The Coming Democrat Resurgence?

The Democratic Party’s electoral comeback should come sooner rather than later

Like they do after every election, partisans were quick to proclaim that Republican victories in 2016 had put Democrats in a hole too deep to climb out of. Just as some had claimed Democrats had a “demographic destiny” after their 2008 and 2012 victories — fated to continuously win power for generations to come — in the aftermath of last November some saw the emergence of a “red wall” securely built into the electoral college for the foreseeable future.

Every party’s rise and fall seems linked to a prideful view by their partisans that once they win one big race, they can’t be beat again. But walls do come down — as Hillary Clinton learned when Wisconsin was called for Donald Trump. Demographic voting patterns can change as middle class rural voters open to Barack Obama showed when they flocked to Trump. And already there are signs that Democrats are on the verge of enjoying an electoral resurgence in the near future.

The Election Gods Are Coming To Collect

Regardless of who occupies the White House, the party in power almost always sees down-ballot losses under their president. It doesn’t matter whether a president’s approval ratings are high or low — the reality is that if you have the White House, you better prepare for the election gods to come and collect payment for your big national victory.

Presidents almost always leave office with net losses down the ballot

Midterms Are Almost Always “Change Elections”

Under Obama, Republicans could play an offensive role as agents of change, ready to fix what was going wrong for the public in Washington, DC. Today, they find themselves in a defensive role that involves protecting the status quo, and Democrats in turn have gone from being anchored by the Obama administration to becoming the new insurgents shouting for change. This represents a good role reversal for them, since historically midterm elections are almost always “change elections.” Democrats understand this quite well, having had to deal with plenty of midterm elections of this kind since the 1994 “Republican Revolution.” (The GOP, for their part, got a harsh taste of the same phenomenon in 2006 when President Bush’s unpopularity led to a midterm catastrophe.)

Again, having the White House comes at a price.

Midterms are nightmares for the president’s party

There Are Trump Voters Leaving Him And The GOP

These days, there’s no shortage of political pieces on the “Trump voter” who refuses to budge in their support for him regardless of the negative press his administration has been getting. These are fascinating looks into the core group that rewrote the playbook and shocked the world last November, but they’re not the only contingent of Trump’s coalition to keep an eye on. Independents, a group that has voted Republican since becoming disappointed with Obama in 2009–2010, hesitantly backed Trump and the GOP last November by six points. However, they have left their support of him in droves since, and have been a big cause of his ratings getting off to such an awful start. Likewise, the GOP has been struggling to hold on to their support as well.

After supporting Trump by six points in 2016, Independents disapprove of his job performance by 20 points
After supporting House Republicans by six points in 2016, the GOP are struggling to get their support of late

Special House Elections’ Trends

The only other way for Independents to register their displeasure with the man they arguably put into office — apart from sinking his approval ratings, that is — is to vote for his political foes.

In the earlier season of special House elections, which saw Democrats give Republicans scares in red districts, Independents have helped drive Democrats’ respectable showings. Per one of the final GA-6 polls, Independents went to Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff easily, helping him have a chance in a district that traditionally leans red. Other Democratic candidates such as James Thompson in KS-4 or Archie Parnell in SC-5 also performed better than those districts’ partisan leans.

On average, districts that went to the GOP with 60% of the vote have been won with just 51% of the vote as of late
On average, districts that went to the GOP by twenty-three points have been won by just five points as of late

The President's Approval Ratings Do Matter

Probably the most obvious positive sign for Democrats, however, is the President’s less than stellar approval ratings. Posting average approvals in the high thirties to low forties as of this writing, history is clear that a midterm with an unpopular president as part of the electoral landscape can help drive bigger losses for his party than if that president were in more positive territory.

There are some who point to the GOP’s special House election wins as proof they can overcome this, but it needs to be remembered that those races were fought in red territory, and polling in GA-6 showed Trump posting much better approvals in the district, 50%, than where he was nationally at the time.

Since WWII, a president with an approval rating above 50% during midterms will see fewer losses than one below 50%

So we have history, trends with Independents, special House election results, and the President’s own approval ratings giving us early signs Democrats are closing in on an electoral resurgence. There is nothing remotely unique to Trump here — had Hillary won, it’s exceedingly likely I’d be writing about another potential GOP midterm wave.

That said, we’re still more than a year out — a lifetime in politics. In that time, so many things can happen that could change the political environment. And just because history says the Democrats will gain seats doesn’t mean it’ll be a wave-like result for the blue team, either; the midterms could bring small or moderate gains and the Senate map is incredibly rough for them. Likewise, the special House election trends don’t guarantee a Democratic wave if they can’t turn those moral victories into actual ones. Not to mention, presidential approval ratings can change suddenly.

If Trump’s ratings get better, Democrat wins become less likely; and some polling has indicated that those with “strong approval” might seem more enthused to vote than those with “strong disapproval.” Finally, Democrats will eventually need a message other than “Not Trump,” which some polls have suggested is the only message voters hear from them right now.

But one way or another, according to history and public opinion trends, Democrats should see some kind of resurgence — whether big or small — sooner rather than later.

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