By: Rachael Andrews

Dr. Jamie Carson, the UGA Athletic Association Professor of Public and International Affairs, is paying close attention to the state of our elections, from 2016 to 2018, and the upcoming 2020 presidential contest. 

According to Carson, the 2018 midterm election was typical: “Like 2010 and 2014, we saw a referendum on the president that was not significantly more pronounced than a typical referendum, with a few exceptions.”

“Normally during presidential elections, people vote for who they want as president, as well as Senators, House members, and governors,” Carson explains. “In a midterm, the president is not really on the ballot in the same sense, but people make decisions on their ballots based on whether they approve of the president or not.”

If they do not approve, voters tend to make decisions to punish members of the president’s party. 

“It’s a pattern that we have seen for hundreds of years,” Carson adds. “Most midterms result in the party of the president losing seats in the House and the Senate – with very few exceptions.”

Carson has noticed a few trends in the years since the 2016 election, considered by most to be a lightning rod for conversations around polarization and elections. For example, President Trump has consistently had a low approval rating, which makes sense, Carson notes, considering that he was elected by winning the electoral college, and not the popular vote. A majority of Americans were frustrated by that and also did not approve of his appointments or certain parts of his agenda. 

“Because of this, in the midterms, we saw a more concentrated effort to get qualified Democratic candidates elected and to raise large sums of money to derail his agenda,” Carson explains. 

Generally, incumbents outspend challengers by a wide amount, but challengers, and even amateurs, were able to raise huge amounts of money in 2018. Even more notable was the increase in women running for elected office. In fact, it was the highest number of women to run in decades, comparable to 1992, which was considered by many to be “the Year of the Woman.” 

Considering the political landscape and the current state of affairs, Carson suggests that historically, an incumbent would have little to no chance of getting re-elected. However, like most things in the Trump presidency, this is a unique circumstance. 

“Some models are saying that whoever is running against Trump has a very good chance of winning, yet others say that it will be a very close race,” Carson says. “President Trump is an unconventional president who uses social media differently, and in many ways, more innovatively than any of his predecessors.” 

“I think 2020 is going to be historic in the sense that it may not fit some of the existing patterns,” Carson continues. “There is a lot of frustration and this is probably the most polarized we’ve been since the mid to late 19th century.”

Additionally, Carson is interested in investigating the role of institutions in the ability for a president to use power more unilaterally. 

“I think that the institutions were designed by the Founders to constrain the actions of individuals, but those checks are being tested [during the Trump presidency],” Carson concludes. “I think that whoever follows Trump is going to have to be very cautious about exercising power in this way, as the courts and legislature may act to further constrain the president’s power. However, historically, we often see more assertive presidents followed by less assertive presidents, so I’d like to see political science research really delve into this topic in the years to come.”