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Yes, It Was A Blue Wave. No, It Doesn’t Matter For 2020.

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): So we’re here today to talk about the midterm elections and the BLUE WAVE … or blue trickle? Which is it, team!?!

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): It was, by any historical standard, a blue wave. Democrats look like they’re going to pick up around 38 House seats, which would be the third-biggest gain by any party in 40 years (after Republicans in 2010 and 1994). The Senate moved in the opposite direction, but not by much, and it was a very difficult map for Democrats anyway.

And Democrats won the House popular vote by 6.8 percentage points, according to preliminary data from the Cook Political Report. And Cook’s Dave Wasserman thinks continued vote-counting in California should bring Democrats to well over 7 points. That would be the third-highest popular vote margin of any election since 1992 (behind Democrats in 2006 and 2008).

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): The arguments that it ISN’T a blue wave are dumb. Can we end the chat now and get lunch?

sarahf: Haha, no. We’re here to tell readers why it’s dumb — although Nathaniel did do a pretty good job of convincing me.

nrakich: People seem to be defining “blue wave” as, “Did Democrats outperform expectations?”

They’re forgetting that expectations were already for a blue wave.

natesilver: What is the argument that it isn’t a blue wave? That Democrats didn’t win the Senate?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Fun chat.

nrakich: Democrats largely matched expectations in the House but fell a little bit short of them in the Senate and governor races.

clare.malone: Let’s step out of the numerical zone for a second, then, and engage with why some people are NOT interpreting it as a “blue wave.”

I think it says something about the political environment that Democratic voters wanted that overarching rebuke to President Trump.

I’m guessing a lot of people thought Democrats could win the Senate because they weren’t paying attention to politics that closely. Or more precisely, the electoral apportionment part of politics. I don’t blame regular people for that. Now, I think we can criticize media outlets …

natesilver: I think they’re arguing it’s not a wave because (1) the “split decision” narrative is very attractive if you’re of a both-sides mentality, (2) it takes a little bit of work to figure out why Democrats didn’t win the Senate (i.e., you have to look at the fact that the contests were all held in really red states), (3) Democratic gains are larger than they looked like they’d be at say 10:30 p.m. on election night, when these narratives were established.

nrakich: I understand why Democrats are disappointed, Clare. They lost the Senate! You’d rather win than lose! But we should educate them that a loss of two, maybe one, seats in the Senate was actually a remarkable feat for Democrats in this Senate map.

natesilver: Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhh

I think that’s going a little too far.

nrakich: Democrats were so overexposed that, in a different environment, Republicans could have taken 60 seats in the Senate and made it really hard for Democrats to take back the Senate in the next decade or more.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein has a good case complicating the idea of a blue wave:

On Tuesday, a divided America returned a divided verdict on the tumultuous first two years of Donald Trump’s presidency. Rather than delivering a “blue wave” or a “red wall,” the election produced a much more divergent result than usual in a midterm.

Democrats made sweeping gains in the House, ousting Republicans in urban and suburban seats across every region of the country to convincingly retake the majority for the first time since 2010. …

But Republicans expanded their Senate majority across a belt of older, whiter heartland states.

It’s worth considering the idea that, yes, Democrats made gains. But the shift of white, working-class voters to the GOP that has been happening for a long time became clearer in 2016 and remained unchanged in 2018. A certain kind of voter — largely suburban — broke with Trump and the GOP, but Republicans look really strong in rural and white, working-class America.

natesilver: On the narrower point about the Senate — yeah, Democrats would have lost a bunch of seats in a neutral environment. But there was no reason to expect a neutral environment. The default is that the “out” (non-presidential) party does pretty well, especially under unpopular presidents.

So I think people who were like “Democrats are gonna lose six Senate seats” didn’t have the right prior.

nrakich: Sure, Nate, but I’m comparing it to a world in which Hillary Clinton won the presidency.

Although, frankly, Democrats still could have lost more seats with a Republican as president.

