It’s been two weeks since the midterm election, which produced the highest percentage of eligible-voter turnout in a century. Analysts will hash over just what issues counted most with voters, but the signal result of Nov. 6 was the end of one-party rule. With Democrats regaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Republicans retaining control of the U.S. Senate, atmospheric changes among the three branches of government are a certainty.
While it’s normal for the president’s party to lose seats in midterm elections, what’s not normal is that this year it came during a vibrant economy. On the Friday before the election, the government announced the creation of 250,000 new jobs in October, surpassing expectations. Unemployment numbers came in at 3.7 percent, the lowest in half a century. Meanwhile, the number of employed Americans is the highest ever, with wages during the past year growing by 3.1 percent – the most in nearly a decade. A major negative is that the recent tax cuts mean a massive windfall for the wealthy, especially the richest 1 percent.
Since the president’s election two years ago, the stock market (despite its recent retreat) has risen sharply. Election Day exit polls indicate that two-thirds of voters judged the state of the economy to be either good or excellent, a stark contrast with darker estimates of the country’s direction.
To the question who would vote against those figures, the answer came from the well over a hundred million voters who enabled Democrats to win the popular national vote by seven points. So much for the commonplace maxim that Americans usually “vote their pocketbooks.” Election returns also ran counter to another maxim, namely, that “all politics is local.” On the campaign trail, President Trump made the election about himself, urging supporters to “vote as though I am on the ballot” because, as he reiterated, “I don’t believe anybody has ever had this kind of impact.”
Subsequent polls indeed suggested that millions saw the president as a major factor on Election Day, though often not in the way he imagined. One revealed that two-thirds of voters voted with Trump in mind, more in opposition than in support. His “fear and loathing” campaign helped some, but not most, candidates. Nationally, it failed to be a winning strategy.
At first, President Trump asserted that he had enjoyed a “great victory,” but facts proved otherwise. Often aglow after one of many selective candidate campaign rallies, he believed that opinion polls regularly understated his personal popularity. However, interviews brought out a variety of concerns.
Continued attacks on the press as “the enemy of the people,” his baiting of women and minorities, endless lying and the harnessing of fear for political purposes opened the door to serious questions as to why he continues to criticize America’s long-standing democratic allies even as he cozies up to brutal dictators and finds enjoyment in withdrawing from international agreements that he has not fully examined. Voters spoke of dysfunction in the White House, and those who read international news, especially, grew alarmed at America’s decline in world standing.
Democrats picked upwards of 40 new seats in the House, doing so in a challenging year when they had to defend three times as many seats as Republicans. By adding several governorships and substantial victories in state houses, most analysts have found if not a blue wave, then at the very least a purplish one.
While the controversial president triggered the large turnout, much more was in play. Healthcare emerged as a hot issue (No. 1 for those voting Democratic), so much so that politicians who had voted against the Affordable Care Act dozens of times now came out in support of insuring people with pre-existing health conditions.
Statisticians stressed the impact of striking gains Democrats made in traditional suburban districts, where a majority of voters reside and which are the locus of most Republican losses. In key battlegrounds, women went for Democratic candidates over Republicans by as many as 20 points. Elsewhere too they helped to propel well a record number of women into House seats. In addition, young voters and minorities turned out in high numbers, selecting Democratic candidates by large margins.
Whatever else the midterm results may imply, they remind us that even in an unsettled period in national politics, our democracy retains a hopeful resilience. The next two years will pit Democrats mounting investigations into presidential behavior against a Republican party that so far has acquiesced in the very behavior that helped determine the election.
Most Americans decidedly prefer split-party government over one-party rule; perhaps it will open up new possibilities of compromise. Yet in the run-up to 2020, moments of grace may be few.
Ron Lora, a native of Bluffton, is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo. He is the co-editor of “The Conservative Press in Twentieth-Century America” and is a recipient of the Distinguished Historian award from the Ohio Academy of History. His column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.