Tuesday night’s fascinating midterm election results have puzzled many observers. For the first time since 1970, the president’s party lost seats in the House but gained seats in the Senate; in that year, Richard Nixon’s Republican Party lost 12 seats in the House but gained two in the Senate. This year, President Trump’s party lost 34 seats in the House but gained three in the Senate.
Part of that was due to the map: Democrats had more vulnerable Senate seats than Republicans did. But part of it was due to Democrats’ inability to take advantage of an advantageous political cycle by nominating unpalatably progressive radical candidates to key seats in statewide races across the country, from Andrew Gillum in Florida to Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona. In that way, 2018 looks a lot like 1970: a midterm following a closely-fought presidential election in which the party out of power skewed radically to the Left.
But there’s a lot to be learned about the nature of the current American political scene. With that in mind, a few key takeaways from last night’s election.
1. Trump Motivates The Base, Particularly In Rural Areas. Ron DeSantis likely owes his governorship to President Trump’s intervention in his Florida race; Trump’s hard push for Josh Hawley in Missouri, Mike Braun in Indiana, and Kevin Cramer in North Dakota helped push all those races over the top (although Heidi Heidtkamp was already in trouble in North Dakota). Trump has a unique capacity to rile up the base, and to motivate them to vote. He also has a unique capacity to force Democrats into stepping on rakes, motivating the Republican base to vote. That was in evidence in Senate races around the country last night.
2. Trump Devastates Republicans In The Suburbs. What the Trump giveth with one hand, the Trump taketh with the other. Republicans got absolutely shellacked in the suburbs – a serious problem for future electoral cycles. Republicans have been overperforming in rural areas, at least in part thanks to Trump; they’ve been dropping suburban voters like they’re hot. According to 2016 exit polls, Trump won the rural vote 62 percent to 34 percent, and the suburban vote 50 percent to 45 percent; Hillary cleaned up among urban voters with 59 percent of the vote. But last night, Trump’s suburban vote advantage fell apart. Republicans lost suburban districts across the country, including incumbents in Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, and Oklahoma. Independents broke against Trump according to exit polls by a 13 point margin. Trump gets out the vote for Democrats in suburban areas, and he depresses Republican turnout in those areas. Trump’s take on this is that suburban Republicans should have paid more homage to him. This lesson is, to put it mildly, ridiculous.
3. Democrats Win When They Run Moderate Candidates In Moderate Districts. Democrats are celebrating their intersectional coalition today, with Van Jones announcing a “rainbow wave” led by women and minorities. In reality, Democrats would have cleaned up across the nation if they had run Gwen Graham instead of Andrew Gillum in Florida, someone who didn’t endorse the Taliban in Arizona, and a less progressive Beto O’Rourke in Texas. Democrat moderates lost in areas like Missouri, that are trending red – but in purple districts, they won wherever they ran someone palatable. The problem for Democrats lies in their belief that unpalatable candidates can still win purple areas. So, here’s the rule for Democrats: they’re not going to win in red areas; they’re going to win with progressives in blue areas; they’re going to win with moderates in purple areas.
4. Democrats Do Have A Demographic Advantage. The age gap last night was simply awful for Republicans: 67 percent of those aged 18-29 voted Democrat, as did 58 percent of those aged 30-44. Among those aged 45+, a bare majority voted Republican. As the millennial generation becomes more of a political force, they’re going to do serious damage to Republican future electoral hopes.
5. Democrats Have An Uphill Battle In The Senate. Republicans picked up enough seats in the Senate to present a difficult 2020 map for Democrats, even if Trump runs weak. The GOP is on defense in 2020, but the most vulnerable seats are in Maine and Colorado, and Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) has a solid record in her state. That means only one obvious pickup opportunity for Democrats. Democrats will lose a seat in Alabama, where Doug Jones was merely a placeholder after Roy Moore’s disastrous candidacy. It will likely take until 2022 for Democrats to have a shot at the Senate.
6. Trump Has An Actual Advantage In Florida And Ohio. A Republican became governor of Ohio last night; Republicans did well in races across the state. In Florida, Republicans won the governor’s house and Rick Scott defeated Bill Nelson in the Senate. This means that Democrats will be running against a slight-but-actual Republican advantage in those two crucial swing states.
7. The 2020 Map Is Open For Democrats. With that said, Democrats have to be the slight favorite to take the White House in 2020 if things remain as they are. That’s because President Trump would need to win one of Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin to maintain his re-election. Last night, all three of those states trended blue. More accurately, they regressed to the mean after Hillary Clinton disastrously failed to generate votes from her own constituency. Trump performed right in line with Republican voter share in all three of those states in the pre-Obama era; he benefitted from the fact that nobody showed up to vote for Hillary Clinton. Nothing suggests Trump deepening his advantage in any of those three states.
8. Everyone Is Going To Learn The Wrong Lessons. The lesson Trump should learn is that he needs to find a way to appeal to suburban voters and college educated voters if he wants to win re-election and turn his presidency into a turning point. He appears unlikely to learn that lesson. Democrats need to learn that the Obama intersectional coalition was a mirage, and that they must reach out to blue collar voters with moderate candidates in purple districts. Instead, they’re likely to double down on their intersectionality.
In the end, 2018 reinforced the lessons of 2016. But since nobody learned anything then, nobody will learn anything now.