Commentary: Remember, Americans like divided government
In a mid-term election, the President’s party starts out with a disadvantage, regardless of the economy’s performance, says Steven R Okun.
SINGAPORE: “What’s going to happen with your elections?”
I get this question even more than usual this year.
In the month leading-up to election day, I will have spoken to hundreds of people across Singapore — from university students to leaders in the local and international business community — about this campaign, what’s at stake, and what to expect.
A common refrain I hear:
Donald Trump won in 2016 when no one said he would. Will 2018 be any different? The experts and polls were all wrong last time. Won’t the Republicans keep the House and Senate?
Yes, nearly all of us were wrong in 2016 predicting President Hilary Clinton.
But history tells us 2018 will be a bad day for most Republicans at the ballot.
Those impacted by the US election need to prepare for a Democratic take-over of the House and all that will come with it: A two-year period in which Congress does not legislate, but instead investigates the administration (including the potential for impeachment) and a White House that increases its intensity of the ongoing trade war with China.
AMERICANS LIKE DIVIDED GOVERNMENT
As Singaporeans watch this year’s election, I stress one thing to keep in mind above all else — Americans like divided government.
Mid-term elections are different from presidential elections.
In a mid-term election, the President’s party starts out with a disadvantage, regardless of the key economic indicators.
As a rule, Americans never want one party controlling all the levers of government for an extended period of time.
This desire even overcomes a strong economy. In 2018, from the unemployment rate to stock market performance and consumer confidence, the US economy is doing very well.
Adding to that President Trump’s incredible popularity within his own party, all seems on track for continued Republican control of Congress. Unless you understand American psyche and history.
SURE, TRUMP SCORES WELL WITH HIS BASE
I often quiz my audiences during my election talks by asking if they think the President’s approval rating is above or below 80 per cent from his own party — a very high number. The majority always votes below.
They are wrong. His approval rating with the Republican Party has basically been in the mid-to-upper 80s since Inauguration Day. This month, it has been in the 90s.
Why so popular with his base?
Part of that is the country’s economic performance.
Beyond the economy, whether one likes it, credit must be given to the Trump administration for doing much of what it said it would do.
Since January 2017, this Administration has achieved a great deal: From changing the dynamics of global trade to significantly reducing government regulations to changing policy and enforcement on immigration.
BUT LOOK AT OVERALL APPROVAL RATINGS
With the state of the economy and this track record, one could expect Republican and independent voters to vote the same as they did two years ago which gave Republicans a 23-seat advantage in the 435 member House of Representatives.
Not the case.
What matters most in a mid-term election is the President’s overall approval rating among all voters. A strong economy is not enough to get the President approval of more than a majority of Americans.
Going back to 1978, when possible, no President with an approval rating below 50 per cent has been able to keep their party in control of both the House and Senate.
Per a Gallup poll, President Trump’s overall approval rating mid-October was 44 per cent, just one point off his all-time high.
This approval rating will lead to Americans voting for divided government.
US voters do not want the country to tack too far too the right or too far to the left. So, we usually switch Presidents from one party to the next.
In the post-World War II era, only once has the same party occupied the White House for more than two terms, President Reagan from 1981 to 1989 and President George H W Bush from 1989 to 1993.
Even more so, the President’s own party often loses seats in Congress during mid-term elections as a way to keep his power in check.
Often, a “wave” wipes out the President’s party from Congress during these elections.
Wave elections are when a political party makes major gains. There is no precise number of seats which need to be picked-up for an election to be defined as a wave. Typically, it will be enough when a party takes control of the House or Senate from the other party.
Of the past six mid-term elections spanning 1994 to 2014, four were wave elections.
In 1994, the Republicans gained control of both chambers following Bill Clinton’s election to office.
In 2006, it was the Democrats turn, reclaiming both.
Four years later, the Republicans won an astounding 63 seats in the House and 6 in the Senate.
Then, in the last mid-term election, the second under President Obama, the Republicans increased their margins winning an additional 13 seats in the House and 9 in the Senate.
ON THE WRONG TRACK
Since the turn of this century, polls show Americans believe the country is on the “wrong-track”. As such, they blame whichever party is in power, giving each a short time to control the Congress – especially when one party controls the White House, House and Senate.
There were two exceptions.
In 1998, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives prepared to impeach President Clinton in the run-up to the elections.
For the first mid-term election since 1934, a non-presidential party failed to gain congressional seats. It was also the first time since 1822 that the non-presidential party failed to gain seats in the mid-term election of a President's second term.
In 1998, despite the scandal surrounding Monica Lewinsky, President Clinton remained popular with voters – with a whopping 66 per cent approval rating. In hindsight, the voters punished the Republicans for preparing to impeach President Clinton.
For the 2002 mid-terms, held in the aftermath of 9/11, the country continued to rally around President George W Bush and his response to the terror attacks. His approval rating was 63 per cent. In that election, as in the one in 1998, the President’s party — this time the Republicans – gained seats in both the House and Senate.
THE RULE OR EXCEPTION?
So, the question for this year’s mid-terms is whether they will follow the “rule” of the midterm elections in 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2014 or the “exception” of the mid-term elections of 1998 and 2002.
If the huge Democratic opposition to his nomination is equivalent to the Clinton Impeachment, then this would offset the trend of the Republicans being wiped out by a wave.
Will the Democratic opposition and tactics inspire the Republican base to vote in great numbers and turn independents away from a relatively unpopular President?
It appears to me that “Kavanaugh” is just another example of the hyper-partisanship facing the US and will not offset the President’s below 50 approval rating and the country’s inherent desire for divided government.
Yes, I could be wrong, and the Republicans could hold the House.
But that would be ignoring all the recent trends in US elections.
Keep that in mind when watching the returns come in on Nov 7.
And then prepare for even greater disruption for business in Asia in the second half of President Trump’s first term.
Steven R Okun is Senior Advisor to McLarty Associates. He has lived and worked in Singapore since 2003 and served three terms as Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. From 1994 to 1999, he served in the Administration of President Bill Clinton and worked on every Democratic presidential campaign from 1988 to 2000.