If Jeb Bush had won the 2016 election and the economy was still humming along, the generic congressional ballot might have been D+3, instead of D+9, and Democrats would have lost four or five Senate seats instead of two.

sarahf: Right, but this was supposed to be a rebuke on a president that has defied American norms! I guess I kind of find Brownstein’s argument in the piece that Perry shared convincing — the midterm elections didn’t wind up solidly in either party’s win column; rather it showed just how divided America remains.

nrakich: It was a rebuke!

It’s just that we’ve known that it was going to be that since early 2017. So it was already priced in in everyone’s minds.

sarahf: So does it mean that Democrats just can’t win in Missouri, Indiana and North Dakota (states where Democratic incumbents lost Senate contests last week) because those states are just too red now? Even though Democrats had a sweeping victory in the House, this year’s Senate map underscored some big electoral challenges that they will face moving forward — i.e., Democrats better hope the Midwest continues to move to the left, because I think we saw that the Sun Belt is still a ways away from shifting.

nrakich: Don’t think of what happened in the Senate in terms of gains and losses for Democrats. Instead, think of the raw number of seats they won: at least 24 out of the 35 Senate seats on the ballot this year (we still don’t know who won yet in Florida or the Mississippi special election).

Considering that 18 of the 35 Senate seats up this year were in red states, it’s impressive that Democrats took a majority of them.

sarahf: What I’m hearing is that despite losses in the Senate, Democrats did well under the circumstances. But I wonder what you all make of the fact that Democrats didn’t pick up a single rural district?

natesilver: The average tipping-point Senate seat was in an R+16 state. The average tipping-point House seat was R+8.

So that tells you something: Democrats had no problem winning in R+8-type districts, which is pretty good, but the R+16 is a bridge too far in a world of high partisanship (at least for their incumbents in the Senate). Their incumbency advantage was just too small.

sarahf: But then how do we explain Montana and West Virginia? Those are both very red states, R+17.7 and R+30.5, respectively, and both of the Democratic incumbent senators there won on Tuesday. Is it just because of a strong incumbency advantage? Or is it that both states have small populations and more elastic voters?

It’s hard for me to believe that a winning electoral strategy for Democrats is to not court voters in more rural, red states and just ride out incumbency as long as possible.

But it seems as if that might be where Democrats are headed? That partisanship matters more than ever and Democrats trying to win Arizona and maybe Texas are the future? (Although, I have to say Texas leans pretty Republican at R+16.9).

natesilver: I mean, some incumbents are certainly stronger than others. There’s still variation around a mean. But the mean is one where partisanship is strong and incumbency is weak.

clare.malone: Montana has a bit of that Western streak, so it favors its guy (perhaps another key distinction), and the incumbency advantage works better there. West Virginia has a pretty conservative Democrat in Joe Manchin and a guy with good name recognition in the state.

perry: I think the wave happened and that Democrats had a great night. I do think, at the same time, that the election reinforced some of the weaknesses of the Democratic Party. For instance, Barack Obama won Indiana in 2008, but Sen. Joe Donnelly lost there last week. Obama won Ohio in 2008 and 2012. And, yes, Sen. Sherrod Brown did win his re-election bid, but Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray lost. It makes me think Ohio is starting to look more like a GOP state now (considering how easily Trump won there in 2016).

I would also say that Trump is the 2020 favorite in Iowa and Florida, considering his victories in 2016 and the GOP performance in those states last week: Republican incumbent Gov. Kim Reynolds won in Iowa, and it looks as though the Republican candidate will win in Florida’s Senate and gubernatorial races.

nrakich: Right. It can be a blue wave while still flagging danger spots for Democrats in future elections.

But for now, Democrats — relax and enjoy.

sarahf: I don’t know. The 2020 Senate map looks tough, though not as bad as this year’s, I realize.

clare.malone: I think on an emotional level, to bring it back to why people are having mixed reactions, the “blue wave” confirmed that there are deep divisions in the country that people have been hearing all about.

perry: I don’t think Democrats can relax and enjoy this, because I think the 2018 midterm results suggest that Trump could very much still win in 2020. That was obvious pre-election to me, but I’d say it’s even more obvious now.

clare.malone: Right? To us, maybe.

But not to a lot of people.

