For Americans who were on edge about whether voters would turn against President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, election night 2018 was a nerve-wracking exercise in mixed signals, conflicting indicators, and extended uncertainty. Early on, it still looked like Republicans were holding on in key congressional and statehouse races. It was almost midnight when the results finally confirmed that Democrats had taken control of the House, and hours more passed before it became clear that Republican “superstars,” like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, were going down to defeat. Only as the days passed did it become clear that Democrats had enjoyed a strikingly successful night nationwide—enjoying a net gain of 41 seats in the US House, gaining seven governorships, picking up multiple statewide posts, adding roughly 350 state legislative seats, and taking charge of six legislative chambers that had previously been controlled by the GOP.
With every day that passed, things got better for the Democrats. It was an example of what political scientists refer to as a “blue shift,” a political science term that explains how Democrats who seem to be down in the early counting ultimately prevail when all the ballots are reviewed. It refers to the phenomenon where Republican votes—which are more likely to be cast on Election Day—tend to be counted earlier, and more quickly, than Democratic votes. That can create an election-night assumption that the GOP is running better than expected, which dissipates as mail-in votes and ballots from high-turnout urban centers are finally counted.
Something similar happened in 2020, when Democrat Joe Biden’s defeat of Trump was not confirmed until networks finally made the call on the Saturday after the election. As the days and weeks passed, Biden’s popular vote margin grew to 7 million. In the final analysis, he flipped five battleground states won by Trump in 2016 and—after multiple recounts—secured a decisive 306-232 win in the Electoral College. Control of the Senate was not decided until a pair of Georgia runoffs went to the Democrats on January 5, 2021.
It’s important to remember this history tonight, as the television networks rush to provide a conclusive picture of where contests for control of the Congress and statehouses stand before most Americans go to bed. That’s a recipe for confusion and, if past is pretext, for Republican claims of victories that have not actually been achieved. That’s one of the reasons savvy observers have proposed to cancel the media spectacular that is “Election Night” and just let the votes be counted in the perhaps slow yet methodical way that best serves democracy.
But that’s just wishful thinking. The show will go on tonight.
Before most of the polls have closed nationally, there will be pundits picking apart early results from a Virginia congressional race (particularly that of Democratic Representative Elaine Luria, who is seeking to hold on in a bellwether district) or the New Hampshire Senate contest (where Democrat Maggie Hassan is in a close contest with extreme right-wing Republican Donald Bolduc), and making grand projections. If Democrats look to be losing those races, there will be talk of a “red wave” that could see Republicans sweeping to victory in battles for control of the House and Senate. On the other hand, if Luria and Hassan hang on, pundits will suggest that a very tough midterm election year for the Democrats could yield more of a status-quo result.
Is that possible, amid all the doom and gloom predictions, which over the weekend tended toward talk of a “Republican tsunami”? Yes.
David Wasserman, the sage election analyst for The Cook Political Report, opined in one of his latest missives on Monday, “It’s possible Tuesday could be a big GOP wave in both chambers, but, to be honest, there’s not much high-quality data to support the narrative that the ‘bottom has fallen out’ for House Democrats.”
Wasserman notes that Democrats finally got excited about the election in the final days of the competition, pointing to a NBC News poll from Sunday that suggests an enthusiasm gap that favored Republicans 78-69 earlier in the season had closed to an even 73-73.
And, of course, filmmaker Michael Moore is predicting a Democratic surge that will prove virtually all of the pundits wrong.
The reality is that Republicans look reasonably well positioned, thanks to gerrymandering and a huge infusion of billionaire campaign money, to take the House. If that happens, the critical question will come down to the size of the GOP majority. And, of course, the bigger question is whether the Senate will flip.
The final polls in Senate contests across the country show that most of the races that matter are excruciatingly close—with Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz essentially tied in averages of recent polls for Pennsylvania open US Senate seat, and Republican Senator Ron Johnson and Democratic challenger Mandela Barnes well within the margin of error in Wisconsin. These races are key prospects for Democratic pickups on Tuesday.
What about the states where Republicans see potential pickups? In New Hampshire, Hassan’s a point ahead, while Democratic Senator Catherine Cortez Masto is trailing Republican challenger Adam Laxalt by about 2 points in Nevada.
What it Democrats win in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and lose in New Hampshire and Nevada?
Then everything might come down to Georgia.
That’s where Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican challenger Herschel Walker are essentially tied, with the latest poll averages putting both candidates at around 47 percent. But here’s the twist. Georgia requires candidates in races where no one goes over 50 percent to face off in a runoff, and there is a very good chance that a Libertarian contender could take just enough votes to force Warnock and Walker into one most election contest.
The runoff, which could well decide control of the Senate, would be held on December 6. That means the long election night of November 8 could last for another month.