10 Known Unknowns of the Midterms

10 Known Unknowns of the Midterms
AP Photo/Jim Mone
10 Known Unknowns of the Midterms
AP Photo/Jim Mone
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Talk to consultants in either party and they’re sure of a few mutually accepted truths about the midterm elections on Tuesday. White women with college degrees will be the decisive voting bloc -- the very people who push Democrats over the top, or not. National security issues -- from the debacle in Helsinki to President Trump’s confession to falling in love with Kim Jung Un to his refusal thus far to hold the Saudi Royal family accountable for the murder of a journalist -- aren’t likely to tip the scales. Neither is an object of the president’s focus and wrath, the investigation Special Counsel Robert Mueller is conducting into Russian collusion in the 2016 election.

There are other, potent factors that can break both ways, either for incumbents or challengers, Republicans or Democrats. These are the Known Unknowns, to quote former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. They have driven the campaign and will determine voter turnout, but just how much we won’t know until next week.

  1. 1. Immigration -- The separation of families was a liability for the GOP, but the caravan was midterm manna for Trump. It began at just the right time for him to tell Americans watching hordes of people traveling from Honduras and Guatemala that criminal elements, including various and sundry “Middle Easterners,” were intent upon invading the homeland. More than 5,000 active military personnel are now deployed to convince voters something is being done, and this number could stretch, Trump says, to 15,000 or more. Though no laws have been changed, and no new restrictions on asylum have been enacted, what is likely is that when the dwindled caravan arrives, its entry will surely be more organized and less dysfunctional with active duty troops on hand. The administration is making clear this is supposed to be a deterrent, which Trump and his top advisers thought the separation of families would be -- but which turned out not to. But just in case this new deterrent fails as well, President Trump says he’s got an executive order coming that will end birthright citizenship. That would actually take a constitutional amendment and not an Oval Office document, but Trump knows some people will believe whatever he says. Democrats have stayed silent on the caravan, agreeing this is a likely vote-getter for Republicans. If voters think the military will stop the flow -- and that Trump’s “executive order” will end birthright citizenship -- will they still vote next week on this issue or has he mitigated the threat and assuaged the fear he worked so hard to talk up?
  2. Domestic terrorism -- Eleven worshipers were slaughtered in their house of worship Saturday by a man obsessed by a belief that globalists and Jews are bringing invaders into our country through the caravan. Last week more than a dozen pipe bombs were sent to CNN headquarters in New York and the homes of former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, along with other prominent Democrats targeted by a man with pro-Trump and anti-Democrat messaging plastered from his social media accounts to his white van. Republicans and Democrats alike have lowered the discourse bar with incendiary rhetoric, but President Trump refuses to accept that as president of the United States his words weigh more than those of toxic talk-show hosts or the biggest screamers in Congress. Will this violence, and the despair it produced across the county, motivate or paralyze voters?
  3. Health care -- We all remember when the Democrats passed Obamacare by a purely partisan vote and paid with a butt-kicking in both the 2010 and 2014 midterms.  The Affordable Care Act -- the job killer that killed off so many jobs for Democrats in office -- is now more popular than the GOP tax cuts. Republicans swore to repeal and replace but didn’t do either, then killed off the individual mandate in their tax law, which means the insurance pools are older and sicker.  Meanwhile, the Trump administration is backing a lawsuit, along with 20 state attorneys general, that argues provisions of the ACA are unconstitutional, including the guarantee of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Trump tweets and repeats at rallies that Republicans support protecting coverage for such conditions. While that claim doesn't pass the laugh test, some people believe whatever he says. Will a majority of voters? If Democrats win, health care is the issue that will secure the victory for them.
  4. The economy -- Republicans best Democrats on the economy by strong margins in polling, and the economy is getting its highest approval rating since 2001. Yet it’s not the silver bullet the GOP hoped would save them in the midterms -- never has unemployment been so low with deficits this high and never has presidential approval been so low with the economy this strong. Perhaps in a strong economy people focus less on it at election time, and more on other things that bother them.
  5. Obama effect -- The 44th president is, besides Vice President Joe Biden, the best it gets for a Democratic candidate in terms of campaign star power. While Michelle Obama has been active with a non-partisan effort to turn out more voters and took a pass on appearing with candidates, the former president will campaign for gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and Sen. Bill Nelson in Florida, gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams in Georgia and Sen. Joe Donnelly in Indiana this weekend. He’s making the case this is a more important election than either of the ones he won in 2008 and 2012. Can he still make the sale?
  6. Tariffs -- Investors are nervous and the stock market’s jumping up and down and President Trump is blaming … Democrats. After all, it's definitely the Democrats’ fault he started a trade war and this week announced an additional $257 billion in tariffs planned for the remaining Chinese imports to the United States, should the current negotiations between our two countries fall apart. Farmers in some sectors have had their lives turned upside down, and without a clear strategy beyond waiting for the Chinese to buckle, this volatility isn’t likely to dissipate, even if voters follow Trump’s advice and vote Republican next week.
  7. Kavanaugh -- This election is all about the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Or so said President Trump and Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham. If the Republicans’ majority survives, it probably was.
  8. Guns -- A sick, evil anti-Semite just committed a mass murder at a synagogue with an AR-15 and suddenly -- days before an election -- Democrats have gone quiet on gun control. After 17 students were gunned down at their high school in Parkland, Fla., nine months ago, their loved ones and neighbors and school community promised to make this an election issue. But historically gun rights, not controls, have long driven voters in both presidential and midterm elections. There are some signs Democrats may attract more votes over the issue this year than ever -- in some places, including Florida, registration among young voters spiked this spring, and Michael Bloomberg has pledged millions to this very effort. But a critical mass for gun control has never emerged before.
  9. Turnout -- A new Harvard IOP poll shows young people are engaged in this campaign and plan to vote, with 40 percent of respondents between ages of 18 and 29 saying they would “definitely” do so. The poll notes that if just 22 percent of them actually do vote, that would represent the highest youth turnout in a midterm election in 32 years. And if they do, this group favors Democrats by 66 percent-32 percent, according to the survey. The problem for Democrats is that their coalition -- as Obama saw in his 2010 and 2014 drubbings -- doesn’t turn out in strong enough numbers in midterms; the majority of votes usually come from whiter, older and more conservative Americans.
  10. The Trump effect -- President Trump is going all out for Republicans everywhere -- those who will have him. That largely means candidates in Senate campaigns, and not House campaigns with GOP lawmakers trying to hold on to suburban voters who can’t stand Trump. There is no doubt Trump has run up the numbers for Republicans in those states he has rallied in. It’s always a balancing act, though, as outrage is a regular feature of the rallies, which in turn fuels anti-Trump energy.

Will the economy and Kavanaugh and the caravan help the GOP hold the House and pick up Senate seats? As President Trump says:  We’ll see what happens.

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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