Political opponents of President Trump found much to cheer in this year’s elections: the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives, most obviously; the elevation to Congress of so many women of diverse backgrounds (an ex-CIA officer, a Native American former mixed martial arts fighter); the capture by Democrats of seven governorships, including the crucial states of Michigan and Wisconsin; the gain by the party of at least 315 state legislative seats; the apparent shift of Georgia (with its sixteen electoral votes) from red to purple.
But there are two major lessons to take away from the voting that will have a profound impact on elections in the near future. The first is that we have fully entered an era when they will be close and very hard-fought slogs, the two sides battling for small gains like players in a rugby scrum. The second is that the urban–rural divide is now gaping. The first development is, or has the potential to be, on balance good for Democrats; the second is rather less so and requires that they take some action before 2020.
An estimated 116 million people voted on November 6, making these the first midterms in US history to exceed the 100 million mark. Forty-nine percent of registered voters cast votes—the highest percentage since 1966, when that 49 percent level was equaled, according to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald.1 By comparison, 83 million people voted in 2014 (37 percent), and 90 million voted in 2010 (42 percent).
Democrats have long fretted about the difficulty in getting their core voters—young people and people of color, chiefly—to participate in nonpresidential elections. This is a problem that Donald Trump’s presence in our political life seems to have helped them solve. Young voters made up the same 13 percent of the electorate this year as they did in 2014, according to CNN exit polls, but the higher overall number of voters meant that roughly four million more people aged eighteen to twenty-nine voted. In some states where candidates with unusually great appeal to young voters were on the ballot, such as Beto O’Rourke in Texas, youth turnout swelled dramatically, especially in early voting. In addition, according to CNN, Latinos voted in higher numbers this time, making up 11 percent of the electorate, compared to 8 percent in 2014. The African-American vote stayed about the same. Concomitantly, the white share of the overall vote dropped a bit, from 75 to 72 percent.
Still, the number of white voters increased by just short of 20 million. White voters aged sixty-five and up—a group that skews heavily Republican—made up 19 percent of the 2014 vote, according to CNN, and 22 percent of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.