There’s a lot riding on this year’s midterm elections: all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, 35 out of 100 seats in the U.S. Senate, and 36 out of 50 governor’s seats around the country. But the numbers only tell part of the story.
Will voters signal that it’s time for a change, shifting party control of the U.S. House of Representatives or even the U.S. Senate? Will the outcome of state legislative races shape redistricting efforts following the 2020 Census? Or will partisan divides hobble Congress?
How will changing political winds affect the U.S. Supreme Court? And will the emergence of record-breaking numbers of women and candidates of color in this year’s races make a difference?
With debates over the Nov. 6 election reaching a fever pitch, Emory faculty experts outline the key issues to watch in this year’s historic midterm races.
Alan Abramowitz, Alben W. Barkley Professor of Political Science, Emory College of Arts and Sciences
Elections are always important, but there is much at stake in the outcome of this year’s midterm races well beyond control of the House and Senate.
With the approach of the 2020 U.S. Census, elected officials — particularly at the state level — will also be making critical decisions concerning redistricting that could effectively shape American politics for the next decade, says Abramowitz.
Traditionally, midterm elections are seen as a national referendum on the accomplishments and agenda of the current president. And this year is no different. In many ways, this election turns the spotlight squarely on President Donald Trump.
On the national stage, the possibility of change in control of the House or Senate “would clearly make a huge difference,” Abramowitz says. “Not just the prospect for a political shift in legislation, but in terms of oversight and the willingness of Congress to act as a check on the president, which could also affect his attitude on things like the [Robert] Mueller probe.”
If Republicans maintain control of both chambers, Trump may feel vindicated and emboldened to rein in or even end the Mueller investigation, Abramowitz says. But if Democrats win control of one or both chambers, members of both parties may be more willing to challenge the president. “The outcome will very much affect the attitudes of both parties,” he predicts.
Influencing it all will be America’s growing partisan divide, which Abramowitz explores in his book, “The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation and the Rise of Donald Trump.” Released this summer, it offers historical context for the nation’s ever-widening political chasm, influenced by differing views on race, culture and ideology that have simmered for years.
On one hand, Abramowitz says, that unique alchemy has only heightened political polarization — conditions that helped pave the way for Trump’s win in 2016. On the other, it’s also heightened political engagement and voter turnout this fall to levels not seen in years.
“There is high interest in this election on both sides,” he says. “But interest is way up among Democrats, especially compared to 2010 and 2014 midterms, when President Obama was in the White House. The question is ‘How large is this blue wave going to be?’”
The answer depends on voter turnout, and early numbers look strong, he says, adding that there is a good possibility that Democrats will win back control of the House of Representatives. The odds of winning control of the Senate, he maintains, are much slimmer.
“Turnout really is going to be the most important factor — not the only factor, mind you. But I think there’s a small group of persuadable voters in the middle,” he says. “That’s why you’re seeing big battles over voter registration. With close races, even a small effect of suppression could make a big difference.”
“There is high interest in this election on both sides. But interest is way up among Democrats … The question is ‘How large is this blue wave going to be?’” — Alan Abramowitz
Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science, Emory College; director, James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference
With a rising number of African American candidates running for local, state and national office, will the 2018 midterms be a turning point?
That question interests Gillespie, who is watching how issues of gender and race play out in this fall’s historic races, which include three black gubernatorial candidates (including in Georgia) and six black candidates vying for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — many running in predominantly white districts.
Yet, the midterm contests will prove more than whether or not African American candidates can be elected to office. “It’s also about whether or not they can be seen as serious nominees,” Gillespie says. “This is a reckoning moment. Are we underestimating African American candidates?”
As someone who studies deracialization — how candidates of color may de-emphasize issues of race in favor of promoting issues with broader appeal — Gillespie is interested to see how that campaign strategy continues to evolve on the campaign trail.
“I have colleagues who argue that deracialization is dead,” she says. “But I think we’re seeing an evolution of racial transcendence, the ability of minority candidates to appeal to voters beyond their racial and ethnic communities.”
And Gillespie sees a changing dynamic. “Black voters aren’t being taken for granted in the same way they were even 10 years ago,” she says.
“The idea that black voters will ‘vote black’ anyway, so you don’t have to do a lot of mobilization within those communities, is not true,” she says. “These days, a black candidate has no hope of winning unless African American voters are mobilized. And increasingly, people don’t mind openly campaigning in front of them.”
At the same time, “none of these candidates can win without a multi-racial coalition of support,” Gillespie says.
For example, you may see political ads for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams that feature people of color as well as white people with strong, rural accents, she says. “Clearly they are making an appeal beyond the African American community.”
What’s behind this year’s surge in women and candidates of color? In part, it may be a response to the 2016 election or to President Trump’s perceived positions on issues of race and difference, she says.
“Another reason we haven’t seen more candidates of color in the past has been a pipeline problem,” she says. “They aren’t often asked to run for office.”
This year’s rise in candidates may also be a reflection of the work of grassroots political groups striving to change that trend, “encouraging people to run, walking alongside them and teaching them, and broadening the imaginations of those who didn’t see themselves as political participants,” Gillespie says.
