Why Democrats can feel cautiously optimistic about 2020

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On Tuesday 6th November, I had something of a heavy night. I stayed up drinking into the small hours of the morning, became quite emotional and then incoherent, before stumbling into bed drunk and exhausted at 3am. This was not, however, the fallout from a standard student club night, but the far nerdier affair of a US midterm elections viewing ‘party’. Anxiously crouched on a broken sofa in my JCR, I spent the evening illuminated in the combined glow of my laptop and a large TV blaring CNN. This was the big night for any obsessive follower of American politics, marking the occasion when the US went to the polls at the half-way point in the president’s term. Formally, it was a chance to re-elect the entire lower chamber of Congress – the House of Representatives – and a third of its upper chamber – the Senate. There was however, more at stake than just which party got to control America’s legislature. By the 6th November, an electoral contest had become a moral one; from the Democrat perspective, it was a referendum on whether the American people would accept a presidency that had detained children, attempted to ban Muslims from entering the United States, and passed a fiscal bill which saw 62% of the trillion-dollar tax cuts go to the 1%. From the Republican angle, it was a chance to see whether the electorate would support a commander-in-chief who could be described as unconventional or, less charitably, unhinged, and whether the extremely strong state of the US economy could insulate the Party from a leader whose popularity was historically low. 

As the night began, I had high hopes for a ‘blue wave’ to help wash away the Republican congress, and thereby the moral stain which America seemed to have inflicted on itself only two years ago. Things, however, started to go wrong. Early in the night, the Democrat challenger for Tennessee, Phil Bredesen, appeared to have lost his race by a dismayingly large margin. There was clearly to be no blue victory there. But then the incumbents began to fall too. Joe Donnelly, Indiana’s Democratic senator who had polled slightly ahead of his opponent, slipped to an increasingly heavy defeat. Bill Nelson of Florida was suddenly behind, and his Democrat colleagues in the Senate, Claire McCaskill and Heidi Heitkamp, had soon been set on the path to defeat. Worst of all, the House, a far easier Democratic target, at points seemed to teeter on the edge of continued Republican control. As I abandoned the viewing for my bed, it seemed that Trumpism had not only swept Congress, but also the contest for America’s soul.

As I abandoned the viewing for my bed, it seemed that Trumpism was not only swept Congress, but also the contest for America’s moral core.”

If I had been too much of an optimist at the beginning of the evening, however, I found in the morning that I had veered too far into pessimism. The blue wave I had desired had arrived, if in less spectacular form than envisioned. Results are still coming in, but as it stands the Democrats have taken over 30 seats seats in the House, enough for them to retake control with a comfortable majority. The Senate meanwhile, was less dire than feared: good results in Montana, Nevada and Arizona seemed to further confirm that although the Republicans have so far picked up two senate seats, they have not swept the board. 

In one sense, it was still hard not to be disappointed. In the 2010 and 2014 midterms, Republicans had taken a combined fifteen senate seats. Not only had the Democrats failed to win any, but they’d even lost ground. In context, however, this is less of a blow than it might seem. The cycle of 2018 presented a hugely overexposed map for the Democrats, with 25 of the 33 states in contention held by them at the beginning of the night. According to polling analyst Nate Silver, it was probably the hardest Senate map in history for any party in the US, and with an economy this good, gains in the upper chamber were always a stretch, especially given an unprecedently large split between rural and urban voting which only further limits Democratic power in states like Indiana or North Dakota.  With early hubris dispelled, I could also remember that the main objective of House control had been secured; Trump will now find it hard to pass anything of substance, and a flood of subpoenas central to the criminal investigation into his 2016 campaign can be unleashed.

“If confidence would be too strong of an emotion to now possess, there is at the very least space for a cautious optimism – after all, 2020 beckons and there is plenty to play for.”

Perhaps we can count the midterms count as a Democrat victory as much for what they suggest as what they actually achieved. The Midwestern states which had so disastrously gone red in 2016 have clearly not irreparably shifted in allegiance, as shown by Democrat victories in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. While the South was in one sense an area of disappointment, the level of Democrat competition was surprising, with Republican heartland states such as Georgia and Texas going red by only a few percentage points over numerous races. Should the US economy lose steam, which its stock market suggests is very possible, and should President Trump dip back into the high-30s approval ratings he once suffered, the Southern Democrat may emerge from extinction with shattering implications. The vital ‘swing state’ of Florida has meanwhile voted to refranchise around 1.5 million former felons who had lost the vote due to criminal conviction, a demographic which is disproportionately black (although still majority white), and has been cited as a possible source of Democratic support. As a state only narrowly won by Donald Trump, this decision may be of considerable importance in the years to come.  It is of course possible and indeed eminently likely that he will be returned for another four years, but at least when I find myself glued to the next US election, there lurks the potential not only for a ‘blue wave’ but a ‘blue tsunami’. If confidence would be too strong of an emotion to now possess, there is at the very least space for a cautious optimism – after all, 2020 beckons and there is plenty to play for.