How Indicative Are the 2018 Elections of 2020? It’s Unclear, but Here are Some Things to Consider

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Image Source: American University. “2020 Elections.” https://www.american.edu/initiatives/elections/

One of the obvious burning questions after the 2018 election was whether it would be predictive of what is to come in 2020. Will Democrats build on their successes in 2018, potentially even defeating Donald Trump in his re-election bid for president? Or will Trump and the Republican Party bounce back, maybe even with a decisive victory? Will it be mixed successes for both parties?

It may sound obvious, but anyone who is certain about what is going to happen in 2020 is either lying or far too confident in their predictions. Previous election results can be useful, but over-reliance on them can easily lead to faulty assumptions. There are too many (and very different) factors from election to election. Politics, especially at the highest levels of government, always has plenty of room for surprises.

Nonetheless, the 2018 results are still worth discussing in the context of 2020, even if it turns out to be wildly different results. So what are some of the major considerations to think about when trying to predict the next election?

Generally speaking, incumbents have an advantage simply by already being in office. Elections often see incumbents winning at a rate of over 80% or even 90% at the congressional level, and there are similar levels of success for state legislatures. It’s been no different for recent presidents. Not since the 1992 election did the incumbent president lose to the challenger, when Bill Clinton (D) defeated George H.W. Bush (R). Since then, Clinton, George W. Bush (R), and Barack Obama (D) have all won a second term.

Of course, this doesn’t guarantee the same will be the case for Trump. An objection that may be raised is the low levels of job approval throughout virtually all of Trump’s tenure thus far. But one should be wary if they point to approval ratings as an important measure in this context. For one, while it’s a national level statistic — estimating how the entire country’s electorate feels — it doesn’t usually account for state-level variations. If Trump wins the right states and they approve well-enough of him, job approval will hardly matter.

For two, low approval of Trump does not mean high approval of whomever his Democratic opponent turns out to be. Leading up to the 2016 election, we saw low approval of Trump then as well — but there was also low approval of Hillary Clinton. The same thing could happen in 2020.

Midterms

Historically, midterms have been very unkind to the incumbent president’s party, particularly in U.S. House elections. In 2018, the Republican Party lost 40 seats under Trump. Under Obama, the Democratic Party lost 63 seats in 2010 and 13 seats in 2014. Under W. Bush, the Republican Party lost 30 seats in 2006. From the 1934 midterms (under Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt) onward, there have only been three midterms where the incumbent president’s party actually gained seats in the House — 1934, 1998, and 2002. Yet in none of these cases was the gain more than 9 seats.¹

The incumbent president’s party doesn’t fare much better in the U.S. Senate, although there is a key fundamental difference that complicates things: only a third of Senators are up for election every two years, while the entire House is up for election each time. This means that how many Democrats and Republicans are up each time is particularly important, as 2018 showed. Republicans actually gained 2 seats in the Senate, but there were also only 9 of them that had to run compared to 26 Democrats (Bernie Sanders and Angus King, while nominally Independent, caucus with the Democrats and are thus considered as Democrats). This led to many more opportunities for Republicans to capitalize on as Democrats had more to defend.

Presidential Elections

Presidential elections work out far better for the presidential victor than midterms do, yet even then the results are somewhat mixed. From 1932 (FDR’s first presidential election victory) to 1984 (Republican Ronald Reagan’s midterm victory), there were only two presidential elections where the presidential victor’s party did not gain seats in the House. These elections were Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s 1956 re-election and Democrat John F. Kennedy’s 1960 election. Results were generally favorable to the presidential winner’s party in the Senate during this time as well. Even when the presidential winner’s party didn’t gain seats, they mostly minimized losses.²

The script has mostly flipped since then. Since 1984, only three presidential victors saw their party win seats in the House. These were 2004 (+3) under Bush, and 2008 (+23) and 2012 (+8) under Obama. These years were also the only times since 1984 where the presidential winner’s party gained seats in the Senate as well.² Granted, these were relatively recent elections, but it isn’t clear if it is part of a new trend or more of an aberration.

The other predominant factor to think about related to midterms and presidential elections are the stark differences in turnout trends. As a whole, presidential elections see much higher turnout than midterms do, and they see different kinds of voters come out. Some voters only care about presidential elections or think that they are the only ones that truly matter. It’s harder to mobilize and convince voters to come out for midterms.

Yet both Republicans and Democrats — but perhaps more noticeably Democrats — turned out at a much higher rate than usual in 2018. This sharp rise in turnout was due to an increase in voting across all age and major racial and ethnic groups.³ ⁴ This is a large factor in why turnout increased for both Republicans and Democrats. But in the rise among racial minorities and younger people particularly factored in to give Democrats a large amount of success. This certainly is in large part due to Trump, although it isn’t the entire explanation.

