Was it a ‘Blue Wave’ or not? Experts to break down Election Day

Flags hung on a civic building in Arizona

A Democrat Senate win in Arizona could be a sign of shifting political winds in formerly solid Republican states. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

What should we make of last Tuesday’s election, where midterm turnout was the highest it has been in a century, Democrats gained control of the House and showed surprising strength in GOP states like Texas and Georgia?

Berkeley News sat down with political science professor Robert Van Houweling, an expert in voter behavior and legislative dynamics, to talk about last week’s election, what the results might mean for 2020 and what to expect from a divided government.

Van Houweling will expand on his ideas Thursday (Nov. 15) during a panel discussion with Thomas Mann of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Bill Whalen of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. The panel will run from from 3-4:30 p.m. in the Social Science Matrix at 820 Barrows Hall.

It seems like pundits are debating whether it was a “Blue Wave” election or not. What happened last Tuesday?

I think the Democratic strength was undersold on Election Day. It didn’t look so good for Democrats on Election Day, but now, a week later, it looks better. We’ve seen more and more House seats come over to the Democrats, so instead of being below the range we expected it will be near the top of it.

In the Senate, I think the Democrats really made some inroads in some areas that you wouldn’t have expected. In Arizona, those inroads were enough to get a Democrat elected, and in many other areas they fell just slightly short, but still did quite well.

In terms of the electoral showing, you might expect it was quite strong and quite a rebuke of what had been happening in Washington.

Another important thing that happened was a lot of movement at the state level. I think Democrats flipped something like 300 new seats in state legislatures across the country. They ended Republican super-majorities in some states, they created new Democratic majorities in others. Almost all of the movement was in the Democratic direction.

Sounds like a wave.

Well, Democrats are nowhere near as strong as the Republicans. They don’t control as many of the states. They don’t have as much power in most states as they did before the Obama years. They do control the House, but really that’s it. And a lot of the action in the next two years is going to be the Senate buttressing the Republican advantage that they’ve built up in the judiciary and the Democrats holding the House does nothing to change that.

So in one sense, it was a good election for Democrats, but to have much influence on what the government is going to do they needed a good election. They are still far short of where some people who align with them think they should be.

It just shows how slow it is to change these things over time. The damage to Democratic office-holding was done throughout the Obama presidency. It didn’t all happen in one election, it happened again and again and again.

So, is that slow change a result of the structural disadvantages we talk about? Or is it really just impossible to change a lot in one election?

Some of it is structural disadvantages. Only a third of the Senate seats were up, and this was a particularly difficult third for the Democrats. But even if it were a good third, there would be limits to what the Democrats could do. Switching the Senate will take time.

And at the state level, it is not like every governor was up for reelection.

a portrait of the professor

Professor Robert Van Houweling is an expert on voter behavior and legislative dynamics.

You see with some of these states (that) there’s a long-term prospect of them becoming more Democratic as the demographics change, but just as a lot of people in the South continued to identify as Democrats even as their politics shifted more Republican, you’ll see a lot of people in states like Texas continue to identify as Republican. Because of the way voters think and behave, because of the effects of partisanship, it is probably a multi-election process.

Looking at the trends we saw last week, do you think this election is going to matter in two years, in 10 years?

The fact that you saw this new coalition, these new states becoming within reach for Democrats: Georgia, Arizona, Texas. That’s a huge change. Some of those states are very big. It is clear a Democrat can still win statewide in Ohio — one did. But in many ways those states are looking more attractive.

But if I were a Democratic strategist, I would be worried that they’re not really quite yet in reach. They might not yet form the core of the electoral coalition the Democrats would need to win the next presidential election.

People have been anticipating these changes for a while. But something like this, where the president is very unpopular with young people and unpopular with the demographic groups present in those states, could have a galvanizing effect and make these states true battlegrounds.

In terms of long-term changes, the other thing I would say is that Democrats ran a lot of high-quality candidates for state legislative offices. A remarkable number of women were elected both at the state and congressional level. They needed to replenish their ranks because Republicans held so many seats for so long, they actually have a pool of pretty good candidates.

Turning to the next two years, what do you think Americans want from this divided government?

I think it is hard to talk about people as an aggregate. I think there were some people who wanted a check on Trump and Republican unified control. But I think people say that, and if you look at the campaigns, those were about healthcare. They wanted to stop the repeal of Obamacare. They’ll get that, but maybe not much more.

Mainly, not much is going to happen.

For Republican voters, where they added to the Senate majority, they will get what they were looking for, which is more judicial appointments. They’ll also get a Senate that is more likely to join Trump in the battle against House Democrats. I think by holding the Senate, Republicans are going to get quite a bit of what they could imagine getting in these next two years.

Democrats controlling the House will for sure stop some things from happening, but Republicans will still get quite a bit out of the last two years of the Trump presidency.

Reporters interested in interviewing Rob Van Houweling can email Will Kane at willkane@berkeley.edu