The US midterm elections: Was it a blue wave? One thing is sure: the consequences will be compelling | The Monthly

Was it a blue wave? One thing is sure: the consequences will be compelling


American Dispatches by Richard Cooke

American politics and society has rarely, if ever, been as tumultuous as it is today.

November 8, 2018

The US midterm elections

By Richard Cooke
Was it a blue wave? One thing is sure: the consequences will be compelling


So was it a “blue wave”? American punditry obsessed on this question last night and this morning, beginning their speculation before voting had concluded. What happened hadn’t even stopped happening, but when the partisan borders on the sectarian, talking points will not be altered by mere events. The most hackish took a leaf from When Prophecy Fails, burying their false predictions under a tide of renewed speculation about how Democrats would govern, or about the composition of the 2020 election. Republicans tried to persuade themselves, live, that losing the house was actually good news. Their wins in the Senate were unprecedented, and President Trump had personally anointed the victors.

They had their work cut out selling this result – the swing to the Democrats was eight points, the largest since 1948. It was hard for the left to feel disappointed, but there were some shortfalls on the high expectations. Polling had favoured progressive “superstar” candidates in Southern races – the Florida and Georgia gubernatorial elections, and a Texas Senate spot – but either shy Trump voters or extra-motivated rural, white and older voters blunted these insurgencies. Six months ago, a Democratic challenger receiving 48 per cent of the vote against Ted Cruz in Texas was improbable and would have been considered an excellent result (the state has not elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1988). Instead it was rued as a near miss.

“High turnout favours Democrats” is a vintage cliché of American politics. It already looked hoary, and in this wash-up will be retired. Young voters and voters of colour arrived en masse, but so did white rural voters who favour the president and his style. As the reporter Dave Weigel noted, the Democratic candidate for governor in Ohio, Richard Cordray, won more votes than the moderate John Kasich did four years ago. Kasich won in a two-to-one landslide, but yesterday “Trump-era Ohio Republicans simply smashed through the model with rural voters,” seeing Republican Mike DeWine win. American rancour is written up as bitter division, but is as often enthusiastic combat.

As with the rise of President Trump, these midterms can’t be separated from a 40-year, multinational realignment of white working-class men, away from labour parties and towards conservative parties. At first glance, that trend seemed to have become more emphatic. Two decades ago, white working-class men and college-educated women voted roughly the same way. Now their behaviour at the ballot box is separated by a 75-point gap. In the “purple” suburbs in states like Illinois and California, Republicans shed college-educated female voters, and lost long-time red seats in the process. Orange County, west of Los Angeles, was formerly one of the safest red areas in the country. Its congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, a Putinphilic 15-term incumbent, was ousted.

Internationally, conservatives are more prone to complain about a “democratic deficit”, especially when dealing with multilateral institutions such as the European Union. In the United States, the deficit favours the Republicans. The US electoral system was formulated with anti-majoritarian measures in mind, and as the country becomes more liberal, coastal and diverse, a regional premium ratchets up the power of white, rural voters dramatically. In theory, the percentage of the national population required to elect a Senate majority is only 17 per cent. This time around, some liberals complained about the discrepancy in the seats won and the “Senate popular vote”. Democrats had “won” by 12 points, but lost multiple seats. In reality this reflected an unfavourable map: Democrats were defending 26 states, and Republicans just nine, and many of those Democratic seats were in Trump-friendly states like North Dakota and Missouri. They did well to hold West Virginia and Montana under the circumstances. Voter suppression and district gerrymandering add to this structural disadvantage.

Just hours after the result, Trump fired his constantly humiliated attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, and replaced him with a deputy more amenable to soft-pedalling the Mueller investigation. The man overseeing it, Rod Rosenstein, was also removed. Last year, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham said there would be “holy hell to pay” if Trump fired Sessions. This morning he tweeted this: “I look forward to working with President @realDonaldTrump to find a confirmable, worthy successor so that we can start a new chapter at the Department of Justice and deal with both the opportunities and challenges our nation faces.”

“The midterm elections used to be, like, boring,” Trump told a crowd in Cleveland, immediately before polls opened. “Now it’s, like, the hottest thing.” Its consequences are, so far, no less compelling.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys US correspondent and contributing editor. 


From the front page

Black Is the New White

Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

An Orchestra of Minorities

Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

Close to Home: Selected Writings

Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

Climate Justice

Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer