The midterms have passed. Most races have been decided, and yet, none of this feels like the clear answer America wanted. Going in, we wondered if there would be a blue wave; if the attacked and forgotten people in Trump’s agenda would stand up and vote against him, if moderate Americans, our ever-disappearing center, would vote for a check on a president who has shown authoritative urges. Liberal pundits pointed to Trump’s approval ratings, which are some of the lowest ever for a president, and predicted that Democrats would do exceptionally well as a vote against the unpopular establishment. Others said that marquee candidates like Beto O’Rourke, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Andrew Gillum and Stacey Abrams would finally prove that progressive agendas and a rebuke of race-politics is the path forward for the Democratic Party.
The results ended up being a lot less clear. It looks like the Democrats will take 38 seats in the House and Republicans will take three seats in the Senate. Of those “marquee candidates,” it looks like half of them will end up losing. Kavanaugh, who the Democrats used as a rallying cry, certainly had an effect on midterms, but not in the way expected. In the five close Senate races in which Democrats were the incumbent, three out of four races where the Democrat voted against Kavanaugh went to Republicans, and the lone Democrat who voted for Kavanaugh, Joe Manchin, won in the pro-Trump state of West Virginia. What does all of this mean? The answer, which many seem to think they know, is unclear.
First, let’s start with what we do know. Democratic support was strong in this election. The generic house ballot—which functionally means nothing but can give a good window into voters’ support for the two parties—fell at about +7 for Democrats across the country. The Senate races, even though many did not go the Democrats’ way, were not crushing. The races included Democrats defending a seat they already held in 25 states, compared to only seven for Republicans. Further, of those 25 states, many were pro-Trump states, which makes winning an election as a Democrat very difficult. It is because of that reality that the results of the election should not be used to say that we overestimated the Blue Wave.
Minorities and young people did come out and vote, as predicted, and they did do so overwhelmingly for Democrats. It is instead the case that we underestimated the specific circumstances of these midterms, especially in the Senate. Also, we underestimated the firmness of Trump’s supporters and the complicated nature of moderate Americans. Turnout among Trump’s base remained strong, despite the prediction that their support would lessen once Trump was in the White House and the Republican candidate they would be supporting was not Trump himself. The challenge for Democrats going forward will be keeping voter turnout high and winning over more moderate white voters.
Long term, the bigger problem, more than a battle of energy between Trump’s base and the progressive base, seems to be white voters. A data point which explains this problem well is Texas, though its results are not atypical for the country as a whole. In a race where many liberals had faith that O’Rourke could win, the effects of demographics, even in an election between two white men, were clear. The Blue Wave’s biggest hope was that minorities would turn out and vote blue. In Texas and across the country, that was largely the case, as participation numbers were up and nearly three-fourths of non-white Texas voters cast their ballots for O’Rourke.
The next hope was that moderates would side with Democrats as a rebuke of the unpopular president. The results there were a bit less inspiring, but still two-thirds of people who identify as “moderate” supported O’Rourke. One issue was the virtual non-existence of the white conservative defecting and voting against Cruz, as the same number of liberals voted against Beto as conservatives voted against Cruz. The bigger issue, though, was the persistence of support among Cruz from white voters, as 71% of white men and 65% of white women voted for Cruz.
These results, which are not specific to Texas, but largely seemed to hold true across the country, mark a huge problem for Democrats who think they can turn moderates against Trump-like conservatives in the future. While our country is becoming increasingly diverse, the fact that the majority of white people, even white women, are voting strongly for Republicans, including those that are not moderate Republicans, is troubling.
The next thing we know is that there is clearly a strong opportunity for progressive policies to win. Exit polls showed that health care was the most important issue for voters and Democrats had a +24 margin of support in that category. The trend towards supporting more progressive health care systems was so pronounced that even Republicans were forced to move to the left on the issue. Trump repeatedly stated that Democrats were going to go after the current health care system, tweeting: “Republicans will totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not!.” While it is important to note that this claim is false, it should also be noted that this is a good sign for progressive candidates going forward. The electorate is very focused on health care and they support Democrats. Even Republicans who do win elections are representing people who overwhelmingly support more progressive health care policies than Republicans have historically campaigned on. Going forward, the challenge for Democrats will be their messaging on health care, because voters are largely uneducated on the specifics of health care policy.
As of now, nationwide single payer is not a very popular policy outside of more blue areas—and with Republicans increasingly saying that they will support people with pre-existing conditions—Democrats must be careful to establish themselves definitively to the left of the GOP while not letting voters get the impression that they are not socialists masquerading as Democrats, which is unpopular in more purple or red areas.