Divining a policy mandate from a U.S. election can be problematic because there are so many contests at different levels of government. It is essentially a Rorschach test for pundits, especially when Congressional seat swings move in opposite directions. If House and Senate members behaved according to political science spatial vote models, then House Democrats should shift right and the Senate Republicans should shift left. Why? Because the Democrats won back the House by taking over seats that were previously represented by Republicans, and the Republicans flipped Senate seats that were previously held by Democratic incumbents. Assuming both parties want to hold onto their respective majorities, it should open the door to House-Senate compromises on various issues of mutual benefit. That might happen, but I would not bet the family savings on it.
The split outcome in 2018 undermined some key assumptions that both parties made about this election. The Democrats got their strategy right, but were wrong about certain tactical assumptions. As in 2006 under Rahm Emmanuel’s guidance at the DCCC, they mostly selected candidates with the right profiles for their districts and kept to a disciplined message about health care and jobs aimed at independent and moderate Republicans.
What they got wrong was the previous two years of wasted time and energy trying to convince the Court to adopt a new partisan gerrymandering standard. Led by President Obama and Eric Holder, a substantial faction of Democrats had convinced themselves that House elections were so rigged against them that they would need to win by a large margin of votes even to gain a narrow margin of seats. Only redistricting reform, they thought, could fix this. In the end the Democrats got a historically large swing with 52% of the vote—well within the normal range of the recent decades.
To be sure, the Republicans did control more redistricting efforts after the 2010 census and skewed them to their advantage. But the alleged walls the Republicans built were not very high—certainly not high enough to stop the anti-Trump wave in the suburbs. The Democrats were able to secure at least 232 seats so far, a larger shift than in 2006. Moreover, by picking up 7 Governors, they will enter the next redistricting round with more political protection against unfavorable partisan gerrymanders. Political disadvantages are more easily fixed by smart politics than by expensive legal pleadings.
Still, the Democrats’ general obsession with electoral unfairness is easy to explain. In addition to the partisan gerrymandering of the House districts, the Senate’s constitutionally prescribed mal-apportionment favors the rural states that resonated with President Trump’s appeals. Moreover, the Democrats have now lost two Presidential elections in this century despite winning the popular vote both times. Add in Republican efforts to institute various types of vote restrictions that all too often seem targeted to nonwhite voters, and you can appreciate why many Democrats feel that the rules are stacked against them. Democracies are supposed to empower the more numerous group over the less numerous one, not the other way around.
That said, the best path to political power for Democrats is not via tactical victories and voting reforms, even if those things are worth doing for other good reasons. Rather, the Democrats need to expand their policy reach to win back some of the rural voters who feel left behind and alienated. It is clear from victories in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado that urban growth and gentrification in the Interior West will help Democrats in the long run, but Democrats must also find ways to share the prosperity of the tech economy and address problems such as addiction, poor job prospects and obesity outside their urban bubbles if they want to lessen the current Republican advantage in rural states.
The Republicans on the other hand are in danger of following the path of Pete Wilson and the California Republicans in the nineties. Pete Wilson rode immigration fears and hostility to affirmative action to victory in 1994, but by doing so managed to put the Republican party on a downward spiral from which they have yet to recover. Gaming voting rules to exclude eligible citizens for minor bureaucratic infractions or relying on Trump’s unique appeal to rural and less educated voters for the next two years as opposed to developing policies and a party brand that could win back the educated middle class voters seems like another downward spiral in the making. This will not only cost them more votes over time, but it may mean ceding the fund-raising edge to Democrats for the foreseeable future as well. Trying to hold power without winning the popular vote as they have done for the past two elections cannot succeed for long. Republicans need to win educated, middle class suburbanites back into their coalition.
No doubt Republican political operatives were as surprised as the rest of us that the tax cuts mattered so little to key voting blocs. Partly this was President Trump’s fault as he focused on nativist appeals and the Kavanaugh confirmation at his rallies rather than appeals that would have helped to defend the suburban House districts. Tax cuts and regulatory relief aside, Republicans also need to address problems of school safety, climate change, decaying infrastructure, and health care more effectively and persuasively than they have to date if they want educated voters. They also need to change their message to women fast because generational replacement will pretty much wipe out the appeal of “stand by your man” policies in the coming years.
Finally, I will pass on some advice for both parties about redistricting. Speaking as one who has drawn districts at various levels of government, a partisan plan only works well for a party if it can expand or at least maintain its coalition. It backfires otherwise. A partisan plan works by distributing the party’s voters across its seats more efficiently in order to shift its excess votes to the seats it hopes to flip. However, if the tides shift against you, efficient seats are more vulnerable to hostile waves. A party anticipating a wave against them would be better off with a “bipartisan, make all incumbents safer” strategy. Promoting policies that expand party coalitions to new blocs of voters makes for a more effective partisan gerrymander. To borrow from Yoda, if gerrymander you must then fix the policies first and then reap your tactical bonus.