“Whatever else it will be, Tuesday will be a relief,” wrote Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine on Friday. “We will finally find out where we are in the surreal dystopia of the last two years. We will see, in a tangible way, what America now is.”
On Saturday, the New York Times published a piece titled “A Nation in Turmoil Prepares to Deliver a Verdict on Trump.”
The Washington Post joined in with a piece saying that voters will “render a nationwide judgment on whether Trumpism is a historic anomaly or a reflection of modern-day America.”
All these articles have much to recommend about them, but I want to push back on the framing. Elections are important because they decide who holds power, not because they reveal what the public believes. Indeed, they often mislead us about what the public believes.
It’s possible that Tuesday’s results will be stunning enough that we can interpret them as a verdict on Trump. If Democrats win 55 seats in the House and unexpectedly take over the Senate, I’ll be right there with the rest of the pundits declaring that a sweeping rebuke of Trump. If Republicans gain seats in the House and rack up a 57-vote majority in the Senate, that, too, will be a clear verdict.
But the likelier outcomes are more mixed because our elections — particularly midterm elections — aren’t built to channel the national will. If you want to know what the country thinks of Trump, you’d be better off commissioning a poll than trying to peer through the mash of a midterm.
Consider two totally plausible outcomes in the House. In one, Democrats win 53 percent of the total House vote and a majority of seats. In another, Democrats win 54 percent of the total House vote but, due to gerrymandering and geography, a minority of seats.
The media will paint the former as a huge victory for Democrats and the latter as a crushing loss. But in terms of the American people delivering a verdict, the latter is a clearer verdict than the former, even though it translates into far less power.
The Senate is even stranger. Only about a third of the seats are up in any given election, and because this campaign follows the Democratic gains of 2012, Democrats are defending 26 Senate seats against the GOP’s nine.
In that context, perhaps only losing one seat is a stunning victory for Democrats — it will certainly mean vastly more voters cast a ballot for Democratic Senate candidates than Republican Senate candidates. But I doubt the media will treat it that way, and reasonably so. If Democrats lose ground in the Senate, that’s a loss of power, no matter the vote totals.
And what if control of the House or Senate ends up turning on elections marred by voter purges, or held in states where African Americans had to wait in line five times longer than white voters, or where the voter registration system is set up to discourage young and low-income voters? What is the verdict then?
How about if turnout is lower than in a presidential election, as is usually true — then is the verdict valid?
The dangers of extrapolation can be simply defined: The president’s party almost always loses the midterm election, but presidents usually win their reelection campaigns. Midterm elections are measuring something much narrower than “what America now is,” even if you do believe America ever is any one thing.
The way we interpret elections is strange because the way we conduct elections is strange. The idea of a verdict turns, implicitly, on the idea that elections express the national will. But we don’t structure elections to do anything of the sort. Our elections merely decide who holds power, and they are often designed to distort the public’s will (see “gerrymandering” or “Electoral College, the”).
But we want our leaders to be more legitimate than that, so we often build narratives that justify the new distribution of power as an expression of the popular will, no matter how senseless the story then becomes.
Tuesday’s election will be, in part, an expression of the electorate’s views on Donald Trump. But it will also be a midterm election where Trump is not on the ballot, and where the results are filtered, distorted, and warped by the bizarre way we hold elections. The vote will resolve the question of who controls the House and Senate, and it will hopefully do so clearly. But it will not clearly resolve who we are as a country, or even how we feel about Trump.