The 2018 midterm elections were a significant victory for the Democratic Party. Retaking the House blocks the Republicans from passing new laws and gives Democrats the ability to conduct real investigations into President Donald Trump’s multifarious scandals.
But while the immediate post-election battle may be in the House of Representatives, the midterms also revealed that the war for the soul of America is only just getting started.
The preliminary results reveal the divides that determined the 2016 election are intensifying and strengthening. Republicans did well with rural voters, white Southerner voters, and low-educated voters — while Democrats won among city-dwellers, minorities, and highly educated white suburbanites. The strength of these divides led to some consequential results, like Republicans’ sweeping victory in the Missouri Senate elections or the Democratic “biggest upset of the night” in an Oklahoma House race.
The results make clear that American politics is polarized not on the basis of class or even ideology, but on identity. The United States is currently split into two camps: One side open to mass immigration and changes to the country’s traditional racial hierarchy, the other is deeply hostile to it. Trump and congressional Republicans did their best to exploit these divides — remember the caravan? — and the best political science we have suggests that such divides exist between Americans who live in different places and socialize with different people.
This is a longstanding divide in America, one that accelerated under President Barack Obama. But President Donald Trumps’s 2016 campaign, the most racially divisive in modern history, escalated this into a kind of cold civil war. Trump’s victory was a kind of political Fort Sumter, a sign that a smaller and more racially conservative part of the country would not accept social change without a fight.
The midterm elections have revealed that this fight is here to stay, for at least as long as Trump is in the White House. We are locked in a kind of cold civil war.
The 2018 election: a country divided by education, race, and region
It’s always hard to come up with good data the day after an election. Thankfully, we have the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) — a sophisticated poll of more than 50,000 Americans conducted just before the election.
Brian Schaffner, a professor at Tufts who helps run the CCES project, started tweeting out some of the results on Tuesday night. Here’s one of his most striking charts, which broke down the white electorate in the House by gender, region, and education:
This one comes by request of @MattGrossmann. House vote by gender and education among white likely voters, broken out by region. #Midterms2018— Brian Schaffner (@b_schaffner) November 6, 2018
(And, yeah, I apparently take requests...) pic.twitter.com/AqkCdsyqKV
Three clear patterns emerge from this data. First, Democrats did better with white women than white men. Second, Democrats did significantly better with college-educated whites than non-college-educated whites. Third, the South is different: Republicans did far better with whites of all different sorts of backgrounds there than they did anywhere else in the country.
When you pile these patterns in the white vote on top of the now-familiar racial divides — CNN’s exit poll shows Democrats winning 90 percent of black voters, 69 percent of Latino voters, and 77 percent of Asian voters — you get a clear sense of what lead to last night’s results: Democrats winning big with minorities and educated whites.
But this isn’t just a race and educational divide — it’s also a regional one. Another Schaffner chart, on the suburbs, helped clarify how stark the regional differences are. The suburbs, home to many educated whites, are historically Republican bastions. But in 2018, suburban voters broke for Democrats — with the South, once again, the sole exception:
Democratic inroads in the suburbs were offset by huge Republican gains in rural areas. In 2012, Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill won rural Saline County by 22.5 points. In 2018, she lost it by 21.4 points — and lost her reelection bid due to similar rural swings around the state.
These results were mirrored around the country. In the Florida statewide races, Democrats overperformed their traditional margins in urban and suburban areas home to many educated whites and Latinos. But Republicans won enormous victories in Florida’s less educated, more culturally Southern rural areas, resulting in GOP victories in both races.
In Virginia’s 10th Congressional District, an increasingly suburban congressional district Democrats hadn’t won since 1981, challenger Jennifer Wexton beat incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock by a hefty 56-44 margin. In Oklahoma-5, which Republican Rep. Steve Russell won by more than 20 points in 2016, Democrat Kendra Horn eked out a surprise victory on the strength of her support in Oklahoma City.
What this suggests is the old “red state, blue state” model is outdated. America’s divides do not fall neatly along state lines, but rather within states and between locales and regions. City-dwellers, non-Southern educated whites, and minorities vote for Democrats in increasingly large numbers — while rural and less-educated whites around the country make up the new Republican base.
Why the 2018 midterms ended the way they did: race and identity
How do we make sense of these divides? To answer that question, I asked George Washington University political scientist John Sides, the author (along with UCLA’s Lynn Vavreck and UC Irvine’s Michael Tesler), of Identity Crisis — the best book, for my money, on the 2016 presidential election. Sides sees the demographic splits as representing, fundamentally, an extension of the battle over identity issues that defined the 2016 election.
“The factors that divided the electorate in 2016 are dividing them even further now,” Sides tells me. “One example is the education divide within whites, which appears as large if not larger among women ... another example is the rural-urban divide. All of those demographic characteristics are correlated with views of race and immigration.”
