US Midterms: What you need to know

For the first time since Donald Trump’s election as President in 2016, Americans go to the polls for a nation-wide election on November 6.

Voter enthusiasm is at a record high for a midterm election. Despite not being directly on the ballot, President Trump has a lot at stake with 60% of Americans saying their vote will be an expression of support or opposition towards him.

What’s on the ballot?

At the federal level, both houses of Congress are up for grabs. All 435 members of the House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 members of the Senate are on the ballot. The Republican Party currently controls both houses, with a modest 235 to 193 majority in the House and a razor-thin margin of 51-49 in the Senate.

At the state level, more offices are on the ballot than in a Presidential year. Of the 50 governorships in the US, 36 are being contested in November. In addition, all or part of 87 of the 99 legislative state houses are on the ballot.

Lastly, there are countless county and city level offices being contested including the mayoralties of Washington D.C., San Francisco, Phoenix and Nashville.

Why are these elections so important?

The biggest prize is control of the houses of Congress. The Constitution vests a great deal of power in Congress and it is easily the most powerful of the three branches of the federal government. A significant part of that power is oversight of the White House and the federal bureaucracy.

However, with Republicans controlling both houses during President Trump’s first nearly two years in office, this oversight power has largely been unused despite the hugely controversial nature of the first two years of his presidency.

Each house of Congress has a set of standing committees that oversee various segments of the federal government such as defence, health and human services, the judiciary and so on. If the Democrats gain control of one or both houses of Congress they will also control all the committees, and all their oversight power, in that house. These committees can subpoena witnesses and documents, offer immunity, and refer potential criminal acts to the proper authorities.

This would be a fundamental shift in the balance of power in Washington and would make the last two years of President Trump’s first term very different than the first two years.

Key issues effecting the outcome

History: The party of the President does not typically do well in mid-term elections. Over the last 20 midterms, the party holding the presidency has lost an average of 30 House seats and 4 Senate seats.

Perception of the President: Approval ratings for the sitting President can weaken or exaggerate the historical trend. Despite a context of sound macro-economic statistics and absence of an unpopular high-casualty war, President Trump’s approval ratings have been stable and low, ranging between a narrow band of the very high 30s to the very low 40s.

Enthusiasm: Overall interest in these elections is at a record high. That enthusiasm is not evenly split between the parties, with 67% of Democrats expressing higher interest than in the past against 59% of Republican voters expressing the same sentiment. This may result in higher turnout among Democrat supporters, which could be crucial in a context where voting is not compulsory.

Gender: As in most advanced democracies, the left-of-centre Democratic Party has long been more popular with women and the right-of-centre Republican Party more popular with men. Polls are indicating that the gender gap in voting may widen to a chasm this November.

This election cycle has also seen a record-breaking number of women run for, and succeed in, winning nominations for federal and state offices, primarily on the Democratic side of the ticket.

Emily’s List, a political action committee focussed on recruiting pro-choice female candidates for office, saw the number of women expressing interest in running for office at all levels explode to over 40,000, up from just under 1,000 in the 2015-16 election cycle. There are record numbers of women running for the House, Senate and governorships.

Race: As with gender, the voting patterns of people of colour have long skewed to the Democratic party. This pattern has been strengthened by President Trump’s campaign and time in office.

From Charlottesville to NFL players protesting policy brutality to much more in-between, President Trump has enflamed America’s long-standing racial tensions.

What is the likely outcome?

Midterm elections typically have a low voter turnout, averaging roughly 40% over the last few cycles. This makes them even harder to predict than Presidential ones.

Turning enthusiasm into real votes is the key challenge for Democrats this year. Many of their voting blocs, particularly African-Americans, Hispanics and young people, have had particularly poor turnout rates in midterms.

The respected data journalism and commentary site,, has forecasting models for the House and Senate that take into account nationwide, state and district polling, past electoral performance, demographics and expert opinion. These models give the Democrats are roughly 80% chance of taking control of the House and an approximately 30% of taking the Senate.

The low chance of Democrats re-taking the Senate is due to a very favourable electoral map for the Republicans. Of the 35 contested Senate seats, Republicans only hold 9 of them. Further, 10 of the 26 seats being defended by the Democrats are in states that President Trump won in 2016.

Either way, these midterms are worth watching closely – as they are going to play a pivotal role in the next two years of President Trump’s time in office.

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The University of Melbourne & Election Watch are co-hosting a US midterms event with the American Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday 17 October at University House. Click here for more details.

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