Let's start with the good news. Above all, this election was a reaffirmation of American democracy, a signal contrary to much commentary, that neither Trump — nor the Russians, the Chinese, nor the Internet nor Fox News — are destroying American democratic institutions. To be sure, American election administration is an embarrassment, a deplorable cacophony of state and local variation in professional, incompetence, resourcing and partisan chicanery. The Florida recount promises to be spectacularly unedifying.
But candidates came out of the woodwork, especially for Democrats and especially women. Voters followed, despite the many barriers in their way. No matter one's politics, a surge in the number and diversity of candidates — and winners — ought to be celebrated, signalling a polity whose citizens are engaged and passionate about its democratic institutions.
Every political leading indicator suggested that Democrats would comfortably flip the 23 seats required to take control of the House of Representatives, as they have.
Chief among these indicators was Trump's approval rating, languishing in the low 40s, despite the strong performance of the US economy, with above trend growth, unemployment at a 50 year low, stable labour market participation rates (after decades of decline) and finally some evidence of wage growth. For almost any other president with this economy, an approval number should start with at least a "5", "6" or even a "7", testament to how the torrent of controversy around Trump has distracted political discourse from the largely good economic news for Republicans. A president with 40 per cent approval can expect a 40-seat midterm seat loss in the House. Democrats will come up a little short of that many additional seats, largely thanks to pro-Republican gerrymandering ensuring few or no seats changed hands in several states, despite healthy swings to Democrats.
The Senate was predicted to go the other way, and it did. With six-year terms, senators facing re-election in 2018 won their seats in 2012, where Barack Obama's coat-tails helped bring Democratic senators over the line. Absent Obama at the top of the ticket, mere "regression to the mean" was sufficient to flip seats from Democrat to Republican. The surprise is that Republicans haven't picked up even more Senate seats, with their slim majority getting just a few seats of extra padding.
Turnout was always going to be high, but surpassed most prior guesses. About 104 million votes for House candidates have been counted thus far, about 77 per cent of the 135 million votes cast for presidential candidates in 2016. In contrast, turnout in the 2010 midterms — when Republicans took the House at Obama's first midterm — was 66 per cent of 2008 turnout and 2014 turnout was only 58 per cent of 2012 turnout.
The turnout surge — or the smaller, midterm turnout slump — was not all due to Democrats. The Kavanagh Supreme Court confirmation was the change point, seized upon by Trump and the party. Trump injected himself into the campaign in the closing weeks — drawing on the fact he enjoys a near 90 per cent approval rating among Republican identifiers — talking up immigration and border security, going so far as to mobilise the US military to defend the Mexican border. It all worked. Republican voters reported being as enthusiastic and engaged as Democrats by the end of the campaign.
America returns to divided government. Like Bill Clinton in 1994 and Obama in 2010, Trump now has a hostile House of Representatives. Legislating the Trump agenda is essentially no more. Executive action — always a more comfortable route for Trump — becomes all the more important.
Compromises with the Democrats seem fantastic to contemplate, but trading Democratic support for continued large defence budgets for an infrastructure package — and surrender on repealing Obamacare — might be one place to look. Democratic-controlled House committees will rain subpoenas on the White House, and a live question is whether Democratic leader Pelosi (or her successor) can hold off calls from her caucus for impeachment proceedings. Democrats will likely support Trump's toughness with respect to China, with concerns over human rights added to trade, IP and security issues.
Trump's "ownership" of the Republican Party – his ability to mobilise the Republican base – is one of the big takeaways. Absent some devastating revelation from the Mueller investigation, or an abrupt downturn in the economy, Trump will almost surely be renominated by his party in 2020, should he seek a second term.
Democrats performed well in several states that Trump won in 2016: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina and Kansas returned state-wide majorities for Democrats in either House votes, Senate votes, governor's races, or all three. Yet two large, swing states — Ohio and Florida — appear to have withstood the blue tide. The 2020 implications are elusive – much will depend on who the Democrats nominate – but it would be foolish to point at these results and Trump's approval rating and predict he won't or can't win in 2020.