CSUF Political Scientists Weigh in on Midterm Elections

Amidst the highly partisan ads and commercials pummeling our mailboxes and screens as the November 6th midterm election approaches, it can be a breath of fresh air to listen to people discuss politics in a measured, well-educated, and nuanced way.

That’s what happened last week the Fullerton Public Library, when a panel of political science professors from CSUF gave an informed analysis of what all this craziness might mean, and what we might expect to happen on Election Day.

The event was called “2018 Congressional Midterm Elections: What to Expect” and featured professors Matthew Jarvis, Robert Robinson, Scott Spitzer and David Traven. Each professor began by giving an assessment of a particular aspect of the midterm election, which was followed by a Q and A session with the audience.



A Historical Perspective

Professor Scott Spitzer kicked things off by putting the 2018 midterm election into a historical context.

“The big question in everyone’s mind is, ‘Will this be a ‘wave’ election for the Democrats?’ given the low approval ratings for Trump [around 43 percent] and the very passionate intensity of the grassroots activity on the left,” Spitzer said.

There are two significant historical patterns in midterm elections that might shed some light on this question:

1.) Voter turnout is generally lower in midterm election [typically an advantage for Republicans because they are generally more reliable voters].

2.) The party of the incumbent president nearly always loses congressional seats in the midterm election, so this could help the Democrats.

There are exceptions to these trends but it usually takes some catastrophic event, such as the Great Depression, when FDR’s Democratic Party did well in the 1934 midterm election. Or, more recently, in 2002, George W. Bush’s Republican Party did well in the midterm elections following 9/11, bucking historic trends.

Spitzer also discussed some of the history of how we got to where we are today—with such strong partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats.

He traced our current divide back to the 1990s and the rise of Newt Gingrich, “a rising Republican Party maverick firebrand [who] led a kind of ideological revolution, ushering in a very new kind of congressional politics, that pit ideological passion against bipartisan cooperation.”

This ideological divide continued through the 2000s and “laid the groundwork for the Tea Party revolt in 2010 and Trump’s victory in 2016.”

So what is the situation today? President Trump, the incumbent, is unpopular (with a 43 percent approval rating), and we have seen a lot of grassroots activity on the left.

This, according to Spitzer, points to a strong Democratic Party finish in the House of Representatives.


Professor Scott Spitzer gives some historical context for the 2018 midterm election.

The Current Situation

Professor Rob Robinson discussed current trends, and what they might mean for the midterms.

He agreed with Spitzer that usually the president’s party “takes a bath” in midterm elections, adding that Trump is less popular now than Obama was during his party’s historic midterm loss in 2010.

On the other hand, the economy’s doing much better, and this fact could mitigate things for Republicans somewhat.

Another good indicator that the “out” party [Democrat] is going to do well in the midterm is: How many people they can recruit to run in these elections? On this front, the Democrats have been doing quite well, attracting a large pool of new candidates, including a lot of women and people of color.

Another good sign for Democrats is how many Republicans are retiring—such as local congressman Ed Royce, who has been in office for 25 years. He’s stepping down and the race for his seat between Democrat Gil Cisneros and Republican Young Kim is one of the closest in the country.

Local Congressional Races

Professor Matthew Jarvis began by saying, “We could talk about California elections, but why? There’s no point. The Democrats have won. It’s all over but the crying.”

He pointed out that, as of this year, Republicans are the THIRD largest political group behind Democrats and “No Party Preference.”

While this situation may be true at the state level, some local races are still highly contested, such the race for the 39th congressional district seat.

In the era of Trump, even local campaigns have become less about local issues, and more about Trump, which Jarvis called a nationalization and a personalization of local politics, noting that both candidates Cisneros and Kim have mentioned Trump in their advertisements.

“This actually isn’t about Democrat vs. Republican,” he said, “This is about Trump and not-Trump, which is not a situation you want to be in with a guy with 43 percent approval.”

The 39th district is not the only local congressional race that is close. In Orange County, four long-held Republican districts are being seriously contested by Democratic candidates: the 39th (Ed Royce), 45th (Mimi Walters), the 48th (Dana Rohrabacher), and the 49th (Darryl Issa). The first three of these are considered by polls to be a “toss up” and Issa’s district is strongly leaning Democratic.

