History suggests the 2018 congressional elections won’t be kind to Republicans. In half of the eight midterms since 1986, the party occupying the White House lost majority control of the Senate. In only two House off-year elections since 1934 has the president’s party enjoyed net seat gains — in 1998, when voters were reacting to GOP efforts to continue with the impeachment of Bill Clinton, when George W. Bush’s War on Terror was in its infancy. Still, the Democrats won only five in the first contest, and Republicans just eight in the second.
A president’s approval ratings are related to his party’s fortunes in the midterms, and therefore President Trump should only make things worse. At around 35 percent in recent polls, Trump’s score is the lowest for any modern president this early in his term. As most of his predecessors would tell you, it generally goes downhill from here. Barack Obama was at 44 percent, enjoying an identically sized majority as the GOP does now, when the Democrats lost the House in 2010. Bush was where Trump finds himself now as Republicans lost both chambers in 2006, and Clinton was at 46 percent when the Republican Revolution took out 54 House and eight Senate Democrats in 1994.
It’s comforting to know that Republicans tend to show up more than Democrats in midterms. They are habitual voters. In 2014, according to exit polls, 30 percent of voters had incomes in excess of $100,000, and 65 percent were over 45 years old. Two years earlier, in a presidential race, these figures were 28 and 54, respectively. But as we know, Trump’s base doesn’t match the party’s. Will Republicans who don’t like Trump be energized? Will Trump voters turn out and then vote for the GOP? White voters without a college degree, a group Trump won 2-to-1, are in steep decline as a share of the electorate and should make up less than a third of it for the first time ever in 2018.
Is this pessimism borne out by a state-by-state, district-by-district analysis? Here it looks better for Republicans. Of the 33 Senate seats up in the 2018 cycle, only eight are defended by Republicans and, with the exception of Dean Heller’s Nevada seat, all look fairly safe at the moment. Ten Democrat-held seats are in states Trump won in 2016 — although against popular incumbents, many of them remain longshots for the GOP.
Things are only a little less rosy on the House side. Republicans there benefit from a GOP bias in how the districts are currently drawn. In the 2016 House elections, for example, Republicans won 50.6 percent of the two-party vote but 55.4 percent of the seats. Although Trump lost the national popular vote, the median House district — that is the middle when all are lined up in order of their results from most-Trump to most-Clinton — supported him by 3.5 percent.
Using that as a starting point, Democrats would need a 3.5 percent swing in their favor just to get to 218 House seats, the narrowest possible majority. Such a movement against Trump’s mark also puts the Democrats at 55 percent of the two-party vote in a national contest. It’s tough, though not impossible, to imagine they can win by 10 percentage points in 2018. A few generic congressional party polls show Democrats have led by that much, including a July Washington Post/ABC News survey that had them ahead 52-38.
The obstacle in front of House Democrats might be thought of in another way. If you add together all the districts won by Clinton to the number of districts won by Trump that are now occupied by Democrats, you get to 217, one short of a majority. Even if they win all 23 seats captured by Clinton and occupied by a GOP incumbent, Democrats must still flip a Trump-Republican district to seize the majority.
What do the midterms and the anticipated political climate mean in North Carolina? The big 3.5 percent swing to Democrats referred to earlier would leave all 10 U.S. House Republicans from the state unscathed. The effect on state legislative races will depend on the court-mandated redistricting that will play out over the next few weeks. Under the current map, a 3.5 per cent swing to Democrats will yield them, at most, seven state Senate seats and 11 in the House. That would be enough to sustain Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes but not hand the party a majority in either chamber.
Democrats can take encouragement from rumors they are recruiting well. They came close in a few special House elections in strong GOP districts necessitated by Trump cabinet appointments. But they did lose all four, despite significant financial investments.
It’s still early, and the landscape appears favorable. But Republicans should be concerned by Trump’s performance. The president and the congressional party are also not a strong fit, either ideologically or stylistically. As long as the legislative agenda remains stalled and Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation continues, there’s little immediate sign of the GOP’s in-the-balance 2018 prospects improving.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University. He does not speak for the university.