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2018 is the identity politics election

A slate of historically diverse candidates vs. fear-based white identity politics defines the midterms.

Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

Democrats, like it or not, are running on identity politics in the 2018 midterms. Come to think of it, so are Republicans.

After a divisive 2016 Democratic primary, the party fiercely debated whether to emphasize issues important to people of color or whether to focus on progressive economic policies. The party is still figuring out how far left to take its economic agenda, but Democrats have become united on the question of diversity.

More Democratic women have been nominated in 2018 than ever before. The party is also embracing young and progressive emerging stars like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and Andrew Gillum in Florida, who back progressive policies such as Medicare-for-all. Democrats have nominated candidates likely to become the first Muslim women and the first Native American woman in Congress. They also count among their ranks some more long-shot candidates who are historic firsts in their own right: The first transgender woman nominee for governor is a Democrat in Vermont.

Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) is poised to be the first Native American woman to serve in Congress.
Juan Labreche/AP

As the Washington Post recently reported, “Democrats have set or essentially matched records for the number of female, black and LGBT nominees.” Meanwhile, “Republicans’ diversity statistics have either remained static or declined in each category, leading to a heavily white, male slate of nominees.” Republicans seem to be retrenching in the white-identity politics that favored Donald Trump. Their candidates continue to be older, whiter and more often male.

Perhaps inevitably, these differences are reflected in the policies each party pushes: While Democrats are leaning into energy and enthusiasm to motivate voters, Republicans are betting on fear and aversion to change. They are running campaign ads that look more like horror movies, with dangerous (often brown) criminals as the villains. In the campaign’s final days, Trump is relentlessly sounding the alarm about a migrant caravan, with his fellow conservatives warning of disease and violence if these people seeking asylum cross the US-Mexico border.

Insofar as “identity politics” means a focus on a party’s demographic characteristics rather than its ideology, 2018 should be thought of as an identity politics election.

Each side has its reasons. The so-called resistance is made up of women and people of color, who are particularly displeased with the Trump administration. Democrats clearly want to tap into that backlash. Older voters, meanwhile, remain the most reliable Republican voters — especially in the Trump era. The GOP needs them to stave off a blue wave.

A Democratic supporter stands with an inflatable chicken mocking President Trump outside a rally supporting Virginia Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ed Gillespie on the eve of state elections in Fairfax, Virginia on November 6, 2017.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

2018 Democrats are young, progressive, and diverse

It’s not an accident that Ocasio-Cortez has emerged as the face of the new Democratic Party in 2018: She’s a 28-year-old Hispanic woman and identifies as a democratic socialist. She memorably introduced herself to voters with a viral video focused on her unique biography.

Democrats are nominating younger, more diverse candidates, and their voters are pushing the party to the left; that might explain why Ocasio-Cortez has so quickly become one of the party’s standard-bearers in the national press and why, though she is facing an unusual amount of scrutiny, party leaders have been careful to extend a welcome to her.

Nancy Pelosi, in a call to Ocasio-Cortez after she defeated establishment leader Joe Crowley, said, “Thank you for your courage to run. This is not for the faint of heart.”

The energy that typified Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of a longtime Democratic political boss caught on in races across the country. Beto O’Rourke, facing Ted Cruz in the Texas Senate race, has been buoyed by record amounts of small-dollar fundraising. Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, beat out candidates with better name recognition and more money through the enthusiasm of black voters and his association with Bernie Sanders’s progressive agenda.

Residents of The Bronx arrive for a town hall event for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, on September 19, 2018. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Those races are also distinct from Ocasio-Cortez’s in an important way. While she was more or less guaranteed a seat in Congress for her Bronx district after the primary, O’Rourke and Gillum are being asked to defeat seasoned and well-funded Republicans. Democrats are betting on youth, energy, and diversity in critical swing elections. They also nominated women in the Arizona (Kyrsten Sinema) and Nevada (Jacky Rosen) Senate campaigns. Progressive Kara Eastman beat a (white, older) quasi-incumbent man, ex-Rep. Brad Ashford, to represent Democrats in a crucial House district in Omaha, Nebraska.

As those examples show, diverse and female candidates are having particular success running on progressive agendas. White men running on the same platform haven’t always had as much luck, like when primary challenger Matt Brown lost easily to Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a centrist fiscal reformer — and the first woman to be elected governor in the state. In other cases, like Ayanna Pressley’s upset of Rep. Michael Capuano, ideology did not seem to have much to do with it: Capuano had been a strong liberal, but Pressley still beat him and she’s set to become the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.

One chart sums it up: While the number of Republican women running for Congress is effectively flat, there has been a dramatic surge in Democratic women candidates. As Vox’s Tara Golshan reported, the number of House Republican women could actually shrink after the midterms due to women like Rep. Marsha Blackburn leaving to run for Senate.

It is no coincidence that the groups most opposed to Trump and whose votes could swing the 2018 elections are women. The gender gap persists across all age groups, but young women in particular would be critical to any blue wave this year.

Christina Animashaun/Vox

The more progressive policy platforms also reflect where the Democratic base is heading: More than half of Democratic voters support single-payer health care, and a record number of candidates are running on Medicare-for-all. A plurality of Democrats have even said they support abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. So it’s no wonder Democratic candidates are more unabashedly left than they’ve been in decades.

