Ideas | David Scharfenberg

The midterm election didn’t mean what you think it meant

EL PASO, TEXAS - NOVEMBER 06: U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) concedes the race while addressing a 'thank you' party on Election Day at Southwest University Park November 06, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. O'Rourke lost to incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
US Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke concedes on Election Day in El Paso, Texas. O’Rourke lost to incumbent Senator Ted Cruz.

Long before all the polls closed Tuesday night, Democratic and Republican operatives alike had hatched their own competing — and presumably self-serving — stories about what was unfolding, and why. Either President Trump’s missteps had alienated enough voters to lose the House of Representatives, or his barnstorming in key states had tightened Republican control of the Senate. Either Beto O’Rourke, the social-media sensation who came within a few points of unseating GOP senator Ted Cruz, portended a Democratic future for Texas, or his loss showed that not even the most charismatic candidate can break the Republicans’ grip on red America.

Hans Noel, a professor of government at Georgetown University, is wary of the conventional wisdom that jells so quickly on election night. He studies the way political parties work, and he believes they often misinterpret election results.

Ideas reached him in his office the day after the midterms. As we spoke, Trump was claiming victory in a combative White House press conference.


The interview is edited and condensed.

You’ve said parties often misread election results. How are they misreading the 2018 midterms?

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A lot of noise happens in elections, and every person votes for slightly different reasons. Then, afterwards, there’s this rush to create a narrative. [Parties] try to choose a narrative that is favorable to them — and reality doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the kind of narrative they come up with.

For instance, we just saw Trump saying the election shows people like what he’s doing. He held rallies, and then the candidates he held rallies for won. And so, this election was a referendum on him, and it was a positive referendum.

Someone else might look at the same election, especially what happened in the House, and say, “Look, all these places that Trump did very well in 2016, they voted against him — they voted for Democratic candidates instead. The people are frustrated with him.” The truth, of course, is there are some voters who love him and some voters who hate him, and the narrative is more complicated than either of those stories.

Also, the two parties aren’t monolithic. Are different factions of, say, the Democratic Party reading this election in different ways?

This was sort of a muddle. It wasn’t an overwhelming blue wave, but the party did take back the House. Factions are going to be able to read into it what they want. If you want to know what a certain member of a party thinks is the best thing to do for their party to get elected, odds are, whatever they think the party should do policy-wise, that’s what they’re going to tell you: “What we need to do is enact my own policy preferences, and then everyone will vote for us.”


You can look at Beto O’Rourke and say, “See, if you run as a genuine progressive, even in a red state, you can come very, very close.” Or you could say, “Look, if you run as a genuine, charismatic progressive, you can’t beat Ted Cruz, and maybe a different candidate could have.”

The Democratic base wants the House to impeach Trump. How can party leaders balance that desire with their own concerns about overreaching?

If I were giving advice to Democrats, I’d say impeachment is not a good move, unless you’re sure that the Senate is going to convict. The worst thing would be for Trump to appear vindicated by the process.

But that’s not an argument you’re going to be able to make to activists who are demanding that Democrats move forward. So, for sure, there is going to be impeachment material that is discussed in committee. It’s a question of whether the Democrats can slowly manage all of that — have hearings, subpoena the president’s tax returns, and spread it out over the course of two years. Better to have all the material that you would use for impeachment and then let the voters decide in 2020.

Conventional wisdom says that wave elections clear out the moderates in the losing party, because they tend to represent moderate districts and are more vulnerable to challenge than hard-liners from safe districts. Did that happen with House Republicans this time?

I think, yes. But the thing to note about the Republican caucus is it was already becoming much more ideologically homogenous. A lot of the moderates have been cleared out by past elections — they weren’t there to be cleared out this time.

What else struck you about this election?

Two things. One is that the state-level results are really important. State-level actors make important decisions about redistricting. But state-level politicians are also the farm team for national politics. The Democrats who are winning in statehouses are getting the experience, and building the infrastructure, to win national elections later on. So there’s potential consequence there. For a long time, Democrats have really been struggling at the state level, so that shift is a big deal.


The other related thing is the [successful ballot measure] in Florida to enfranchise ex-felons, which should advantage Democrats. We know the electoral consequences of felon enfranchisement are not huge, but they could matter in very close races. And if there is any state that has a lot of close races that matter at the national level, it’s Florida.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.