Turnout in 2020 was going to be higher than 2018 no matter what, simply by virtue of being a presidential year. Yet the 2018 results imply that 2020 is going to be higher-than-average for a presidential election as well with Trump up for election again.

Politics have become increasingly nationalized in recent years. In other words, the national political climate has had an increasing effect on lower-level elections. Nonetheless, these offices all are important in their own right.

Most state executive offices — such as governor, attorney general, secretary of state, etc. — are up for election in midterm elections, but there are still plenty that will be up for election in 2020. Democrats saw some success here as well, defeating Republican incumbents for the Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois governor seats, for example. But with a much different set of states electing state executives in 2020 compared to 2018, it is difficult to compare the possibilities. (Note that a few states elect state executives in both midterm and presidential years. Usually, they will be different offices, but some offices are for two-year terms. States also vary widely in what state executives they elect.)

What about state legislatures? If the president’s party fares poorly in midterm elections, then the party’s performance in state legislative elections during their whole tenures tends to be even worse. Since FDR, the only two-term president whose party had a net gain of seats during their presidencies was Reagan — at a mere +6 change. Obama (-968 seats), Eisenhower (-843), Nixon/Ford (-800), and Clinton (-524) saw particularly poor performances at the state legislative level for their parties during their presidential tenures.⁵

The 2018 state legislatures saw a similar electoral outcome for Trump and the Republican Party. Counting only seats that switched between Republicans and Democrats (some flips, though relatively few, involved independents and third-parties), 391 seats went from Republican to Democratic while 93 seats went from Democratic to Republican. With those seats alone, Republicans experienced a net loss of 298 seats.⁶

Lastly, we will discuss the U.S. Senate. The proverbial shoe is now on the other foot in 2020. The Republicans have many more seats to defend this time just as the Democrats did in 2018. There are 34 seats up for re-election this cycle, 22 of them belonging to Republicans.⁷ Democrats need to gain 3 seats to split the chamber and 4 seats to take the majority. Though each election’s specific nuances need to be taken into account, there is a fair chance that Democrats can break the Republican majority if going just by the sheer number of seats both parties have to defend.

It can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when in the primary season and still relatively soon after a previous election. The Democratic field is naturally getting a lot of attention right now since they are the ones who have to jockey for their party’s nomination. While there is at least one challenger to Trump for the Republican nomination in William Weld — a former governor of Massachusetts and the Libertarian vice-presidential candidate in 2016 — it is highly unlikely that Weld will be able to mount a serious run. Yet primaries see a lot less turnout and primary voters tend to be generally more partisan and ideological in comparison to general elections. Certainly, some of it is going to be enthusiasm and anger built up from the 2018 results, but the game changes significantly when the primaries are over and the general election is fast approaching.

If we just account for the 2018 results and place a lot of undue emphasis on them, Democrats risk getting overconfident. At the same time, Republicans risk getting overconfident if they find too much assurance in Trump’s power to rally their party by being on the 2020 ballot. There are some takeaways from 2018 that can be applied to 2020 that both Democrats and Republicans need to be cognizant of. Yet midterm elections are still quite limited in what they can tell us about the ensuing presidential election.

  1. The American Presidency Project. “Seats in Congress Gained/Lost by the President’s Party in Mid-Term Elections.” Santa Barbara, CA: University of California. Available from the World Wide Web: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/332343/.
  2. Gerhard Peters. “Seats in Congress Gained or Lost by the President’s Party in Presidential Election Years.” The American Presidency Project. Ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California. 1999–2017.
  3. Jordan Misra. U.S. Census Bureau. April 23, 2019. “Voter Turnout Rates Among All Voting Age and Major Racial and Ethnic Groups Were Higher Than in 2014.” https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/04/behind-2018-united-states-midterm-election-turnout.html (accessed June 6, 2019).
  4. Jens Manuel Krogstad, Luis Noe-Bustamante, and Antonio Flores. Pew Research Center. May 1, 2019. “Historic highs in 2018 voter turnout extended across racial and ethnic groups.” https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/01/historic-highs-in-2018-voter-turnout-extended-across-racial-and-ethnic-groups/ (accessed June 6, 2019).
  5. Ballotpedia. “Changes in state legislative seats during the Obama presidency.” https://ballotpedia.org/Changes_in_state_legislative_seats_during_the_Obama_presidency (accessed June 6, 2019).
  6. Ballotpedia. “State legislative seats that changed party control, 2018.” https://ballotpedia.org/State_legislative_seats_that_changed_party_control,_2018 (accessed June 7, 2019).
  7. 270towin. “2020 Senate Election Interactive Map.” https://www.270towin.com/2020-senate-election/ (accessed June 7, 2019).

Written by

Senior Page Editor - Sayfie Review, Assistant Staff Writer - Ballotpedia (my views do not express those of my employers), M.A. in Political Science

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