By Elena Shao
Stanford-affiliated policy experts and political science professors gathered in the Hoover Institution’s David & Joan Traitel Building on Thursday to discuss the 2018 midterm election outcomes, voter turnout, gerrymandering and increasing polarization in America’s political landscape.
The panel was moderated by Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) senior fellow Francis Fukuyama, who directs FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL). Panelists included Hoover senior fellows and political science professors Morris P. Fiorina and Doug Rivers, as well as Stanford Law School (SLS) professor Nathaniel Persily and CDDRL Research Scholar Didi Kuo.
Stanford Women in Politics (SWIP) and Stanford in Government (SIG) co-sponsored the CCDRL-hosted panel.
Rivers, who is also president and CEO of market research and data company YouGov, began the event by comparing pre-election predictions with actual election results. Compared to the major upsets of the 2016 election, in which many pollsters were led astray, this year’s election outcomes were not too unexpected, according to Rivers.
“It wasn’t surprising,” he said. “Most people thought [correctly] that the Democrats would take the House, and Republicans would keep control of the Senate.”
YouGov worked with CBS News to conduct 90,000 interviews across the United States, predicting 225 House seats, and 232 in a high-turnout scenario, for the Democratic Party. As of late Thursday evening, Democrats hold 225 House seats to the Republicans’ 197, with 13 seats still outstanding.
According to Rivers, the election outcomes were predictable in other ways — namely, voters did not seem to stray from party lines.
“If you want to know what happened in the election, all you need to ask is if someone approve or disapprove of the job that Donald Trump is doing,” Rivers said. “Ninety percent of Trump approvers voted Republican and about 90 percent of Trump disapprovers voted Democratic.”
Although the Republicans’ loss of the House was widely predicted, they performed better than expected in the Senate, with many pollsters giving the Democrats a narrow lead in states that eventually ended up turning red.
Rivers noted the uptick in voter turnout — unprecedented, especially for a midterm election cycle — as a potential explanation for Democrats’ gains in the House. In particular, Tuesday’s elections saw record-breaking turnout, with 114 million votes cast in the U.S. House races compared to 83 million in 2014 — an almost 40 percent increase. Early numbers show signs of a “youth wave,” with young-adult voter turnout surging by 188 percent since 2014 in some estimations.
“What’s happening here is that Democrats are increasing their support in college-aged [cohorts],” Rivers said.
On Stanford’s campus, the StanfordVotes initiative has focused on increasing student participation in the midterm elections. Over 400 students attended the Party at the Post Office, a StanfordVotes- and SIG-hosted event at which attendees could register to vote, receive absentee ballot mailing materials and eat free In-N-Out.
“We had an overwhelming turnout of students [to the Party at the Post Office] trying to mail their absentee ballots, requesting ballots [and] getting them certified by a notary,” said SIG Vice Chair of Operations Ana Cabrera ’20, who also attended the event. “I’m glad that the message of youth apathy towards voting is being dispelled on this campus, and [on campuses] throughout the nation.”
The House’s flip from Republican to Democrat control came in accordance with a common pattern in midterm elections, in which the president’s party usually loses seats in the House. However, the demographic diversity of this year’s candidates was out of the ordinary, according to Kuo, who manages the Program on American Democracy in Comparative Perspective at CDDRL.
Twenty-three women won Senate races, and 101 women won House races — including two Muslim women and two Native American women. More openly LGBTQ+ candidates were elected than in any previous election. Kuo said that these trends indicate that this election upended the conventional wisdom of how people enter politics.
“Typically women have a lot harder time fundraising and also put in a lot more time in different offices before running for federal elections,” Kuo said. “But this year, a lot of women just said that they don’t care about those things. Many of them didn’t just ‘wait their turn.’”
SIG alum Lina Hidalgo ’13 is one such candidate — a 27-year-old Colombian immigrant, with no prior experience in a political office, who was elected to Harris County Judge.
“With record numbers of women running and historic wins across the country, this election showed an exciting direction of progress,” said Sarah Goodman ’20, a member of SWIP and SIG who attended the event. “The panel provided insightful analysis of the ways each party is mobilizing voters and how new youth constituencies and female candidates are activated by a changed political climate.”
Party polarization and gerrymandering
Fiorina, who is the Wendt Family Professor of Politics, said party polarization clouded this year’s midterm elections, a point that all the speakers agreed upon. Rivers said incumbents now win because the party they represent is the majority in their district, not because people are voting on individual platforms.
“If anything, the Republicans proved in this election that you can nominate anyone for their district and win,” Rivers said. “That includes a convicted felon, two indicted congressmen and a dead man.”
Kuo added that the makeup of Congress is largely a product of structural biases in electoral institutions that tend to favor one party over the other. In particular, gerrymandering and redistricting was the focus of ballot initiatives in states including Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Utah and Ohio, where many citizens no longer want partisan redistricting and are voting for the creation of independent citizens’ redistricting commissions.
Persily, who has served as the Supreme Court of Connecticut’s special master for redistricting, said that Tuesday’s election outcomes have significant implications for redistricting efforts.
According to him, partisan control in some states is likely to shift with the 2022 redistricting plans, particularly in midwestern states that have flipped governorships from Republican to Democrat.
“Michigan and Wisconsin have Democratic governors who will be there for the redistricting, and can veto any plans for redistricting,” Persily said. “If they veto, it will likely fall to the courts [to decide].”
While it is unclear what this means for the level of gerrymandering in electoral districts, the speakers agreed that increasing partisanship — reflected by gridlock and voters voting down party lines — is making Americans more disillusioned with the political process.
“More and more Americans are really turned off by polarization,” Kuo said. “So now a plurality of Americans identify as independents. Against the backdrop of gridlock and hostility and antipathy between the parties that we’ve seen for the past 20 years, we see that a large number of people are just fed up with it.”
Contact Elena Shao at eshao98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.