The more you study history, the more you realise how hopeless it is to try predicting the future. Even sophisticated polling can’t prevent surprises like the two recent whoppers in the UK: the wrong prediction of a razor-thin margin for David Cameron in 2015, followed by the wrong prediction of a Brexit defeat in this summer’s referendum.
I’m a history professor. If anyone knows better than to make predictions, it’s me. Nevertheless, I predict that the Democratic Party will win the presidency and the Senate in November, but will continue as minority party in the House of Representatives. Let me explain why.
Every fourth year, presidential elections bring out plenty of voters, and winning candidates usually create a wave for fellow party members as they run for other offices. This effect was massive in 2008 when Democrats clinging to Barack Obama’s coat-tails won big majorities in both houses. Like nearly everyone else I think Hillary Clinton will win the presidency this year, and in doing so will help other Democrats to win elections nationwide.
All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are contested every two years. In so-called mid-term elections, when the presidency is not at stake, the sitting president’s party usually does poorly. A mood of 'throw the rascals out' tends to dampen their prospects and help the opposition. The Democrats followed this pattern in 2014, ending up with 59 fewer seats than the Republicans in the House.
Now they’re licking their lips at the prospect of getting a few seats back, but hard demographic realities make it unlikely that they’ll regain control of the House. Only about sixty out of the 435 House seats are flagged by pollsters as marginal, including nine in California, eight in New York, and seven in Florida. Most would have to fall to the Democrats for them to regain a majority. Only a Hillary landslide comparable to Lyndon Johnson’s trouncing of Barry Goldwater in 1964 could win that many. In reality, most of the Republicans’ safe seats are far too safe for the Democrats to dislodge. The action in those districts came earlier this year, as rival Republicans battled each other in state primaries.
The Senate, on the other hand, is a more manageable proposition from the Democrats’ point of view. Senators seek re-election only every six years. The Founding Fathers’ idea, when they specified this longer term back in 1787 as they drafted the Constitution, was to make Senators less susceptible than their brethren in the House to transient public passions. Also, Senators are elected state-wide, two for each state no matter how big or small; they don’t have constituency districts comparable to those of the House members, so they’re likely to represent much more diverse populations.
In each election year, it follows, only about a third of the Senate seats are up for grabs, thirty-four out 100 this year. Seventeen are rock-solid for the Republicans, nine are just as sure for the Democrats, leaving eight that could go either way. Seven of the eight are currently held by Republicans, (whose party now holds 54 of the 100 seats), but many of those seven were newcomers in 2010, Tea Party hard-liners whose early promise to 'clean up the mess in Washington' soon faded. Senators Mark Kirk of Illinois and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, traditionally Democratic states, are especially vulnerable, while even Marco Rubio of Florida, a presidential hopeful earlier this year, can’t help glancing anxiously over his shoulder at his Democratic challenger, Patrick Murphy.
If Clinton wins the presidency, the Democrats will only need four new seats to start getting their own way. That is because, in the event of a deadlocked Senate vote, 50-50, the vice-president is the tie-breaker, and the Veep would be her own Tim Kaine.
If fortune should amaze us by giving the Democrats control of both houses, Clinton could carry out many of her centre-left policy proposals. If fortune should amaze us even more by giving Trump the presidency and the Republicans control of both houses, the outcome would be much less sure. Trump is very far from being a typical Republican and his party is riven with internal strife, which would probably worsen rather than die down. Creating and maintaining internal party discipline would be almost impossible, with so many elected Republicans disavowing him, or avoiding any mention of him in their own commercials.
In an emblematic incident earlier this week, for example, Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, a Republican, who has said that she’ll vote for Trump but doesn’t endorse him for president, appeared to say on TV that children should regard Trump as a role model. The broadcast had hardly finished, however, before she tweeted that she had 'misspoken' and that Trump was not, in fact, the kind of role model she would hold up to her own children. Ambivalence like this is widespread.
It’s hardly worthwhile speculating about big Republican majorities. A divided Congress under a Clinton presidency is much more likely, bringing into play the checks and balances that have limited Washington’s accomplishments in recent years. Legislation will be hard to enact, hamstringing the new president nearly as badly as it did the old. Still, one crucial effect of a Democratic majority in the Senate would be its ability to usher a new Justice onto the Supreme Court, to the seat left vacant earlier this year by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.