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 year’s vote. They increased their overall number, that is, by nine million.
In sum: more Democrats voted. But Republicans, perhaps seeing for months that this potential wave was taking shape, voted in larger numbers, too. Hence, our new electoral reality: the prospect of hard-fought and close elections in which our nation’s two tribes attempt to vote each other into submission.
The number of close races this November—races in which hundreds of thousands or even millions of Americans cast votes in elections that ended up being decided by a few thousand—was noteworthy. The highest-profile cases received a great deal of media attention—the gubernatorial and Senate races in Florida, the governor’s race in Georgia, and the Senate race in Arizona, most notably. But many contests were close. In the congressional races that were most hotly contested, the total vote was on average somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000. Democratic candidates won a number of them by just a few thousand. In South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District, Joe Cunningham beat Katie Arrington by about 4,000 votes, and will be the first Democrat to represent that Charleston–low country district since 1980. In central Virginia’s 7th, Abigail Spanberger beat David Brat by around 5,500 votes. In Oklahoma’s 5th, centered around Oklahoma City, Kendra Horn beat Steve Russell by about 3,300 votes. In Maine’s 2nd, Jared Golden upset Bruce Poliquin by 2,900 votes in the state’s first use of ranked-choice voting. And there was a flip side to this: a few Democrats were defeated by very narrow margins: by fewer than 2,600 votes in New York’s 27th, by fewer than 1,900 in North Carolina’s 9th, by about 1,100 in Texas’s 23rd, and by fewer than 1,000 in Georgia’s 7th.
Of course, there was the usual large number of districts in which the heavily favored incumbent won by a landslide. That’s always the case. But the point is that control of the House of Representatives, as well as several other very important races, was determined by a comparative handful of votes. There have always been close elections. But one senses, over these last few election cycles, that we have entered a new era defined by an ideological digging of trenches that started with the Bush–Gore battle in Florida and has been intensifying ever since.
What are the consequences of this? More polarization, to be sure. The Republican Party’s main strategic imperative has been to maximize base turnout since Karl Rove made it a priority in 2000 and especially in 2004. The Democrats have been slower to embrace this strategy, largely because their base is less ideologically homogenous. But the strong performances of Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum will, I think, nudge the Democrats in the base-maximizing direction. After all, if two openly liberal African-Americans could very nearly win the governorships of Georgia and Florida by running campaigns that were largely aimed at maximizing turnout among the base, then maybe that’s the Democrats’ best path forward. Those kinds of campaigns, in which both parties do all they can to identify and get to the polls every voter in their respective bases (rather than persuade swing voters), will be even more divisive than recent ones.
But that isn’t even the main point, which is that future elections are likely to see much higher turnout. Going back to 1916, according to the organization FairVote,2 turnout in presidential elections has ebbed and flowed. The lowest-turnout years were 1920 and 1924, both under 50 percent of the voting-age population. The highest turnout years were in the 1960s, all above 62 percent, which hasn’t been equaled since (though almost: 61.6 percent voted in 2008, when Barack Obama inspired such enthusiasm).
In raw numbers: 131.3 million people voted for president in 2008, 129.1 in 2012, and 138.8 in 2016. If we can extrapolate from 2018’s 36 percent increase in turnout over 2014, we can estimate that turnout in 2020 could reach up to 190 million people.
That seems impossible—the voting-age population is around 235 million, which would make for a turnout rate of 80 percent. Presumably, there is some sort of ceiling above which there are citizens who care only about soap operas or sports and don’t know one party from the other. But I would venture that a 2020 turnout perhaps as high as 160 million, which would be 68 percent, is far from impossible. That would be 22 million more voters than participated in the 2016 election. We should assume that Trump’s loyalists will vote in huge numbers, much larger than 2018 and even 2016, to protect their leader, who as far as they’re concerned is all that stands between America and eternal damnation. Are the Democrats prepared to counter that wave?
Doing so will require commitments of many millions of dollars not just from the national and state parties but from all the outside sources that typically invest in voter turnout. And crucially, it will require that wherever they can, Democrats find ways to fight Republican voter suppression, which shows no signs of abating and will surely intensify. This will need to be done primarily at the state level. House Democrats say they want to pass voter-protection legislation, but it will not be signed into law. States can do more in theory, although there are no states with strict voter ID laws that flipped to the Democrats sufficiently for the party to pass new laws. Wisconsin, for example, voted out GOP governor Scott Walker and elected Democrat Tony Evers, but the state legislature remains in Republican control.
Some critical 2020 states did elect Democratic secretaries of state, notably Michigan and Colorado. In Georgia, the secretary of state election is apparently headed for a December runoff, as neither Democrat John Barrow nor Republican Brad Raffensperger got 50 percent of the vote as required under state law. In other important states, Republicans will still control the election machinery. In Ohio, disappointingly, the Democrat lost. And in Florida, the governor appoints the secretary of state, so that office will remain in GOP hands—although the state’s voters did overwhelmingly pass an ex-felon reenfranchisement referendum that will restore voting rights to more than one million Floridians, disproportionately African-Americans.
