Republicans fear ‘blue wave’ in November

THE March 13 special election in Pennsylvania confirmed what many analysts had suspected for months: November is likely to produce an electoral avalanche of historic proportions in which Democrats (designated blue, since so many of their supporters live in coastal states; Republicans tend to live in Earth-red inland states) resoundingly win back control of the United States Congress. Sixteen months after the surprise election of Donald Trump, Democrats have repeatedly pounded Republicans (the GOP) in special congressional elections, gubernatorial contests, and state legislative races, often by wide margins.

The landslides and upsets were witnessed last year and continue in 2018. Democrat Conor Lamb won Pennsylvania District 18 by 627 votes out of more than 228,000 cast. But Democrats were not supposed to be competitive in the district; Republicans had held the congressional seat for the last 15 years, and Trump won the district in 2016 by 20 percentage points. This was not, however, an isolated embarrassment for the GOP.

Three months ago, Alabama voters elected a Democrat to the US Senate for the first time since 1992. And in November, Virginia voters elected a Democrat for governor by nine percentage points, the largest winning margin of any Democratic gubernatorial candidate since 1985. In all three election efforts Trump campaigned fiercely, and the Republican National Committee spent lavishly, to help the Republican candidates, but to no avail.

Since Trump's election more than 75 special elections have taken place, and in these contests the average Republican candidate has under-performed, relative to Trump's 2016 vote, by about six percentage points. Moreover, generic polls – where voters are asked which party they would vote for in the upcoming congressional election or which party they would prefer to control Congress – consistently find the GOP trailing, by an average of about eight percentage points.

The party split in Congress favours Republicans in the House of Representatives by 238 to 193 (with four vacancies), while in the Senate their edge is only 51 to 49 (Democrats have 47 senators, plus two independents who caucus with their party). But in terms of turnover probabilities, this is somewhat misleading. First, House members face re-election every two years, so all 435 seats are up for grabs this year, while only 34 Senate seats will be contested in November. Second, Democrats must defend 26 Senate seats, while the GOP will be defending only eight. So the bottom line is that Republicans are more likely to lose the House than the Senate this year.

Sceptics argue that it would require a seismic voter shift for Democrats to take either chamber this year. But history belies this claim. Indeed, since the 1940s the first off-year election of a new president's term sees his party lose, on average, 27 seats in the House and two or three in the Senate. In 1994 Democratic President Bill Clinton's party lost eight Senate seats and 52 House seats and relinquished control of both chambers. The same thing happened to Democratic President Barack Obama's party in 2010, when they lost six Senate seats and 63 House seats and, as in 1994, the GOP captured majorities in both houses.

Therefore, it would hardly be shocking to see Democrats net two Senate seats and 25 House seats this year. In fact, with a generic ballot favouring Democrats by a substantial margin, and Republicans stuck with a president whose approval ratings, averaging about 40%, are at historically low levels, it would be surprising if Democrats did not flip at least one congressional chamber this year.

The writer is a political scientist on the faculty of HELP University, Malaysia.