Midterm elections in the United States are usually marked by a mundane atmosphere in which low voter turnout is symptomatic of the fact that American voters tend to be far more passionate about Presidential elections than the two year cycle in-between where Congressmen and some Senators face re-election bids. There have been historic exceptions to this rule. One such relatively recent exception was in 1994, when two years after Bill Clinton ended twelve years of Republican domination of the White House, voters elected a fiscally conservative Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich.
But while the 1994 midterms were a rejection of what was termed “tax and spend” politics, this year’s midterms are widely being framed as a de-facto referendum on the national leadership of Donald Trump. While Trump won’t face re-election until 2020 and while many in his party continue to cling onto the pre-Trump values of the Republican party, this has not stopped both Trump and the opposition Democratic party from framing the election as a chance to either vindicate the “Trump revolution” or otherwise signify that Trump’s 2016 victory was an aberration rather than a new trend in American politics.
While in 1994, the infamous midterm was more of an issues based vote than a personality based vote, this week’s election is very much about a single personality – that of Donald Trump. Because of this, it would have behoved the opposition Democrats to turn the midterms into an election where Democratic voters could rally behind a single larger than life figure on their side who could clearly articulate a singular, cohesive and coherent Democratic platform to the nation. In other words, the Democrats needed their own version of Donald Trump.
Instead, the Democrats continue to be a party where no single post-Clinton/Obama leader has emerged. Rather than rally behind a new leader to take the party forward as the Republicans did with Gingrich in 1994, the Democrats of 2018 have projected internal confusion to the nation at large as Hillary Clinton continues to indicate that she has not effectively resigned her leadership position. At the same time, Senate leader Charles Schumer has become something of an invisible man while the rapidly ageing House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is trying to simultaneously fight Donald Trump and the young liberal-left leaning Democrats who rally around a still growing Bernie Sanders personality cult. The overall message coming from the Democrats is: ‘We all hate Donald Trump, but we’re also quite busy hating each other”.
While no Republican leader of the party’s Congressional factions has emerged with the kind of weight that Gingrich projected in 1994, this is largely irrelevant as the Republicans have Donald Trump campaigning for them, whether on his 24/7 Twitter account or his frequent campaign rallies that always draw a large audience and gain substantial media coverage.
Beyond this, rather than play down the stereotypes that his detractors hate and his hardcore support base tends to revel in, Trump has gone “full Trump” on subjects that tend to galvanise his stanchest supporters. This is true in respect of deploying troops to the Mexican border in order to stop a group of mostly Honduran migrants, while Trump’s growing “greatest hits of Twitter” also includes sending ever more scathing insults to his opponents while further presenting a meme of himself as a Game of Thrones style warrior in the context of anti-Iranian sanctions.
But while the Republicans have an ace up their sleeve in respect of a larger than life President campaigning for various Representatives and Senators, a largely leaderless and ideologically confused Democratic party have an equal and opposite ace up their sleeves – the monolith that is the media-entertainment industry. For the last two years, most late night comedy shows, news and analysis programmes on CNN, MSNBC and others as well as the mainstream print media have launched all out assaults on Donald Trump. This has naturally increased in the months, weeks and days before the midterm elections.
In terms of the all important “style” category that always factors heavily in any US election, the battle this year is between a larger than life celebrity President and his loyal social media following versus an uninspiring Democratic party that makes up for its lack of political leadership due to having the vast majority of television, film and print media on its side. In this sense, there is an element of déjà vu as the 2016 had many of the same public fault lines in the battle for style (as opposed to policy substance).
One big elephant in the room however is the ongoing Mueller Probe which continues to investigate alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. While this story has a tendency to poke its proverbial head above the fray during slow news cycles, seeing as few Americans ever gave much thought to the ‘Russiagate’ scandal, the Democrats are instead throwing every accusation at the book at Trump ranging from racism, sexism, corruption and antisemitism to accusations of lunacy. Likewise, while Trump has accused China of meddling in the midterms in favour of the Democrats, this too has failed to carry much water with the general public. In this sense, the last two years of US politicking have demonstrating that domestically inclined mudslinging is far more effective than accusations of ties to foreign governments.
Finally, one comes to the issues of policy substance. Rather than proposing a coherent and streamlined platform, the Democrats are banking on running on a platform of “everything Trump is not”. This is where the strategy could backfire. While many American centrists feel that Trump is overly harsh on immigration matters, the same people equally fear that the Democrats have too much of an Angela Merkel style “open door” policy towards illegal immigration – one that has objectively failed in Europe. Thus, by saying that ‘we are the equal and opposite extreme of Trump’ on issues ranging from immigration to increasingly sectarian domestic politics, the Democrats are underestimating the fact that they are alienating many undecided centrists in key swing states. Furthermore, many of these centrists have already realised that Trump’s rhetoric tends to be far more extreme than his policies are in any case.
Because the economy has generally improved under Trump while signs that the irresponsible trade war with China may cool down later this month when the US President meets Chinese President Xi Jinping, those voters who remain undecided may well opt for the Republican party as the doom and gloom that the Democrats have been predicting since 2016 has simply not occurred. Taken in totality, because the “known” of Trump’s Republicans have generally been good for the domestic economy, undecided voters may well reject the unknown which is being framed as a counterweight to the “extremism” of Trump, which to most Americans in swing states has not realistically been all that extreme.
In presenting themselves as the antithesis of Donald Trump, the majority of Americans who do not want Angela Merkel style “open borders” and so-called Cultural Marxist sectarianism politics as the main diver of the wider political debate, may well end up quietly voting Republican all the while Trump’s base will likely vote in full force. Clearly, the size of Trump’s hard core base is being underestimated as much in 2018 as it was in 2016. Thus, if Trump can get his eager base out of the house while also winning over a majority of undecided centrists outside of California and New York where the Democratic vote has long been a foregone conclusion, the Democrats may not have the easy victory they appear to expect.
Because Trump is an unavoidable figure and because the US entertainment-media industry is the largest in the world, both parties have clearly deployed the bigwigs during a midterm cycle that may see many Americans voting in such an election for the first time as there has been more media excitement surrounding the vote than during most midterms in living memory.
Therefore, while Senate elections will likely be a close call, it is more likely than not that at minimum the Republicans will keep the House and may even hang onto the Senate. All the while, the Democrats’ lack of leadership remains a liability. Finally, because the Democrats set themselves up as extremists by saying they will do the diametric opposite of the allegedly extreme things Trump has done, the Democrats risk alienating undecided voters while Trump’s highly decisive base is already being mobilised into action.