The recent midterm election has brought in a new congress, led by a democratic majority in the House of Representatives and a Republican Senate. There were several unexpected upsets, both within the parties and against one another that highlight what was considered a crucial election in the current political environment in the United States. During the election, the voting results illustrated support for numerous theories regarding voting trends on how citizens vote during midterm elections. Many of the midterm results also reflect a common trend of the opposite party waves in the election period. In addition, a few of the upsets represented the few instances in which incumbents were ousted by newcomer candidates. During the midterm elections America witnessed some unexpected voter turnout and trends, midterm struggle for the President’s party, and incumbents dethroned that were both expected and surprising.
A common trend that can be seen in voter history during midterm elections are the low voter turnout and the tendency for members of congress affiliated with the President’s party to lose seats. Low voter turnout has been a problem for many years in the United States. During Presidential elections we see voter turnout hover around 60 percent; however, midterm elections, when they are not at the same time as presidential reelection, experiences even lower turnout (Roger H. Davidson, 2016). Previous elections have shown that younger adults and minority groups tend to be the groups which vote the least (2016).
Possible explanations revolve around the idea of inexperience with certain issues, leading to less inclination to vote (2016). Another possible explanation is voter registration (2016). In the United States, a citizen must register to vote; a stark contrast from other countries which have a system in place to register voters once they reach the eligible age (2016). This can decrease the number of eligible voters as citizens may either not have time during a work week, or do not find registering worth the time commitment (2016). The most apparent barrier to voting is Election Day itself. Because it is on a work week, citizens may not have time during the work day to go to a voter booth and submit their ballots (2016).
There have been both efforts to limit eligible voters via Voter ID requirements and measures to make such practices more easily accessible (2016). There also appears to be a socio-economic factor in that more affluent individuals both vote and donate significantly more than those who are poor (2016). With regards to whom the voters will vote for, the general guideline is that they will follow whichever party they identify (2016). Looking at the recent midterm election voter turnouts, there is a significant change from previous election trends.
These elections saw a large wave of voters come out to support their candidates across the country. One of the more interesting pieces of data is the younger voter, and minority turnouts for the midterm election compared to prior years. For young adults between ages of 18 and 29 the United States witnessed almost a two hundred percent increase (Beck and Kitchener, 2018). Not only that, but this demographic had an overwhelming bias towards the Democratic Party in this election (Tyson, 2018).
In my opinion, it seems that the younger generation either has a stronger inclination towards democratic values, or the policies and actions under the current administration are discouraging younger voters to identify with the party. Minorities also have seen a surge in participation, specifically the Latinx population. The midterm election saw this demographic “make up 11% of all voters nationwide on Election Day, nearly matching their share of U.S. eligible voter population” (Krogstad, Flores, and Lopez, 2018). The Latinx community, along with the African American community, tended to vote for the Democratic candidate during this election with a strong leaning towards this party by the latter demographic (2018).
Overall, this midterm election saw the highest voter turnout in over fifty years at 49.3% turnout (Stewart, 2018). The last time midterm elections saw this high of voter turnout was in 1914 (2018). The real question is explaining why this occurred. High voter turnout can sometimes be attributed to significant political events (Vesoulis, 2018). The current tenure of President Donald Trump has been filled with controversy and polarizing issues, so it’s not surprising that so many citizens have a burning passion to go out and make change through their right to vote. One of the most important topics for voters was the issue of sexual harassment (Tyson, 2018).
When looking at how voters ranked the importance of this issue, there was a relatively clear illustration in which Democrats found sexual harassment a significantly more important issue than their Republican counterparts (2018). To wrap up voter tendencies and turnouts, the 2018 midterm elections was an anomaly compared to the last 50 years in that there was a significantly higher voter turnout (Vesoulis, 2018). This can be explained by the political climate: the current administration is filled with controversy and polarization. Whereas Democrats see this as an opportunity to regain control of the House to implement oversight, the Republicans vote to keep the status quo (Vesoulis, 2018). Although voter turnout did not follow historical trends, the midterm election results illustrated a very common transition towards a more divided government.
Except for a few cases, in most midterm elections, the government will see a loss in seats for the President’s party (Davidson, 2016). There are numerous reasons as to why this phenomenon would occur. The first, known as the Surge and Decline theory, argues that a midterm election will have fewer voters because the President is not on the ballot, leading to less excitement (Location 2382, 2016). When looking at a ballot during a presidential election, there is a sense of excitement as to electing the leader of the United States (2016).
