The narrative that congealed election night before polls had even closed on the West Coast was that while Democrats may have taken the House, they also underperformed relative to expectations and the hoped-for blue wave had turned into, in the words of columnist Nick Kristof at the New York Times, “only a blue trickle.”
This was a questionable interpretation at the time it was offered, but subsequent events have shown it to be almost entirely a psychological illusion based on timing.
Like in any election, Democrats both won some squeakers and lost some squeakers. They overperformed expectations in some races and underperformed them in others. And in 2018, it happens to be the case that Democrats got some of their most disappointing results in East Coast states with early closing times, while the GOP’s biggest disappointments came disproportionately in late-counting states.
Consequently, what felt to many like a disappointment as of 11 pm Eastern time on election night now looks more and more like a triumph.
House Democrats scored a bigger win than the 2010 GOP wave
One of Democrats’ basic problems with election night narratives is that in a country that’s fairly closely divided, the Pacific time zone has an overwhelming pro-Democratic tilt. But West Coast jurisdictions also tend to have generous vote-by-mail rules that result in slow vote-counting. Consequently, savvy election analysts are aware (but casual observers are not) that Democrats’ vote haul always improves in the days that follow Election Day.
To put the “ripple” in perspective, consider this striking analysis from Nate Silver and Dave Wasserman, two of the top quantitative election analysts in the world: Democrats will win the popular vote by a larger margin than the GOP achieved in either the 1994 or 2010 waves.
For comparison, the House popular vote in things that are widely considered to be wave elections:— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 10, 2018
2010: R +6.8
2006: D +8.0
1994: R +7.1
So if we wind up at ~D +7.5 or so, we'll be pretty much exactly in line with those years. https://t.co/BMil3Uuw8j
The swing is less impressive than what Republicans accomplished in 2010. But that’s because 2008 was a dismal year for House Republicans, so the improvement in 2010 was enormous. By contrast, Republicans put in a fairly meh performance in 2016 — narrowly winning the popular vote and losing six seats in the House and two in the Senate.
Democrats’ 2018 performance would superficially look more impressive if they somehow managed to go back in time and get creamed in 2016.
But the vote count is the vote count, and the vote count says that voters picked Democrats to run Congress by a huge margin.
Poll closing quirks distorted the narrative
Perhaps no candidate was as emblematic of the 2018 resistance tide as Amy McGrath in Kentucky’s Sixth District. A woman, a veteran, and a first-time candidate whose viral web video powered a grassroots funding surge and let her run a competitive race in a district Donald Trump won in 2016, she was exactly the kind of phenomenon Democrats were hoping would power them to victory.
Instead, she lost. And because she lost in Kentucky, which has the earliest poll closing times in the country, everybody heard about it.
By Friday, it was clear that Republicans were going to lose half a dozen close races in California. But by Friday, those six seats put together were garnering less coverage than McGrath obtained on Tuesday night. Television had already halted its midterm coverage, and election result stories had to compete with a million other narratives for airtime.
Similarly, Senate Democrats had one of their biggest disappointments in Indiana, whose polls close second on election night. Republicans, by contrast, look like they’ll have their biggest disappointments in Montana (which closed late) and Arizona (where they are still counting votes).
This locked in an early narrative about promising challengers falling short and incumbent Democrats tumbling. But a fuller view of the results paints a different picture. Jared Golden’s ads in Maine’s Second Congressional District never went as viral as McGrath’s. But the basic story of a combat veteran leveraging that credibility into a competitive election in a working-class Trump district is the same. Except Golden is going to win — it’s just taking a long time for that to become official because Maine uses a ranked-choice voting system.
McGrath herself, meanwhile, was always a long-shot candidate — that’s part of why she was interesting. And what happens with long shots is they usually lose. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth paying attention to.
Democrats’ Texas success story
Perhaps the clearest example of the perverse narrative dynamic around the 2018 election is the results in Texas.
Colin Allred flipped a House seat in the suburbs of Dallas where Democrats hadn’t even fielded a candidate in 2016, and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher picked up a seat in the suburbs of Houston. Democrats also picked up two state Senate seats and 11 seats in the state’s lower House. They flipped four state appeals courts, and a slate of 17 black women were swept into office in Harris County.
Yet this all wound up being played as a disappointment for Democrats because Beto O’Rourke’s greatly hyped long-shot Senate campaign against Ted Cruz went down to a 48-51 defeat.
Obviously Beto’s legion of fans would rather have won than lost. But the money and enthusiasm expended on the race had a high payoff down-ballot, and have now set the stage for the kind of longer-term progressive investment in Texas that has long been dreamed of. The largest, most diverse, and most urbanized of the red states is clearly not warming to Trumpism, and Democrats made big gains there.
What’s more, Sunbelt advances (not just in Texas but also in the suburbs of Atlanta, Miami, and even Oklahoma City) didn’t come at the expense of Democrats improving in the crucial Great Lakes swing states. Instead, Democrats improved on their 2016 results in the places where Trump was unusually weak and in the places where he was unusually strong.
Democrats swept the big three
Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan are why Trump is president.
The Electoral College has a kind of small-state bias because each state gets at least three electoral votes no matter how many people live there. But its biggest bias is that narrowly winning a big state gets you just as many electoral votes as winning one by a landslide. So the fact that Trump was more popular in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan than he was nationally let him eke out three narrow wins that netted him a huge haul of electoral votes.
In 2018, that dynamic reversed.
Tony Evers narrowly knocked off incumbent Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Gretchen Whitmer got elected governor of Michigan comfortably, and incumbent Gov. Tom Wolfe trounced the opposition in Pennsylvania. Democrats also comfortable won the Pennsylvania and Michigan Senate races while flipping three House seats in Pennsylvania and two in Michigan.
The critical thing about these results is that while Hillary Clinton’s campaign knew all along that they were losing ground with white voters in the rural North, they believed they were compensating for it in the suburbs. But while Clinton really did improve on Barack Obama’s results in the suburbs of America’s largest cities, the basic dynamic in the midsize cities was not as favorable as they’d anticipated. In 2018, that changed, with the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Detroit, Minneapolis, Kansas City, and Salt Lake City coming through.
The upshot is that unlike in 2016, Democrats not only won the most votes — they won the votes in the places that counted the most. The problem is that Trump wasn’t actually on the ballot to beat.
Trump is still president
In his article dismissing Democrats’ results, columnist Bret Stephens of the New York Times sniffed that “the president survived his first major political test more than adequately.”
This reflects a somewhat curious perspective that Trump-skeptical conservatives like Stephens have now that President Trump has proven to be a much more orthodox conservative in office than candidate Trump promised on the campaign trail.
If your objection to Trump is all about his personality and his personal conduct, then it’s true that Democrats wins leave him emboldened, if anything. The big change as a result of Democrats’ midterm wins is that public policy is going to be different going forward. The GOP legislative agenda is now entirely dead, while new Democratic trifectas in New York, Illinois, Maine, New Mexico, Colorado, and Nevada are now prepared to move the ball forward on progressive ideas.
Lots of Democrats object to Trump on both grounds — his policies are bad, and his personal conduct is offensive and harmful.
But Trump qua Trump is unchecked not because Democrats didn’t do well enough on Election Day, but because Trump wasn’t running for reelection. Trump’s party got stomped in the House amid peace and prosperity because most voters find him loathsome. But one of his loathsome qualities is that he’s shameless, so losing won’t force him to change. To beat him, he’ll have to be beaten in 2020.