Professors reflect on 2018 midterm election results

by Kyle Mullins | 11/13/18 11:41am

Two days after the Nov. 6 midterm elections, a panel of four Dartmouth professors spoke to an audience of over 100 people about the results. They reflected on Democrats’ retaking of the House of Representatives, seven governorships, and seven state legislative houses and the expansion of the Republican majority in the Senate. Several high-profile races nationwide remain too close to call, including the Senate races in Arizona and Florida and the gubernatorial races in Florida and Georgia.

A range of departments were represented on the panel, introduced and moderated by government professor Linda Fowler. History professor Leslie Butler spoke about the parallels between anti-immigrant sentiment today and nativism in American history, government professor Dean Lacy covered the phenomenon of midterm loss in American politics, and sociology professor John Campbell traced how the 2018 midterms continued long-running historical trends.

Fowler began the event by addressing the polarized national environment before the midterms.

“When you have parties that are so far apart, the stakes for winning and losing and winning elections matter a lot more,” she said to the audience. “That kind of politics has meant that elections are being fought more and more fiercely.”

Fowler added that there were structural factors in this election that favored both sides. The strong economy, gerrymandering, and fewer seats to defend in the Senate helped Republicans, while the president’s unpopularity two years after his election favored Democrats.

This led to a “mixed” verdict overall, she suggested. Fowler cited Florida as an example of an unclear message, noting that while the Republican senatorial and gubernatorial candidates have narrow leads in both races, a measure to restore voting rights to ex-felons that was opposed by both Republicans passed with over 60 percent of the vote.

“Is that a conservative outcome? … Is that a liberal outcome?” she asked. “Anyone looking for a policy message from this election should think again.”

She also commented on the decrease in political moderates in Congress.

“The middle is where the roadkill is,” Fowler said.

Lacy focused his remarks on the idea of “midterm loss,” which is the phenomenon where the sitting president’s party consistently tends to lose seats in the House of Representatives in midterm elections.

“After 2016, I have no idea what to predict about American politics, but I could predict that the president’s party would lose seats in the House of Representatives in this midterm election because it always does,” he said, pointing out that there had only been three examples to the contrary since 1862.

Lacy presented a regression analysis, which used past presidential approval ratings and seat losses to show that the Republican seat loss this year was exactly on the regression line.

“This is the only thing Donald Trump’s done that’s predictable,” he joked.

He also discussed the history of scholarship around citizens who vote in favor of divided government, calling this group “cognitive Madisonians.” Lacy said his research shows that about eight to 10 percent of voters reliably split their tickets in presidential elections and vote against the party of the president in midterms.

“They like the idea of checking the power of one branch of government with the other,” he added.

Butler laid out two overarching themes that she saw in this year’s elections. She described the first, nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment, as “a real through line throughout American history.”

“We see periodic waves of this going back to … the 1840s and 50s, with the organization of the first political party that mobilizes around the question of immigration, which is the Know-Nothing Party,” Butler said.

The Know-Nothings, Butler said, are characterized by three persistent traits: strong nationalism, religious discrimination and anti-elitism. She connected each to modern-day events, citing the “America First” foreign policy, Islamophobia and backlash against “cultural elites.”

Even back then, she said, the Democrats were seen as “the party of immigrants.”

“The Irish and the Germans really flocked to the Democratic party,” Butler said.

She noted the historical oddity, however, that the Democrats today are seen as both pro-immigrant and friendly to African-Americans, pointing out that those were “separate issues” in the nineteenth century.

“The Democratic party was the immigrant party, and the Republican party was relatively good on African-American issues; obviously, it was anti-slavery and then after that it was certainly much better than the very white-supremacist Democratic party,” she said. “Only with realignment in the post-civil rights moment do we have both of those issues being in the same party.”

The second overarching issue, Butler argued, was the question: “How democratic is American democracy?”

“That’s another through line throughout American history, a real deep and pervasive ambivalence about anything actually approaching what we might call universal suffrage,” she said.

Butler brought up the passage of the ex-felon voting rights amendment in Florida and amendments that make voter registration easier in Michigan, Maryland, and Nevada as counter to this historical trend.

Still, she asked the audience, “Why, in a country committed to democracy, that founds itself on that, do we make voting so hard? Why do we have a political culture in which voting is so difficult when we know that voter fraud, the instance of voter fraud, especially in the twentieth century, is minuscule?”

Campbell said that there were four social trends that had been developing in the United States since the 1970s that have led to the U.S.' current political moment: economic stagnation in terms of wage growth, racial scapegoating, the rise of a neoliberal economic ideology, and heightened political polarization.

“This all reaches a tipping point. Obama gets elected, financial crisis hits, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, Wall Street bailouts, bailouts of the automobile industry, all this runs very counter to everything I’ve talked about so far, and it [sort of] sets the table for Donald Trump,” he said.

He argued that the Democrats failed to counter the Republican economic success narrative in the midterms, but that racial scapegoating in particular was a “huge issue” in this election. The Republicans, he said, portrayed the central American caravan as an “invasion,” which “folks from the Middle East had snuck into somehow, miraculously, paid for by the Soros fund.”

“Although, it struck me as unusual that George Soros, extremely wealthy guy, couldn’t buy buses for this caravan,” he joked.

Overall, he argued that not much has changed in any of the social trends he mentioned, predicting that these trends would persist for “a while.”

The panelists took nearly an hour of questions ranging from the impact on the election results of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearings to predictions for the 2020 presidential election.

At times, the panelists attempted to lighten serious topics with jokes. Butler, in response to a question about the safety of democracy, said, “I advocate lots of thumb-sucking and fetal position, is sort of how I deal with this question! Democratic norm aversion is very frightening,” before discussing it as a historical and global phenomenon.

Fowler told the audience that if they are frustrated about institutions like the Senate and Electoral College that advantage rural voters and statistically less-educated white populations, “people at places like Dartmouth have to start moving to Topeka!”

Jasmine Lee ’19, who asked a question about youth voting, said the panel was very informative.

“I think it really caught me up with a lot of the news, just because it’s finals week, the ninth or 10th week," she said. "I thought this was a good way to get out of the Dartmouth bubble, hear what people are thinking about in terms of politics and what’s going on with elections."

George and Judy Stanger, Hanover community members, also said the panel was informative.

George Stanger said he was “fascinated by some of the insights that I hadn’t heard before, and we’re pretty much news junkies.”

Judy Stanger concurred, adding that she “thought that [the panelists] were fair.”

Ciara Comerford ’21, who noted that she is an international student, said the panel helped her understand the results of the midterms.

“I know Dartmouth is not representative of the country’s beliefs and stuff, and the trends that happen on a college campus are very different than the trends that happen nationwide, and the US is such a big country and there are so many different trends, so seeing them break it down was interesting,” she said.