Over the years, electoral success has been defined almost entirely by legislative and executive seats gained — a rigid, short-term definition of electoral performance. But beyond the wins and losses are softening and strengthening party support, ideologically evolving districts and states and other factors that portend more seismic long-term electoral shifts.
With the dust finally settling on November’s elections, Democrats will have gained about 40 House seats while losing two Senate seats. These results don’t tell the whole story. First, Democrats were defending an historically high 25 Senate seats, including five that had a Cook Partisan Voting Index of R+9. In other words, in most years Democrats should have lost all five of those seats. Instead they successfully defended three while also winning two out of three Senate seats in Republican-leaning states.
In fact, in examining the 25 most gerrymandered states, as defined by data analytics firm Azavea, we multiplied the total number of districts in each state by the Democrats’ voting percentage in each state’s congressional races, discovering that Democrats lost a net seven House seats nationwide due to gerrymandering.
And it’s not just gerrymandering. When factoring all of the states with strict voter identification requirements, Republicans won 17 more seats than Democrats (38 to 21). The removal or relocation of polling places from highly concentrated Democratic areas also likely influenced the election results. The Republican-led purging of voter rolls in purple states like Ohio also had an impact: Republicans won 12 of 16 House seats there despite beating Democrats by only five percentage points in congressional voting.
This all begs the question: How successful were Democrats in 2018? We submit that the party’s huge vote total advantage is the bigger story of these midterms, as this metric is more indicative of the longer-term strength of a party than seats won.
Some point to the 2010 midterms as the standard-bearer for “wave” elections. A response to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden celebrates start of Hanukkah The massive messaging miscues of all the president's men (and women) 'Car guy' Biden puts his spin on the presidency MORE’s first two years as president, led in part by the powerful Tea Party movement, Republicans picked up 63 House seats and six Senate seats. It was the largest seat change in 62 years and marked the most substantial midterm flip of House control since 1894. By all accounts, 2010 was one of the biggest midterm wave elections in a century or more.
And yet, 2018 was bigger.
We examined the past four midterm elections in the House of Representatives: 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. We separated them into two groups. First, we compared voting behaviors in 2006 (a 32-seat Democratic gain) and 2010 (the Republican landslide). Second, we studied voting in 2014 (a 13-seat Republican gain) and 2018. Here’s what we found.
Much has been written in recent weeks about November’s huge turnout for both sides, with a record 59.4 million votes for Democrats and a record 50.4 million for Republicans. But looking deeper, we see that each party averaged roughly the same number of votes in districts they won: just under 165,000 Democratic votes in Democrat-won seats and just under 163,000 Republican votes in GOP-won seats. The starkest difference was in seats lost, where Democrats averaged 103,762 votes, while Republicans averaged only 75,553.
One reason for this discrepancy is that Democrats fielded more candidates in more districts than at any time in recent history. For example, in 2014 they didn’t compete in 35 general elections — or about one in eight House races. This year they competed in all but three districts. Conversely, Republicans didn’t compete in 38 House races in 2014, ticking up to 39 in 2018.
In most cases, the party that competes in fewer places is at a competitive disadvantage, as they’re essentially “leaving seats on the table.” This past November, Democrats picked up six seats in districts where they didn’t even compete in 2014. Additionally, their widespread electoral effort might not have produced 2010-like gains, but it gave millions of Americans the opportunity to vote for a congressional Democrat for the first time in years. And encouraging such voting has long-term repercussions locally, statewide and nationally.
Other voting data also supports this trend: Comparing 2006 (small Democratic gains) and 2010 (a monumental Red Wave), Republicans had fewer votes in 2010 in only 59 House districts. But when comparing 2014 and 2018, Democrats had fewer votes in 2018 in only 16 House districts. In other words, Democrats increased their vote totals in over 96 percent of House districts. We could not find evidence of any comparable midterm-to-midterm jump in U.S. history. Consider this statistical improbability when assessing the 2018 election’s impact.
Two other sets of calculations caught our eye. First, comparing the House’s 2006 and 2010 midterms, the GOP earned 25.02 percent more votes, while Democrats netted 7.93 percent fewer votes. The resulting 32.95 percent voting gap makes sense given the Republican Party’s dramatic electoral turnaround. And comparing the House’s 2014 and 2018 midterms, the GOP made a similar vote jump: 25.85 percent. But the Democratic Party advanced by an astounding 67.04 percent votes, resulting in a 41.19 percent voting gap.
Finally, in 312 House districts, Republicans had at least 10 percent more votes in 2010 than in 2006. Comparing 2014 to 2018, Democrats had at least 10 percent more votes in 405 House districts. In fact, the GOP increased its vote total in 101 districts by at least 50 percent in 2006/2010, while Democrats added at least 50 percent to their vote totals in 287 districts from 2014 to 2018. Moreover, in 2010 Republicans more than doubled their 2006 votes in 53 districts; Democrats did the same in 122 districts in the last two midterms.
Experts can argue over whether President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE galvanized Democrats more than Republicans. They can ponder whether Democrats’ dramatically improved financial position helped their cause. It’s all moot to the central question: Were the 2018 midterms a Blue Wave? The answer is clear — 2018 might not have yielded the electoral gains of 2010, but no midterm election in the past century or more has been so lopsided, which almost certainly suggests its impact will be felt in 2020.
B.J. Rudell is associate director of POLIS: Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation and Service. His nearly 25-year career has included stints on Capitol Hill, on a presidential campaign, in a newsroom, in classrooms and for a consulting firm. He has authored three books and has shared political insights on CNN, Fox News and dozens of radio stations across the country. Jessica Sullivan, a Duke University sophomore and POLIS research assistant, also assisted with the research for this article.