Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
When the White House is a daily circus of news, denials and leaks, it can be hard to find the time to pause and analyse the opposition.
But for all the controversy emanating from Pennsylvania Avenue, we cannot forget that the Democrats have a chance to severely limit the power of Donald Trump in just three months’ time.
On November 8th, the Democrats will attempt to flip the House and Senate. All 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives, and 35 of the 100 seats in the United States Senate, will be contested. Talk of a “blue wave” peaked several months ago and has since subsided. For a moment, some in the majority even dared to dream of a “red wave” – though perhaps that was limited to a President who is known to only read polls that show favourable results.
Messaging: a referendum on an unpopular president is not enough
The Democrats are well within their right to focus their messaging on the unpopularity of the President. With an approval rating of 42.2 per cent (per FiveThirtyEight’s tracker), Trump is rock solid amongst his most loyal Republican base but independent voters are unconvinced and he is reviled by Democrats.
In his personal approach, attitudes to society and race, policy delivery, and the undoing of as much of Barack Obama’s legacy as possible, this president is the very embodiment of what Democrats stand against. That should be enough to engage the base and ensure a vibrant campaign and sky-high turnout amongst registered Democratic voters.
But a referendum on an unpopular president is unlikely to be enough to win over independent voters who seek to remove the personality-focused ‘Washington beltway’ element of the midterms. That represents a monumental challenge to Democratic candidates, who would prefer to talk about expanding healthcare coverage and protecting the Dreamers than what the president tweeted in the middle of the night.
The new news cycle is obsessed with who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out of the White House. In the reality show taking place in Washington, personality is much more newsworthy than policy. For Democrats, they must find a way to engage their base by doubling down on the behaviour of the president.
But in spreading their message beyond those protesting at the Women’s Marches and March for Our Lives, Democratic candidates must find a way to talk about more than just why Trump and Republicans are bad – proven by the homepage of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC’s) website. We must hear more about what Democrats would do in office.
Policy and candidates: the battle taking place within the Democratic Party makes it less clear what they stand for
The legacy of Hillary Clinton vs Bernie Sanders lives on. Within the Democratic Party, there is a renewed divergence in the direction of the party.
It is best typified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-confessed democratic-socialist who won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional district. Socialism has historically been a political insult in America, but it is undergoing a period of rebirth in the left wing of the party. Her victory over incumbent Joe Crowley, the Democratic Caucus Chair, has put wind in the sails of the left of the Democratic Party.
On the campaign trail, progressive candidates like Ocasio-Cortez will be an asset to the party in states like California and New York, whereas blue-dog Democrats like Conor Lamb can be deployed in districts with a more conservative makeup.
A resurgent left wing of the Democratic Party has muddied the waters on the party’s policy platform, though there is no rule that requires a shared national platform across all Democratic candidates. All politics is local, and therefore in some districts campaigning for a $15 minimum wage is much more important than pledging to expand clean energy supply.
Taking a step back from the ‘beltway’ viewpoint, the lack of clarity on policy coming out of Democrats in the round is enough to confuse voters who will ask: what do you stand for, and what would you do differently to the current Republican-majority congress? It is a prime example of where the US political system suffers from the absence of a shadow cabinet.
A broad range of candidates is a positive, especially when considering the diversity amongst the broad slate of Democratic candidates. But a lack of clear direction when it comes to alternative policies and no shared national platform risks confusing voters who are less engaged with the minutiae Washington politics day-to-day.
Data and polls: grounds for Democratic optimism
Predicting elections has become a fool’s game, but that doesn’t negate informed forecasts based on data and precedent. Dave Wasserman, of the ever-reliable Cook Political Report, has predicted that Democrats are 60 to 65 percent favourites to take back the House. He estimates Democrats need to win 7 to 8 percent more votes than Republicans to break even, and Democrats have averaged a 7 to 8-point lead in most aggregators.
The last of the special elections ahead of the midterms have now taken place, meaning Democrats and Republicans will return after the summer in full campaign mode. The special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional district caused real concerns for Republican incumbents. Whilst the Republican candidate won, the narrow margin of victory suggests Republicans may perform poorly in November. Troy Balderson defeated the Democratic challenger by just 0.9 per cent of the vote. The race was unexpectedly competitive in a district than President Trump won by 11 points in the 2016 general election.
There are 79 Republican-held districts more competitive than Ohio’s 12th, where Trump got less than the 53 per cent he earned in this district in 2016.
Democratic report card ahead of the midterms: B-
Democrats have tried and so far failed to portray a clear message of what a flipped House of Representatives or Senate will look like, beyond blanket opposition to Trump and a check on his power. That might be enough when preaching to the converted, but it is hard to see how it will win over independent voters who want to hear more than just a party of protest.
The official messaging pushed by House Democrats ahead of November 8th – “For the People” – is sufficiently generic that it will inspire few undecided voters. It lacks the purpose and the punch of “Make America Great Again” or “Yes We Can”.
Gerrymandering and the incumbency may help Republicans structurally, but Democrats are showing surprising signs of life in traditionally Conservative districts within the likes of Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The signs of a blue wave have subsided, but in the House a flurry of Republican retirements has led to 42 open seats; Democrats need to flip just 24 to win back the majority.
All things considered, most notably the unpopularity of the President, all roads point to a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives come November. But remember: predicting elections has become a fool’s game.