A week before the midterm elections, both parties are filled with anxiety. Like football wide receivers who have been blind-sided one time too many, many Democrats are hearing real or imaginary footsteps—residual trauma from the 2016 election, when they thought things were going so well until they didn’t.
Similarly mindful of history, Republicans know that midterm elections are referenda on incumbent presidents and that President Trump is a particularly polarizing party leader, evoking the strongest emotions. They also know that in times of one-party rule across the White House, House, and Senate, it’s difficult to shift the blame to anyone else, so midterm elections are particularly explosive.
The Democratic nightmare of Nov. 8, 2016, a day in party history that will live in infamy, was triggered by overwhelming support for Trump in small-town and rural America, combined with white, working-class voters in trade-sensitive manufacturing areas. These were the places and types of people that Franklin D. Roosevelt attracted to the Democratic Party during the New Deal. They had begun flocking to the GOP before Trump came along, but with him as the face and the leader of the GOP, they shifted with much greater enthusiasm. Needless to say, ambivalence towards Hillary Clinton on the other side was a factor as well.
Education has become a key defining variable: The Republican Party has re-centered to those with less than a four-year college degree, and of course men, with ties to women and those with degrees loosening. This is what realignments look like. The gender gap that has been around at least since the days of Ronald Reagan is growing wider. Grievances among certain groups accumulated during eight years of President Obama, the rise of the tea-party movement being one obvious outward sign, then all exploded in 2016, with Trump lighting the fuse.
Any discussion of the voting patterns of these white, noncollege voters should note that this is a very big and broad group. It should be segmented into those who are and have long been conservative, middle-of-the-roaders, and finally those who are liberal and populist, who supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and are intrigued by Elizabeth Warren, with few sympathies for more-establishment Democratic figures. Noncollege whites are not a monolithic group. It is also important that those who are conservative, white, evangelical Christians—whether they are college-educated or not—are a very distinct and important voting bloc. At least for whites, the Democratic Party has become the secular party.
While many Democratic strategists accuse fellow party members of being bedwetters, overly fretting about what happened two years ago, some very smart Democrats who examine a lot of data and early-voting patterns privately say they are seeing some signs that more Republican/conservative-leaning white working-class voters are showing increased electoral interest that is reminiscent of 2016. Possibly they’ve been triggered by outrage over what they perceive to be unfair attacks on Brett Kavanaugh during the fight over his Supreme Court nomination or, more recently, the caravan of Central American immigrants working their way up through Mexico toward the U.S. border—something they interpret as a middle finger aimed at Trump and the United States. Notwithstanding how Trump’s moves on trade may ultimately affect them, they are all in with him and now with his team. In this sense, Democrats have a right to be concerned.
A danger in politics though is the practice of fighting the last war, perhaps missing out on what may be unique in an upcoming situation or a pending election. If 2016 was the election of the angry white men, 2018 could be, to borrow Cook Political Report House Editor David Wasserman’s phrase, the year of the “fired up, female college graduate,” particularly suburban and younger women who take a very dim view of our 45th president.
From the beginning it has been clear that women, specifically college-educated women, have driven much of this blue wave that so many are talking about. Interestingly, the delineation between college and noncollege white women is important; more working-class white women are behaving and voting much more like their male counterparts, while women with college degrees are trending far more towards Democrats and are much more anti-Trump. It is also worth noting that African-American women have long turned out in high numbers, and it is black men who do not vote in strong numbers.
To be honest, what we are seeing are a lot of signs that turnout is and will be up almost across the board, a modern midterm-election record. The thing that really drives surprise election outcomes is disproportionate turnout, when one or a few groups participate in unusually high or low numbers. There have been plenty of signs that women are unusually engaged this year. The question is whether turnout surges among other increasingly passionate groups might cancel out some of that gender gap, to Republicans’ benefit.