Explaining the US midterm elections

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Voters will be making decisions about local and state representatives, so it would be a mistake to presume the outcome will be entirely dependent on questions of federal leadership.

However, Democrat Tip O’Neill’s famous claim that “all politics is local” is not entirely true here; this election has local, national, and international implications.

This is why, once again, non-Americans are taking such an interest in an American election. Many believe that Trump and his Republican Party represent much of what endangers the world.

Who is up for election?

Members of the House of Representatives serve two-year terms, and senators six-year terms. This means that all 435 members of the House and 35 out of 100 senators (33 plus two empty seats due to resignations) are up for re-election on November 6.

Due to the Democrats’ success in the 2012 election, just nine of those 35 Senate seats are Republican-controlled. So the Democrats’ chance of taking the Senate is slim—around 1-in-7, according to FiveThirtyEight.com—despite the fact Republicans currently hold only a narrow 51-49 majority.

For those outside the US, this may seem remarkable, given the profoundly unethical decisions enacted by the Trump administration, and the parade of misogyny that surrounded Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s recent Senate confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court.

And yet, there are a number of plausible scenarios in which the minority party could actually lose ground.

To forge a path to victory in the Senate, Democrats will need to retain seats in states that Trump won easily in 2016—North Dakota, Montana and Missouri—as well as in Florida, where incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson faces a tough race against multimillionaire Republican Governor Rick Scott.

They’ll also need to pick up a seat or two in the traditionally Republican states of Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, and Mississippi (listed in order of likelihood). The fact that Mississippi and Tennessee are even in play for the Democrats is noteworthy because Trump won both in 2016 by over 15 percentage points.

But given the circumstances, the Democrats remain unlikely to win a Senate majority.

A Democratic victory in the House is far more probable, with FiveThirtyEight.com giving the minority party a 6-in-7 chance to take back control.

Because all House seats are up for grabs, this is the contest that many will view as a national referendum on the Trump administration. And the results will be shaped by voter turnout.

Typically, turnout for midterm elections is older and whiter than it is for presidential elections, and this is a demographic that favors Republicans. The Republicans have maintained or taken control of the House in every midterm election since 1994, with the exception of 2006, when President George W. Bush’s popularity had plummeted to the mid-30s due to his mishandling of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina.

According to recent polling averages, Trump’s approval rating has been hovering at just over 40%.

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