The polls and projections were basically correct: The Democrats had a very good election night. They’ll gain a House majority for the first time since 2010, and for only the third Congress since 1994, and by a solid margin. They’ll lose some in the Senate, but that’s not because they did badly Tuesday; it’s because Republicans had a large lead, 42 to 23, among the seats that weren’t up this year. That was too much for Democrats to overcome even on a fairly good night. And Democrats will pick up a few governors, a slew of state legislative seats and some state legislative chambers, and some other down-ballot positions.
Yes, Republicans have some bragging rights. They won quite a few gubernatorial races that were considered tossups, including in Florida, Ohio and (probably) Georgia. And as of early Wednesday they were leading in most of the up-for-grabs Senate contests. The latter is a big deal, because not only will they continue to hold the chamber, but they made their job in 2020 a lot easier. They were worried they would do a lot worse, but they clearly didn’t do as well as they expected two years ago.
So why did the Republicans have a bad night? The basic story is pretty simple: This is what happens to a party when it controls the White House and the president is unpopular. In fact, most of what was resolved on Tuesday was probably a consequence not of the fall campaign, but of Trump’s record-shattering bad year in 2017, at least in terms of approval ratings. A large group of Republicans decided to retire last year; that’s when Democrats recruited many of their top potential candidates to run; and that’s when Republicans failed to find good candidates in several states where they might have been competitive.
Trump’s standing recovered a bit in 2018, but as of Tuesday he was the least popular president through 656 days in the polling era. The slight uptick in his approval ratings wasn’t going to be enough to help the party recover from 2017, and it’s possible he cost Republicans a little more.
And unlike George W. Bush in 2006 or Barack Obama in 2010, when poor policy outcomes (Iraq in Bush’s case, a slow recovery for the economy for Obama) turned people against them, Trump’s failure to date has mainly been strikingly personal. Granted, the two big Republican policy initiatives in Congress, the attempted repeal of Obamacare and the tax cut, didn’t help. But Trump failed to contribute any popular policy ideas — and certainly wasn’t effective at pushing for any ideas that might have been popular, such as an infrastructure bill.
The bottom line is that despite a solid economy and without any high-casualty war, Trump spent 2017 at around 38 percent approval, and 2018 at around 42 percent. And he has spent his entire presidency, after a brief honeymoon, solidly over 50 percent disapproval, with a large portion of that strongly disapproving. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Trump rarely even pretended to be the president of all the people, which was especially foolish for someone who narrowly won in the Electoral College and lost solidly in the popular vote.
This disdain for those who didn’t vote for him has turned out to be a disastrous strategy. Beyond that, mismanagement of the White House and a parade of scandals, with indictments and guilty pleas and resignations and criminal referrals, meant that there was a steady stream of bad news coming from the administration. Enough, it appears, to overwhelm the good news about the economy.
There’s still time to turn it around. Plenty of presidents who seemed to be in trouble at the two-year mark — including Obama, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan — were re-elected. If the economy remains strong, and if Trump finds a way to moderate himself at least somewhat, perhaps he’ll find he can eat into the majority that’s been against him from the start. On the other hand, we don’t know how many scandals could still emerge. And now, with Democrats holding the gavels in the House of Representatives oversight panels, there’s a pretty good chance of more to come. In addition, there’s no sign that Trump would know how to handle his job better, even if he realized that he should.
Meanwhile, the policy implications of the midterms are important. With a larger Republican majority in the Senate, it’s going to be even easier for Trump’s nominations to sail through. Expect more Republican judges. But the possibility of another big tax cut for the wealthy is dead, at least for the next two years. Any expectation of repealing Obamacare is dead. Deep cuts in programs Democrats favor? Also dead.
The big question is whether Trump and House Democrats will try to cut deals. And that’s what we’ll all be watching over the next few months, and the next two years.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.