2018 Midterm Election Debriefing

So, most of the smoke has cleared. Let’s start weighing how well things in Stumped have held up. First, here are where things stand.

Florida is going to be a mess for a while, but I suspect that the current results (Scott and Gillum for Senator/Governor) will hold. This would mean a Senate breakdown of 53-47 for the Republicans, and a net gain of two seats. Four Democratic seats were flipped (North Dakota, Indiana, Missouri, and, most importantly, Florida…when this nonsense stops of course). This was offset by two Democratic flips from Republicans in Nevada and Arizona.

In the House, there are still a few races in limbo, but the Democrats will probably pick up ~35 seats when it’s all over. When the next Congress sits, there should be a 12 seat majority for the Democrats – or something around there, anyway.

I’ll start my debriefing by saying that I didn’t make specific predictions because I obviously didn’t have the time to pay attention to each and every race. That might be a weakness of the Stumped persuasion model, since it requires close attention to be paid to an election. There’s hardly time for one person to examine each candidate in hundreds of races with a microscope to see which one of them has superior charisma, social proof, frame control, spatial domination, and so on. In that regard, the Stumped model might be better suited (absent a huge team using it) to analyze presidential races. Nevertheless, the irrational nature of human decision-making is certainly the same across all elections, which is what the model is based on.

Recall that the Stumped model postulates that the best persuader acting in the proper environment wins the election. This is based on nine “persuasion triggers.”

  1. Humans are usually not acting as rational, self-interested agents, but can be influenced by many, often completely irrational factors. Visceral cues are far more potent than rational ones.
  2. Humans are tribal animals that organize themselves in teams and in/out-groups. In such a structure, the strongest tribal leader, the one who inspires feelings in supporters that they’d want to follow him into battle, will usually have the most alluring leadership appeal. This is a factor closely related to masculinity. Thus, the candidate that can telegraph this strong, often masculine leadership ability will usually win.
  3. Problems arise that people seek answers to, and communications are the key to power. The candidate that dominates the most space on the issues people want solved and the communicational space upon which they are intermediated with will usually win.
  4. The candidate who has the strongest offense and the stronger frame to impose his will and deflect criticism will usually win.
  5. The more charismatic candidate, naturally or otherwise, will usually win.
  6. The candidate with the strongest social proof will usually win.
  7. The candidate with the strongest, better-known personal brand will usually win.
  8. The candidate with the strongest perceived offer to the most concerning issues of the time, the ones that people react to in the most visceral, rather than cerebral way, will usually win.
  9. The candidate benefiting from the pendulum effect, the reaction against the previous regime, will usually win.

Undoubtedly, this was an election where the pendulum favored the Democrats. That’s just how mid-terms usually are. That’s broadly a +1 to Democrats, then, though not in every race.

I’ll just point out a few observations I made on some of the major races.

Arizona Senate

I assumed that McSally would eke it out due to the state’s historical voting trends and the divergence in brand quality between the two. McSally is a war veteran while Sinema is just a left wing activist. Those tapes didn’t help Sinema’s brand, either.

However, Larry Schweikart has written revealingly on McSally’s messaging problems (and that of the GOP in general this cycle). It would appear that McSally basically just ran attack ads and touted herself as a war veteran, but that doesn’t work. As I elaborated in Stumped, people want to vote for an attractive offer, not just against another candidate (we saw that in 2016). Meanwhile, we know from the chapter on branding that a brand needs to be well-known and relatable, otherwise its advertising repetitiveness will be detrimental. That was the case in Arizona, it seems.

I also thought that Sinema being much more attractive (and therefore, charismatic) would be of assistance to her and mask a lot of her weaknesses. Sinema also outspent McSally to deliver her messages, though I don’t know how persuasive those messages themselves were. Trump provided social proof for McSally at points (not in the late-going), but it wasn’t enough.

There were still problems in Arizona with “curing” ballots that the Democrats took advantage of, but that’s on the Republicans for again being suckers and not playing the same game.

Florida Senate and Governor midterm

Florida Senate and Governor

These were the two most important races, because Florida is obviously the most important state when it comes to presidential elections.