Sure, there is still disagreement about what Medicare-for-all really means. But as Harvard pollster Robert Blendon once told me, “when you say, ‘I’m for that,’ it says that ‘I’m for equity.’ It says, ‘I’m gonna fight back against the corporate establishment.”

“It’s symbolic of these other things which appeal to young liberal people,” he said.

There is a risk to the Democratic strategy. Younger voters have notoriously failed to show up in midterms past. Older, whiter voters are the most dedicated voters, and they may be triggered by Democrats’ embrace of diversity and a more leftist ideology. But the bet the party is making is clear.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and congressional Democratic candidate Ayanna Pressley at a rally in Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 9, 2018.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

2018 Republicans are older, angrier, and whiter

Republicans are making a different bet, but one that seemed inevitable in the era of Trump. With few legislative accomplishments that resonate with voters, and an unpopular president in the White House driving away independents, Republicans are pushing all their chips into a culture war campaign that preys on fears of brown people and violent imagery and exploits their base’s unreserved patriotism.

We’ve seen countless examples already, but recent strategic ploys in Texas and Wisconsin make the playbook transparent. Cruz and Gov. Scott Walker find themselves in tougher reelection races than they anticipated, with Cruz facing the personification of the energized Democrat in O’Rourke.

Their plan to turn it around? Campaign with Vietnam War veterans who chastise NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence.

Stand for the Anthem

Why do I stand? I stand for the veterans like Tim Lee who lost both his legs fighting in South Vietnam. SHARE if you're proud to stand, too!

Posted by Ted Cruz on Monday, August 27, 2018

As a new Quinnipiac University poll reminded us, the American public broadly supports athletes’ right to protest (67 percent approval to 30 percent disapproval) with the exception of one group: Republicans oppose the protests 60 percent to 39 percent. Taking a cue from President Trump, Cruz and Walker are playing explicitly to the base with the national anthem issue.

This isn’t a coincidence. Trump’s supporters are overwhelmingly white. They’re more likely to be men, they’re less educated, and they tend to live among other white people.

Chart of gap among validated voters in 2016 elections Javier Zarracina/Vox

Now, across the country in 2018 campaigns, those Republican voters are being targeted by mini horror movies that prey on fears of the other and the unknown. It comes from the top. This Trump 2020 campaign ad defines the party’s 2018 message.

As the ad stamps “PURE EVIL” on the face of a convicted murderer who entered the United States illegally, the creepy music kicks in. Trump is amplifying the same message in the last week before Election Day, floating the idea of ending birthright citizenship and tweeting out videos linking violent criminals with Central American people streaming across the border.

In the recent Ohio special election, Republican Troy Balderson’s campaign ran a TV spot that called Democrat Danny O’Connor “dangerous” three times in half a minute. It was yet another case of the GOP choosing culture wars over their substantive agenda in a close campaign, as Golshan reported. For Balderson, it worked, even if unimpressively; he won by a single point, even though his predecessor won by 30.

Republican congressional candidate Troy Balderson speaks next to President Trump during a rally in Lewis Center, Ohio, on August 4, 2018.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

This isn’t just for the culture warriors, either; it is more or less the standard Republican playbook at this point. Rep. Barbara Comstock — a Virginia Republican, a relative moderate representing an affluent suburban district — recently sent the Washington Post a list of MS-13 victims who had been “beaten, stabbed and shot to death.”

The scare tactics might explain why Republican voters are far more preoccupied with security when they head to the polling booth compared to independents and Democrats. Their candidates want them very, very afraid.

Chart of top policy issues among all voters in 2018 midterm elections Javier Zarracina/Vox

2018 is a trial run for the future

For as much as Republicans decry identity politics, preying on white fears about changing demographics and brown criminals is just another form of it. Republicans don’t have much to offer their voters except corporate tax cuts and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, so they’re stirring up white fright. Cruz’s campaign is trying to paint O’Rourke as a young punk beholden to Hollywood liberals. Gillum has faced something more sinister, multiple racist robocalls of neo-Nazi origins.

2018 is happening in the shadow of 2020, of course, when Donald Trump will be back on the ballot and Democrats will have another chance to defeat him after they’ve spent the past four years painting the president as an existential threat.

A promising showing in 2018 for these young, diverse candidates — carried into office thanks to young, diverse voters — would bode well for Democrats in 2020. They can build on that momentum to craft a winning coalition to win the White House. Republicans would, meanwhile, need to evaluate whether running back to the Trump playbook is palatable one more time or whether it would risk electoral disaster.

On the other hand, meager Democratic victories in 2018 would leave the party with uncomfortably few answers about how to win elections in the Trump era — and lend the Republicans confidence that they can keep winning on white fear, at least for the short term.

The midterms represent two very different bets about what kind of identity politics can win an election in America in 2018. Democrats are putting faith in a diverse, progressive future. Republicans see a much darker underbelly in the American electorate, and they are hoping to exploit it for another unexpectedly triumphant Election Day.

A billboard of a tweet by President Trump criticizing Sen. Ted Cruz stands outside a rally for Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) in Dallas on September 14, 2018.
Laura Buckman/AFP/Getty Images

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