More slow counting in America

Time for a quick update on the United States midterm elections, held two weeks ago – and particularly the House of Representatives, which I mentioned only briefly last time around.

The Senate is now final, apart from the runoff in Mississippi next week, which Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith will almost certainly win. The Democrats picked up two seats but dropped four of their own, producing an increased Republican majority of six, 53-47.

The House, however, is a better Democrat result than it looked at first. On the Friday after the election I estimated a gain of 35 seats, but now with everything just about decided, it seems to be a net gain of 39, for a healthy 234-201 majority.

FiveThirtyEight still has three seats on its doubtful list, but it’s hard to see any of them changing from here: California 21st and Georgia 7th look pretty solid for their Republican incumbents, while Utah 4th seems to have been won by its Democrat challenger. There may be a surprise there somewhere, but one seat either way won’t really change the overall narrative.

That doesn’t mean that counting has finished; the majority of states are still tallying votes, even though there are not enough of them to change anything. You can check the progress of the count at the spreadsheet maintained by the Cook Political Report.

As of this morning, it shows the Democrats leading in the popular vote overall by 8.66 million votes, or 53.0% to 45.2%. Factoring out the small number of “others”, that gives a two-party split of just on 54/46 – a swing of 4.5% from two years ago.

That’s a decent swing, but it’s not huge. For comparison, last time the Democrats won back the House, in 2006, it was with a swing of 5.5%, and when they lost it again in 2010 the swing was a whopping 9.0%.

It looks as if the Democrats did a very good job of making their gains in just the right places. In my preview, I said they would need a uniform swing of about 6.5% to win a majority, but they’ve done it with considerably less.

As always, there are some caveats on those figures. Firstly, late counting tends to favor the Democrats, because it comes disproportionately from big cities and big states (especially California); their overall vote may still tick upwards a bit.

Secondly, interpretation of the totals is made more difficult by a number of seats that are uncontested, and a much larger number that are only nominally contested: seats where incumbents are seen to be so safe that the other party puts in only a token effort. By my count, there were 158 seats (more than a third of the total) where one or other party had more than two-thirds of the vote.

Thirdly, there are a lot of places where specific local factors have an impact. One in particular to mention is Pennsylvania, where the district boundaries were redrawn this year by the state supreme court, after the Republican-controlled legislature refused to fix a blatant gerrymander. As a result, the parties won nine seats each there, a net Democrat gain of three.

Midterm elections have a poor record at predicting the following presidential election. The Republicans won big in 1994 and 2010, but each time their presidential candidate lost badly two years later.

On the other hand, the two parties start in different positions: the Democrats have an inbuilt disadvantage in midterms, because the electorate tends to skew older, richer and whiter. Turnout was well up this year (an increase of some 33 million on 2014), but still a lot less than in a presidential election year.

So the Democrats can reasonably take this result as a positive sign for 2020. But the presidential race remains wide open. Among other things, much will depend on what Donald Trump’s opponents do with their new House majority.

*UPDATE 23 November*

FiveThirtyEight now thinks the Democrat has a slight edge in California 21st, the only remaining doubtful seat. If that does come off, it’ll be a net gain of 40 seats, for a 35-seat majority, 235-200. It’s not expected to be finalised until next week – you can follow the counting here.

5 thoughts on “More slow counting in America

  1. So the Democrats can reasonably take this result as a positive sign for 2020. But the presidential race remains wide open. Among other things, much will depend on what Donald Trump’s opponents do with their new House majority.

    Quite. I’m not sure if the signs are good or bad. Which of course means it is most likely not good. There’s a significant infusion of new blood, including youth, women, gender-different and ethnics, but the senior HoR officers are beyond senior, and don’t seem to want to budge. Nancy Pelosi at 78, 16 years in the job, isn’t even the eldest as one of her deputies is 79. (And apparently protocol is that one of these deputies steps into the job if she goes!) All of the top group are in the their late 70s. I’ve heard all the arguments about Pelosi and I have nothing against her. Except it really is time to move on. The argument that she is a safe pair of hands for the coming difficult 2 years dealing with Trump (and inevitably the Dems themselves) is just an endless argument for no change. Talk about “managing the transition” at the next big change (ie. after 2020 election) is nuts. They need to have them in place leading up to 2020, not least so governing after then will not be amateur hour.

    In reality the next session of the Reps is likely to be dead (talk about compromise with Trump seems like absurdity), even if the optics in their handling of Trump will be important. It surely is more important that they clearly demonstrate to their potential voters (increasingly young, ethnic etc) that they have in place this new face of the part management. The next election they desperately need to win not just the presidency but the Senate.
    The other “argument”, that no one appropriate is stepping forward, is nothing less than massive failure to plan for leadership change. There is no one in the top tier that fills the gnawing need these new voters want. How ridiculous. America on all fronts seems locked into a gerontocracy. Further, these are the ones who lost to Trump. Heck, it’s been a while since I could consider myself young and I’m angry about it, so imagine what actual young people in the Democratic Party must feel.

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    1. Yes, I couldn’t agree more on Pelosi. The Dems need generational change; she should announce that she will only hold the job for six months, so that a successor can be in place before the presidential campaign gets under way.

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      1. “that she will only hold the job for six months”

        That sounds a workable compromise. Her replacement should be her deputy by her side, learning the ropes, and getting exposure. And of course that person should be … under 50?

        However, politicians have a lamentable track record in keeping their promises of transition. But the latest news is that any challenge is fading because no one is willing to put themselves forward. With 300+ elected members, what the heck … ? There is something seriously systematically dysfunctional with the American political system.
        Funding is one of those things, and this too lies behind the reluctance to replace Pelosi because she is apparently indefatigable (at 78!) in traipsing around the country raising money.

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      2. This is general fund raising that gets redistributed to all kinds of other candidates and campaigns. And I suppose it comes with the job as the highest-ranking Democrat and doesn’t really work with any old party flunky. It sounds like an awful chore and probably puts a lot of people off wanting the job; or contrary-wise it acts as a strong selection/motivation for the kind of person the party wants. (I could not conceive of doing it as I headed up to 80 years old!) Yet another insidious way money undermines politics.

        More and more funding is coming from online. Beto O’Roarke raised more money that way for the most expensive Senate race ever. But that funding is personally targetted and can’t substitute for the general fund–I suppose that’s how it works.

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