Because voting is voluntary in our country, political activists have to find some way to rev up Americans to do their civic duty. One old standby is calling the next election “the most important in history,” or “a generation.”
It’s easy to make fun of this trope, but elections do vary in their importance. The stakes really were higher in 1860 than they usually are. In 2012, I wrote that the election that year would be the most important since 1980. Republicans had a chance to hold the House and take the Senate and White House, and if they had, significant changes to Medicare would have been on the table. Obamacare would have been dismantled before most of it took effect.
The 2016 election was an important one, too. The outcome determined whether the Supreme Court would have a liberal or a conservative majority. The nomination of Donald Trump also marked a major change in our politics that voters had to decide whether to ratify or at least accept.
Midterms, too, can matter. The 2010 election, by putting Republicans in charge of the House, brought an end to the march of big liberal legislation. President Barack Obama would go on to serve six more years, but his major legislative accomplishments ended.
This year’s national elections are already unusual in the emotional intensity they have generated. They may have turnout to match. But the truth is that the stakes this time are relatively low.
A good result for the Republicans would be holding their majority in the House and adding a seat or two to their majority in the Senate. A good result for the Democrats would be winning a majority in the House and a bare majority in the Senate. If the Democrats take the Senate, the Trump administration’s drive to move the judiciary to the right will come to a halt. If they take either chamber, the administration will face meaningful oversight.
But that’s pretty much all that turns on the election results. If the Republicans win, they are unlikely to send Trump major legislation to sign. They may try to overhaul Obamacare again. But they passed a bill through the House with only four votes last time, and their margins are going to be smaller next time.
They will not have the votes to get much done, and they don’t have the appetite to legislate anyway. They will not be under the impression that they need to enact laws to win the next election, since they will just have won an election with no thanks to legislative accomplishments. (Their only big win on that front was their tax cut, which nobody thinks is doing a lot to help their campaigns.)
If the Democrats win, they will be stymied by a narrow majority in the Senate and possibly one in the House as well. They may not have the votes to overcome filibusters, or to weaken the minority’s ability to use them.
Forget about a new ban on assault weapons. And even if Democrats got big legislation through Congress, they surely won’t have the votes to override Trump’s vetoes on any issue where he has a significant number of voters in his corner.
Even if House Democrats impeach the president, it will be a largely symbolic move so long as there is no prospect that two-thirds of senators will agree to remove him from office — and that won’t happen based on anything close to today’s fact pattern.
Trade policy might see different legislative outcomes depending on who wins the election, but the impact would be trifling. Partisanship might get Trump’s deal with Canada and Mexico through a Republican Congress and get it rejected by a Democratic Congress. But the deal makes only minor changes to existing policies in North America. It would make a difference, to be sure, if the prospect of a congressional defeat provoked Trump into leaving Nafta. But in that case it would be executive action, not the congressional decision, that mattered.
Some people argue that it’s vital for Democrats to win the election, not because they are seeking different legislative outcomes but because they want to see a national rebuke of the Trump-led Republican Party. Republicans, they think, have to be shown that continuing to support Trump will lead them to political ruin.
Sorry to anyone who harbors this hope, but a Democratic wave won’t accomplish this result either. The House Republicans who lose this year are practically guaranteed to be disproportionately the ones who are most critical of Trump (since they are in swing districts). On average the House Republicans who remain after the election will be more supportive of the president than the ones in Congress today.
If Democrats take the House, they will become a better foil for Trump that helps him maintain his grip on Republican voters. And Trump will remind both Republican politicians and voters, correctly, that the party in power usually loses seats in the midterms. The only rebuke that would matter to Trump and Republicans would be his losing re-election in 2020.
The low stakes in the election don’t mean that people shouldn’t vote. Oversight and judicial confirmations are at issue in any competitive national elections, and they matter. (Even if the Supreme Court will have a conservative majority regardless of this year’s elections, the make-up of many appellate courts will turn on their outcome.)
Many states are also holding elections that could have a larger impact on their residents. But while neither party has an interest in saying it, this is one of the least important national elections we have had in years.