It will be up to outside groups and their donors to fight restrictive voter ID laws in court or simply to help targeted voters procure the necessary IDs. This will be one of the significant battles of 2020, as Republicans seek to maximize their vote and find ways to prevent Democrats from voting.
Now to the second lesson, about the urban–rural split. It should be said that a number of Democrats did quite well in districts and counties that Trump carried in 2016—those Oklahoma and South Carolina districts mentioned above, districts in Iowa and Michigan and upstate New York that usually have Republican representation, and a few others. Democrats’ success in these cases can be chalked up to finding good candidates who ran races tailored to the district, and to the general dissatisfaction in these areas with Trump.
It is also the case that the Democratic electorate is becoming more upper-income (at least among whites) and more concentrated in cities and the kinds of close-in suburbs that are home to racially diverse populations, along with university towns, which now vote blue even in the reddest states. Thomas B. Edsall wrote in The New York Times two days after the election:
There is no clearer sign of the changing shape of the Democratic coalition than the fact that going into the 2018 midterm elections, six of the 20 richest congressional districts were represented by Republicans but that when the new Congress is sworn in, all 20 will be represented by Democrats.3
This is good news to the extent that these are often bellwether constituencies. But by 2020, the Democrats will have to find ways to improve their performance in exurban and rural areas. This is not only for the sake of defeating Trump, but also to have any chance of recapturing the Senate.
A look at the Texas Senate race is instructive here. Republican Ted Cruz survived a strong and impressive challenge from Beto O’Rourke, the charismatic young El Paso native. Cruz won by 50.9 percent to 48.3 percent, or around 220,000 votes out of 8.33 million cast. O’Rouke carried just thirty-two of the state’s 254 counties. They’re the largest counties by population, so one—Harris County (Houston), for example—is worth perhaps forty or fifty counties up in the panhandle and the north-central part of the state. But in those counties, O’Rourke got walloped. For example, he narrowly carried Tarrant County, home of Fort Worth, by less than a percentage point—a result that, briefly on election night, had MSNBC’s Chris Hayes buzzing that an upset was possible. But in six of the seven counties that surround Tarrant, Cruz won 54, 68, 76, 80, 81, and 82 percent. And he won 70 or 80 percent of the vote in dozens of the smaller rural counties.
Contrast O’Rourke’s performance in his state’s red counties with Democratic senator Sherrod Brown’s in Ohio’s. Brown beat Jim Renacci by 6.4 percent—even as the Democrat Richard Cordray lost the governor’s race by 4.3 percentage points. Ohio has eighty-eight counties. Renacci topped 70 percent in a handful of them in the western part of the state. But elsewhere, Brown did much better. In Appalachian Ohio—classic “Trump Country” counties near the Ohio River and the West Virginia border—Brown typically got around 40 percent of the vote, sometimes more. He even carried one of them, Athens County, which is the home of Ohio University, so Brown had an advantage there; but even in the other ones, he did much better than O’Rourke did. Of course, he was the incumbent, which helped, and Ohio conservatives aren’t Texas conservatives, but he has a kind of working-class authenticity that few Democrats do.
Democrats will never win those rural counties. But they have to do better than 25 percent to win most statewide races. New Yorkers know that a Democrat can win a statewide election by carrying just six or seven of the state’s sixty-two counties. But no other state has a city as big as New York City, so that kind of formula can’t be replicated widely.
The electoral consequences should be clear. Consider the Senate map of 2020. Thirty-four senators will face reelection (except for those who choose to retire). Of those, twenty-three will be Republicans, and just eleven Democrats. That sounds favorable to Democrats, but if you look closer, about fourteen of the Republicans represent deep-red states where they should cruise to reelection. The other seven will not be easy to flip. The fattest target is probably Maine incumbent Susan Collins. Maine just elected a Democratic governor, who is also the state’s first female governor. But beating an incumbent senator is always hard (though some believe Collins may retire). The other states where Democrats may have a shot include Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, and Texas. Donald Trump carried five of those six.
All have major cities, but all are states where it’s hard to win by carrying only the most populous counties and doing poorly in the rural ones. In Iowa, for example, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell lost to Kim Reynolds by just 3 percentage points. He won only eleven of the state’s ninety-nine counties. Erin Murphy, a reporter in the state, looked back over the results from Iowa’s last six gubernatorial elections and found that the Democratic candidates won forty-nine, sixty-eight, sixty-two, nine, one, and eleven counties, respectively—they won the first three and lost the last three.4
As for the presidency, there are a number of states—the Great Lakes states, North Carolina, Florida, and even Arizona and Georgia—where the pro-Trump vote in the rural counties will be so amped up that the Democrat, while winning the big counties, will have a tough time overcoming it. The party’s reflex will be to maximize the turnout among the urban-suburban base and forget the countryside. But why can’t it think about both?
The Democratic Party clearly needs a program for rural America. It needs to highlight policies aimed specifically at small towns, and its presidential candidate has to go campaign in some of those towns, if only to demonstrate that he or she cares about the people who live there and would like some of their votes.
