A.B. Stoddard: 10 Known Unknowns Of The 2018 Midterms


This is a guest blog post authored by RealClearPolitics Associate Editor and Columnist A.B. Stoddard.

Talk to consultants in either party and they’re sure of a few mutually-accepted truths about the November 6th midterm elections: President Trump remains toxic in critical battlegrounds, Democrats have over-performed in enough special elections and statehouse elections since his inauguration to have frightened the GOP, and white women with college degrees will be the decisive voter–the very people who push Democrats over the top, or not.

There are other factors that can break both ways, either for incumbent Republicans or for their Democratic challengers. These are the “Known Unknowns,“ a term I’m shamelessly borrowing from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They are undoubtedly drivers of the campaign debate and of voter turnout, but shifts in the weeks and months ahead will determine just what their ultimate impact will be.

These are the 10 “Known Unknowns“ of the 2018 midterm elections:

  1. Mueller. The world awaits the findings of the investigation that has driven the leader of the free world wild. And both sides agree that should a report be released before mid-September, no matter its contents, it would be decisive.
  2. Tariffs. Republicans in Congress wait in “patience,” and worry what will become of their rural voters struggling in a trade war. Some, like Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, have threatened legislative action to reign in executive control of trade so that Congress can limit the threats they see mounting. Watch the soybean farmers in North Dakota. If they stay home, that alone could reelect Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.
  3. Immigration. There are more than 1,500 children still separated from their parents, as a result of a deterrence policy the Trump administration imposed several months ago and which Vice President Joe Biden described as “one of the darkest chapters in our history.” Instead of scrambling to fix this impression, Trump has, in trademark fashion, doubled down. While Republicans in Congress keep holding events to tout their tax reform law, the leader of their party spends much of his time talking about immigration. Even while overseas recently President Trump insisted immigration has damaged Europe. This, Trump thinks, is a vote getter.
  4. The Economy. Traditionally speaking, midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power, and the president’s party in Congress pays a price in losses of at least two dozen seats–but usually the economy has not markedly improved over the first two years of the presidency. The right track/wrong track numbers are higher than they have been in years, but oh those tariffs ...
  5. Congress. Weeks before balloting, our gridlocked Congress must fund the government again. And Trump is already threatening to shut the government down if he doesn’t get his border wall funding. It's a potential nightmare for the GOP.
  6. National Security. Just what will voters think of the Summit Sweepstakes come November? We still don’t know what Trump agreed to with Russian president Vladimir Putin last week, and Kim Jung Un of North Korea is refusing to play ball. Trump is now threatening war with Iran. Let’s see how that all goes.
  7. SCOTUS. Remember the blockbuster announcement of Brett Kavanaugh? His vote comes October 1, and Democrats up for reelection in Trump states feel pressure to support him, but fear their voters will stay home if they do.
  8. The Obama Effect. Democrats have been quietly begging for President Obama to reappear and take on Trump and Congressional Republicans to help energize their voters this fall. Recently, at an event celebrating the legacy of Nelson Mandela, Obama spoke quite directly about the age of Trump, without naming him. “People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up,” Obama said. “We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more.” How much will Obama engage in the campaign?
  9. Gun Control. Gun rights, not controls, have long driven votes in both presidential and midterm elections. New energy, however, has emerged following not only the February 14th shooting in Parkland, Florida but also numerous others as well, inspiring new organizing for the midterms around this issue. While the aftermath of the shootings and fiery debate also led to an increase in donations to the National Rifle Association and even an increase in Trump’s approval rating, there are signs Democrats may attract more votes over this issue this year than ever. New registration among young voters is up noticeably in Florida and North Carolina, and Michael Bloomberg has pledged millions to this very effort.  
  10. The Trump Effect. Last but not least, the President’s raucous rallies are intended to help drive turn out for GOP candidates. He often spends more time talking about the incumbent Democrats and his presidency than the Republican running in that particular race, and outrage is a regular feature of his performances. The jury is out on whether swipes at President George H.W. Bush and Sen. John McCain drive more angry Democrats and Independents to the polls in these places, or energize voters to show up for the Republicans on the ballot.

As we try and predict the coming elections we most certainly could be met along the way with some complete, even October, surprises. But for now we know much about what we do not know.

a.b. stoddardA.B. Stoddard is an associate editor and columnist with political news site and polling data aggregator, RealClearPolitics, and a contributor and guest host for SiriusXM’s POTUS channel. She appears regularly on Fox’s Special Report with Bret Baier and CNN’s New Day, as well as other shows on Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, and CNN for her expertise as a political commentator. She is a former associate editor and columnist for The Hill newspaper. Her column with The Hill won first place Dateline Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Washington, DC chapter in 2010 and 2011. 

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