Concerning the Senate race, you had an interesting dynamic because it was a long-sitting senator in Bill Nelson against a popular sitting governor in Rick Scott. If there was anyone who could wipe out the incumbency advantage (more on that later) in this race, it was Rick Scott, who’s brand was arguably even superior because of the economic growth Florida experienced under his watch and the admirable way he handled the Hurricanes that hit his state. Neither Scott nor Nelson are what you would call charismatic, though it obviously doesn’t help that Bill Nelson looks like a reanimated corpse.

In the governor’s race, my gut told me that Andrew Gillum was going to beat Ron DeSantis. He had a lot of scandals, true, but he had the charisma that DeSantis didn’t. He also had more money helping him out to deliver his message, as well as the national (but perhaps not the state – here’s where things get complicated) pendulum on his side.

On the other hand, Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis had one very powerful trigger on their side – the social proof provided by Donald Trump. There’s no question that it was decisive in dragging them over the finish line (once this Broward, Palm Beach, and recount nonsense subsides, of course).

The combination of Gillum’s corruption to sink his brand and Trump’s social proof was seemingly decisive in the governor’s race. That also appears to be enough to have gotten Scott to oust the incumbent Nelson in the senator’s race.

Missouri Senator

Polls on this one were neck and neck, but I was very confident that Josh Hawley would win this, and he did so comfortably. This was based on three factors.

  1. Like Sinema, he was more attractive and charismatic than his opponent.
  2. He had Donald Trump providing him with social proof.
  3. His opponent voted against Brett Kavanaugh, nullifying the national Democratic pendulum in favor of a local Republican one.

Indiana and Montana Senator

These I paid less attention to. In Indiana, it appears that Joe Donelly’s decision to vote against Brett Kavanaugh and the social proof Donald Trump provided to Mike Braun were decisive, even though the polls had Braun running a few points behind. He wound up winning by a comfortable margin and would have won by more if the Libertarian candidate had dropped out.

Montana was one state where Trump’s personal social proof wasn’t enough to get his preferred candidate over the finish line. Tester, despite his vote against Kavanaugh and the social proof Trump provided his preferred candidate, won. Supposedly, Tester’s opponent had some branding problems because he was originally from outside of the state, which boosted the incumbent’s brand at the expense of his opponent. And speaking of incumbency…

Michigan Senator

Aside from Florida, this is the one I paid the most attention to. I found that John James was personally the most persuasive candidate in this election cycle in terms of his story and character. His brand as a combat veteran and successful businessman is impeccable compared to his opponent being a career politician, and his personal magnetism is great (he’s young, attractive, and a smooth talker). His ads were also very good. However, it was my mistake to think that these things constituted a brand potent enough on its own to compete with the brand of incumbency. As I mentioned in Stumped itself:

It’s likely that lesser-recognized brands do not benefit as much from repetition in advertising as more familiar brands do. In fact, they may even be hurt by such repetition over time.

Remember that people don’t trust the unknown. They’re afraid of the unknown. The same dynamic was in play here as in Arizona, but more so.

John James was an unknown until he won the Republican primary, and late in the game he surged tremendously. He fell short of victory by 6.38%. That’s actually a great margin against a long-sitting incumbent and in a year that was favorable for the Democrats in general. It’s a testament to how strong he was as a candidate, and he might have been stronger still if Donald Trump had given him some in-person social proof. Mike Pence did, but that’s a big step down.

The Michigan race made me realize that I needed to give more weight to incumbency almost as an attribute in itself. Like it or not, incumbency is a strong brand just on its own merits, because it’s familiar. It usually takes an unusual amount of persuasion talent, the right timing, or both, to nullify it. John James didn’t quite thread that needle.

Still, this was a very telling race. If John James decides to run again, he’ll be a bigger force, and, crucially, a far more well-known commodity. Donald Trump was right when he called John James a star. He’s a rising one to watch closely if he wants to stick around in the political arena.

