‘Blue Wave’ On The Horizon? Q&A with Political Science Professor Susan Roberts

With the hotly contested 2018 midterm elections just over the horizon, Political Science professor Susan Roberts shared her insight and predictions. Will the Democrats take both the House and the Senate? Who will win the race for North Carolina's 9th district?

Roberts teaches courses on the presidency, Congress, political parties, campaigns, and interest groups. Her research focuses on political capital, and she is currently working on a manuscript on politics and women's' reproductive issues.

On Election Night, November 6, Roberts will contribute live analysis of the results on WFAE 90.7, Charlotte's NPR affiliate.

How unusual is the energy around the 2018 midterms?

In general, midterm elections differ from general elections in several important ways. On average, the President's party loses 30 House seats and 3 Senate seats. Only three times in the 21st century has the President's party not lost seats in the midterms: 1934 when confidence in FDR was high, 1998 when Clinton's job approval was high due to favorable economic conditions, and 2002 when George W. Bush enjoyed widespread popularity from 9/11. Political scientists explain this pattern in terms of the state of the economy, the approval rating of the president, and the numbers of voters who turn out. If these historical trends continue, we would expect Republican losses in both the House and the Senate.

Do you see a "blue wave"—the inverse of the 2010 elections in which the Tea Party swept to power—on the horizon?
I am not so sure. "Wave" elections usually signal significant gains in the House with estimates exceeding 40 seats and Senate wins of 3 or more. I have held all along that the Democrats will "flip" the House winning more than the 23 needed to regain control of the House, but I seriously doubt they can capture the Senate. They are defending almost twice as many seats as the Republicans. At least five "Red State Democrats" are running in states won by Trump in 2016, and the Kavanaugh hearings and vote did particular damage to their chances, especially as it is now a part of Trump's stump speeches.

With parties so polarized, are independent voters going to be the source of big movement?
Probably not. The midterms attract fewer numbers of voters in the first place, and Independents are less likely than partisans to vote. Pure independents vote the least in any election and those that "lean" Democrat or Republican don't automatically have an incentive or a cue at the top of the ticket.

For example, the 9th district in N.C. doesn't have an incumbent given that Pittenger lost in the GOP primary. Overall, N.C.'s midterm is a "blue moon election" in that there is no senatorial, gubernatorial or presidential candidate on the ballot. On top of that, North Carolina district lines have been redrawn over the last few years. This can cause confusion in even the most conscientious of voters.

Issues still matter and concern over health care coverage, however, could drive some individuals to the polls who might normally stay home.

Do you expect record turnouts?
Pollsters have detected an unusually high "enthusiasm" factor in this midterm election. According to the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of the Democrats polled, and 60 percent of the Republicans polled were looking forward to voting in the midterms. In 2014, turnout was the lowest in 70 years.

The race for the 9th District in North Carolina is one of the most closely watched races in the country. How do you see it playing out?
Since it is an open seat in a purple state, this is critical for both parties. A lot of outside money has gone into this race, especially for Democrat Dan McCready, and now it is coming in for Republican candidate Mark Harris. The outside money brings a barrage of negative ads. Harris' remarks on "Biblical Womanhood" have been the focus of numerous ads from PACs associated with the Democratic Party. These ads could help drive the suburban women's vote, a demographic likely to turn out for the Democrats and mobilized by Trump's comments on women and the Kavanaugh hearings and vote. Harris also received monies from party PACs and run negative ads against McCready. This race may be a bellwether for the rest of the tight House races.

Unlike in 2010, the economy doesn't seem to be much of a factor in 2018. What do you see as motivating voters this year?
Health care, specifically cuts for pre-existing conditions, is the single most important issue of concern to voters. The economy shows signs of recovery, and that is normally a key barometer of the midterm losses for a president's party. The Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation vote are energizing both conservatives and liberals, but I think it will mobilize more suburban women who are likely to vote Democratic. Unforeseen and unfortunate events such as the mailing of pipe bombs might have an impact on turnout. Trump's name is not on the ballot, but his series of what have been called "red-meat" rallies in battleground states suggests otherwise.

Jay Pfeifer


  • October 30, 2018