On Tuesday night, it looked like an election where every side could claim victory – and, thus, where any single headline or narrative was partial and misleading. Now, with only a handful of races left to be declared in America’s midterm election, it looks like the much-heralded “blue wave” did materialise – with an asterisk.

Donald Trump described the results as a “tremendous success” and claimed the major part of the credit, not entirely without reason. His Republican party won crucial Senate races in exactly those places – Indiana, Missouri, Florida – that he had targeted in the final stretch of the campaign. The Republicans will end up with 52 to 54 seats in the Senate, depending on the results in Arizona, where votes are still being counted, and Florida, where the margin is so small as to trigger a mandatory recount. They are almost certain to win December’s run-off election in Mississippi. Either way, the Republicans will have gained seats, which is rare for the party of a president in his first term.

Trump’s strengthened position in the Senate will allow him to easily confirm his judicial and cabinet nominees. His first move after the election, firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is a sign of things to come. Secretary of Defence James Mattis, widely seen as an internal check on the president’s worst instincts, may be next.

Trump is also stronger within his party. He already enjoyed overwhelming popularity with Republican voters and now many of his critics in Congress will depart in January, whether through retirement or electoral defeat. “Wave elections” tend to disproportionately displace moderates in the losing party. Ron DeSantis, one of Trump’s most diligent imitators, was thought too extreme to be elected governor of Florida, but at the time of writing, he appears to have narrowly won his race.

Judged on the whole, though, the election was a rebuke to Trump and a reflection of his weakness rather than his strength. On Tuesday, Republican politicians and pundits were quick to downplay the Democratic gains in the House of Representatives as smaller than the Republican waves of 1994 (54 seats gained) and 2010 (63 seats).

It now appears the Democrats will end up with a net gain of around 40 seats, their largest since the 1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal. This would qualify as a “wave” in any era; at a time of full employment and the highest GDP growth in the developed world, it is staggering.

The constituency boundaries for the House are so distorted – in favour of the Republicans – that just a few years ago it was thought to be impossible for the Democrats to take back its control. Their popular vote margin in the House will be between seven and eight points, larger than those delivered by the Republican waves of 1994 and 2010.

Beyond halting Trump’s conservative legislative agenda, it is hard to say what a Democratic House can achieve. They will certainly reopen the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and scrutinise Trump’s finances and possible corruption. But the House has no power to safeguard special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and many Democrats are wary of over-emphasising Russian collusion or impeaching Trump. Poll after poll has shown limited public enthusiasm for Mueller’s investigation. The Democrats won back the House not by promising Trump’s impeachment, but through a limited, social democratic campaign focused above all on healthcare.

Revival of Democratic morale

In the longer term, the Democrats may come to think their biggest wins this week came away from the headline result in the House. Electorally, Florida was a notable disappointment for the Democrats. Andrew Gillum, running for governor, and the incumbent Senator Bill Nelson appear to have narrowly lost races they were expected to win. Florida has traditionally been considered the ultimate bellwether – not a state you lose in a wave year. The state has been leaning Republican in recent years. But the passage of Amendment 4, restoring voting rights to over a million former felons, could potentially shift the state’s electorate in the Democrats’ favour – and may prove worth a few short-term defeats.

Ballot referendums expanded Medicaid in the deep Republican states of Idaho and Nebraska, showing that Democratic policies can be popular in places where the Democrats themselves are unelectable. And the party made its greatest stride yet towards reversing Republican control over governorships and state legislatures. The Republican governors most reviled by the Democrats in recent years have been Sam Brownback of Kansas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin. Walker was defeated in his bid for a third term. In Kansas, the Republican candidate and Trump favourite Kris Kobach – Brownback had resigned in January to take up a position in the Trump administration – lost handily.

Then there is the factor invisible in electoral returns: the revival of Democratic morale. For all the talk (and action) of Resistance, it is only now that the trauma imposed by Trump’s victory in 2016 can begin to lift. Many in the party had stopped believing in the possibility of revival.

