Hopeful Math

Mark Peterson/Redux
Protesters in front of the White House, August 2018


“I expect a Democratic landslide in 2018,” George Soros told an audience at Davos in January. His listeners were eager to agree. There are some grounds for this forecast. Since the president’s early weeks in office, his Gallup disapproval ratings have been consistently higher than the approval figures. The fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by a margin of 2,984,757 suggests that the Democrats have strength in numbers. Millions of Americans have been stirred by separation of migrant families, evidence of payoffs, and a host of other calamities, including Trump’s apparent eagerness to estrange the United States from the rest of the world.

Yet at this point, it’s best not to be too confident. Republicans know they are the nation’s second-largest party. They have lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. This, however, has motivated them both to develop strategies for shrinking the Democratic electorate and to consolidate their own supporters to an extent the Democrats have not. That Republicans come to the polls more reliably, and more often vote for their party’s candidates all the way down the ticket, will make some midterm races difficult for the Democrats to win.

In The Great Alignment, Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, offers a number of insights into why Republicans might prevail again this year. To start, he argues that they feel more intensely about issues, indeed about politics, than Democrats usually do, which spurs them to turn out regularly. He also explains that their support doesn’t depend as much on Trump as is often thought. Trump has his fans, but they are mostly the same stalwarts who rallied to both Bushes, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. Abramowitz found a .907 correlation between votes for Trump and Romney, about as high as one can get. According to Pew’s exit polls, 93 percent of Trump’s supporters in 2016 were Republicans or Republican-leaning voters who would probably have turned out had Marco Rubio or John Kasich headed their ticket.

For Democrats, November will be a chance to cut away at the Republicans’ legislative majorities. In the House, the most vulnerable GOP seats, at least on paper, are in twenty-three districts that Clinton carried in 2016. If all of them flip this fall, Democrats will need only two more for control of the House. Even that won’t be easy, however. In total, Clinton drew 3,473,937 voters in these districts. Yet 549,254 of them failed to support Democrats running for the House. This was once called “ticket splitting” and seen as a sign of independence by voters who vote across party lines. But it’s also an indulgence, one that kept Clinton’s majority from regaining the House for her party. Even as Clinton was winning votes for herself nationally,…

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