by Betty O’Shaughnessy and Dick Simpson, authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century
This year’s elections have revealed the most polarized nation since 1968. With the recent conviction and plea bargains of two of the president’s top aides, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, presidential impeachment is now part of political discourse.
In addition, both parties show divisions, Republicans between the old-line moderate Republicans and rabid Trump supporters; Democrats between independent-minded progressives and establishment Democrats.
Money is certainly still a factor in this election — candidates from both parties depend on massive donations which have been unregulated since the Citizens United court decision. Nonetheless, it is likely that turnout rather than money will be the deciding factor in the November general elections. Marches in the street may presage marches to the polls this year – at least by comparison to other non-presidential elections in the past.
The elephant in the room is the threat of presidential impeachment. Leaders from both parties are reluctant to push for impeachment before the election, preferring first to let Robert Mueller’s investigation run its course. According to The Hill, Democrats feel that focusing on impeachment could be politically unsafe for Senate Democrats, who are defending 10 seats in states won by Trump in 2016. At the same time, the New York Times reports that senior Republican Party leaders are urging their most imperiled incumbents to speak out about the wrongdoing surrounding President Trump, with the fear that “Where there’s smoke, and there’s a lot of smoke, there may well be fire.” This is enlarging the rift between the Trump White House and the Republican-controlled Congress.
Although both parties show divisions, they are more pronounced in the Republican Party. Some Republican leaders are calling on their candidates with tough races to stop defending Trump, but to paraphrase the once-party leader and recent primary loser Tim Pawlenty, the Republican Party has become “the Party of Trump.”
No one faction is winning all the primary elections in either party. Rather, the extent to which candidates’ positions are in harmony with those of their constituents seems to determine the winners In this election, especially “all politics is local.” Both moderates and radicals have won their party’s primaries.
While money is an important factor in any election and this will be the most expensive non-presidential election ever held, turnout will determine election outcome. Generally low during midterm elections, Pew Research reports that U.S. House primary turnout is 84% higher for Democrats and 24% for Republicans than 2014. It has also been higher in most gubernatorial and senatorial elections. Turnout has increased most among women but also groups who have not voted in recent elections, such as minorities and young voters. Since the Parkland shooting, registration for voters 18-29 has increased by 2.16% nationwide, and among several battleground states like Pennsylvania it has gone up 16%. The goal for various national organization has been to increase youth voting from a low of 19% four years ago to above 30% and that goal is almost certain to be achieved, with an increase of more than 2 million voters in this category alone.
Post-millennials have a higher sense of political efficacy than slightly older Millennials. And they tend to vote Democratic/progressive. Younger candidates on the ballot may also be more appealing to this generation, who believe they can make a difference. In 2108 challenging candidates are younger and more have won their primary elections. Governing magazine reports that while the average age of incumbent governors facing election is 62, most candidates running against them are 50 or younger. The same is true up and down the ballot.
Turnout remains the key. If women, minorities, youth and the LGBT community come out to vote, the Democrats will win in 2018. But to build a long-term winning coalition, they must also truly listen to the people who felt so ignored that they voted for Donald Trump in the first place. In a time of polarization in a politics of resentment, it is hard to mobilize the base and bring back alienated voters.
It is impossible at this point to predict whether Republicans can maintain their Congressional majority or the Democrats can take over the House and change U.S. policies. The election will be critical. If the Democrats win back either House, they will block all future Trump administration policies and legislative efforts. The election will set the stage for the 2020 election which will determine whether progressives or conservatives guide the future of our country.
Dick Simpson and Betty O’Shaughnessy are authors of Winning Elections in the 21st Century, which provides a guide to understanding the nuts and bolts of current elections.