“We’re now seeing the fruits of their labor,” she adds. “When you show people the possibilities, you will see people take advantage of them.”
"I think we’re seeing an evolution of racial transcendence, the ability of minority candidates to appeal to voters beyond their racial and ethnic communities." — Andra Gillespie
Mike Lewis and David Schweidel, professors of marketing, Goizueta Business School
In many ways, politics is just a different kind of spectator sport — competitive match-ups fueled by talent, money and strategy played out before a fan base that can either demonstrate loyalty, year after year, or turn away after one bad season.
In his work with Emory’s Marketing Analytics Center, Lewis typically focuses on sports analytics — “fanalytics,” as he calls it.
Over time, he’s recognized the influence of fandom beyond the realm of sports. “It’s also relevant to politics, where candidates are another team that people root for,” he explains.
“When I work in sports, I’m concerned with predicting who will be the most successful team or athlete. For me, it’s a natural extension to think about who will be the most successful party or candidate.”
His research has explored issues ranging from the effectiveness of negative political advertisements to the impact of a candidate’s appearance (hint: Republicans like people who look “competent” — think Ronald Reagan at his ranch — while Democrats prefer those who appear more “scholarly.”)
In a study published earlier this year, Lewis partnered with Emory professor David Schweidel and Yanwen Wang, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, to examine the importance of tone and sources employed in political advertisements during 2010 and 2012 U.S. Senate races.
"As human beings, we weight negative information more heavily than positive information. In some ways, we’re hard-wired to react more forcefully to it.” — Mike Lewis
Comparing voting behaviors across demographically similar counties exposed to different levels of advertising, the team found that overall, negative political advertising was more effective than positive messages in influencing both voter preferences and turnout.
And that’s interesting, given that when polled, most voters say they hate negative political ads, Lewis notes.
“We attribute that to a ‘negativity bias’ — the idea that as human beings, we weight negative information more heavily than positive information,” he says. “In some ways, we’re hard-wired to react more forcefully to it.”
Hear Mike Lewis discuss the impact of negative campaign ads in his "Fanalytics" podcast.
They also found that the source of political ads matters. Those directly sponsored by candidates, for example, carried more clout with voters than ads released by faceless PACS, the research showed.
“There is more money in politics now, and we’re seeing more and more outside groups funding political ads,” says Schweidel. “The question is, ‘Is it effective? Is it credible? Do we look at it differently?’”
“Our analysis shows that it does make a difference,” he adds. “We’re also seeing a larger share of political advertising coming from outside groups. In fact, most of it is negative attack ads, from both candidates and outside groups.”
As much as people disdain them, “negative ads get people to show up at the polls, a rise in both vote share and voter turnout,” he adds. “It would be nice if negative ads didn’t work, but they do, which is why they keep producing them.”
Schweidel finds parallels with the negative tone of political discourse on social media. “Online message boards can often come across as a rotting cesspool of humanity,” he says. “News outlets have had to shut some down because of how toxic the dialogue becomes.”
And increasingly, social media users “are more prone to engage in conversation that devolves or contributes to that,” he adds.
“I’d like to believe that civility is still possible. It won’t happen on its own, but will take a concerted effort,” says Schweidel, who’s now studying how social media users respond to the tone and degree of partisanship found in the social media activity of politicians.
“It would be nice if negative ads didn’t work, but they do, which is why they keep producing them.” — David Schweidel
Tom Clark, Charles Howard Candler Professor of Political Science, Emory College
The confirmation hearings for newly-minted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh were explosive, as bitter accusations plunged deep into issues of character, judicial temperament and partisan leanings.
Moving forward, Clark says it will be interesting to see how the negativity surrounding Kavanaugh’s confirmation process may — or may not — influence his work on the court. “I don’t know if the experience has embittered him, but many felt that was certainly the outcome for Clarence Thomas,” he notes.
As he’s watched the current election cycle unfold, Clark has been thinking about how electoral politics can influence judicial independence, a focus of his scholarship. While some may believe the U.S. Supreme Court functions as a largely apolitical body, that’s actually not the case, Clark asserts.
“At the same time, that perception is very useful to the court,” he says. “It allows the members to be understood as a body of non-political decision makers. As soon as we acknowledge that they are not, we have to question why we allow lifetime appointments — most countries don’t do that.”
Clark has no doubt that the outcome of the approaching midterms will have an impact. “I’m watching to see how the Democrats do and what that portends for how they may or may not try to reign in a newly conservative Supreme Court,” he says.
It’s important to remember that the U.S. Supreme Court can’t implement its own decisions —that’s up to elected and appointed officials, Clark notes.
“They don’t have the ability to compel,” he says. “Their power largely rests on the perception that they are being legal, fair and correct in their decision-making. If politicians don’t comply with those decisions, that can be costly to the court.”
For instance, if the Supreme Court makes a decision that a vast majority of Americans don’t support, the court must rely upon electoral politics and congressional action to signal if they’ve gone too far or are out of line, he says.
The question remains: Will the outcome of the midterms send a signal to the Supreme Court to push forward with a more conservative agenda?
Only time will tell, Clark says.
