Memo to Democrats: 2020 Is Not 2018

By Mark Shields

March 16, 2019 4 min read

Midterm elections have been generally unhelpful to U.S. House candidates of the sitting president's party. From 1918 to 2016, according to political scientist Jacob Smith's study for Ballotpedia, the president's party lost an average of 29 House seats in midterm elections. In 2018, Democrats did better than average, capturing 40 House seats from the GOP.

But before Democrats start picking out their inaugural ball outfits for Jan. 20, 2021, they would be wise to remember that two years after President Bill Clinton lost 52 Democratic House seats in his first midterm, he became the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt to win a second term. Ronald Reagan had earlier bounced back after a midterm in which Republican congressional candidates won barely 43 percent of the national vote and only 38 percent of House seats to win a smashing 49-state re-election landslide victory just two Novembers later. Before winning re-election in 2012 (becoming the first president since Eisenhower to win over 51 percent of the popular vote in successive victories), Barack Obama in his first midterm painfully watched the Democrats lose 63 House seats to the Republicans.

The point here for especially cocky Democrats to understand is that, as Republican wise man and former chairman of the House campaign committee Tom Davis — who retired undefeated from his suburban Virginia U.S. House seat — explains, "Midterm elections are always a referendum on the president" and a chance for dissatisfied voters (who are more likely to vote in a midterm) to "put a check on the president." Midterm elections — unlike presidential elections — are not a choice between two well-known White House nominees' competing records, character, values, vision and likeability.

To understand this difference, Democrats only have to look at the 2016 Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump choice. Of the 24,558 real live voters interviewed in that year's exit polls, Trump was rated favorably by only 38 percent of them and unfavorably by 60 percent — a big majority. If 2016 had been simply a referendum on Trump, he would have lost in a landslide. But 2016, unlike 2018, was not a referendum; it was a choice between two imperfect options, and Hillary Clinton, with a favorability rating of 43 percent and an unfavorability rating of 55 percent, ended up losing to Trump.

Democrats, in choosing a nominee for 2020, had best understand that they are not looking for the Almighty, but for an alternative to Trump, an alternative who is electable and able to begin repairing the badly torn fabric of our mutual and public trust. Their search is not for a perfect public servant, but for an authentic public servant. Remember: Today, during this Republican president's stewardship, 7 million fewer Americans have health insurance, according to a Gallup poll. And never forget the candid words of former Republican House Speaker John Boehner: "In the 25 years I served in the United States Congress, Republicans, never, ever, one time agreed on what a health care proposal should look like. Not once. And all this happy talk ... about repeal, repeal, repeal — yeah, we'll do replace, replace — I started laughing because if you pass repeal without replace, first, anything that happens (7 million more uninsured) is your fault."

One final pearl for Democrats from Republican Tom Davis: Always remember that winning successful politics is a "game of addition, not subtraction." It was a former Democrat who put it best: "The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor," said Ronald Reagan.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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