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Politics

Explainer: The US Midterms

4 November 2018

This week in America, on the first Tuesday of November, a very different race will stop a very different nation. It is a race with much more at stake.

It is a race to majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate. It is, among other things, a race to be Governor in 36 states, to legalise recreational marijuana in Michigan and to give ex-felons the right to vote in Florida. This Tuesday, America votes in the midterm elections.

 
What exactly are the midterms?

For one thing, Americans won’t be seeing Donald Trump’s name on the ballot. It might feel like he’s been in power for a lifetime, but President Trump’s election was only two years ago. Barring grave illness, or the scandal to top all scandals, Donald Trump will be the President of the United States for at least two more years. Exactly what transpires in those two years may very well depend on Tuesday’s elections, for control of the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Unlike in Australia, where the Prime Minister and his cabinet are members of both the executive and legislative branches of government, the American system possesses a true separation of powers. Whilst in Australia, the party with the most seats in the House of Representatives is, by definition, the party that governs the nation, in America, it’s not remotely uncommon to have a Democrat in the White House, and a Republican majority in the House (or the other way around). In fact, this was the case for the last six years of Barack Obama’s presidency, making it very difficult to pass laws.

The process of law-making in the United States generally involves the President and the Congress working together to write a bill, which is then passed by a majority in the House, passed by a majority (or a little more than a majority, depending on the bill) in the Senate, and signed by the President, becoming law. Currently, Donald Trump—a Republican—is working with Republican majorities in both the House and the Senate. If the House or the Senate ‘swing left’ and the Democrats take over, it will be near impossible for Trump to pass any nationwide laws for the remainder of his first term as President.

 
Does this mean that nothing would get done for the next two years?

Not exactly. Some proposals, like a recent law promoting recovery and treatment for victims of the opioid crisis, attract bipartisan support and are passed overwhelmingly, regardless of which party holds the majority. But in an increasingly divided and partisan nation, this remains a rarity. And the only other way for a President to enact major change is through executive orders. The U.S Constitution gives the President significant power to manage the government without the approval of Congress, and President Obama used his to great effect, regulating the use of greenhouse gases, signing up to the Paris Agreement on climate change, reintroducing diplomatic relations with Cuba and entering a free-trade deal with 10 other nations. The problem with executive orders is that the next President can issue a new executive order removing an old one, just like Trump has done to many of Obama’s executive orders, including all the ones just mentioned. Ultimately, in order to enact significant and long-lasting reform, the laws need to come through Congress. That’s why the midterms are so important.

 
Give me the details!

This Tuesday, and on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November every second year, all 435 members of the House of Representatives and approximately one third of Senators (this year it’s a slightly larger 35 out of 100, due to by-elections, or ‘special elections’ in America) are up for re-election. Most of the seats are considered safe by political analysts, being solidly in the red column (Republicans) or the blue column (Democrats). But anywhere from 60 to 110 House districts, and up to 13 Senate seats, are still in play, within a few percentage points either way.

The Democrats need a net gain 23 seats to take the House, and a net gain of two to regain control of the Senate. Historically, the party of the President performs poorly in midterm elections, which are often seen as a check on the President’s power. The same outcome is expected this year, where the Democrats are rated as strong favourites to take back the House. The Senate, however, is a little different. Most of the senators up for re-election in this cycle are Democrats from traditionally Republican states, such as North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, and the few Republican senators vying for another term come from predominantly safe Republican states, like Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee. That makes it difficult for the Democrats to make any gains in the Senate, and it’s likely we’ll see Republicans increase their majority.

However, eminent forecasters such as Nate Silver (who correctly pointed out in 2016 that Donald Trump required only a standard polling error and some luck to claim the presidency) aren’t ruling out a Republican House or Democratic Senate after the votes are counted. It’s unlikely, but 2016 showed that anything can happen, and the unexpected often does.

America is also keeping a close eye on Tuesday’s gubernatorial contests: elections for governor in 36 states. A governor in America is like a premier in Australia, but one with significantly more power. Most taxes, wages and education policies are decided at the state level in America, and it is the state’s governor who approves (or vetoes) those bills. In Florida, a second home to Donald Trump, Andrew Gillum—the African American Democratic candidate—is the slight favourite, and the election has been brutal with frequent accusations of racism levelled against Gillum’s opponent and vocal supporter of Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis. In Georgia, the Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, is vying to become the first female African American governor in American history. That race, as it stands, is a toss up. Regardless of Tuesday’s results, it is an historic election.

 
Is there much campaigning?

A 2016 analysis by the ABC showed that in the entire 2016 Australian federal election campaign, the parties spent a little over $10 million. In the Texas race for the U.S. Senate alone, which is just one out of over 100 major races on Tuesday, over $100 million has already been spent. Political ads are blaring incessantly out of televisions across the nation. Some are based on a semblance of policy, with Democrats promising to ‘protect your healthcare’ and Republicans touting strong economic growth and vowing to ‘secure the borders.’ Others are pure attack ads, condemning opponents for alleged racism, for corruption and for being ‘too radical for our state.’ Most surprisingly has been a surge in Democratic fundraising, allowing Democrats to blanket the airwaves in places they haven’t been competitive in for decades.

 
So, what can we expect?

Unlike down under, voting is not compulsory in America, and typically less than 50% of eligible voters vote in midterm elections. Often, the party that can ‘get out the vote’ is the party that makes sweeping gains on election day—and in midterms, Republicans have traditionally been more successful at rousing their older, wealthier voting base. Additionally, in states like Kansas and Georgia, Republican Secretaries of State are making it intentionally difficult for Democratic voters to vote, while (in some cases) also campaigning to be elected Governor. Some polling stations have been closed and others moved further away from the city, ballot papers have gone missing and registration applications have been rejected, all of which have disproportionately affected African Americans—a population far more likely to vote Democratic.

Yet there are signs in polling and recent special elections that Democrats are more enthusiastic about these midterms than previously, and more likely to vote than ever before. If Democratic turnout increases, a ‘blue wave’ may hit America’s shores, and Donald Trump will face two immensely difficult years. Yet if the Democrats stay home, as the apathetic youth too often does, Trump may be emboldened to implement massive policy changes with generational impacts. Early voting thus far has surpassed the early vote of the last midterm elections in over thirty states, and it is apparent that these midterms will have the highest turnout of a midterm in many decades.

The President is desperate, and plans to do five rallies in five states over the next two days. After that, it’s election day, with the first polls closing at 6:00 PM in parts of Indiana and Kentucky, or 10:00 AM Australian Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday. Eight hours later, the American voting public will have cast their first nationwide verdict on the Trump era. Whether that verdict is an embracing, a slap on the wrist or a wholesale rejection remains to be seen. Regardless of the outcome, the results will reverberate across the American political landscape, as eyes turn towards the presidential election in two years’ time.

 
Follow Joseph Friedman on twitter at @JoFriedman64.


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