Consequently, not as motivated voters are more likely to vote for the candidates associated with their preferred candidate’s party (2016). However, during the midterms, those less motivated voters will most likely not show up to vote (2016). One hole in this theory is a lack of explanation as to why congress members of the president’s party “typically loses more seats at the midterm than it gains during a presidential year (Location 2382, 2016). Another theory is solely based on performance of the administration. Basically, voters will use midterm elections as “a referendum on the president’s popularity and performance in office during the previous two years” (Location 2391, 2016).
Voters will judge the consequences of the government’s actions, economically, militaristically, and policy-wise (2016). Potential problems with this theory are when congress sees a party swap despite an approval rating for the president over fifty percent (2016). It’s a little confusing as to why citizens would vote for the opposite party in these instances. The third explanation could be a notion of keeping a check and balance in the branches of government. By having one party control the executive and the other in congress (legislative), there is tension between the two parties, making policy ideologically centered (2016). The reasoning behind this would be that citizens “desire to check potential presidential excesses” (Location 2400, 2016). This theory would explain the discrepancy with party flip despite high approval ratings (2016). Although there may be a majority favoring the President, having an ideology of balance would account for the sudden party shift (2016).
Also, considering that approval ratings never tend to be overwhelming one way or another, only a few would require switching their votes to favor the other party to make the change (2016). This mindset could technically be found in all midterm elections; however, it’s a bit challenging to measure the impact of this group of individuals, and how many exist. All three of these theories can be seen as valid explanations for any of the midterm elections. There doesn’t seem to be one that can be clearly seen in every case study of the midterm elections. For this recent round of elections, one of the theories seemed to have shined the most.
The current President of the United States has been a polarizing figure in politics. His past and current actions have caused serious debate, and tension between the politicians, and especially the citizens. It was no surprise that this midterm election would be about issues revolving around him. One of the major issues people were concerned about going into the election was President Trump (Klein & Parks, 2018). The most recent and surging issue at the time, was the confirmation of nominee Brett Kavanaugh into the Supreme Court despite significant controversy over his confirmation (2018).
The way politicians and the media treated this incident lighted a fire in citizen’s motivation to vote in the coming election (2018). This election clearly seemed to pit a divided country in a referendum on Trump and his performance in the Office (2018). In the 2018 urban areas and suburbs, democrats are mostly found whereas conservatives dominate the country regions (2018). The President has done anything but follow traditional methods of politics. The midterm election cycle has seen a significant increase in travelling by the President to numerous rallies, encouraging his supporters to vote for the candidates of his party (Tyson, 2018).
As a result, it was likely that the decline in the surge and decline was diminished. Larger voter turnout on both sides of the parties led to a heavily contested election with larger than expected voter turnout. Two other major issues during the midterm elections were health care policy and the controversy over a border wall (Klein & Parks, 2018). These two issues most likely created polarizing voting groups; however, it could explain why there was a flip in party majority in the House of Representatives, along with the issue of sexual harassment. These issues, together with other practices by members of Congress, would affect the outcome of elections between incumbents and challengers.
Elections are a very stressful period for incumbents and large wall for challengers to overcome. The financial commitments are unbelievable, and the advantages of incumbents make the status quo extremely likely to occur rather than change. Ultimately, if a citizen does not vote based on their party identification, “the appeal of given candidates is the strongest force in congressional voting (Davidson, Location 2410, 2016). Incumbents statistically have had an overwhelming success rate in elections, with both sides enjoying at least an 80% of seats filled by an incumbent (Location 2420, 2016). In theory though, Senate members are more likely to be unseated by challengers because the role encompasses a larger base, challengers tend to be well known candidates, and the contests are more likely to receive media coverage (2016).
An interesting trend that has been occurring over time is that the incumbency advantage is decreasing thanks to a continued increase in partisanship (2016). As members of congress must align with their parties’ ideals they are more restricted in their ability to serve their constituents interests (2016). For members of congress with a region that has overwhelming support for their party, they will not be nearly affected by this trend (2016). Districts or states that have a more even distribution of Democrats and Republicans will see more competitive elections (2016).
There is a strategy to elections for the incumbents and the challengers. Incumbents have an advantage that they have experience working in Washington DC and develop name recognition. Challengers tend to be inexperienced in this area and comparatively obscure in general (2016). Another factor is voting based on beliefs of certain issues. It’s quite common to see citizens make their votes based on how candidates and incumbents stand on certain issues (2016). That is to say, “constituencies vote on the basis of ideological proximity to the candidates as well as the ideological identities of their parties” (Dodd, pg. 76, 2017). These types of individuals are important in elections as they can sway the results. Incumbents would find it best to serve these individuals through constituency service through “government construction projects, local government contracts, and the like” (pg. 73, 2017). Constituency service is one of the ways representatives earn the incumbent advantage (2017).
