What Each Side Won Yesterday

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Soon-to-be House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi smiles as she is cheered by a crowd of Democratic supporters during an Election Night returns event in Washington. 

The clearest takeaway from yesterday’s election is that we’re essentially indistinguishable from Poland. 

Poland, it turns out, just held elections for municipal and provincial governments. In full revolt against the country’s xenophobic and semi-authoritarian Law and Justice Party, which controls the national government and has sought to abolish the country’s independent judiciary, the more liberal and cosmopolitan opposition parties won 103 of the nation’s 107 mayoral races over the past week. On the other hand, Law and Justice won pluralities in nine of the 16 provincial legislatures, and outright majorities in six of them.

Which is to say, Poland’s Trumpies got clobbered in the burgs, but turned out enough votes in the sticks to do well at the regional level.

Sound familiar? Here in the states, there wasn’t a major metropolitan area last night that Democratic statewide candidates—both the winners and the losers—failed to carry, and they did well in the suburbs surrounding those cities, too. But President Trump retained his ability—with the assistance of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk—to gin up turnout in the hinterlands. Those two surges explain why and how the Democrats took the House last night, while the Republicans expanded their margin in the Senate. 

In the network exit polls, Democrats carried the urban vote by a 65 percent to 32 percent margin and the split the suburban vote with Republicans at 49 percent each. They lost the rural vote 42 percent to 56 percent. Add all that together and the Democrats still won a clear majority of the 2018 votes for the House, but cities aren’t distributed evenly over the national landscape. South Dakota (which was a Republican Senate pickup) and Montana (which may well be a Republican Senate pickup) have no major cities whatever, and in Missouri (another Republican Senate pickup), St. Louis has been downsizing for decades. 

The Senate, that is, is our primordial gerrymander, where seats are apportioned with no regard whatever for the principle of one-person-one-vote. Like the 2016 election, yesterday’s offers a clear lesson in how Democrats can win a popular vote majority and still lose lots of states.

Democrats can look at the election results and feel good that they are expanding their electorate, claiming a higher share of college-educated white women (59 percent), voters under 30 (67 percent) and minority voters as well. The Republican electorate isn’t expanding categorically (getting a group to switch allegiances) or chronologically (they carried voters 45 and older by one point, 50 percent to 49 percent, while losing voters under 45 by a 36 percent to 64 percent margin), but the Trumpified Republicans have managed to get high levels of turnout from older, disproportionately rural white voters by stoking their fears of immigrants and their resentments at more diverse and liberal America that appears to be passing them by.

On economic issues, even conservative voters in the most Republican states are relatively progressive. Voters in Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah passed ballot measures yesterday that expanded Medicaid eligibility, while voters in Arkansas and Missouri passed measures raising their state minimum wage. But a critical mass of those voters also voted for right-wing Republicans, because however much they may support rudimentary forms of economic populism, it isn’t a defining issue for them. Affirming their more traditional culture (which in many cases, of course, is a euphemism for racism, sexism, and Lord knows what else) is the determining factor in their choice of candidates.

In a sense, the central messages of both parties worked yesterday. In the exit polls, 41 percent of Americans said that health care was the issue that mattered to them most, and they gave 75 percent of their votes to the Democrats. The issue that came in second on the question of what issue mattered to them most was immigration: 23 percent said that was their main issue, and they gave 75 percent of their vote to the Republicans. That this helped swing elections to the Republicans in states with virtually no immigrants, such as South Dakota, is a tribute to Trump’s ability to depict a distant-to-nonexistent threat as an existential menace. 

A few regional comments: Almost immediately after the Democratic debacle of 2016, a few farsighted Democratic strategists zeroed in on the importance of winning Midwestern governors’ races in 2018, so that they could check Republican congressional gerrymandering in those states following the 2020 census. (SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Gerry Hudson might have been the first field general to seize upon this goal, and SEIU played a key role throughout the Midwest yesterday). The Democratic pick-ups of governors’ offices in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin were clear vindications of the wisdom of those efforts. Ohio, on the other hand, appears to be trending Republican, and while Sherrod Brown, who was re-elected to the Senate yesterday, bucked that trend, his 53 percent of the vote was a good deal less than pre-election polling had predicted. Of the states of the industrial (or once-industrial) Midwest, Ohio has the highest share of non-college-educated whites, which may post an insuperable hurdle for Democratic hopes to carry the state in 2020.

The Deep South proved still too Deep South yesterday to make history by electing African American governors. Florida remains a Democratic conundrum. While the media picked up on the post-hurricane migration of Puerto Ricans to the increasingly diverse state, it’s easy to forget that Florida is also a state that has a steady increase in elderly whites moving there from colder climates. More than any other state with the possible exception of Arizona, Florida is home to steadily growing Democratic and Republican electorates. 

Moving out West, Nevada, as usual, ran about five points more Democratic than the pre-election polls indicated. What Nevada polls have continually failed to register is the mobilization capacity of the nation’s most effective local union, Culinary Workers Local 226—the Las Vegas hotel workers unions, 57,000 strong. There’s simply no American organization better able to turn out voters, nor, for that matter, any American union that’s won better contracts for service-sector workers. Had there been comparable unions in swing states the Democrats lost yesterday, the electoral outcomes may well have been different (which, of course, is the main reason Republicans are driven to stamp out unions). 

As usual, my home state, California, isn’t likely to finish counting votes until most other states are covered in snow. Looking at the fragmentary numbers we have before us, I suspect the Democrats will pick up four House seats there, with an outside shot at picking up six. Orange County is turning blue, but the Republicans may be able to hang onto two of its congressional districts.

The electoral realignment we’re experiencing isn’t peculiar to the United States. Like Europe’s social democratic parties, the Democrats have lost most of the white working class to nativist demagogues, but like Europe’s green parties (at least in Germany), they’ve expanded their reach among the college educated and the young. The continual decline of blue-collar unions is a key factor in the movement of working-class whites to the Republicans, while the surge of unions among young professionals reflects that group’s continued movement into the Democratic column.

“All right, then, we are two nations,” John Dos Passos wrote in his U.S.A. trilogy. As yesterday’s election made clear, the rifts between those two nations—urban and rural, young and old, female and male, diverse and monochromatic—grow steadily more pronounced. As they do in Poland, Germany, Britain, France, Scandinavia—all houses divided, uncertain how or whether they’ll stand. 

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