Despite the feelings of most Democrats and poll-watchers today, 2018 will be another difficult year for the Democratic Party. Though momentum is on liberals’ side after a series of election victories in November and December — most recently the election of Doug Jones as Alabama’s first Democratic Senator in 25 years — the midterms will likely not be the clean sweep many expect.
The Good News
Donald Trump is about as unpopular a President as there can possibly be. Going into the New Year, he carries a 37% approval rating. Even better than that, for Democrats, the states where he won by the largest margins are also the states where his approval has dropped most since he took office.
In addition, national polling favors the Democrats in the race for Congress by a margin of 50–37. That is the widest such margin since the 2016 election. And coming off of a year where turnout, historically a hurdle for Democratic candidates in off-year elections, was way up, polling like that would suggest that the party is in prime position to take back the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2018.
The Bad News
National polling is just that, national. It is the sum of all opinion nationwide, offering little insight into state by state, and district by district races that are going to matter come November. The margin is likely more indicative of the public’s feelings about the current administration than any specific policy or potential candidates they’ll see on the ballot in 11 months.
But that’s not the only bit of bad news for the Democratic Party. They also have to defend 26 of the 34 Senate seats up for re-election this year, including ten seats in states where Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton — Indiana, West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
In the other chamber of Congress, Republicans have had a huge advantage when it comes to the House map. Congressional districts are drawn in a way that put Democratic candidates in most places at a disadvantage. Because Democratic strongholds tend to be densely populated areas, there are huge swaths of this country where the party struggles to compete. To win back the House of Representatives will take a rout of near-historic proportions.
What Does Success Look Like?
There are many — in the media and among the public at large — who will say, already are saying, that success will mean control of both chambers. While that is a lofty target, and a worthy one to aim for, it sets the bar very high. If anything other than full control of Congress will be considered a failure, Democrats are setting themselves up to lose.
That does not mean the party should not adapt a fifty-state strategy. It most certainly should. They just shouldn’t expect to win in all fifty states this year.
Success, instead, should be measured on a couple of key metrics:
- Democrats should aim to turn out more voters than the average of mid-term elections from the last decade. Doing so will mean registering voters, building strong ground games and local party organizations. Not only will that help win races this year, it will set the party up for success in 2020 and beyond.
- Democrats should run a candidate in every race. Though it may seem overly simple, you can’t win if you don’t run. The Alabama Senate race and the Virginia State Legislature races from 2017 prove that Democratic candidates can win in races they have not even bothered trying to win before.
- The House of Representatives currently has 239 Republicans and 193 Democrats, a margin of 46. To win an additional 15 races will mean a swing of 30 seats. That will leave the margin at 16. While that may not give Democrats a majority, it will tell us something about how the party is perceived, and give them more negotiating power in Trump’s final two years.
- The Senate is the most difficult for Democrats. Even a 50–50 split would give Republicans a majority, with Mike Pence as the deciding vote. But with so many Democratic seats up for grabs, we should consider it a victory if they gain even one seat.
What Will Success Require?
Pundits like to speak in generalities when they talk about how to run affective races. But the reality is, each race is different. Again, we can look to the races from this past year to understand that more fully. Local races are about local issues, more times than not. And there is no one-size-fits-all approach to campaigning.
That said, there are a few clear messages that the Democratic Party should have learned one year into the Trump era:
- Don’t let Republicans dictate the issues. Though they will try to keep the focus on issues they believe they can win, or at least issues that Democrats notorious struggle with, Democrats need to stick to their message, whatever that is. It worked in Alabama. It worked in Virginia.
- Anti-Trumpism is not a policy. Though it may feel like Democrats can sit back and ride the momentum to victory, simply being opposed to Trump will not win seats. Democrats need a clear set of priorities. What will a Democratic Congress aim to get done?
- Standing up for what’s right as the minority party. Sitting Senators and Congressmen, though they are not the majority, can send a message to voters with the way they treat their current roles. Forcing the issue on key policy fights and standing up for the voting blocs Democrats will need to win in 2018 is just as important as affective campaigning.
- Aim for progress. It’s clear that the future of the party is coalescing around a more progressive agenda. Already, many Democrats have signed on to some form of universal healthcare. In order to succeed this year, Democrats will need to continue to distinguish themselves in this area, and leave the old Third Way-ism behind.
What Will All of it Mean for 2020?
Very little, to be honest. The midterm elections occur a full two years before the next Presidential election, and anything can happen in two years.
For the Democratic Party, we still do not know who is planning on running, though we have some early ideas. We know that most Presidential hopefuls do not have important campaigns in 2018.
So the only thing we can glean from the midterms and take forward is the style of campaigning that is most likely to work on the national stage. We are fairly that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee, and we know all of the hatred and bombast that comes with that. The Democrats need to keep a close eye on the races we expect to be the tightest to see how to combat Trump’s appeal while putting forward a progressive vision for the future.