Is the anti-Trump 'blue wave' dead in the water?

Just weeks ago, Democrats appeared poised to make massive gains in this year's midterm elections. But has the 'blue wave' run out of steam?

David Rosenberg,

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Just a few months ago, Democratic critics of President Donald Trump predicted that a popular backlash against the president’s unorthodox methods – his use of Twitter to announce major policy decisions, his accusations against some national law enforcement officials of a ‘deep state’ conspiracy, and sweeping changes to American foreign policy vis-à-vis Iran – would fuel a massive “blue wave” in this November’s midterm elections, sweeping Republicans from power and delivering both chambers of Congress to the Democrats.

This prediction had a strong foundation in both polling and precedent.

Over the past 153 years, the party in power in the White House has lost House seats in 36 of the last 39 midterm elections. Since the end of World War II and the beginning of the modern era of American politics, the incumbent party has lost an average of 26 seats in the House of Representatives.

Democrats need to win just 24 seats more than the 194 they won in 2016 to secure a majority of 218 in the 435-member House – well within the historic average of 26 seats.

Through late 2017 and the early months of 2018, polls seemed to reinforce the narrative of a massive “blue wave” ending the Republican majority in the House, which had been held by the GOP since the massive “red wave” in 2010.

According to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Democrats held as much as a 13-point lead over Republicans in the generic ballot – that is, when respondents were asked whether, in general, they would favor a Republican or Democratic candidate for congress.

In late December, just 36.1% of respondents said they would vote for a Republican, compared to 49.1% who said they would vote for a Democrat.

A 13-point margin of victory for the Democrats would be the worst loss for Republicans since the 1976 midterms, which delivered a 292-seat supermajority to Democrats.

While the Democratic lead in the generic ballot declined from its peak in late December, Democrats enjoy a massive 9 to 7 point lead through early May. Such a lead would be comparable to the 8-point lead Democrats enjoyed in the 2006 midterms, in which Democrats gained a net of 31 seats, taking the House from Republicans and enabling Nancy Pelosi to become House Speaker.

In May, however, the Democratic lead plummeted, falling from an average lead of 7 points to just 3 by the end of the month. One recent poll, by Rasmussen Reports, gives the Democrats just a single-point lead on the generic ballot.

The decline mirrors a parallel rise of President Trump’s approval rating. Presidential approval ratings are generally considered to be closely tied to the performance of the president’s party in congressional elections.

While Trump’s approval ratings were mired in the mid-to-high 30s in December, with an average net disapproval of 20.6 points according to the RCP average of polls, the president’s net disapproval rating has been more than cut in half by the beginning of June.

The latest polls now show Trump with a 44.4% approval rating, compared to a 52.8% disapproval rating, giving him a net disapproval of 8.4%.

The recent shift in favor of Republicans has also benefited Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Kentucky) chances of maintaining the GOP’s narrow 51-49 majority in the upper chamber.

While the incumbent president’s party typically loses seats in the Senate, this year’s map strongly favors Republicans, with the GOP defending just 9 seats, compared to the Democrat’s 24.

Republicans are also aided by the fact that the nine seats defended this year are all in either states Republicans have won in recent presidential elections, or in a toss-up state – Nevada.

Democrats, by comparison, have to defend 10 seats in states which Trump won in 2016, including West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

While Democrats are competitive in two or three races for seats held by Republicans – Arizona, Nevada, and possibly Tennessee – polls show Republicans are competitive in at least eight states held by Democrats.

Considering the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice President Pence in the Senate in the case of a 50-50 split, Democrats must hold onto every seat they currently hold in the Senate, plus pick up at least two of the three Republican seats currently considered vulnerable – a scenario which appears increasingly unlikely, particularly given the relatively strong growth of the US economy and President Trump’s improving poll numbers.