Also, I think Democrats got bummed that the candidates with emotional resonance didn’t win — Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia, and Andrew Gillum in Florida (both Abrams and Gillum are obviously still tbd, but it doesn’t look good for Democrats).

nrakich: And the only, like, Democratic “revenge” win was defeating Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

clare.malone: Right.

natesilver: Some of the bigger Democratic wins didn’t get called until later in the night. The Wisconsin governor was a big one. And then there are the Senate pickups in Nevada (called late) and Arizona (which didn’t get called until Monday).

nrakich: Agreed, Nate — there’s anchoring bias going on here. People’s narratives got baked at 10 p.m. on election night, when Democrats weren’t doing as well as they are now, and they’ve been slow to update them.

natesilver: Democrats also had a good night in Michigan, although Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s margin was a little closer than expected. And a very good night in Wisconsin.

perry: Yeah, the 2020 map looks better for Democrats than I expected in a few places. Pennsylvania looks really strong for them, and Arizona is probably a real 2020 swing state.

sarahf: Here’s a thought. There was a blue wave — but it was fueled by Democratic moderates.

Is that accurate? Was there perhaps some disappointment among Democrats who didn’t see as big of a progressive change as they’d hoped?

clare.malone: It’s interesting, Sarah. Because we do find some evidence that the swing-y voters in this election were people that used to vote more Republican.

natesilver: But, like, there’s a downside to the Trump coalition. Say there are maybe 22 or 23 states that are really, REALLY Trumpy, but then the median district is not.

In the Senate, that could actually work out super well for Trump. But it’s a problem for the Electoral College and for the House.

perry: On Sarah’s point, I’m not sure how easy it is to define who is a “moderate” or a “liberal” in today’s Democratic Party. Tammy Baldwin (she supports “Medicare-for-all”) is quite liberal, and she won. Democrat Lucy McBath made her candidacy for the House in Georgia increasing gun control and still won. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is fairly liberal. But Arizona Sen.-elect Kyrsten Sinema is more of a centrist.

The whole moderate-liberal thing is very complicated. Are we really talking about (1) a candidate’s policy position (i.e., do you support liberal ideas like “Medicare-for-all”?), or 2) a candidate’s posture (i.e., are you anti-establishment and branded in the style of Bernie Sanders, or are you pro-establishment and more like Clinton or Obama?)

sarahf: That’s true, Perry. Still, it’ll be interesting to see what governance looks like with this new Democratic House.

perry: I think the first bill in this new House will be some kind of election proposal: Try to limit gerrymandering, strengthen the Voting Rights Act, etc.

nrakich: That’d be a smart move for Democrats, Perry. If Democrats want to hold onto power, they need to start by addressing the structural factors that currently hold them back.

natesilver: Yeah, the ballot proposals were another bright spot for Democrats, and a lot of them were electorally oriented — i.e., make it easier for more people to vote.

That’s something that could pay dividends down the road. And also something that Democrats are likely to replicate in the years ahead, I’d think.

nrakich: Automatic voter registration in Michigan and ending felon disenfranchisement in Florida are two big ones for Democrats, I’d say.

Although we should caveat this by saying that those ballot measures won’t turn Michigan and Florida into safely blue states overnight. But they could add several thousand votes, which would be enough to tilt a close election — like we’re currently seeing in Florida, coincidentally.

perry: Proposals on voting measures unite Democrats. And I actually think some of the talk about House Democrats being divided is over-hyped. Because in an environment where it’s unlikely that major bills will be passed, does it really matter if some Democrats are in favor of “Medicare-for-all” while others are in favor of expanding Medicaid? Neither of those things will pass. Nor will Immigration and Customs Enforcement be abolished while Trump is in office.

sarahf: Perry brings up an interesting point. We’re about to enter an era of government where it’s likely no bills will be passed. How will Democrats hang onto their popularity among American voters going into 2020?

nrakich: Well, I wouldn’t say they’re popular exactly. Just more popular than Republicans at the moment.

