Had the midterm elections been held one year ago, it would have been a disaster for Republicans.
Democrats reliably held double-digit margins over Republicans on the generic ballot. President Trump’s job approval was firmly below 40 percent and had been on a downward trajectory ever since his election. The attempted “repeal and replace” of Obamacare had failed, leaving the party in the worst of all worlds: with swing voters put off, the original healthcare law still in place, and the party’s base deflated. The tax reform bill was days away from being rolled out, with public polling showing Americans opposed the bill by around a 15-point margin.
Off on the horizon, the tsunami was barely visible but always looming. Dozens of incumbent Republicans headed for the exits rather than hang around to be drowned. The 2018 midterm cycle, it was said, was going to be ugly. In fact, the numbers were on track to be 2006-level-ugly, where despite low unemployment, the president had job approval numbers in the mid-to-high 30s and the generic ballot favored Democrats by double digits. If nothing changed, it was going to be a nightmare for the GOP.
And then … it wasn’t. Not completely, anyway. Tax reform passed, and despite countless pundits declaring how unpopular it was, the law grew in popularity once it passed and now sits at roughly even in terms of support and opposition. (In contrast, the Affordable Care Act’s popularity came in at around -10 on the eve of the 2010 wave that wiped out Democrats.) The president’s job approval turned around too once the bill passed, crawling upwards to sit safely in the low 40s for this entire year. The generic ballot, still far from great for Republicans, sits only at D +8 or so.
In a wave election, two things seem to happen: Independents break heavily for one party, and that party’s voters are much more enthused about turning out than the other party’s. In 2006, Democrats won over independent voters by 18 points, and voters who planned to support Democrats were nine points more likely to report being enthusiastic about voting.
In 2010, it was the opposite; independents favored Republicans by 19 points, and voters who supported Republican candidates were 15 points more enthusiastic in Pew’s polling. Today? Independents favor Democrats on the generic ballot, but by smaller margins than they did in 2006. Furthermore, while interest in voting is way, way up among Democratic voters, the Pew study showed a nearly corresponding spike among Republicans, which additional data suggests brought Republicans to parity post-Kavanaugh confirmation.
This is not a prediction of a coming fabulous night for Republicans, at least not in the House of Representatives. If we define a "wave" as being an election where 30 seats or more change hands, that still seems quite likely, as the FiveThirtyEight forecast puts the median expected outcome around 39 seats as of press time.
The challenges in the House are well-documented and extensive because of the geography of where so many contests are being fought: suburbs, especially in blue states like New Jersey, Virginia, and California. Cook Political Report has 17 Republican seats as worse than a toss-up and another 28 as pure toss-up races. Even if there isn’t any “wave”, even if there’s no incursion into the “lean Republican” seats that are nonetheless in play, if Democrats get most of the “lean Democrat” and just half of the “toss-ups,” it’s game over for Republican control in the House. This is why the FiveThirtyEight forecasters are giving Democrats an over-85 percent chance to take the House (which I should add is much higher than the percentage chance they gave Hillary Clinton of winning the White House on Election Day).
But at least for now, the indicators suggest a shift far less dramatic than the 63 seats Republicans picked up in the 2010 wave. Had the election been held a year ago, we very well could have been looking at that scenario. Today, while it is more likely than not that Republicans will lose control of the House, that we are even able to imagine and discuss a possible scenario where they do retain control is a testament to how things have changed over the last year.