No, 2018 is Not a Sure Thing
And Acting Like it is Won’t Change Anything
So, OK. Um. Wow. What a week.
It’s not very often that my ability to write out some sarcastic observation about current events is reduced to a trite, monosyllabic approximation of vocalized shock, but here we are. Unless you count meta-sarcasm — in which case the streak remains strong, but I feel like that’s the equivalent of awarding myself a participation trophy. I don’t always agree with Mitch McConnel, but my blood pressure and sanity, too, could use a reprieve from White House scandals.
The whirlwind of the last 168 hours has left a number of Americans in a daze. We had the firing of an FBI director, the professional denial that it had anything to do with the investigations over Russia, the impromptu confirmation that it did have to do with the investigations over Russia, a President appearing to threaten said now-former FBI director to keep quiet, reports of leaked code-word classified information to Russian officials, cautiously worded denials of the conversation, spontaneous confirmation of the conversation, and revelations of attempted interference by the President in a Federal investigation. And the week prior to that was filled with the drama of the AHCA. Despite the fact that the list was exhausting to read it’s far from exhaustive. I’m still skimming over some of the bloody details.
My father, from whom I inherited my love of politics, told me recently that these last few weeks have been stressful enough as an observer; he couldn’t imagine how stressful it must be for people who make their living off of keeping up with the tumult. (And, for context, he’s a proud Republican). God bless him. I needed that empathy and I needed to hear that. Because I can’t imagine it either. I don’t have time to. If I focus my energies on anything other than desperately clutching to the back of this bucking leviathan I’d find myself flung off and enveloped in a dark sea of uncertainty, unsure of where it now lurked. I cling to its back because, as someone dedicating their life to understanding and making accessible the machinations of the American political system, I can’t afford to be caught in its mouth.
Now that I’ve satisfied the repressed novelist in me, we’ll return to our original program.
I’m on social media a lot — probably more than I probably should be — and I’m seeing a number of progressive and liberal commenters across platforms demanding and/or insisting that these are the things that get Trump impeached and sink the Republican party. For the former claim they offer their hopes and prayers, which will probably go unanswered. A recent FiveThirtyEight analysis demonstrates that Congressional co-partisans have not historically abandoned a president en masse regardless of the severity of the controversy embroiling them. The latter claim is slightly more probable since wave-elections have happened before (1992, 2006, and 2010 being the most recent examples) and is ostensibly bolstered by a number of polls indicating that Congressional Republicans would fare poorly compared to Congressional Democrats if the election were held today. Indeed, a recent Public Policy Polling release indicated that the Republicans would only receive about 38% of the vote while Democrats would get just under 50% (the remainder of the sample is undecided). Other polls have made similar conclusions in recent weeks as well. 2018 is just around the corner. Clearly they’re in dire straights.
Except, no. Not really. Or, rather, we actually have no clue based off of those numbers alone. I have all the respect in the world for PPP and other such organizations doing this needed survey work, but their results are decidedly not making that claim — A fact that I’m sure their analysts would corroborate if asked. These numbers are being ingested as placebo data: Its professional appearance engenders a palliative effect but it’s ultimately a sugar pill. But unlike a true placebo, which at least has a chance at somehow remedying the underling condition, these data carry no guarantee that Congress would flip today let alone next November.
Congress is undoubtedly most representative part of our republican form of government but it is far from equal. Unlike in some other countries, representatives are not apportioned by the percentage of the national electorate clinched by their party at the voting booth. They are elected by securing the largest plurality of votes within the districts that they compete in. This makes these poll numbers doubly problematic since they’re generated by a “generic congressional ballot” question, which basically asks the respondents what party they’d vote for in the congressional races. First problem: The polls only give us a national aggregate and don’t actually look at the geographic unit determining the results. In this instance it’s the congressional districts, but that issue should sound familiar. Even if they did parse out by congressional district, the small number of respondents from each would make inferred guesses about which party was leading impossible. Second problem: Even assuming that political preferences are uniform across the geography of the country…
…there is the simple fact that the districts are not made equally.
The need to keep districts contained by state borders effectively guarantees a substantial amount of variation across them. One would need 497,000 to win Montana’s at large district but to win Rhode Island’s 1st, in contrast, they would only need 263,00. Below is a map demonstrating the discrepancy in vote power across the nation’s congressional districts.
This leads to a similar possibility to what happened in 2016: a winning party with a minority of national votes. In fact, it’s exactly what happened in 2016. It’s actually fairly common because the system’s design lends itself well to disproportionate outcomes. Running the numbers, a party can secure a majority in the house with about 45% of the electorate. And that’s assuming full turnout. Which…
Add in the fact that said depressed turnout skews Republican in mid-term elections since youth and minority turnout falls off and that over-confidence in the outcome can depress turnout, it’s plain to see that 2018 is still any party’s game. It sucks that it is a game since, you know, it’s the primary mechanism for how we f****ing govern ourselves. But, hey. I’m not bitter.
It boils down to this: If your normative positions align with preferring a Democratic majority in Congress, the simple fact is that you have your work cut out for you. Believing that these scandals will change the majority of Americans’ minds and usher in a Democratic wave is predicated on the belief that national voter sentiment is sufficient to bring that outcome about. It’s not. I’m not saying that’s impossible and I’m not saying it to discourage action. I’m saying it as a warning. Waves are possible. They’ve happened before. They’ll happen again. The $65,000 question is “when?” So if you want Republicans to win in the mid-term: Vote. If you want Democrats to win, that advice applies double. Because allowing oneself to fall prey to the seductive belief that the next one is inevitable, that the country will just “course-correct” automatically, is the first step towards guaranteeing it won’t happen at all.
Peter R. Licari is a Graduate Student in Political Science at the University of Florida specializing in American Politics, Political Behavior, and Political Methodology. The opinions expressed are his own. He can also be found on YouTube and on Twitter(@prlitics13). What little spare time remains is dedicated to long-distance running, video games with his ever-patient fiancee, and to oddly productive one-sided conversations with his cat, Asia.