Which brings us to the asterisk that accompanies the blue wave. In what kind of wave election does the losing party actually gain seats in one House of Congress?

Even optimistic Democrats never expected to retake the Senate. The map, with the Democrats defending 26 seats to the Republicans’ nine, simply did not offer enough potential gains. But the Democrats’ losses in the Senate have less to do with a one-time map than with a broader realignment. American politics is going through two forms of “sorting”: by geography and by ideology.

Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, celebrates her party's victory in Washington. Photo credit: Reuters
Nancy Pelosi, leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, celebrates her party's victory in Washington. Photo credit: Reuters

The latter phenomenon is often pejoratively called “tribalism”, but it is the norm in democracies for parties to be ideologically defined. The United States, with its history of “ticket-splitting” – the Democrats winning Senate and House elections in states that always vote Republican for president, and vice versa –has been the anomaly. But sorting by ideology – Republicans always voting Republican – disproportionately harms the Democrats because there are more red states than blue. There are 22 states that have voted Republican in all of the last five presidential elections, compared to just 15 that have voted Democratic. With two senators per state irrespective of population, the Republicans start with a huge advantage.

This has a lot to do with the other sorting by geography. This week, the Democrats made unprecedented inroads into the suburbs, the historic centre of Republicanism. But they continue to struggle with rural voters. Not only is Trump still popular in rural areas, he has inspired white rural voters to turn out at much higher rates, partly negating the Democrats’ own efforts to increase turnout. And rural voters, because of the structure of the Senate, are over-represented, more so by the year in an urbanising America.

It is tempting for the Democrats to dismiss the Senate as antiquated and undemocratic. The reality is that a constitutional amendment in favour of a more representative Senate is about as likely as Barack Obama converting to Trumpism. To win and hold a Senate majority, the Democrats will need to appeal directly to rural voters, through some combination of a programme for rural economic revival, a plan to tackle the opiod epidemic and the assertion of an optimistic version of patriotism. They will also need to call a moratorium on the moral hectoring and contempt so often directed at Trump’s voters: whatever the ethical justifications or psychological consolations of such an attitude, it will not help win back the Senate.

Gearing up for 2020

As one American election ends, the next one begins. Two dozen or more Democrats have been itching to formally open their bids to unseat Trump. What do the midterm results suggest about whom the right candidate might be?

Two kinds of candidates look less promising now than they did a week ago. Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders lead most polls of Democratic voters – largely because of name recognition – but both are likely to suffer from a reluctance to look backwards. The defeats suffered by moderate Senate Democrats – Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Claire Macaskill in Missouri – bring bad news for the “centrist white men” such as former Montana governor Steve Bullock who might run on their ability to attract Republicans.

Some in the party believe the example of Obama shows the Democrats have to nominate a black or Hispanic candidate in order to galvanise the minority turnout. One obvious problem with this strategy is that it assumes Democratic-supporting minorities to be a monolith. Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, was very effective in mobilising black voters. But early analysis suggests he may have performed worse with Hispanic voters than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.

Another approach calls for a safe pair of hands – a solid liberal, rather than a centrist but one who appears credible and likable to swing voters, particularly college-educated women who chose the Democrats this time. The outstanding candidate of this type is Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who won re-election by 24 points in a state Trump came within a point of winning in 2016.

But whoever the Democrats nominate, the lesson they should take from Obama’s success has to be related not to the colour of his skin, but the nature of his rise. It used to be an axiom of the presidential election that “Democrats fall in love while Republicans fall in line”. Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and John Kennedy all began their campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination as relative outsiders, either thought too obscure or too young. The Republicans look for experience: it is traditional to wait your turn. George HW Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon all won the presidency on the second or third attempt.

In 2016, the parties exchanged roles. Republican primary voters fell in love with an outsider, Democrats nominated the candidate whose turn it was. Trump was elected in large part because of the weakness of Democratic turnout. The Democratic base is less coherent than the Republican one, and more easily demoralised.

The 2020 election is likely to be so close that the Democrats can win with any candidate. But to beat Trump convincingly, they need to fall in love again – with whom, it is too early to say.