‘My whole life, you know what I say? “Don’t worry about it, I’ll just figure it out.”’
(Ben Sellers, Liberty Headlines) If President Donald Trump loses a single seat in the House of Representatives during Tuesday’s midterm election, you can be certain some media outlets will be touting it as an unequivocal victory and mandate for “the resistance”—a blue wave, thumpin and shellacking all rolled into one.
But if history is the judge, based on the projected gains and losses at nonpartisan sites such as RealClear Politics, Trump already can declare a victory of sorts.
Although the Democrats need to pick up only 23 seats, the average number of seats lost in a midterm election dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency is 26, according to UC Santa Barbara’s American Presidency Project. Thus, Trump could still be ahead of the curve even if the House GOP does lose the majority, provided he keeps it below that. On the eve of Election Day, RCP had the average gains projected by its polls at exactly 26.
Considering only the number of seats being contested and Trump’s average approval rating around 44 percent, UCSB’s historical data suggests the president would lose between 26 and 33 seats as the norm. Recent Democrat-led redistricting efforts might also factor into the calculation.
Interestingly, the UCSB data shows that Trump is the Republican with the highest number of House seats to be contested in the 84-year span (21 midterm elections total, excluding the current one). The president’s combative rhetorical style and populist appeals to “drain the swamp” may be attributable for some of the electoral map difficulty.
Trump’s unwillingness to abide by political norms has resulted in a number of high-profile departures leaving open seats with no incumbent advantage. This includes four retiring GOP senators and more than double the number of GOP congressmen leaving the House as their Democratic colleagues.
However, the Left’s cashflow has also played a huge part in the increased number of contested races. In an election that is on pace to break spending records for congressional elections by around $800 million, according to estimates by the Center for Responsive Politics, Democrats have held a clear advantage in fundraising.
While some have interpreted this as a sign of voter enthusiasm and momentum for the progressive movement, others see it as an indicator of the tremendous amounts of dark money that special-interest groups and billionaire plutocrats such as George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer have been willing into invest in flipping the electoral map.
By contrast, the relatively low number of contested seats in the Senate has opened the possibility of what might—under different circumstances and with a different media—be considered a routing in Trump’s favor. Only five of the 21 elections included in the UCSB midterm data showed a gain in the upper chamber, as Trump is poised to achieve. All of those chief executives, with the exception of Ronald Reagan in 1982, were enjoying sky-high enthusiasm and popular support when they built on their leads.
If the GOP were to pick up the seats of struggling Democrat incumbents Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) and Claire McCaskill (Missouri)—and to clinch one of the other tightly contested battleground states that went for Trump two years ago (Indiana, Montana, West Virginia and Florida are the main candidates)—then a three-seat net gain would put Trump at a tie with John F. Kennedy in 1960 for the No. 2 spot in midterm Senate increases, behind only Franklin D. Roosevelt with nine seats in 1934.
As history shows, extraordinary circumstances can also impact the result. In addition to his nine-seat Senate pickup in the 1934 midterm, three years after the start of the Great Depression, Roosevelt gained nine House seats. Likewise, George W. Bush gained eight seats in the House and two in the Senate in 2002, the year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Trump’s economic successes, and his focus on national defense and security issues, both play to his advantage. But even one of his potential liabilities—the likelihood of a partisan impeachment push—could wind up yielding favorable results.
Former President Bill Clinton picked up seats in his second midterm, in 1998, amid the looming Starr investigation for perjury and obstruction of justice. However, his net gain of five also was far eclipsed by his loss of 52 seats during his prior 1994 midterm. That election had handed control of the House to Republicans.
The GOP maintained a strong enough majority to proceed with Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998, despite the prior month’s mild losses, but it did so at a heavy cost in its own public standing that ultimately proved unsuccessful in removing Clinton from office.
Trump currently faces a similar situation, with House Democrats threatening to use subpoena powers to stymie his legislative agenda and some saying that they would extend a harmful and unfounded investigation into Russia collusion, regardless of special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings.
Some Democrats also have hinted at launching an impeachment investigation into Justice Brett Kavanaugh, despite an extensive report by Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, that found no credible evidence of sexual assault.
Democrats have pushed health care as the definitive election issue—but that has proven toxic in the past, with voters having punished Clinton in 1994 for an attempted health care overhaul and delivering a 63-seat loss to Barack Obama in 2010 following passage of the Affordable Care Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is hopeful of repealing Obamacare should the GOP retain control of Congress, though Trump and other Republicans have said changes to ACA protections for pre-existing conditions are off the table.
While Trump’s numbers will likely shine by historical standards, barring any surprises, there remains the possibility—as he proved in 2016—that Trump could also surpass pollsters’ expectations due to oversampling and other surveying tricks that falsely inflated the Democratic “momentum” prior to Election Day.
The higher the number of people sampled, the more difficult such anomalies become, and Trafalgar Group, which often sampled considerably more people, showed leads for the Republican candidate in tightly contested Senate races in Nevada, Florida and Arizona, whereas in other surveys they remained toss-ups or projected a narrow Democrat win.
A huge victory for Trump and Republicans, of course, could pose just as many challenges as a loss, making desperate Democrats, who already have amped up the heated political rhetoric, turn even more vicious than a coalition government. Nancy Pelosi, poised to resume her role as speaker of the House, has promised collateral damage in that event. At a rally on Monday, Pelosi urged her liberal base “to be ready take a punch and throw a punch,” Breitbart reported.
Echoing Hillary Clinton, Pelosi said that the heated rhetoric on the Left would only cool once they were in power. When responding to a question on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert about lowering the temperature of political discourse, she said, ““Well, I think when we win, you will see evidence of that.”
But while considering the prospective outcomes at a recent campaign event, Trump was characteristically confident in his ability to manage. “My whole life, you know what I say? ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll just figure it out,’” he said.