Through their numerous perks, members of congress can build positive relations with their constituents, whether it is a district or state (2017). However, the most important factor in elections is the strength of the candidate. A strong candidate is more likely to win and retain their seat in congress (2017). Incumbents have an easier time winning because of their strength, and tendency to run against weaker candidates (2017). Strong candidates would find it in their best interests to either wait until the member of congress retires or becomes less favorable to their constituents’ eyes for whatever reasons (2017). Once incumbents find themselves in a position in which they may face electoral loss at the polls, the tendency is to retire from office (2017). This strategy is also known as strategic retirement (2017).
This type of retirement creates an open seat race, with no incumbent advantage present. In this election, a significant portion of seats in the House of Representatives were open for the taking, leading to competitive elections. Of the 52 members that did not seek re-election, 33 Members of Congress retired (“List of U.S. Congress”, 2018). In one incumbent district, there was also a major upset leading to an energetic up and coming member of congress.
In New York, the Democratic Party witnessed one of the most unexpected outcomes within their party. Representative Joseph Crowley, a prominent member in Congress, even considered to take the reign of House Majority Leader, was ousted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Goldmacher and Martin, 2018). The last time such a prominent member of congress was defeated by a challenger was Eric Cantor in the 2014 midterm election (2018). Ocasio-Cortez was clearly the stronger candidate in this race. She received significant national support from other progressive leaders, elevating her from an obscure candidate (2018). She also used social media to her advantage, creating a large followers group to help her surge through the primary (2018). Her charismatic personality and platform, championing the working-class environment and progressive agenda helped her surge to a victory (2018). Clearly, there is a combination of a weak incumbent, voters who identified more with Ocasio-Cortez, and name recognition that led to the election outcome. In this case, the incumbent advantage was not enough for Representative Crowley to keep his seat.
The increase in voter participation and trends towards specific issues, the midterm party flip, and the unexpected incumbent upset by Ocasio-Cortez, highlights a few of the numerous factors that played into what was considered a significant midterm election. All of these factors tended to revolve around the Trump Presidency and how the administration has been performing. The actions by this administration triggered either shifts, or heightened importance of certain issues for voters. This led to a significant number of incumbents in an unfavorable position for reelection, forcing many to retire. Members of congress not retiring faced an extremely challenging task of fending off strong challenging candidates and maybe even losing the race. The midterm election cycle was packed with an abundance of passion and motivation that was built up through the two years under the new administration.
- Goldmacher, S. and Martin, J. (2018, June). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Defeats Joseph Crowley in Major Democratic House Upset. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/26/nyregion/joseph-crowley-ocasio-cortez-democratic-primary.html
- List of U.S. Congress incumbents who did not run for re-election in 2018. (2018). https://ballotpedia.org/List_of_U.S._Congress_incumbents_who_did_not_run_for_re-election_in_2018
- Klein R., Parks M., & Verhovek, J. (2018, November). 5 major issues dominating the midterm elections: ANALYSIS. https://abcnews.go.com/beta-story-container/Politics/major-issues-dominating-midterm-elections-analysis/story?id=58624175
- Vesoulis, A. (2018, November). The 2018 Elections Saw Record Midterm Turnout. http://time.com/5452258/midterm-elections-turnout/
- Tyson, A. (2018, November) The 2018 midterm vote: Divisions by race, gender, education. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/11/08/the-2018-midterm-vote-divisions-by-race-gender-education/
- Grogstad, J.M., Flores, A., & Lopez, M.H. (2018). Key takeaways about Latino voters in 2018 midterm elections. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/11/09/how-latinos-voted-in-2018-midterms/
- Stewart E. (2018, November). 2018’s record-setting voter turnout, in one chart. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/11/19/18103110/2018-midterm-elections-turnout
- Beck, J. & Kitchener C. (2018 November). Early Signs of a Youth Wave. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/11/youth-turnout-midterm-2018/575092/
- Dodd, L.C, & Oppenheimer, B.I. (2017) Congress Reconsidered Eleventh Edition. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.
- Davidson, R.H, Oleszek, W.J, Lee, F.E, & Schickler E. (2018) Congress and Its Members: Eleventh Edition. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.