The fight for control of Congress is being fought in two very different Americas.
Of the 18 competitive and potentially competitive Senate races, those categorized in The Cook Political Report as Toss Up, Leaning, or Likely Democratic or Republican (so not Solid Democrat or Republican), just three are being fought in states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Most of the Senate battleground states are those with disproportionately rural and small-town populations, many in states that Donald Trump carried by massive margins.
Conversely, the battle for the House runs primarily through suburban districts of a distinctly middle- and upper-middle-class variety. Roughly half of all competitive Republican House seats are in districts won by Clinton; even many of the Southern contests are in districts with plenty of transplants or a distinctly non-Dixiecrat flavor. Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman has suggested that this might be the year of the “angry, white, female college graduate”—a demographic that may well be critical in the fight for the House but perhaps less relevant in the Senate outcome, which may be driven by the angry, noncollege white men who drove the last presidential election.
This lends a certain “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus” tone to our political dialogue this year. We could quite conceivably have an Election Night on Nov. 6 with Democrats gaining a House majority while just breaking even or losing seats in the Senate, with decidedly different messages from each.
A recent reading of Ron Chernow’s terrific biography of Ulysses S. Grant brings to mind another time when America was deeply divided—then over slavery, states’ rights, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. Grant’s predecessor and Abraham Lincoln’s successor as president, Andrew Johnson, a populist, was as different from Grant, and for that matter, Lincoln, as Donald Trump is from Barack Obama. Each was a president of different Americas. Eight years after Johnson left office was the 1876 presidential election in which Samuel Tilden won the popular vote while Rutherford B. Hayes won the Electoral College vote. That was the last time that there was as big a difference between the popular and electoral votes as the 2.1-percentage-point, 2.9 million-vote gap 140 years later in 2016 between Clinton and Trump.
The two Americas we see today are starkly different. In the latest Gallup Poll conducted June 25 through July 1, Trump had an 87 percent job-approval rating among Republicans, and just a 10 percent approval among Democrats. Among independents it was 37 percent, and among all adults, 42 percent approved and 53 percent disapproved. In Red America, Trump is King, could hardly be more popular; in Blue America he is reviled, could scarcely be less popular. Among his own party members, Obama’s peak ratings were 92 and 93 percent, hitting 95 percent among Democrats in his final Gallup Poll before leaving office. But he spent most of his eight years with intra-party approval ratings ranging from the mid-70s to low-80s, roughly where Trump was last fall, lower than most of his approval ratings since the first of this year.
Topic A these days is the upcoming fight over the Supreme Court seat being vacated by retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy. The high court has been balanced between four liberal and four conservative justices, with Kennedy playing the swing vote on many votes, so this vacancy could hardly be more important. For all of the hyperbole over Roe v. Wade potentially being reversed, the more likely result is that abortion restrictions passed by conservative state legislatures and signed into law by similarly minded governors in recent years will continue to be allowed to stand by the courts, creating one set of highly restrictive abortion laws in Red America and another set of considerably more lenient rules in Blue America.
What this means is that for all of the attention being focused on the narrow balances between the parties in the House and Senate, what happens in the state legislative and gubernatorial elections will take on an even greater importance on the abortion and reproductive-rights front. Federal courts may not stand in the way of the more onerous state laws, a reversal of where things stood not too many years ago.
One thing to watch in coming weeks is whether what appears to be a trade war affects Trump’s approval ratings in rural and small-town America. Do the headlines of soybean prices plummeting make a difference? And will there be fallout among working-class voters, particularly those in the manufacturing sector, after last week’s announcement by Harley Davidson that it plans to build motorcycles destined for the European market abroad to escape tariffs? Will the Harley news give the trade story some bite that it previously lacked?
Many working-class, small-town, and rural Americans have seen Trump as speaking to and for them; they believe that he has been standing up for them against the elites and the establishment on the East and West Coasts and in the cities. This viewpoint could certainly endure—but perhaps not if these folks find their wallets and bank accounts pinched by the consequences of some of these moves. Echoing in my ears are the words of a beef cattleman who conceded to me several months ago that he was concerned about tariffs, but in the very next breath said that Trump was doing what he (Trump) thought was in the national interest and that he still supported Trump 100 percent. We’ll see whether these two Americas remain this divergent. My guess is that they will.