Professor Rob Robinson noted that part of Cisneros’ success in the primary was that he was able to get more Latinos to the polls. The young Latino vote could prove a serious factor in these races.

Spitzer added that in the 45th District where he lives, the Asian American vote will also be a significant factor. He noted that, historically, Asian Americans in Orange County have tended to vote Republican; however, with the “hyper-nationalism, and the anti-immigrant kind of rhetoric on the right, from Trump” many of them could vote Democrat.

Foreign Policy Considerations

Professor David Traven said that although questions of foreign policy are not often forefront in peoples’ minds when voting in a midterm election, the outcome of the election could be significant in what it signals to the rest of the world.

If there’s a win for the Democrats, this will likely signal to both our allies and adversaries is that there’s significant disapproval of Trump’s approach to foreign policy.

And what exactly is President Trump’s foreign policy?

Traven explained that Trump’s general foreign policy doctrine is “America First” which hearkens back to some of the isolationist views of earlier American presidents.

Trump’s approach is also a challenge to the post-WWII commitment to international diplomacy that previous presidents (both Democrat and Republican) established.

During the NATO summit over the summer, Trump took a “hard bargain” approach to our long-time allies, trying to get them to increase their defense spending by signaling that we might actually back out of the alliance.

“I think that signals a lack of concern about our commitment to our allies in taking on Russia for its foreign policy behavior,” said Traven.

If the Democrats increase their seats in the house, it could signal to our allies a displeasure with Trump’s approach, and it might also signal to the Russians that we are concerned about the reports of their meddling in our elections and their support of Assad’s regime in Syria.

Regarding nuclear proliferation, if Democrats take seats, it may signal a different approach regarding the Iran Nuclear Deal, and our relationship with North Korea.


Professor David Traven discusses potential foreign policy implications of the midterm election.

Question and Answer Session

After each professor gave his presentation, the panel took questions from the audience on a variety of issues. I will summarize the questions and some of the responses.

What do you think will be the effect of all the negative/attack ads?

Regarding the effectiveness of negative/attack ads, professor Robinson gave an example of the recent Virginia governor’s election, in which the Republican incumbent Ed Gillespie resorted to fear-based attack ads toward the end of his campaign (“MS-13 is going to kill your families,” etc.) and he still lost badly.

“I think you’re right on the shift in what the commercials are about. I’m not as convinced that that’s going to work,” said Robinson.

Spitzer said that “for those voters who don’t have a lot of information,” who are basing their vote on internet ads and mailers—this kind of misinformation may have an impact.

What do you think about voter suppression attempts? Will they be successful?

Spitzer said that voter suppression is “a very big deal and it’s been going on for quite a long time” in the form of things like voter ID laws, and removing people from the rolls, “let alone the idea that there’s going to be gatherings of ardent and passionate Trump supporters to show up in and around polls in our country, particularly in swing districts, to make sure people know that ‘we’re watching you.’”

Jarvis noted that 53,000 voter registrations have been held up in Georgia by what’s called an “exact match” standard. So, for example, if you list your address as 1400 Commonwealth Apt. C, and then you register as 1400 Commonwealth, Unit C or Apartment C, your registration could be held up.

This is more likely to trip up people who live in apartments than people with houses, who have fixed addresses.

While voter suppression is a very real thing, Spitzer noted that it could backfire.

“If racial minorities catch wind that people are trying to suppress their votes, then it becomes a civil rights issue to show up and vote, to prove that you have this right, and it can’t be taken away. I suspect this is one of the things that’s going to happen in Georgia,” he said.

Robinson said that he lived and worked in Alabama during the 2012 election, where there are older voters who literally remember growing up in the Jim Crow era.

“So the idea of a return to voter suppression was pretty motivating for those folks,” he said.

I still don’t have a good handle on what people really really like about Trump. Could you explain?

Jarvis said, “R. They like the letter R [Republican]…Partisanship is massive and total.”

He said that when you combine partisanship with the reinforcing factors of ideology, you get the polarized world we have today.

“You can think of it as almost tribalism,” he said.

Both sides adopt symbols and signs to show which tribe they are a part of: a Starbucks cup at Christmas, driving a Prius, kneeling or not kneeling during the National Anthem.

“Tribalism is a whole bunch of stuff but it’s not a good sign for the future of any polity,” he said.

