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The strange argument that Democrats actually lost the midterms, debunked

What centrists like Nick Kristof and Bret Stephens get wrong about the midterms.

Nancy Pelosi, the likely next Speaker of the House, finds this argument confusing.
Nancy Pelosi, the likely next speaker of the House, may find this argument confusing.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

You might think that Democrats winning the House in Tuesday’s midterm election, which gives them tremendous power to obstruct and investigate Donald Trump, should count as a major victory for the anti-Trump resistance.

But the emerging conventional wisdom among Beltway centrists is the opposite: that Democrats overreached, tacking too far to the left and ending up with a mediocre-at-best result.

“Don’t listen to Democrats who portray these midterms as an important triumph. In 2016 and again this year, liberals listened too much to one another and not enough to the country as a whole,” writes the New York Times’s Nick Kristof, a center-left columnist.

“The result of the midterms means, if nothing else, that the president survived his first major political test more than adequately,” Bret Stephens, Kristof’s fellow columnist on the center-right, wrote the day after Kristof. “Unless Democrats change, he should be seen as the odds-on favorite to win in 2020.”

These two columns, and several similar ones published in recent days, follow basically the same script. They argue that the most progressive parts of the Democratic Party are to blame for the party’s allegedly weak performance in the midterms. On this argument, Democrats would have won big if they hadn’t nominated progressives like Beto O’Rourke in Texas, or if they hadn’t gone all-in against Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

But that narrative rests on a faulty premise; Democrats actually did pretty well on Tuesday! Democrats are expected to have picked up — as of Friday morning — nearly 40 seats in the House. It is, as Cook Political Report analyst Dave Wasserman notes, the largest Democratic House wave since Watergate.

The Senate was a less happy story for Democrats, but that’s largely because they faced a historically unfavorable map. Pundits made the point that had Democrats not skewed so far left, incumbents in red states like Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota could have hung on. Yet Beto O’Rourke came closer than any Democrat to winning a Texas seat in decades, while Ohio labor populist Sherrod Brown handily won a state that grows redder by the cycle.

This doesn’t mean progressives uniformly did well. Indeed, their record was fairly disappointing. But moderates also had a mixed record: Jon Tester won in Montana as did Joe Manchin in West Virginia; but Claire McCaskill (Missouri), Joe Donnelly (Indiana), and Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota) all lost despite their centrist campaigns.

So, no, the Democrats shouldn’t heed the Kristofs and the Stephenses of the world. The true lesson of the 2018 midterm, instead, is that there isn’t a single ideological posture that Democrats can adopt and win with across the board. There is no neat moderate-versus-progressive takeaway here, despite pundits’ best efforts. It’s a messy, divided country, split along race, education, and geographic lines, and winning elections is more complicated than a simple matter of breaking with — or sticking to — Clinton-era Democratic Party orthodoxy.

Centrists are getting it wrong

Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke speaking into a hand-held microphone onstage.
Beto O’Rourke did shockingly well in Texas.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One of the most common arguments offered by the centrist camp is that Democrats should have won more House seats. The 29 seats that had flipped red-to-blue at the time of Kristof’s writing constituted not a blue wave, but a “blue ripple” (as he put it), a testament to the party’s underperformance and overreach.

On this point, I’d recommend a piece by Nate Cohn, the New York Times’s sharp election analyst. Cohn points out that Democrats faced huge structural barriers, including severe partisan gerrymandering and a heavily urban voter base, that makes winning the House an uphill climb. When you factor those in, Cohn writes, the Democratic victory looks on par with recent wave elections, and in some cases even more impressive:

Democrats are likely to win the national popular vote in this election by seven to eight points once late votes — which typically lean Democratic — are counted. That would be a slightly larger margin than Republicans achieved in 2010 or 1994. It would be about the same as the Democratic advantage in 2006. It would be, in a word, a wave.

Cohn’s not alone in his analysis, especially since the number of Democratic House victories have increased in recent days as votes continue to be counted. “[2018] was the biggest one-election House loss for Republicans since 1974, playing out on largely favorable maps, with the party presiding over full employment,” tweeted Dave Weigel, a Washington Post congressional correspondent.

The second common centrist argument is that Democrats performed badly at the statewide level, owing largely to progressive candidates in red and purple states.

“Of the three highest-profile Democratic candidates who were repositories of the party’s hopes — Beto O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum — not a single one won,” Kristof writes. “Yes, the margins were narrow. But while it’s fine to make excuses, it’s better to win elections.”

This argument hangs a lot on three data points — and ambiguous ones at that. Gillum is within Florida’s margin for a mandatory recount, and could still win. Abrams hasn’t conceded, arguing that outstanding votes could force a runoff election under Georgia law. In blood-red Texas, O’Rourke lost by a scant 2.6 percentage points, the best result for any Democratic Senate candidate in decades.

Meanwhile, Sen. Sherrod Brown, a labor populist from Ohio, won reelection by a comfortable 53-47 margin. If progressivism were such an albatross, Brown would have lost in a state that looks more and more Republican by the year. He didn’t.

And there’s a plausible case that conservative Democrats actually did worse than their progressive peers in red states.

Sens. Claire McCaskill (MS) and Joe Donnelly (IN), who both tacked to the Trumpian right on immigration during the 2018 campaign, lost by a six and 7.5 percentage point margin respectively. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota moderate who voted with Trump 54 percent of the time, lost by about 11 points. Sen. Joe Manchin held on in West Virginia, as did Jon Tester in Montana, but that doesn’t prove moderation is the key to victory any more than Brown’s victory proves the same about progressivism.

