Some of my great Democratic friends were disappointed in the election results and some are walking around with big smiles on their faces. For the former, my guess is that they were caught up in both “irrational exuberance” and a burning desire to see voters reject Donald Trump in all his forms – especially longing for a big Senate win and sweeping the table. For those who see the silver lining, they came in with reduced expectations of the election, especially after 2016, and they were happy with Democrats regaining control of the House of Representatives, picking up seven governorships and around 400 state legislative seats, despite the losses in the Senate.
After all, gaining what now looks like 40 House seats is an extraordinary feat not seen for the Democrats since the 1974 Watergate class. Republicans had exceeded that number in both 1994 and 2010., when they won 54 and 63 House seats, respectively. And the defeat in the Presidential election of 2016 was a wound that would not heal.
But even to call the mid-term election of 2018 a “mixed bag” for the Democrats would ignore the elephant in the room.
When have we ever seen such a shift when the economy was doing so well — unemployment under 4%, growth rates up, consumer confidence the highest since 2000? When has the party in power gotten so clobbered with the economy humming and more and more voters seeing the jobless numbers dropping and the stock market rising?
Let’s look at the history of elections when the economy was doing well or doing badly.
When unemployment was hitting close to 10% in 1982 during Reagan and also 10% under Obama, the off-year House losses were 26 under Reagan and 63 with Obama. When the economy was booming in 1998 under Clinton, his party actually gained seats in the off year, despite his personal scandals. And that unusual Republican defeat led to Speaker Newt Gingrich’s resignation.
In Presidential elections, John Kennedy won in an economy coming off the 1958 recession, Ronald Reagan won in a landslide in 1980 with a miserable economy of high inflation, negative growth and high interest rates and unemployment. Bill Clinton won in 1992 with the campaign mantra of “It’s the economy, stupid” after a recession, a tax increase that Bush promised never to implement and concern about the job market. And, of course, Obama won in 2008 mainly due to the greatest recession since the Depression of the 1930s.
All elections are not won or lost on the economy, of course. Candidates matter. A. domestic crisis like Watergate mattered. Foreign policy can matter – Vietnam, the Iran hostage crisis, even Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 helped Democrats in that off year. But there is no question that the economy and people’s feelings about their personal situation matter a great deal.
That is why this election was such an outlier. If Trump had not been the pariah he was to so many Americans, his party would not have suffered the loses it did with such a strong economy. One can argue just how much credit Trump deserved for the job growth, the bump in the gross domestic product, and the boost in consumer confidence. Many point out that much of the good economy was a direct result of Obama’s policies, yet Trump is in office and he benefits from the positive numbers, regardless of whether he caused them.
A more traditional Republican president would have been able to ride a positive economy to a much different result. Trump made a sow’s ear out of a silk purse!
So the bottom line is that Election 2018 was far more about the revulsion and rejection of Donald Trump’s Presidency and a lot less about the state of the economy. In that sense, this was a very unusual and abnormal election — not unlike Trump himself.