To understand why Sides sees last night as reflecting a divide on these issues, we need to go back in time to the beginning of the Obama presidency.
American politics before Obama was already quite racialized. The civil rights movement had a tectonic effect on the American political landscape, sorting black voters into the Democratic Party and pushing racially conservative white Southerners to defect to the GOP. Mass Hispanic immigration had a similar effect: Democrats friendliness to continued immigration, and growing GOP skepticism of the same, further polarized the electorate on racial lines.
Obama’s victory, the visible symbol of a changing America that no voter could ignore, took all of these latent divides and turbocharged them. The result, Sides et al. argue in Identity Crisis, was a collapse in Democratic support among white voters without college educations.
“Whites who did not attend college were evenly split between the two parties in Pew surveys conducted from 1992 to 2008,” they write. “But by 2015, white voters who had a high school degree or less were 24 percentage points more Republican than Democratic (57%-33%).”
This isn’t a class divide in the traditional sense; there are plenty of relatively high-income whites without college degrees (think of a successful, self-employed plumber). Rather, the “diploma gap” tracked measures of racism and racial resentment more than anything else. Democrats lost huge amounts of ground among non-college whites with conservative racial attitudes, while staying the same or even improving among those with more progressive views:
There’s similar evidence on the effect of immigration in recent years. In their book White Backlash, political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan Hajnal find that mass immigration and media attention to the alleged threats from it (like unauthorized immigrants committing crimes) has led to rising white sorting into the GOP.
“When media coverage of immigration uses the Latino threat narrative, the likelihood of whites identifying with the Democratic Party decreases and the probability of favoring Republicans increase,” Abrajano and Hajnal write. ”As immigration’s impact on the United States has grown, whites have fled to the Republican Party in ever-larger numbers.”
Donald Trump won the presidency by appealing, nakedly, to these divisions. His rhetoric on Mexican immigration, Muslims, and African Americans appealed to the kind of low-educated, rural white voters who had fled the Democratic party. While it turned off more educated voters who tend to have more racially progressive views, the effect wasn’t large enough for 2016 Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton in a few key areas.
The 2018 midterms represent an extension of this battle. Democrats campaigned on bread-and-butter issues like health care, while Trump’s outsized media presence and insistence on his issues — like the so-called migrant caravan — practically ensured that the debate would be a referendum on Trump’s brand of politics. The Trump strategy was to continue polarizing the electorate along identity lines, and to hope for a repeat of 2016.
This worked, to a degree. Republicans who ran Trump-like campaigns on identity issues, like Ron DeSantis in the Florida governor’s race, were rewarded by the rural and non-college white electorate. It also helped defend some Republican House seats in the South, where statistical studies suggest racial identity issues are particularly important for white voters.
But this time, the Democratic dominance among minority voters and gains among more educated whites more than offset the losses. Democrats even managed to claw back some of Trump’s gains in Midwestern states, like Wisconsin and Michigan, that were billed as the archetypal places for blue-collar Trumpism to succeed. The president’s identity politics helped him consolidate his base, but it also cost him a fair number of voters — enough to lose the House of Representatives.
“We’re seeing the emotionally charged politics of race and immigration emerge in lots of states and districts — even without Trump on the ballot,” Sides tells me.
A cold Civil War
The best way to think about this identity divide is a political conflict between two camps with fundamentally different visions for what the country is, with little room for compromise. It’s a kind of cold civil war, fought not with bullets but bitter and zero-sum political contests.
Increasingly, Republicans and Democrats see themselves as part of cultural groups that are fundamentally distinct: They consume different media and attend different churches; live in distinct kinds of places and rarely interact with people who disagree with them.
Being a “Republican” or a “Democrat” isn’t just a political affiliation; it’s a catch-all identity that stands in for all of these distinct identities, a master category defined by views on race and multiculturalism that has come to encompass all sorts of other groupings.
Political divides like these are powerful and self-reinforcing; people don’t tend to compromise when their fundamental identity appears to be on the ballot. Hence why it’s like a civil war: A struggle between two nations-within-a-nation without any room for obvious compromise.
“The more sorted we become, the more emotionally we react to normal political events,” the University of Maryland’s Lilliana Mason writes in her book Uncivil Agreement. “The angrier the electorate, the less capable we are of finding common ground on policies, or even of treating our opponents like human beings.”
Each side has some advantages in this war. The Democratic side is more numerous nationally and significantly younger; in theory, they could just wait for Republican voters to die out. But the non-representativeness of American institutions, particularly the Senate and Electoral College, favor Republicans. Blue California’s 40 million residents get as many senators as red Wyoming’s 580,000.
One side will need to beat the other. And while Republicans may have won the first battle by electing Trump, Democrats have won the next by taking back the House — and gaining the power to strike a serious blow to his presidency.