This mixed bag suggests that ideology simply wasn’t the decisive factor. The reason for the party’s net loss in the Senate isn’t that they tacked too far to the left: It’s that they were defending 26 seats to Republicans’ nine. At the state level, where the playing ground was more even, Democrats flipped seven governors’ mansions and gained over 300 seats in state legislative elections. These kinds of results, combined with retaking the House, are hardly what happens to a party that overreached ideologically.

The final centrist redoubt is that Democrats were punished for “resisting” Trump too much. Stephens points to Democrats’ nearly united front against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, in particular, as a key reason why they couldn’t win over moderate voters in 2018:

The Resistance didn’t convert...It didn’t convert when Chuck Schumer chose to make Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court the decisive political test of the year. It didn’t convert when it turned his initial confirmation hearing into a circus. It didn’t convert when media liberals repeatedly violated ordinary journalistic standards by reporting the uncorroborated accusations against Kavanaugh that followed Christine Blasey Ford’s.

The strongest argument in favor of this point is that red-state Democrats who voted against Kavanaugh all lost, while Manchin, who supported him, won. Thus, the logic goes, Democrats paid a price for Kavanaugh.

Maybe! But the Kavanaugh hearings may cut the other way too. Take a look at this chart from Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts University, analyzing a poll conducted just before the election. It shows that voters who scored low on measures of “hostile sexism” were much less likely to support GOP House candidates in 2018 than in 2016, whereas voters who scored highly on such a scale were no more supportive than they were last cycle:

Brian Schaffner/Data for Progress

This, Schaffner argues in a Data for Progress analysis, is partly an anti-Kavanaugh effect. Educated female voters in the suburbs, who played a major role in turning the House blue, reacted negatively to the hardline GOP defenses of the nominee against sexual assault allegations:

This is a pattern that helps to explain the dramatic increase in Democratic voting among college-educated women in 2018. It’s a natural reaction not only to how Republican lawmakers have increasingly embraced Trump’s sexist rhetoric since 2016 (most notably on display during the divisive debate over the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh), but also due to the successful mobilization of women’s rights groups during the past two years.

In short? The centrist arguments don’t really hold up under scrutiny. Democrats did exceptionally well in the House, did not lose the Senate due to ideological hubris, and did not suffer for fighting back too hard against President Trump — who remains exceptionally unpopular for a president presiding over a healthy economy.

Ideology can’t explain the election results

Now, the fact that centrists are getting things wrong shouldn’t be taken as a sign that progressive candidates did great.

My colleague Ella Nilsen put together a list of leading progressive candidates and how they did on election night; it’s not very impressive. Progressive House candidates in competitive districts like Leslie Cockburn (Virginia) and Scott Wallace (Pennsylvania) mostly lost. The ones who did win, like Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, were competing in deep blue territory.

Sean McElwee, one of the leading activists working to push the Democratic Party to the left, admitted in his election postmortem that things didn’t go as planned in tougher districts.

“We know that many of the insurgent Democrats that progressives were most thrilled about were not able to pull through,” McElwee writes. “What’s clear is that progressive insurgents had a mixed bag … in purple districts.”

This bodes poorly for the popular theory in some left quarters that Trump voters are angry about their personal economic situation, and ready to be won over by progressives touting Medicare-for-all and other redistributive policies. While those proposals may be good on the merits — I tend to think so, personally — they weren’t the electoral silver bullet in 2018 that their advocates hoped they would be.

The truth of the matter is that there is no neat ideological story to tell about the midterms, no obvious conclusion to be drawn about the future of the Democratic Party. Some progressives did well and others floundered; some moderates triumphed and others perished. Ideology, conceived of in terms of a basket of policies unified by an overarching view of government, did not seem to be a decisive factor one way or another.

Why the 2018 midterms ended the way they did: race and identity

What the midterm results do reveal is that the demographic 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 Josh Hawley’s defeat of Claire McCaskill 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.

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 identity 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 Rep. Steve King in Iowa and 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.

“The factors that divided the electorate in 2016 are dividing them even further now,” John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, told me on election night. “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.”

Some individual candidates defied the overall tend — Tester and Manchin, in particular, succeeded despite the shift towards identity politics rather than because of it — but, on the whole, this election was a story of candidates’ fates being set by demographics and identity.

The new divide has less to do with ideology as traditionally conceived, but rather over what Democrats and Republicans want the country to look like in the future. Is increasing diversity a good thing or a bad thing? Are movements like Black Lives Matter about helping minorities or hurting whites? Is immigration a threat to the American project, or the source of its strength?

These questions are increasingly bound up in other kinds of identities, like religion and urban-versus-rural, with partisan identity serving as a kind of cultural catchall. Specific policy stances are comparatively less important, electorally, than a candidate being seen as a part of Team Blue or Team Red.

The result is an electorate polarized into two camps, with very little room for compromise; a nigh-intractable electoral split that I’ve termed a cold civil war.

What this suggests, then, is that thinking about Trump-era elections as competitions between competing policy visions is a category error. Voters aren’t voting on the basis of thought-out views about the role of government; they’re voting on the basis of group identity and affiliation. If Democrats want to think about improving on their 2018 victories, they should spend their time pondering this new reality rather than reading centrist fanfiction.

Update: An earlier version of this piece said, based on initial reports, that Democrat Katie Porter had lost her race to unseat Rep. Mimi Walters (R-CA). The initial reports were inaccurate, and further vote counting has revealed that Porter won. This piece has been updated accordingly.

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