What Should We Take Away from the 2018 Midterm Elections?

Experts share what the outcomes of Tuesday’s elections mean for the United States

By Molly Gluck

All 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and one third of all seats in the US Senate were up for grabs on Tuesday. However, in the wake of Democrats winning control of the House of Representatives and Republicans expanding their majority in the Senate chamber, many questions remain about what the outcomes of the midterm elections mean for the country as a whole — and for politics moving forward. To answer these questions, Tom Whalen from the College of General Studies, Spencer Piston from the Department of Political Science, Tammy Vigil and Tobe Berkovitz from the College of Communication and David Jones from the School of Public Health share their midterm reactions, perspectives and predictions.

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Image source: Flickr from DonkeyHotey License: Creative Commons

1) 2018 has been a historic year for women candidates, with a record-breaking number of women on the ballot Tuesday. While many dubbed it “the year of the woman,” the midterms further reflect a transformation in politics, with different ages and ethnicities running to represent our country. What do these shifting demographics mean for the future of the political landscape?

“The short answer is that the shifting demographics will mean greater political representation of traditionally underrepresented groups like women, African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Numbers are everything in politics. And moving forward these groups have the numbers to determine the political future of our nation.” — Tom Whalen

“The 2018 midterm elections provide clear evidence of continued efforts to move toward a more representative democracy and to afford more people with diverse experiences the opportunity to fully participate in government. Although leaders are still often presumed to be white, male, and economically successful, citizens in various states elected a notably heterogeneous slate of candidates to various prominent offices. Nineteen black women won judicial seats in Harris County, Texas. For the first time ever, an openly gay man won a governorship. More women military veterans ran for office than ever before. The new U.S. Congress will include more openly homosexual individuals than it previously had and, in what some pundits referred to as the current ‘year of the woman,’ Americans are sending the youngest female, the first Somali-American woman, the first two Native American women, and the first two Muslim women representatives to Congress.

These particular gains in representation and representativeness are small in number, but they are important and noteworthy. When we continue to elect leaders who are increasingly diverse in multiple ways, we slowly and steadily broaden our collective understanding of what leadership means and widen opportunities for future generations of political hopefuls. We also expand perceptions about the social and political contributions different citizens can make to the advancement of the nation. The makeup of our government has never accurately reflected the composition of our country, but we have expanded the representativeness of our leadership, and we certainly made significant strides in that direction this November. Yet, based on our own history and current struggle with political polarization, it is difficult not to wonder what type of backlash these elections might inspire. Fortunately, that same history and our recent progress also demonstrates that our drive and determination to enact the ideals of a participatory government by the people usually continues to move forward despite the pushback and challenges we, as a nation, face.” — Tammy Vigil

“The Democrats successfully recruited a strong candidate pool of women, minorities, LGBTQ and veterans that contributed to their taking of the House. This group reflected the demographic and social changes that are shaping the electorate and generated massive turnout ousting many incumbent Republicans. These new members of Congress will be the model for the Democrats in 2020. In primaries for the House it is likely the Republicans will go against this grain and nominate candidates who represent their more conservative, white and rural base, although it will include a large number of women.” — Tobe Berkovitz

Spencer Piston commented on the shifting demographics of voters, as well as candidates — highlighting victories, limitations, and implications:

“People of color have often been excluded from voting in the history of the American political system. The midterm elections provide important updates, both good and bad, to this anti-democratic tendency.

One major development that has not gotten enough attention is that in the space of a single day, about 1.5 million Floridians gained the right to vote, through a ballot measure that extended voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. 40 percent of black men in Florida had been barred from voting prior to the passage of this amendment.

Idealized images of democratic societies take it for granted that all adult citizens have the opportunity to vote. In practice, however, for many adults — especially adults of color — this opportunity is curtailed or eliminated altogether. Given the racial composition of the two major parties, it is likely that the battle over who counts as a full citizen will continue in the coming years.” — Spencer Piston

2) On Tuesday, Democrats won control of the House of Representatives. What changes in Washington will this takeover of the House bring?

“Democratic control of the House means long-serving liberal members will chair important committees that will become subpoena and investigatory factories dragging the Trump family and its political advisors into hearing after hearing. Definitely ratings gold for cable news, but not a sure-fire bet for 2020 electoral success.” — Tobe Berkovitz

“The most important change is a check on the excesses of the Trump Administration. The president and his close circle of advisors subscribe to the doctrine of unlimited executive authority. The Democrats in the House now have the ability to provide oversight of the legislative process and the power to issue subpoenas. The Trump administration, in other words, can no longer play it fast and loose politically.

Also, the Democratic takeover mean the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) will remain the law of the land. Republicans will no longer be able to gut it legislatively.” — Tom Whalen

David Jones weighed in on the Affordable Care Act as well:

“2018 will be recalled as year with the greatest increase in the number of states expanding Medicaid coverage since the expansion went into effect in 2014. The success of ballot initiatives in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah — which were resounding victories in states that not long ago seemed out of reach for supporters of the ACA — gives advocates in the remaining 14 non-expansion states a model to follow. Looking ahead, it is hard to predict when it will happen, but the pundits and scholars who predicted that every state would eventually expand Medicaid may in fact turn out to be right.”

3) What opportunities and challenges do the divided Congress present? Do you think Congress will embrace bipartisanship or deepen its polarization?

“Bipartisanship is dead and with Trump’s firing of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General look for new round of intense polarization. This unfortunately has become the new political normal.” — Tom Whalen

“The impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the subsequent success of the Democrats in 1998 should be a cautionary tale for the House leadership. This does not bode well for bipartisanship. Both parties will play to their base rather than what remains of moderate voters. Stand-by for red meat hardball politics.” — Tobe Berkovitz

4) What was the most surprising outcome in your opinion? What is the impact of this outcome?

“The most surprising outcome is the extent by which voter disenfranchisement and gerrymandering has played in warping the results of so many congressional and senate races during this cycle. It is an inherent threat to our democratic society moving forward if left unchecked.” — Tom Whalen

“Historical trends indicated this should have been a wave election, so perhaps it was surprising that the blue wave wasn’t more robust. But in a country so evenly split 50/50 maybe the surprise is that this result isn’t all that surprising.” — Tobe Berkovitz

5) Despite losing control of the House, Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday that the election results were a “Big Victory.” Do you agree with his assessment?

“That’s sort of like Napoleon saying Waterloo was a triumph! We saw his real reaction at the White House press conference when he angrily sparred with a CNN reporter and had him officially barred afterward. He also fired his own Attorney General no doubt worrying the impact a Democratic House will have in pushing forward the Mueller probe of Russian interference and collusion in the 2016 presidential election. The political walls appear to be closing in on our Commander in Chief.” — Tom Whalen

“President Trump declared the election a ‘big victory’ for him. File that statement under: no surprise at all.” — Tobe Berkovitz

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow the College of General Studies at @BUCGS, the College of Arts & Sciences at @BU_CAS, the College of Communication at @COMatBU and the School of Public Health at @BUSPH on Twitter.

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Cutting-edge research and commentary out of Boston University, home to Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and Guggenheim Scholars. Find an expert: bu.edu/experts

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