According to exit polls, only 48 percent of 2018 voters had a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, while 47 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Not great, but at least slightly better than how Republicans were viewed: 44 percent of voters had a favorable opinion, and 52 percent had an unfavorable opinion.

perry: I would make the case that politically, very little that the House Democrats do really matters, unless they impeach Trump, which I think they are unlikely to do.

The best thing the House Democrats can do is keep the focus on Trump — and things he does that are not popular.

clare.malone: Well, inevitably, they’ll get distracted from that task. They’ve got to nominate a single individual to run against Trump.

And I think a Democrat would also say that making the presidential election about Trump is a risky proposition. It’s not just a midterm in 2020.

sarahf: Right, Nancy Pelosi did her best to make the midterms about health care (and not Trump) after all.

perry: What the House Democrats should do and what the 2020 candidates should do are related but different tasks. The former can try to avoid doing anything too interesting, but the candidates have to say how they would govern as president, which will be more controversial.

sarahf: And I would think depending on how special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation unfolds, that could hurt Democrats in the polls. Although, it’s far too early to say at this point.

But OK, we’re getting away from the idea of the blue wave narrative. Let me see if I can recap: We all think a blue wave happened, yes? It just wasn’t as big as what we saw with Republicans in 2010, but it was still a blue wave. Does what happens in Florida or Mississippi shift this narrative again?

nrakich: I don’t think I’d say that, Sarah.

The popular vote is going to be more Democratic than it was Republican in 2010.

And as Nate tweeted the other day, when you account for how many seats Democrats gained in 2008 (a lot) and Republicans gained in 2016 (not many), the two parties’ net midterm hauls look about the same.

sarahf: So what you’re telling me is it’ll be like the 2016 presidential election: Democrats win the popular vote but not the Electoral College?

natesilver: I’m not really sure how much of a chance Bill Nelson has in Florida. If Mike Espy somehow wins the runoff in Mississippi, that would be … interesting? But that probably involves super low turnout and/or Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith committing more gaffes. It’d probably be a bit of a one-off scenario.

perry: If Democrats won Florida, that would shift the narrative, because it would make it seem more likely they could win Florida in 2020. But it shouldn’t shift the narrative — in theory, the Democrats can win Florida in 2020 regardless of whether Nelson wins Florida by half a point or loses it by half a point.

nrakich: If Nelson somehow wins Florida and Espy somehow wins Mississippi, I think you’re going to see Democrats’ ears perk up quite a bit.

But that’s pretty darn unlikely.

perry: If Espy won, that would just be weird. Trump is still going to win Mississippi — it would suggest that Hyde-Smith is just a bad candidate — which seems true, by the way.

natesilver: But, again, Democrats won most of the Senate races in swing states. Arizona, Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia (if it’s still considered a swing state), Wisconsin, Minnesota, etc. Florida is the only real exception.

And that’s the tip-off that it’s a wave election: You’re winning in the swing states and/or districts, that you lost in two years earlier.

sarahf: So the question I suppose moving forward and looking ahead to 2020 is just how lasting this “blue wave” will be. Will we see a shift back to the GOP in Midwestern states after some of them moved pretty far to the left in this last election? Because it does seem as though Democrats need to win in the Midwest to stand a chance in the Electoral College.

nrakich: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Remember what happened after the 2010 Republican wave. Obama won re-election. Waves aren’t predictive of future elections.

clare.malone: I think it’ll depend on who the Democratic presidential nominee is.

natesilver: It’s probably too early to look at, say, Trump’s approval rating and predict that means he’ll have a tough time getting re-elected. Approval ratings two years out aren’t really predictive at all.

With that said, he doesn’t seem to have any instinct to course-correct.

And what we know now is that his party performs basically how you’d expect them to perform based on the polls, which is to say, not good, when you’re sitting at a 42 percent approval rating.

nrakich: The big indicators I’m looking at for 2020 and where Democrats stand will be (a) the outcome of the Mueller investigation, (b) the state of the economy and (c) as Clare said, who Democrats nominate.

perry: I’m of the view that (a) and (c) are much less important than people think and that (b) is really important. But that’s best saved for another chat.

sarahf: For now, suffice it to say, the blue 🌊 was real.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.