John James Michigan

Georgia Governor

From what I’ve seen here, Brian Kemp had a disadvantage in charisma. However, his ads were amusing and highly effective for his audience. What’s particularly interesting about this race though was the descending of the left’s major stars into it. Obama, Oprah, and more got involved. Yet, they failed. In fairness to them, it was perhaps their presence which made this race as close as it was. For Georgia, a Democrat coming this close to winning a statewide election is unusual, though it was close before they got involved, too, which might suggest that they didn’t move the needle, depending on how you view polls in general (some of them were accurate this year, some far less). That’s about all I can say at this point.

Texas Senator

It was ludicrous to think that Beto had a chance of defeating Ted Cruz, or so I thought. He came close.

Having not watched the race in detail, I didn’t have many impressions of Beto. He didn’t seem terribly charismatic to me. Instead, he looks to have become something of a ghost in the machine, more a creation of the media than of his own attributes. Ted Cruz was outspend heavily in this race, and all the free media Beto got besides direct campaign spending took advantage of the focusing illusion. In other words, Beto seemed important because he was getting so much attention.

As for Ted Cruz, his battles with Trump probably did permanent damage to his brand.

This shouldn’t be underestimated. While it’s losing power (more on that soon), the media can still play a key role if it invests its resources wisely. One wonders whether they should have invested more in Florida and Georgia than in Texas. Their personal hatred of Ted Cruz may have cost them.

The Wider Picture

There you have it, my very rough assessments based on Stumped’s persuasion triggers. One thing I think I’ll need to take into account is the relative effectiveness of each trigger. While it’s obvious the more triggers a candidate has, the better his or her chance will be, some triggers look like they matter more than others. I will take a look at this much more closely in the coming months.

Aside from the pendulum trigger, social proof in particular looks like it played a big role in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump played a key role in getting most of his candidates (Scott, DeSantis, Braun, Kemp, Hawley, Cruz, Cramer) over the top.

Meanwhile, Obama and the celebrity cohorts on the left only got one significant victory – against Scott Walker in Wisconsin. Note that Trump’s rallies still packed in people, while Obama’s rallies appeared much smaller. The former president isn’t the master persuader he was in 2008 or even 2012. He speaks and looks like a shell of his former self, complaining more than inspiring, which is where he did his best stuff. He’s clearly lost his touch.

Now let’s get into the broader, societal trends that Stumped postulated would occur and see if they’ve held up.

Democratic Underperformance

Though the results for the party have turned out to be better than they seemed on election night, this was nevertheless far from the “blue wave” we were being promised from the minute Trump got into office. In terms of the House, this was an average midterm, meanwhile, Republicans picked up seats in the Senate, defeating four Democratic incumbents in the process, while only one Republican incumbent was tossed (remember that in Arizona, the seat was being vacated).

Republicans were greatly outspent in this cycle. You’d think that for all that money spent, they would want better results. It’s worth noting that all of the Democrats’ rising stars (Beto, Abrams, Gillum, etc.), despite the massive funding they got, lost their respective elections. The young social justice warriors in the party had terrible results.

The mixed results for the Democrats suggest that moneyed interests are losing power, which was a trend that Stumped predicted in 2016:

The traditional mass media is losing money and viewership. If he were still alive today, Carl Sagan would be immensely pleased with the democratizing power of the internet and social media. For perhaps the first time in history, it is not necessary to own a significant amount of capital to distribute your media outreach to a massive audience. The competition level has been raised by the lower barriers to entry, but anyone can now build a brand. Anyone can become an authority. It is now within the individual’s power to make his own brand and define his own voice. News is percolating through a worldwide word-of-mouth network rather than being dictated from top-down gatekeepers.

The influence of DC talking heads and New York media studios is waning. The influence of independent, self-published media crafters and networks of unconnected individuals – standalone complexes, is on the rise.

Two notable races from this cycle where we saw this in effect were those featuring the infamous Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and the now-famous Dan Crenshaw in Texas, both of whom will be among the youngest members of Congress, and both of whom won stunning primary upsets.

This dynamic also certainly helped Republicans remain more competitive than they would have in previous cycles, given how badly they were outspent.

However, I’m told that changes at Facebook (which was key in Trump’s win) prevented Republican ads from getting as many impressions as they did in 2016. This is going to be a big thing to watch going forward. If the tech monopolies decide to restrict the free flow of information (as they have increasingly been doing), communications will start to become centralized again. They won’t be as highly centralized as before, but they will still tilt more in favor of the moneyed interests.

