history. In the most expensive gubernatorial campaign in the nation’s history; in winning the governorship of Illinois, Democrat J. B. Pritzker donated over $170 million to his campaign and Republican Bruce Rauner spent almost $70 million of his own money. That meant that Pritzker paid $79.20 a vote.  Most congressional candidates who defeated incumbents spent over $4 million each.

Beyond the huge amounts of money, the candidates who won their races in 2018 mostly followed the fundamentals of campaigns set forth in our book, Winning Elections in the 21st Century: A clear theme or message distinguishing themselves from their opponent; a strong “free media” campaign; a paid media campaign; direct mail and phone campaign; sufficient volunteers to work key precincts guided by voter analytics; and a sophisticated social media effort. This assumes that the candidate was attractive and had clear issue positions on those questions that most concerned the voters in their district.

There were some clear trends in the election. Republicans retained most of their U.S. Senate seats even as Democrats won at least 30 House seats, giving them at least a majority of 225-200 with 10 seats still undecided as of November 10.

One of the biggest changes came in gubernatorial elections. Democrats lost high-profile gubernatorial races in Iowa and Ohio. But they were able to flip Republican gubernatorial seats in seven states — Illinois, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico and Wisconsin. The Florida race is close enough for a recount. This diminishes the GOP’s previous control of state governments to now 26-23 with the Georgia gubernatorial election also still to be decided. Democrats also flipped seven state legislative chambers and gained a veto-proof majority in Illinois.

In addition to results favoring Democrats, this election may well be noted as one that began more active participation in politics from nontraditional political actors. One important development was how women, nonwhite, and LGTB candidates ran for office across the nation, changing the political landscape. For the first time, Hispanic voters matched their share of eligible voting population and nationwide, 69% voted for Democrats. Women became more active in politics not simply as supporters, but as candidates on all levels.

Overall, the women’s vote was equally divided 49-49, but minority and youth turnout was higher (both groups favoring Democrats), giving women Democratic candidates an edge nationwide. In the U.S. House, at least 102 women were elected (6 races still undecided in which women are running). Twelve women were elected to the Senate (with one race still undecided) and nine women were victors in gubernatorial races (with one undecided). Many women and minorities of both sexes decided to run as Democrats for suburban and other local offices that had previously gone unopposed, often tapping into the power of the grassroots organizations generated after Trump’s election. Many of these candidates won, changing the geopolitics of suburban America and providing a base of experienced Democratic candidates for future races.

All of this sets up the 2020 Presidential election year as a critical election to decide the future direction of the nation and the two political parties. President Trump remains hugely popular with his base but they are a minority of the population now and will be even more so in 2020. Yet, the Democrats have to prove they can play a positive role in the national governing and in the states where they made gains.  If they can continue to run effective, well-funded campaigns, they have the advantage. But there can be wars, economic collapse, further trade wars, and national disasters between now and then. What remains constant is the need to run effective campaigns based upon the new rules of the game at the end of the second decade in the 21st century.

Dick Simpson is professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the co-editor with Dennis Judd of The City, Revisited: Urban Theory from Chicago, Los Angeles, New York.

Betty O’Shaughnessy is a visiting lecturer in political science, University of Illinois at Chicago and coauthor of The Struggle for Power and Influence in Cities and States.