The score is now 2-1: Britain has produced two stunning electoral surprises in the last year, the United States just one. While there is a danger in reading too much into the results of individual elections, particularly one from an ocean away, there are some common threads. Both Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential victory were about populism, nationalism, frustration, and anger. The decisions by Britain’s Conservative Party to hold the Brexit referendum a year ago and to call a snap election for this month were epic miscalculations, the former by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, the latter by the current PM, Theresa May. Democrats last year made their own miscalculations: The words Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin should suffice to underscore that point.
Clearly there were a lot of factors that contributed to the shockingly poor performance by the Tories in last week’s UK election. Many analysts believe that low and uneven wage growth triggered economic concerns and an impatience that the standard of living was not improving. It also was clear that younger voters turned out in unprecedented numbers, contributing to the big Labour Party gains despite the underwhelming leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Whatever the similarities between the Brexit and Trump elections last year, it would be foolhardy to extrapolate them to our midterm elections next year. That said, there are canaries in the political coal mine that could provide clues to the mood of the electorate. The most immediate is next Tuesday’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Mitt Romney won this district by 24 points in 2012, but President Trump carried it by just a point and a half. It is an upscale, college-educated area, similar to quite a few others that Democrats will need to carry to pick up 24 seats and a majority in the House next year. Polls show the race very close, with disenchantment with Trump the primary reason. No Democrat has represented what is now the district since 1992, so a victory by Democrat Jon Ossoff would augur a tough road for Republicans in the 2018 midterms. If Republican Karen Handel wins, it would be a big blow to Democratic morale and boost the confidence of the GOP.
The next sign to watch is the Virginia gubernatorial election in November. Once one of the most competitive states in the country, Virginia has become increasingly challenging for Republicans. As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato has noted, no Republican has won statewide office since 2009. Hillary Clinton carried the state by more than 5 points (49.8 to 44.4 percent) last year, a bit wider than President Obama’s 4-point (51.2 to 47.3 percent) win in 2012. Democrats also have history on their side. The party holding the White House has lost the Virginia gubernatorial race in nine of the past 10 elections; Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s win in 2013 while President Obama was in office was the exception. If Republicans can manage to win in November, it might ease the bad karma that has been dogging the party.
The third factor to look at is the number and location of Republican retirements and candidate recruiting in competitive or potentially competitive districts and states. That’s why the political environment during odd-numbered years and very early in the election year (for states with late filing deadlines) is key. If incumbents or other contenders are running into a headwind, prospective challengers are emboldened to make the race. Open seats in competitive districts are usually more difficult for a party to hold onto than those in which an incumbent is seeking reelection, so retirements matter.
Given that midterm elections are usually a referendum on the president’s party, Trump’s job-approval numbers figure to be an important factor. On Monday, Gallup’s three-day tracking average gave Trump an approval rating of 36 percent, with 59 percent expressing disapproval. The RealClearPolitics average of all national polls show that 39 percent approve and 56 percent disapprove, and the HuffPost Pollster average shows 39 percent approve and 57 percent disapprove. President Obama’s approval ratings were 45 and 40 percent in the final Gallup polls before his midterm-election disasters in 2010 and 2014, respectively. George W. Bush had a 38 percent approval rating going into his party’s 2006 midterm calamity, and Bill Clinton stood at 46 percent in the days before his party’s collapse in 1994.
The other thing to watch on a daily basis is whether congressional Republicans are building a portfolio of accomplishments that they can sell back home, particularly if they come up short on most of the big-ticket promises that they had touted so loudly: repealing and replacing Obamacare, tax reform, major infrastructure spending, and the border wall. If Trump’s approval ratings are as low in 16 months as they are now, their lists of accomplishments will need to be pretty impressive.