The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two early warning lights are flashing for Democrats in 2020

President Trump gives the thumbs-up in Washington on Feb. 8. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

The eternal election cycle continues, just in the background. The 2018 midterms aren’t yet over, thanks to the new election looming in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District thanks to apparent absentee ballot fraud there in November. Meanwhile, there have been 18 state-level special elections, too, including two on Tuesday night. The machinery of democracy keeps grinding forward.

Those contests on Tuesday were a split. In Iowa, a Democratic candidate for the state Senate won by 15 points while, in a Minnesota state House race, a Republican won by a 2-to-1 margin. That contest, though, was even worse for Democrats than the top-line number looks, since the Democratic candidate lost by a wider margin than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

You may recall that, as the 2018 midterms approached, the results of special election contests were seen as a measure of Democratic enthusiasm. In contest after contest, Democrats were picking up seats and beating Clinton’s 2016 margins by double-digits according to analysis from DailyKos.

Since last November, though, the picture has been different. From November 2016 through March 2017, the site’s analysis shows, Democrats overperformed by an average of 9 points compared to 2016 in nine special elections. Since the midterms, Republicans have overperformed by an average of 1 point — and have picked up four seats that were held by Democrats.

That’s not great news for the Democrats, but it is still early. It wasn’t until a bit later in the 2018 cycle that Democrats really started to gain steam.

But if the question is enthusiasm, there’s another bit of bad news for Democrats, in the form of a new poll from CNN and SSRS. Respondents were asked how enthusiastic they were about voting next year, and more than three-quarters of both Democrats and Republicans said they were at least very excited about casting a ballot.

But Republicans were 11 points more likely to say that they’re extremely enthusiastic.

This has been a quiet concern of Democrats for some time. In 2010, Republicans swept back into power in the House after Barack Obama’s enthusiastic 2008 base failed to show the same energy for the midterms that year. Despite President Trump’s best efforts to get his base excited about 2018, it didn’t appear to work. (His insistence that Republicans were going to win anyway probably didn’t help.)

Next year, though, Trump will be back on the ballot. Many of the voters that came out to vote for him three years ago will be enthusiastic about doing so again, in part because he and his supporters are eager to frame 2020 explicitly as a referendum on his presidency. Clinton got more votes than Trump in 2016, but came up just short in several key states. Whoever represents the Democratic Party next year will need to do that much better if the party is to retake the White House.

The election is 20 months away and — if you’ll forgive the standard caveat — lots of things can happen. There’s plenty of reason for optimism on the left, too. National polling, for example, shows most of the leading Democratic candidates with more support than Trump.

But, again, those polls showed the same thing in 2016.