In economics, there’s a concept called opportunity cost: By choosing to go down one path, to seek its rewards, you forgo the potential benefits of a different path, and vice versa. By choosing to go to college, we all lost the benefits of living at home and getting a job. No matter which path you pick, and no matter how amazing one seems compared to the other, you’re always paying an opportunity cost. I’m bringing this up because, in politics, there’s a major undiscussed opportunity cost to winning the presidency.
By beating their opponent, any newly elected president all but guarantees that their party will pay that opportunity cost in two years in Congress. In 16 out of 18 midterm elections since World War II, the president’s party has lost House seats, with a median loss of 22 seats. That might seem small since there are 435 House seats, but for perspective the Democrats are only 22 short of control right now. On top of that, one of those two exceptions was in 2002, after 9/11, when attacking the government or president was seen as treasonous: The only genuinely good midterm election for the party in power was in 1998. Almost every midterm election but that one has been a referendum on a president who has become far less popular since election day.
There are varying theories for this: A president’s opponents becoming energized while his supporters become complacent; unpopular wars, personal scandals, and economic downturns make matters worse. When this effect was greatest, in 1994 and in 2010, the party in power lost 54 and 63 House seats, respectively. These losses are also by no means limited to Congress: There’s a reason that the Democrats lost 1,000 state government seats and dozens of governorships during Obama’s tenure.
This is especially relevant to Congress, though, because of the situation there in 2016. The Republicans had a large majority in the House, 238–193. If Hillary Clinton had won, she would’ve needed about one percent more of the vote nationwide; that only translates into winning a handful of marginal House seats, far short of a majority that could pass anything. That means that had she won, any significant part of her agenda besides bank deregulation and foreign wars would’ve never been implemented. The Senate is a bit of a different story, with five races in which the Republican won by less than five percent: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina, and Missouri. The Republicans controlled the Senate 52–48 after the election, so the Democrats could’ve conceivably won it with a little more national momentum.
However, this Democratic majority would be built on a house of cards. The Democrats would have had five seats up for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won by 20 points or more: Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Montana. The senators there have all survived because of strong personal brands separate from other national Democrats, and because their last elections were in 2012, instead of a midterm year. Even with a positive national environment stemming from normal presidential backlash, plus Trump’s unpopularity, all their races are essentially toss-ups. With a negative environment from a backlash to Clinton, they would be wiped off the map without question. There are six other Democrats up for re-election in states that Trump carried or came within a point of, in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio. If the Republicans won three of those in addition to the others, not a high bar with a good national environment, they would be beyond 60 votes, enough to make the filibuster irrelevant.
If Clinton then lost re-election, a likely outcome for someone as unpopular as her running for a fourth democratic term, the consequences would be devastating for the left. With 60 Senate votes, the Republicans could do things they can only dream of now. With 52 votes this year, they were able only to repeal the most unpopular part of Obamacare, the individual mandate. With 60, they could fully repeal the law, kicking tens of millions off their insurance and making the sickest choose between going without treatments and going bankrupt. On abortion, they can’t do anything now because bills affecting it can be filibustered; with 60, they could implement severe restrictions, with the Supreme Court standing as the only obstacle. Any environmental, financial, labor, or gun regulations that they don’t like would be at their mercy. They wouldn’t even be far from being able to change the Constitution itself: You need two-thirds of the House and Senate, plus three-fourths of state governments to do this. By electing Trump, the Republicans are paying this opportunity cost.
Meanwhile, the backlash to Trump is immense and is making itself heard. In special House and Senate elections since 2016, from Alabama to Pennsylvania to Montana, the Democrats have overperformed Obama’s and Clinton’s vote share by an average of 16 points. Though this has only led to three victories, the Democrats are pulling nearly even or winning in places that they have no business competing in, like Alabama and Kansas, and where the GOP candidates have run unopposed for years. If the Democrats won the popular vote nationwide by 16 points, they would easily retake the House, with GOP gerrymanders backfiring; even Paul Ryan would lose his seat, since Trump only won his district by 11. The Senate would even be in play, depending on how Texas, Arizona, and Nevada vote. And Texas only voted for Trump by 11, with Nevada and Arizona being even closer.
For the opportunity cost of a second Clinton presidency, with no ability to pass new laws because of the Republican Congress, the Democrats have been given an excellent chance to retake all of Congress and the state government seats that they lost under Obama. With that new majority, they will be able to reverse everything that Trump has done legislatively, and fix the holes in Obama’s accomplishments: fighting climate change, passing criminal justice reform, and establishing universal healthcare, among other goals.
President Trump may seem bad now, but what the Republicans could have done without him would have been much worse, and what the Democrats can do once he’s gone will be much better than if they’d won in 2016.