Goodbye Midterm Dynamic, Hello Presidential Politics

by Stuart Rothenberg November 29, 2018 · 9:15 AM EST

Midterm elections and presidential cycles have such different dynamics that the two should almost never be discussed together. That will not prevent people from doing so, but they should resist the temptation. 

Midterms tend to be referendums on the incumbent president, while each presidential election is a choice between nominees.

Of course, a presidential re-election contest is something of a referendum on the incumbent, since sitting officeholders seeking another term will be evaluated on the basis of their performance in addition to what they promise for the future.

But the existence of an alternative on the ballot makes a presidential year very different from a midterm year.

That’s why connecting the dots from the last midterm election to the next presidential contest is so unwise.

Initially, Democrat Michael Dukakis looked like the clear favorite in 1988 as the candidate of change after eight years of Ronald Reagan. But Vice President George H.W. Bush redefined the technocratic Massachusetts governor as weak on crime, too liberal and personally weak (whether riding in a tank or responding to a hypothetical debate question about his wife).

Bush won by transforming the 1988 election from a referendum on the previous eight years to a choice between the two nominees and parties.

Twenty years later, again without an incumbent on the ballot, Democrat Barack Obama offered his vision for the future but also successfully portrayed Republican John McCain as offering a third term of George W. Bush — an option that most Americans found unappealing.

And of course, in the most recent presidential contest, the politically inexperienced Donald Trump won by driving up former Secretary of State and Sen. Hillary Clinton’s negatives and making her unacceptable to an important part of the electorate.

In presidential years, voters cast separate ballots for president and for Congress. During midterms, those same voters don’t have a presidential ballot, so they don’t have a direct way to express their dissatisfaction with the person in the Oval Office apart from voting against the nominees of the president’s party.

How does all this relate to 2018 and 2020? Last week’s midterm election was primarily about Trump.

Red state voters, enthusiastic about the president’s performance and wanting to elect a more “Trumpy” Congress, supported Republican nominees.

Those voters were making a partisan and ideological statement.

Blue state voters also wanted to make a statement about the Trump/Republican agenda and about the president’s character and behavior.

With Trump not on the ballot — but traveling around the country saying that he was in fact on the ballot — the only way to send a signal of dissatisfaction to the White House and to make a statement about changing the direction of the country was to vote against Republicans for federal office. That is exactly what swing voters (including independents and college-educated whites) and core Democratic demographic groups did.

Democrats of various stripes had no difficulty agreeing that Trump needed to be stopped and that consensus produced both a huge anti-Trump turnout and a surge of votes against Republican officeholders.

Trump, who in rally after rally sounded partisan and ideological, united Democrats and energized them, turning them out to vote for Democratic House nominees.

But two years from now, there will be a fundamentally different dynamic.

Democrats will spend more than a year fighting among themselves about their party’s presidential nomination. (If you have any doubt about that, just remember that on election night some in the party were already arguing about their leader in the House of Representatives.)

Progressive and pragmatist/establishment Democrats will demonize each other during debates and campaign stops, making it more difficult for the party to rally behind the eventual nominee.

That fight will give Trump many opportunities to belittle his adversaries, play up Democratic divisions and remind Republicans, independents and college-educated white women why they didn’t vote Democratic in 2016.

Trump and his GOP allies tried to make the 2018 midterms about Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Democratic funder George Soros, the economy and the “fake” media. But they were unable to so — they never really had much of a chance — because the president is such a dominant political figure.

But in 2020, the Democratic ticket could make Trump look better to some swing voters who sent a message of dissatisfaction this year but might find someone like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren or former Attorney General Eric Holder unacceptable alternatives.

It’s tempting to draw lessons about 2020 by looking at 2018, just as it is tempting to pronounce at this early date which states will determine the next presidential election. Don’t do either one just yet.

There are too many uncertainties.

Give the new cycle some time to unfold. Watch the economy. Watch President Trump. Watch the tone of the Democrats.

Wait to see how domestic and international events change public opinion. And most important, take a break to collect your thoughts and to regain some sanity.

It’s still 2018, after all.