The urban–rural divide is the central economic fact of our time, not just in the United States but across the developed world, as the Brookings Institution’s William Galston argued in his book Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy (2018). Consider these stunning statistics. The United States has experienced three recessions since 1990. An organization called the Economic Innovation Group studied the three post-recession recoveries. It found that after the early 1990s recession, 71 percent of the new business growth occurred in counties with fewer than 500,000 people (and within that, 32 percent in counties with fewer than 100,000 people). After the 2002–2003 recession, that 71 percent shrank to 51 percent. And after the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the number was 19 percent—and in counties under 100,000 growth was literally zero.5
That is a crisis. It’s at the root of the opioid epidemic, and it’s why so many young people leave these towns. Republicans aren’t going to address it adequately. Congress did recently pass, and Trump signed, an opioid bill, but it mostly makes “legal and regulatory tweaks,” in the words of a Vox reporter, that should help a little but are far from the well-financed nationwide treatment program that’s needed.6 Republicans won’t support such a program because it will involve increased domestic spending and possibly a tax, and in Republican world, those are both forbidden—people must wait for the magic of the invisible hand to stitch their communities back together. For the same reasons Republicans would be unlikely to support a large-scale economic redevelopment program with elements like universal broadband access for small-town America, even though it would benefit their voters.
So there’s an opening for Democrats. Hillary Clinton actually ran on some of these things. One of the ironies of the last election is that it was Clinton, not Trump, who proposed an ambitious $30 billion redevelopment plan for “coal country” built around ideas like repurposing mining lands and power plant sites, giving more research dollars to universities and colleges in the region, and spurring private investment by various means. But she said in a debate that she was going to put coal miners out of work. Trump, who probably couldn’t have found West Virginia on a map before 2015, sings coal’s praises. Coal mining employment is up marginally since he took office, from about 51,000 to about 53,000, but it’s dropped by about 35,000 over the last two decades due to automation and lack of demand, and most experts agree that those 35,000 jobs are gone forever.
In addition to aiding small-town America, Democrats need a new agricultural policy. Last year I asked Tom Vilsack, President Obama’s agriculture secretary, to write an article for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, the quarterly journal I edit, outlining what such a program would look like. It’s a deeply detailed essay built around specific ideas like doing more to establish local and regional markets so that farmers aren’t forced to accept commodity prices on crops like corn and soybeans, and dramatically expanding land conservation efforts in ways that benefit farmers. Democrats should listen to him; back when the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Iowa was winning a majority of the state’s counties, from 1999 to 2007, that candidate was Tom Vilsack.
So these are the Democrats’ two big electoral tasks as they head into 2020: to invest in maximizing turnout among their base voters in cities and diverse suburbs, and to take steps to ensure that they can become more competitive in the exurbs and the countryside. These goals may seem as though they contradict each other, but they need not; both constituencies would be open to an agenda emphasizing public investments that help middle- and working-class people. There will be some tension on cultural issues, and Democrats shouldn’t go overboard in pandering for rural votes. After all, they’re not trying win those areas; just to perform about 10 or 15 points better—at Sherrod Brown’s levels rather than Beto O’Rourke’s.
Who is the presidential candidate capable of weaving this tapestry? I say Brown. If we accept that the 2016 election was lost chiefly because of the Obama-to-Trump voters in the Great Lakes states, then Brown is obviously the choice. Trying to help those workers has been his central project for a quarter-century. He knows how to talk to them. He had seemed intractably uninterested in the job, but right after the election he began saying publicly that he was thinking it over. The idea of an O’Rourke candidacy is intriguing—he just proved that he could put Texas in play, which by itself is worth a lot. The candidates who have positioned themselves to run, including Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker, are untested beyond the borders of their very blue states.
The Democratic primary, which could feature more than twenty candidates, will likely devolve into an ideological purity test, with several left-leaning candidates likely to run. In fact, left-wing candidates did not do well overall in this election. The three major left-wing groups that endorsed candidates this year flipped no House seats from red to blue, while the more centrist New Dem PAC flipped twenty-eight seats. What the Democrats will need in 2020, far more than a candidate of the left, or for that matter of the avowed center, is one who can withstand what will undoubtedly be the dirtiest and most dishonest campaign in the country’s modern history and provide the clearest moral contrast to the incumbent.
In the meantime, at least the party now has the power to hold Trump and his administration accountable. They shouldn’t overreach and carry on about impeachment. Removing Trump from office would require the assent of about twenty Republican senators and is therefore basically impossible. They should just expose the corruption through holding aggressive oversight hearings and trust the American people to reach the right conclusion. Trump’s partisans are fierce, but the election showed that they are, however narrowly, outnumbered.
—November 21, 2018
See Grace Segers, “Record Voter Turnout in 2018 Midterm Elections,” CBSnews.com, November 7, 2018. ↩
Thomas B. Edsall, “The Polarizer in Chief Meets the Midterms,” The New York Times, November 8, 2016. ↩
Erin Murphy, “Urban-Rural Divide: A Tale of Two Voting Iowas,” Quad-City Times, November 9, 2018. ↩
See Economic Innovation Group, “The New Map of Economic Growth and Recovery,” May 2016. ↩
See German Lopez, “Trump just signed a bipartisan bill to confront the opioid epidemic,” Vox, October 24, 2018. ↩