There will not be a Blue Wave. The Democrats’ goal in the Senate has diminished to limiting losses, not gaining seats, and they are unlikely to take control of the House. Even The Washington Post and The New York Times are hedging their bets. Here’s why.
Midterms are always a question of whether people have a reason to risk change. Historically, incumbents retain their seats over 80 percent of the time. When the House does flip from one party to another, it’s usually driven by large-scale demands for change, such as fatigue over the Iraq war and Obamacare. Those causes reached deeper into and more broadly across society than this year’s casus belli, Trump Rage. History does show that midterm elections generally bring losses to the ruling party. But all that matters this year is a 24-seat Democratic gain. Anything less—a Blue Dribble—and the House stays in Republican hands. Everything else aside, those are rough odds mathematically.
But the “everything else” part matters a lot. What is the impetus for an Ohioan who went Republican last time around, and maybe before that, to take another chance on change?
Though health care is voters’ number one issue of concern, there hasn’t been anything new offered by Democratic candidates. Republicans failed to dilute Obamacare. Things today are basically at the status quo of November 2016 when candidate Clinton pronounced the system about the best we could hope for and called Bernie Sanders’ ideas as now roughly endorsed by many Democrats too expensive. Democrats’ current change of heart seems driven more by poor election results than policy stances. So are they to be trusted? Elizabeth Warren says she took her DNA test to restore trust in government, so at least there’s that.
People are instead supposed to vote for Medicare for All, though please, please don’t ask for details or how it will be paid for or what the massive insurance industry Obama allowed to stay in control of the system will have to say about it. Otherwise there are few drivers of change. The economy is doing well. As for new Democratic ideas, well, there is that the one guy with the ponytail yelling that ICE should be abolished.
The headlines leading up to the midterms are instead a Kavanaugh hangover (with mumbles still about impeaching him), something bad about the Saudis that does not affect Americans, the Twitter Outrage o’ the Day, the still unemployed Colin Kaepernick, those transgender bathrooms that keep progressives up sobbing at night, and the crazies, who now include Paul Krugman and the once stolid Carl Bernstein, shouting like so many Chicken Littles that fascism, dictatorship, and mandatory Nazi cosplay are imminent. And what happened to those wars with Iran, China, North Korea, and maybe Canada that Trump was supposed to have started by now? Anybody heard from Mueller recently? It seems like a lot until you realize in reality it isn’t much of anything.
And even if you did have concerns over Kavanaugh, you were still being asked to throw away the centuries-old cornerstone concept of innocent until proven guilty—that or be labeled a gender traitor. Immigration? Sensible talk must wait until concentration camps for infants are torn down. Gun reform? You’re either complicit in child murder or a Parkland Kidlet. Same for Maxine Waters encouraging people to scream at Republicans while they eat dinner, not exactly a way to open the tent to swing voters in places like Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The Democrats have left themselves precious little middle ground on important issues, which they need if they want Republicans and independents to shift from their previous voting stances. Who wants to join a party when you’re not invited?
The only driver of change seems to be that Democrats want a do-over of the 2016 election. The problem is that a Fox News poll shows that “rein in Trump” is of significant concern to only 10 percent of voters, while a MSNBC survey is topped by the serious issues of health care and immigration.
Polls do consistently show white, educated women favoring Democrats, but even that is only a sort-of-okayish 61 percent. The supposedly feisty, angry, fierce sisterhood failed to elect Hillary—30 million women voted for Trump. Democrats are still apparently unaware that there are few House districts where white, educated women are the majority and where their husbands don’t vote. Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel imagines there’s a new bloc of voters waiting to turn the tide—“mea culpas,” those who did not vote in 2016 and feel remorse over the resulting Trump win.
The whole midterm hopey-changey thing instead depends on historical turnouts from Millennials and minorities loosely attached to the electorate, though there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan for getting them out other than social media and bringing back the undead Hillary to proclaim an end to political civility until her side finally wins an election. Meanwhile, Republicans rely on demographics that actually do turn out, in such numbers that Democrats need to motivate four Millennials to produce one vote (for Republicans, it’s more like three). Actual turnout for those aged 65 and higher is expected to be 82 percent; it drops to 26 percent for those ages 18 to 29.
There are other factors. Trump’s overall approval rating continues to rise, a bad sign for a Democratic Party framing the midterms as a referendum on him. Some 75 percent of Republicans want their congressional candidates to fall in line with Trump’s agenda. Republicans vote in midterms in higher percentages than Democrats. A group Democrats magically hoped would support them because they are not white, “Hispanics,” apparently don’t see it that way.
Depending on those who don’t vote, Democrats run the risk of internalizing losses. There are too many reasons they say they might lose again: if it’s not the Russians, it’s voter suppression, gerrymandering, racism, or the proportional representation system people just seemed to notice 230 years after it was put in place. The left means to anger people into voting, but it can easily have the opposite effect.
The deck is stacked against us can seem disheartening to voters, and may leave just as many sitting at home and drinking as head out to the revolution. Already a quarter of Millennial students say that they found the 2016 election so traumatic that they claim to have PTSD. In psychology, this is known as “catastrophizing,” driving yourself into depression by envisioning ridiculous outcomes. It can lead to suicide—and it’s becoming the core Democratic strategy for the midterms.
Many Millennials seem to believe all they have to do is retweet hashtags, sign online petitions, and protest on school days. It created Beto mania, but it didn’t defeat Kavanaugh. The result is that social media driven movements fail to cross over into the real world. See, for example, the current progressive superhero Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose victory was replacing one Democrat with another Democrat, all based on a 13 percent turnout in a densely populated district caught sleeping through a primary. A trick play like that only works once.
The Democratic Party is held back most of all because it’s mistaken an exception for a trend. About a year ago, my dog came upon a full box lunch left on the sidewalk. She gulped it down before some sorry construction worker came back, and ever since she stops at that spot, certain one of these days there will be another meal waiting. The year 2008 was historic in American politics, with a near 100 percent desire for change following an exhausting eight years of Bush. That drove record turnouts for one of the best politicians since the Greeks invented democracy.
Obama could have been FDR. He could have gotten a real health care solution but settled for the expedient. He could have saved middle-class homes with a New Deal-style mortgage bailout, dramatically reducing economic inequality, but further enriched the 1 percent instead. He could have pulled out of Bush’s Middle East mess but instead gave us Iraq war 3.0 and the humanitarian disasters of Syria, Libya, and Yemen. He failed at change, and those swing voters from 2008 know it, even if Democrats now try to push the Obama years as ones of social justice plenty.
Unless and until Democrats recognize their failures as most Americans lived them and offer change on the things that really matter, there will be no Blue Wave in 2018. And don’t even ask about the Red Undertow of 2020.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from federal employment and Twitter.