According to political scientist John Sides, the fundamentals suggest that Democrats should expect to lose 1 to 3 Senate seats and 40 to 45 House seats. Going into the election today, polls suggest that the Democrats are likely to lose the House and possibly the Senate, but not by as much as one might expect given economic conditions.
Suppose that Democrats substantially beat the fundamentals even if they lose control of Congress. What lessons should they draw from this?
Recriminations would no doubt be the order of the day, but some optimistic souls might be tempted to conclude that the party is basically on the right track because it outperformed relative to economic conditions. Voters may be disappointed with the state of the country, but they still understand that Republicans are not a viable alternative.
I think this comforting interpretation would be a mistake.
For one thing, it is possible that historical models of vote shares based on economic conditions overstate likely Democratic losses due to increased partisan polarization and reduced swing voting. Perhaps closer elections with less variability are now the order of the day. In this case even a moderate Republican win would be a cause for serious concern, because it would suggest strong baseline support for Republicans and that Republican wins in the future are more likely.
The bigger issue, though, is that being competitive with Republicans is not nearly good enough. For America to survive as a democracy and address our real and pressing problems, Democrats need to secure a sustained working majority in Congress. By a working majority, I mean that in a typical election the Democrats would expect to win something like 56 Senate seats and a 30 seat cushion in the House. This is needed to overcome disagreement within the party (the Manchin/Sinema problem). But more fundamentally, a sustained working majority is needed because there is a significant element of randomness in electoral politics. We can’t secure our democracy and tackle problems like climate change, child poverty, education reform, and a dozen other important issues if the Republicans are likely to gain unified control of the government after the next pandemic or recession or foreign policy crisis or rise in crime and tear everything down.
Win or lose, the focus going forward needs to be on expanding the party’s appeal to low-income whites, and moderate and conservative blacks and Hispanics and Asians, and perhaps especially rural voters. We can argue about how to do that, but that’s the task. It’s no use saying this is impossible or complaining about the electoral college. Unless the Democrats have a surprise victory today, substantially expanding the Democratic coalition is the only way to avoid disaster. If it’s not already too late.