Realignment in Place?

Stumped predicted that 2016 would be a realigning election on the following grounds:

Every so often in American history, there is what many political scientists call a realigning election. In these elections, new electoral coalitions arise to deal with new issues which supersede the old ones in prominence, new methods of campaigning are often introduced, and generally a new political zeitgeist is formed for the coming era. One party may rise to dominance at the expense of the other in this process as they shift their general platforms to take on the new issues.

The new Republican Party may be one which is suspicious of both big government and crony capitalism, but is also desirous that government should act in the interests of the American people, not exclusively to corporations or to an abstract, globalized world.

What is likely above all however, is that the election of 2016 has been and will continue to be a referendum on globalism, and given the success of Trump and Sanders, the public has resoundingly rejected it. The realigning election of 2016 will be a retrenchment in some ways from axiomatic, all-encompassing globalism.

This is more or less what we saw reaffirmed last week. The globalist Republicans, pejoratively labeled “RINOs,” got crushed. The Republicans did make some inroads with minorities, most importantly in Florida, where they won about 14% of the black vote and 44% of the Hispanic vote. However, the Republicans also lost suburban white voters, which explains why Ted Cruz only won so narrowly in Texas. Greg Abbott, who won much more comfortably, lost 9% of the white vote he had four years ago. Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis fell short of Trump’s share of the white vote in Florida by 4%, and lost 9% among white women.

Ohio is perhaps the most interesting case study.

All throughout the country, there’s little mistaking it. The Republican Party is increasingly becoming the party of what I called “common sense conservative, free market nationalism.” The Democratic Party, meanwhile, became increasingly the party of the global elite, concentrated in the major, globalized cities, and those who aspire to join it, such as those in the wealthier suburbs.

The divide between nationalism and globalism became sharper in this midterm. One side-effect is that with the loss of the “progressive” Democratic stars, it appears that the party won’t be taking a turn toward Bernie Sanders style economics anytime soon. The realignment divide, so far, is more clear cut than what Stumped predicted.

For the Republican Party, there’s no choice. The nationalist platform has showed it can make inroads with minority voters and has paved the way to victory in key states with white voters that wouldn’t have been sympathetic to the party before. It’s a coalition that can win. The Republican Party needs to do all it can to try and consolidate power in the Rust Belt, especially since Democratic power is realigning toward places like Arizona and Georgia.

In the very long term (on the timescale of decades), power might resemble what has already happened in New York. All of the rural areas in the state have essentially emptied out, to the point that nothing can contest the power of the city and its immediate suburbs anymore. That’s a scary place for the Republican Party to be in. This same thing has already happened in Virginia.

If the middle of the country empties out, with young people flocking to the globalized cities, desperate for any chance to grab some scraps from the global economy, the party is in deep trouble. This mirrors the late Roman Republic, by the way.

The Republican Party is going to need to do three things if it wants to remain competitive in the decades past the post-Trump era.

  1. Champion free speech everywhere and bring the tech companies to heel, “free market” be damned. The left loses when free speech is secure, because it’s insane.
  2. Get money back out into the rest of the country and away from the cities, so that people have an incentive to stay. The rest of the country needs to grow suitable for its population, rather than just the cities reaping almost all of the benefits of growth.
  3. No more open borders, for God’s sake!

Did Trump get elected if not for those three reasons? Was that not his mandate and the strength of his campaign?

The party is more Trumpian now, so we shall see what goes on.

That isn’t to say the Democrats don’t have their own problems. It stretches credulity to think that its coalition of fat cats and the perpetually aggrieved will hold forever. Call me crazy, but I don’t think minorities are going to want to be the objects of virtue signaling by preening white “progressives” forever. We already started to see some of that this cycle. It’s also unlikely that the Bernie Sanders wing is going to subordinate itself to the global elite forever.

Ultimately, this midterm was a tactical victory for the Democrats on the whole (it was closer to a draw last week), but the Republicans fared well in the battle and retreated in good order. Given that the pendulum was against him, Trump did OK.

Meanwhile, Stumped has once again held up well. Read it if you want to become a clairvoyant for 2020.