We’re 716 days from the next US election. So, naturally, it’s all American political pundits are thinking about.
Beyond the raw number of seats gained or lost in Congress, exit polls are a useful tool to understand the mood of American voters at the beginning of the two-year marathon to the presidential election.
The polls are a set of questions that a sample of American voters from across the country are asked as they leave the ballot box. They’re not compulsory and they’re not definitive.
But it’s a snapshot of the shape of the American electorate that can help us understand how the battlelines might be drawn ahead of 2020.
Women are the big story
They’re also the biggest headache for Donald Trump going forward into 2020.
Polling analyst at the Washington Post Emily Guskin said the most surprising thing about the midterms was how hard women broke in favour of Democrats — by 19 percentage points.
“Which is the largest margin that they’ve won by in any other midterm election over time. The last time women went to Democrats at nearly that rate was 1982,” Ms Guskin said.
Because women make up a larger share of eligible voters, they carry “disproportionate clout,” says Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Newhouse Professor of Civic Studies at Tufts University Brian Schaffner says in particular, college-educated white women swung heavily toward Democrats in 2018.
“They’ve been a pretty consistently Democratic supporting group over the past decades. College-educated white women were voting about 56 per cent for the Democratic candidate in every election from 2008 to 2016,” Dr Schaffner said.
“But then in 2018 they went 65 per cent for the Democratic candidate. So that was a significant boost.”
What’s behind the big shift?
There are plenty of factors. But the biggest? Donald Trump.
“Women in very substantial numbers, and especially women with a college education, they have been moving away, certainly from Donald Trump,” Ms Bowman said.
“I think it’d be premature to suggest they’re moving away from the Republican Party, but they certainly have moved away from Donald Trump.”
Dr Schaffner agrees:
“I think it absolutely is a sort of a reaction to President Trump and his frequent hostility towards women and remarks that he makes,” he says.
Now add the big cultural moments we’ve witnessed since 2016.
The Women’s March. The #metoo movement.
“The mobilisation that has happened with the #metoo movement and the Resistance [has] been overwhelmingly led by women, and especially college-educated women,” Dr Schaffner said.
It’s no surprise that as they’ve driven more women to the polls, a record number of women were voted into power at these midterms.
The kids have grown up. And they’re voting
As Ms Bowman puts it, “demography isn’t destiny.” But there is some value to looking at how young voters might shape the future of politics.
Like women, 18-to-39-year-olds showed up in greater numbers than they did in 2014, and the majority of them voted blue.
“Going back in our data to 2008, they had never voted more than 60 per cent for Democrats in house races,” Dr Schaffner said.
“This year we have them at 66 per cent going for Democrats. That’s also a significant spike in support.”
It’s impossible to point to a single reason why, but Dr Schaffner speculates that a desire for gun control—sparked by the Parkland High School Shooting—could have something to do with it.
Whether those same young voters will sustain enthusiasm for liberal causes as they age is far from certain. Certain life events—marriage, mortgages, child rearing — can shift a voter’s political beliefs.
Ms Bowman will be paying close attention to how race factors into the under-40 voting bloc.
“We’re seeing quite a stark white millennial vs minority millennial split, with minority millennials being much more Democratic,” she said.
With the US growing more diverse every day, that could be the key to predicting the political divides for the next decade, not just 2020.
Republicans have problems ahead in 2020
Yes, two years is a long time in politics. And an eternity in Donald Trump’s America.
“The big story I think overall is that Republicans have some significant weaknesses with groups that are growing,” Ms Bowman said.
Those groups, according to Ms Bowman, are:
- Millennials (now the “largest working generation in the US”)
- Minority voters (in particular the Asian vote which “looks very Democratic”)
It’s not all bad news though. Ms Bowman said Republicans found success in some states among Hispanic voters, and young African-Americans are slightly more independent than their parents, who are traditionally overwhelmingly Democratic.
“They’re going to have to do better with [Hispanic voters] in the future if they want to be successful,” Ms Bowman said.
And you don’t need to look at exit polls very hard to find another major driving force in American politics in 2018 — partisanship.
“I can barely see an issue where partisanship isn’t playing a major role,” Ms Bowman said.
Those who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 didn’t budge in 2018. More than 90 per cent of Americans who voted for Trump at the 2016 presidential election voted for Republicans at these midterms.
“The country remains horribly split as [Trump’s] deeper red and rural support consolidates.”
For Democrats, the message is clear. Run 2020 like 2018
Which means ignoring President Trump’s rhetoric (and tweets).
“If they’ve learned the right lessons from this election it would be, focus on the issues and let Trump implode on his own,” Dr Schaffner said.
Healthcare was the issue Democratic candidates spoke about over and over at the midterms.
It worked, with a majority of voters (41 per cent) identifying it as the top issue facing the country in exit polls.
Crucially, Dr Schaffer said the healthcare issue cut through to midwestern voters who delivered Donald Trump his electoral college victory in 2016.
“Non-college educated whites who went for Trump, a lot of them didn’t like the fact Republicans are trying to take away their healthcare in this previous congress,” he said.
“[Those voters] who flipped from Obama to Trump, I think Democrats might have won back with that message.”
So will the gains Democrats made in 2018 be enough to claim the White House in 2020? Or will Donald Trump win a second term thanks to a similar Electoral College map that gave him victory in 2016?
We’ve only got to wait 716 days to find out.