It seems the entire U.S. population has spent the last two years in search of a good adjective to describe the national mood. We like concise descriptors, and tidy summaries. We’ve called our nation, “polarized.” We’ve called it, “partisan.”
Everyone appeared to bank on the 2018 midterm elections sending a dramatic signal about the will of the American electorate, and offering up that adjective we’ve all been searching for. Then the results started coming in, and we were all disappointed.
In the end, the elections didn’t provide a clear and concise narrative. Democrats rode a wave of support in urban and suburban districts to wrest control of the House of Representatives, while President Trump’s 2016 coalition appeared to hold in more rural states, helping Republicans retain – and make gains in – the U.S. Senate.
What Happened Yesterday
According to New York Times estimates, 114 million votes were cast in House races, up from the 83 million in the last midterm elections in 2014. In Texas alone, more than 8.3 million votes were cast this year. That’s nearly double the 4.6 million votes cast there in 2014.
Nationwide popular vote totals won’t be officially finalized for several weeks, but in the end Democrats will have bested Republicans by at least 9 percentage points (and possibly as large as 10.5 or 11). That’s a dramatic margin. The largest modern Republican waves, in 2010 and 1994, the GOP had nationwide victories of just over 7 percent. Democrats rode an 8.0 percent margin to historic control of both the House and Senate in 2006.
State-level races across the country were a mixed bag as well. Governors mansions in at least seven states flipped to Democratic control, but voters did not deliver the wave that many Democrats seemed to expect.
Instead of offering a unifying narrative, this election left Americans with an accurate-feeling reflection of where the country stands today; divided politically, socioeconomically and regionally, while at the same time historically engaged in our politics.
What Happens Next
All of this means that the era of divided government is back, and we expect increasing gridlock in the legislature as parties begin posturing and positioning themselves for 2020. Democrats are likely to use their newfound House majority to conduct muscular oversight of the Trump Administration, using their subpoena power to call into question nearly every personnel and policy decision the president has made or will make.
Republicans seem poised to focus their Senate majority on confirming federal judges, a strategy they feel proved useful in terms of both policy and politics.
We expect a major shake-up in the president’s cabinet, with likely departures at Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Interior. The president’s chief of staff, press secretary and Secretary of Commerce appear to be considering new opportunities as well.
What It All Means
Once the new House of Representatives is sworn in on January 3rd, it should quickly become clear how they plan on spending the next two years. Their choices are stark – either fight the Administration or focus on compromise policy. They may try to do both, but the incentives, at least to Democrats’ base, point to the former.
Still, Democrats will have to find some opportunities to prove to voters they’re more than just the party against Trump, and it’s possible that some compromise legislation could crystallize on issues where there is at least some bipartisan agreement, including infrastructure, energy and online privacy.
Regardless of how Democrats in the House posture their newfound power, the most likely outcome is more gridlock, more division and more pitched political battles as we head into 2020. Without a clear signal from voters about where to focus their efforts, both sides are likely to look for opportunities to throw red meat to the base. That means there’s little incentive to work together and little upside to toning down the rhetoric.