On 14 November 2018 the Perth USAsia Centre convened a roundtable discussion with Professor Simon Jackman, Chief Executive Officer of the Sydney-based United States Studies Centre and Board Director of the Perth USAsia Centre. Professor Jackman, an experienced US election analyst, visited Perth shortly after the 6 November US Midterm Elections. In a dramatic time in American history, Professor Jackman’s visit provided an opportunity to discuss the latest electoral developments in the US and their implications for President Trump, the US constitutional system and American policy. The following is a breakdown of the key election issues discussed at the roundtable, conducted under Chatham House Rule.
The Primary Numbers
The Democratic Party have retaken the House and the Senate has remained with President Trump’s Republican Party – a widely anticipated result in one of history’s most widely anticipated elections. Construed as an indirect referendum on President Trump, well over 100 million Americans voted for 435 House of Representatives seats, 33 Senate seats and 39 governorships. The turnout results for this midterm were remarkably high, with just under 50% of eligible voters participating. In a non-compulsory voting system, this was the highest midterm participation rate in over a century. Through another lens, nearly 80% of Americans who voted in the 2016 Presidential election voted again, contrasted with the 66% who voted two years after President Obama’s first election and 58% after his re-election.
Americans are no doubt divided, but they are expressing it democratically. The net 38 seats won by the Democrats constitutes their largest midterm gain since 1974 (the Watergate election). Yet, President Trump’s capacity to concentrate the political cycle around him, and continuing ability to turn out his supporters, ensures that he remains highly competitive.
An Ordinary Result for an Unordinary Time?
President Trump’s approval rating went into the midterms at just above 40% (this has been consistent since inauguration). This rating is similar to previous Presidents at the ~550-day mark (Obama, Clinton, Raegan and Carter). In 2018, the result hit right on the post-WWII median range of Presidential approval rating-midterm seat changes. On this measure, the midterm results were remarkably normal. A key difference now is what impact President Trump had on this election, and what this election means for President Trump.
Ten years after the Great Recession, all headline economic indicators across the US are booming. With high returns on equities, a record low unemployment rate and soaring economic growth, the President would be expected to be on a higher approval rating than 40%. However, President Trump’s capacity to turn out Republican votes is unmatched. Traditionally, a higher election turnout equates to a Democratic swing. The Democratic party did achieve a high +4% swing towards them, but not to the same extent this turnout would have been expected to provide.
President Trumps Agenda to 2020
With a return to divided government in Congress, it is argued that what existed on President Trump’s legislative agenda is now over. Previous legislative victories on defence spending and taxation are unlikely to be replicated in other areas, while any further attempts to repeal Obamacare are nigh impossible. Although there will be greater Congressional oversight over appointments, and new scrutineering levers in the hands of Democrats, President Trump’s already high penchant for executive action will likely increase. This could include further action in foreign policy, where Presidents have traditionally felt more comfortable and capable as their terms transpire. Without a clear Democratic challenger emerging, President Trump remains the principal political force heading to 2020.