"The Supreme Court's power largely rests on the perception that they are being legal, fair and correct in their decision-making. If politicians don’t comply with those decisions, that can be costly to the court.” — Tom Clark
Beth Reingold, associate professor of political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, Emory College
With a surge of female candidates in this year’s midterm races, pundits have dubbed 2018 “The Year of the Woman.”
Across the nation, record-breaking numbers of women are running for public office at all levels, says Reingold, who studies the intersections of race and gender in American politics, especially the impact of women and minorities once they’re in office.
In this fall’s midterm races, women represent:
- 32 percent of nominees for the U.S. Senate (23 candidates)
- 39 percent of nominees for the U.S. House (239 candidates)
- 16 percent of the nominees for governor (16 candidates)
- 32 percent of nominees for all statewide executive offices (128 candidates)
- 3,381 of the nominees for all state legislatures
Across the board, the majority of those women are in the Democratic Party, Reingold says. And the increase is being driven, in no small way, by women of color.
This isn’t the first U.S. election cycle to be called “The Year of the Woman.” A similar uptick in women running for Congress was reported in 1992, following Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas, who was accused of sexual harassment by his former employee, Anita Hill.
That surge was widely seen as a cultural response to Hill’s treatment, along with other factors, such as a large number of open-seat races and vulnerable incumbents,
It was also the first election in a redistricting cycle that had created new majority minority districts, consolidating into “a perfect storm of opportunities for women and minorities to run for office and unseat entrenched white male incumbents,” she recalls. “And there was a backlog of candidates, ready to run.”
This year, women running as challengers or in districts not necessarily favorable to them may face a tougher battle, she cautions. “In fact, it’s highly unlikely — if not next to impossible — for there to be the percentage increase in women being elected to office that we saw in 1992.”
Research suggests that women in office make a difference for women, she says. “They are more likely to do things that actively advocate for women or respond to women’s issues — much more so than their male counterparts. The same can be said about African Americans and Latinos and Latinas in public office, as well.”
That influence shows up in policy agendas and the bills they choose to sponsor, notes Reingold, whose current research examines the impact of women of color in public office.
Will this year’s historic boom in female candidates demonstrate staying power?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” she says. “Like 1992, it could be a blip that levels off — an uptick that recedes back to slow, incremental increases.”
“What is clear is that women, and women of color, are playing larger and larger roles in the Democratic Party,” she notes. “But there’s only so much overall growth that can take place it if that growth is only happening in one party.”
“What is clear is that women, and women of color, are playing larger and larger roles in the Democratic Party." — Beth Reingold
Zachary Peskowitz, assistant professor of political science, Emory College of Arts and Sciences
Historically, voter turnout tends to slide during midterms — 40 percent of eligible voters as compared to upwards of 60 percent during a typical presidential election. And there are many reasons why, says Peskowitz, whose scholarship examines how election patterns can affect policy outcomes.
Non-presidential match-ups generally receive less media attention, which can lead to lower interest and engagement. Voters may not identify as strongly with candidates during midterm races. Sometimes the party of the incumbent president can grow complacent.
But this year, voter turnout is emerging as a big story. And ultimately, voter patterns will matter, says Peskowitz.
“In general, we’ve seen that the incumbent president’s party loses seats during congressional elections and typically won’t do as well as a presidential election year,” he says.
There are many explanations. Once in office, presidents often overreach, believing that their ideas and agendas are more popular than they actually are. “We’ve seen a lot of that throughout history,” Peskowitz notes. “Voters also like to seek balance. So if one party displays too much power, they will vote to achieve a counterbalance.”
Based on those patterns alone, Democrats should do well in the upcoming midterms, he says.
And though it’s unlikely turnout will approach what’s seen during a presidential race, neither should voter drop-off be as steep as it was during 2012 and 2014 midterm elections, he adds.
“I’ll be curious to see the types of people who actually turn out,” Peskowitz says.
For example, older voters are much more habitual about voting than younger people, he notes. “During midterms, we tend to see a lot of drop-off concentrated among younger voters. And since younger and older voters tend to reflect different partisanship, that will have some impact.”
In fact, a study in the American Journal of Political Science, co-authored by Peskowitz, confirms that timing can influence voter composition in terms of partisanship, ideology and the strength of powerful interest groups.
The study found that the timing of an election has the most significant impact on voter age, with the elderly being the most over-represented group in low-turnout special elections.
“We found that as you move from presidential to midterm to off-cycle elections, the voters become older, whiter and more conservative,” he explains.
“Coupled with a surge that we’ve seen in social media traffic, activism and excitement about particular candidates, this should be an interesting year.”
“Voters also like to seek balance. So if one party displays too much power, they will vote to achieve a counterbalance.” — Zachary Peskowitz
On Election Day, Emory encourages students, staff and faculty to exercise one of the most foundational rights of citizenship in our democracy – the right to vote.
The Emory Votes initiative will offer shuttles for university community members who are registered to vote at any one of five designated polling places in the vicinity of Emory’s Druid Hills campus.
Polling places are open between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Election Day. Shuttle buses displaying Emory Votes signage will operate on a continuous basis from 6:45 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters may board shuttles at Woodruff Circle and return to that location.