Robinson noted that there’s been a rise in “negative partisanship.”

“It’s not just about having a good feeling about you party and wanting to support it and move it forward—it’s a strong distaste of the other party,” he explained, “If you’re guided more by your dislike of the other party, how bad people in your party are is less important.”

He cited polls of people’s answers to the question: “Is the other party a threat to democracy?” In about eight years, we’ve gone from 25 percent of people answering “yes” to about 40 percent.

Traven said that sometimes, and especially with Trump, “You can show your commitment to your tribe by doing things that get under the skin of the other side.”

“I think one of the things that people like about Trump is the fact that he’s angering liberals. And one of the things you do to anger liberals is you say crazy or mean things, or do things to violate political correctness,” he explained, “What this would seem to someone who is more liberal-minded is—this person is violating a moral code. But what I think Trump is doing in that circumstance is signaling to his own tribe how committed he is.”


Professor Rob Robinson discusses the rise in “negative partisanship.”

Why has California gone so strongly Democratic?

Spitzer said, “Demography is destiny.”

The increasing diversity of California (and the nation’s) population is the primary driver of these political shifts, leading to a more Democratic California.

He said that we are on the tail end of the largest wave of immigration we’ve seen in the United States, which began around 1970.

“If you add up the numbers of African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans—they will outnumber whites in the United States. And that has already happened in a number of states, and of course we know that’s happened in California, where Latinos are the largest group of citizens,” he said.

When you combine those demographic changes with the more strident anti-immigrant stances of the Republican party’s national leaders, it’s not surprising to see why the Republican Party continues to lose votes in California.

Jarvis also pointed out the profound impact of California’s Prop 187 in 1994 (championed by the Republican Party), which sought to deny public services to undocumented immigrants.

Jarvis jokingly called Prop 187 the “Latinos Please Vote Democratic” Proposition.

Because of Republican-backed anti-immigrant measures like this in the 1990s, Latinos went from 3 percent of registered in 1990 to 13 percent of registered voters by 2000.

“You don’t quadruple your share of the electorate by just population growth—the population grew but not by a factor of four. Latinos who hadn’t registered to vote before were basically shown by Prop 187 that if you don’t register, stuff might happen to you—you wanna use that vote,” he said.

What is the effect of non-citizen voters?

“My level of concern about that is zero,” said Jarvis, “Why would somebody, especially in 2018, who has seen any number of stories about folks getting deported for taking their kids to school—why would that person register to vote? We have problems with non-citizens filling out the census. And even citizens filling out the census because they’re concerned that a family member could be penalized. So I’m not concerned.”

He did note that the number of non-citizen voters will likely increase in California with the new automated voter registration system. When a person goes to the DMV and gets a license plate or driver’s license, they will now be registered to vote unless they check a box saying they either don’t want to be or are ineligible.

How secure are our voting systems?

“Do you remember Windows 95?” asked Robinson, “A lot of state voting systems run on Windows 95.”

He said that the United States has awful election systems—run by volunteers with little training in most places, with outdated procedures and technology.

Plus, we spend very little money on voting systems because it’s either seen as partisan or because there are always things that voters want more—lower taxes, better roads, whatever.

And yet, ironically, our outdated system is also its own defense against widespread hacking. Because every county has its own system, there’s not one centralized system.

There are around 4,100 voting jurisdictions in the United States, which is really hard to hack.

Jarvis said, “Could a person theoretically commit election fraud in the United States? Yeah. Could you do it in enough of a systemic level to actually tip the ballots of 435 separate elections for the house across 4,000 jurisdictions? No.”

How can we improve voter systems and voter access?

Jarvis explained that part of the problem is that “the funding levels are generally just not there.”

It costs money to run elections, and and the number two source of money for counties, the property tax, got severely curtailed in 1978 (with the passage of Prop 13) and hasn’t come back.

He said there is also the entropy of the status quo.

“I know one thing about every single person in the state legislature,” he said, “They got elected under our existing arrangement. Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative—they all got elected by the same system…So whatever you do could upset their apple cart.”

Robinson said that election reform is “the kind of thing that a referendum is good at doing—taking on a political status quo that has zero interest in changing because they benefit from the current system.”

The problem, however is “getting people fired up about electoral reform.”

The 2018 mid-term election is November 6th.


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