Who Will Decide the Midterm Elections?

15 May, 2018


Who Will Decide the Midterm Elections?

May 2018

In the fall of 2016, when most other pundits were confidently predicting a clear victory for Hillary Clinton, one analyst offered an alternative scenario.

Not a prediction, he readily admitted, but a possibility: There was “an unusually high chance,” David Wasserman wrote, that Donald Trump could win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote — basically, Democrats’ version of the apocalypse.”

Several of Trump’s “worst demographic groups happen to be concentrated in states, such as California, New York, Texas and Utah, that are either not competitive or aren’t on Trump’s must-win list,” Wasserman wrote. “Conversely, whites without a college degree — one of Trump’s strongest groups — represent a huge bloc in three blue states he would need to turn red to have the best chance of winning 270 electoral votes: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.”

On the strength of that assessment alone, Wasserman, who covers House elections for The Cook Political Report, established himself as an analyst of rare gifts. And, as he trains his sights on the upcoming midterms, Wasserman continues to cultivate his sources.  A few weeks back, he was handicapping the November races with an incumbent Republican who represents a congressional district that voted for Clinton in 2016.

The unnamed Republican saw it this way: forty percent of his constituents hate Donald Trump, and 40 percent love Donald Trump. “And then there are 20 percent who are ‘normal people,’” the congressman said, “and these normal people will decide the election.”

As tempting as it might be to view the midterms that way, Wasserman knows that our elections do not lend themselves to such tidy mapping. A speaker at the Council’s Spring Executive Board meeting in mid-April, he has “knowledge of the nooks and crannies of political geography [that] can make him seem like a local,” says FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver.

A member of NBC News’ Election Night Decision Desk since 2008, the “scrupulously nonpartisan” Wasserman is hedging his bets this time, though he will say this with confidence: In the Senate, “the battlegrounds are in red rural areas where the Democrats are on the defensive.” In the House, “the swing districts are in suburbs where the Republicans are on the defensive.” In Senate races, Wasserman gives “a slight edge” to the GOP. But in the House, where some 30 Republicans have announced their retirements and suburban voters are more important, the edge goes to the Democrats.

Two Groups to Watch

Two groups in particular bear watching.

First are the “Angry Female College Graduates,” a demographic he began to look at this past fall, but with a difference. Back then, there was no gender component. Today, perhaps in understandable response to months of me-too movement outrage, college-educated women are especially motivated.

They tend to be Democrats, Wasserman says, and many Trump voters don’t seem likely to vote in mid-term elections when Trump himself isn’t on the ballot. Also, Trump voters “feel no allegiance to GOP leaders in Congress like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, or to the Republican Party itself.”

By the same token, many of the Democrats running for Congress are 45 years or younger “and feel no loyalty to the Democratic leadership in Washington.” This is not good news for Nancy Pelosi or other Democratic leaders, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who will all be in their 70s in November.

The second group to keep your eye on is composed of what Wasserman calls “Roseanne Democrats.” Unlike the first group, these are voters that do not have college educations. Their loyalty to the Democratic Party is as shaky as that of Trump voters to the GOP. Roseanne Democrats, who are usually white, tend to identify with the Democratic Party because, for decades, it was seen as the party of the working class.” They are put off by the Republican Party, which they see as “Bible thumpers who want to impose their morality on everybody else.”

David Wasserman, speaking at the Council’s Spring Executive Meeting

Pocketbook Issues

Roseanne Democrats “don’t care about sex scandals,” Wasserman says. “These voters supported Bill Clinton in spite of his scandals, and they voted for Trump with no illusions about the propriety of his personal life. They vote on pocketbook issues. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the party leadership doesn’t seem to pay attention to them, and they will be the swing voters of 2018.”

Don’t look for a more temperate, civil debate in the months to come — not on the campaign trail or once a new Congress is seated. Polarization will persist, though not necessarily for the same reasons many political observers and informed citizens assume.

While gerrymandering is a concern, Wasserman sees a more significant factor driving this discord. “While it is true that the number of competitive districts is in decline, the decline is not chiefly the result of gerrymandering,” he says. “Studies show that this shift is really the result of our own choices about where we live. We live in self-selected neighborhoods where, politically, people think alike, which means the districts are dominated by one or the other political party.”

Gerrymandering is not unimportant, but “the self-sorting that results in uncompetitive districts is a bigger factor. Gerrymandering only compounds the problem.” That means, of course, that there will be surprises in store in November, but an end to polarization is not likely to be one of them.

Follow David on Twitter @Redistrict

Want More Information on This Topic?

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Additional Resources

Is All Politics Still Local? Nathan Gonzales Answers

Do Pollsters Ask the Right Questions?