The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas

01/03/19 09:38AM EST


With the final results from the 2018 midterms tallied, it’s time to reflect on the winners and losers and what we learned about the state of American politics. The biggest winner may have been democracy: Galvanized by President Trump, voters of both parties turned up at the polls at the highest rates in over a century. While the blue tsunami some pundits predicted didn’t materialize, the Democrats performed well: They decisively flipped the House and picked up several governorships, even while Republicans grew their edge in the Senate. The race exposed an ever-widening ideological gap. Democrats are moving further left, while many of the Trump skeptics in the GOP have been replaced by loyalists—which raises the possibility of complete gridlock until at least 2020.

The biggest story of these midterms was the record-breaking turnout. Voter turnout was 42% in 2011; it was 37% in 2014. According to early estimates by the United States Elections Project, fully 49% of the voting-eligible population (VEP) cast a ballot in 2018—the highest midterm turnout since 1914. (The VEP is arguably a more meaningful gauge of civic participation than the raw voter turnout figure reported by Census, since it includes in the denominator only those who could vote.) It may also be the highest turnout jump in consecutive midterms in U.S. history.

The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas - chart2s

The rise in turnout was especially dramatic among young adults, who showed up in historic numbers. From 2014 to 2018, according to early estimates from CIRCLE, turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds soared 48%, from 21% to 31%. That’s the highest voting rate in this age bracket in any midterm since the post-Watergate dropoff in youth voting in 1974. We’ve long predicted that Millennials would turn out to be a civically engaged generation. They just needed the right impetus.

The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas - chart3s

The election results point to stark demographic differences in voting preferences, several of which have widened considerably over the past 20 years.

Let’s start with the age divide. Voters under 30 supported Democrats by a 2-to-1 margin (67% Democrats to 32% Republicans), compared to a slight GOP lean among the 45+. Gender was another dividing line: Women favored the Democratic candidate in their district by 19 percentage points (59% to 40%), while men favored the Republican candidate by 4 percentage points (51% to 47%). Preference for the Democratic candidate also rises dramatically with educational attainment. The biggest but least surprising gap was by race: Nonwhite voters went for Democrats by a margin of more than 3-to-1 (76% to 22%), while a slight majority of whites (54%) voted for Republicans. The smallest partisan split occurred by income: 59% of voters reporting under $50,000 in annual income voted for Democrats, versus 49% of those above the $50,000 threshold.

The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas - chart4s

The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas - chart5s

The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas - chart6s

Meanwhile, the same geographic divides that helped determine the 2016 election have only strengthened. The districts that the GOP won were ones that voted for Trump in 2016, rather than districts that historically belonged to the GOP. Republicans remained dominant in rural and small-town America, handily picking up new Senate seats in North Dakota, Missouri, and Indiana—which rank among the more rural states in America. Democrats, meanwhile, remained dominant in cities and strengthened their hold on the suburbs. In the 24% of all House seats that are pure urban (nearly all Democrat) or pure rural (nearly all GOP), there was almost no turnover. In the further 37% of all House seats that lean mostly urban or mostly rural, the Democrats picked up a net eight seats. But in the remaining suburban seats, most of which are affluent “purple” ZIP codes, the Democrats picked up a net 27 seats.

The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas - chart7s

So who won the 2018 midterms? The answer depends on how you interpret the results.

Democrats won the popular vote again, taking 53.4% of the House vote to the Republicans’ 44.8%. This 8.6% margin is much higher than the two-point margin the Democrats took in 2016. As a share of total seats, Democrats’ numerical advantage in the House went from 5% down (-23.5 seats) to 4% up (+16.5 seats). In the Senate, Republicans’ advantage grew from 1% to 3% (+2 seats). Generally speaking, the Republicans’ performance was in line with historical trends. Since 1946, the party of a sitting president with an approval rating below 50% has lost an average of 37 House seats in midterm elections. Republicans lost 40. What about the cost factor? This was by far the most expensive midterm race in history, with an estimated $5.2 billion spent. Maybe the Democrats want to rethink their position on campaign spending limits, because they ended up outspending the Republicans in both the Senate and (especially) the House.

The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas - chart8s

The 2018 Midterms: A Tale of Two Americas - chart9s

What’s in store for the 116th Congress? Continued dysfunction is a good bet. When Congressional leadership is split, the most common result is gridlock. The growing ideological rift between parties doesn’t bode well for cooperation on issues like the budget or tax policy. Nor do Democrats' plans to launch multiple investigations related to everything from immigration policy to nepotism to Trump’s tax returns. To be sure, a split Congress does present certain opportunities. Trump, who has often shown how willing he is to depart from GOP orthodoxy, could decide to triangulate. A Democratic-controlled House might enable him to display his inner populist and broker deals on issues like improving infrastructure, lowering drug prices, favoring school vouchers, or reforming criminal justice—rifle-shot actions that don’t offend the core policy commitments of either side.

For the Republicans, the next two years are mainly about defense. GOP leaders have little choice except to go with Trump in 2020 and defend their Trump-era accomplishments (on tax reform and regulation) and their future aspirations (say, on immigration). For the Democrats, the next two years are mainly about offense. All the initiative is on their side—too much initiative, perhaps, for them to handle. As the Democrats try to move beyond a mere anti-Trump agenda, they will have difficulty unifying a party that extends (in the Senate) from centrists like Joe Manchin and Amy Klobuchar to firebrands like Kamala Harris and Sherrod Brown. They may also struggle to bridge a vast age gap that extends (in the House) between senior members who attended JFK’s inauguration and newly elected members who cannot recall Monica Lewinski.

A lot of things could happen over the next two years to tip the scale in 2020. History suggests that the GOP would be most helped by a strengthening economy and (to a lesser extent) by significant geopolitical challenges. If the job and GDP and S&P numbers remain positive, no amount of scorched-earth rhetoric or anti-Trump subpoenas and investigations are likely to do the Democrats much good. But if a downturn hits and these numbers go deeply negative, new vistas may open up for the Democrats—and 2020 could become a date that the party of Franklin Roosevelt may recall fondly for generations.


Americans of all ages came out in record numbers to cast a ballot in the 2018 midterms. Exit polls display a widening ideological divide among the U.S. electorate. The resulting 116th Congress will be a split entity that may be destined for gridlock.

  • Democrats loosened (slightly) the GOP’s stranglehold on state governments. Thanks to huge wins in the two prior midterms, the GOP held 33 governorships and both legislative chambers in 32 states. Last month, the Democrats reduced the GOP governorship count to 27. Their gains in state legislatures were less impressive: Democrats’ seat share in statehouses grew by 4.6%, which is just under the historical average for the opposition party in midterm elections (5.0%). But by unifying control over the governor’s mansion and both state legislative chambers in six states, they raised the total number of states under full Democratic control to 15. (The GOP retains full control of 21.)
  • The 116th Congress reflects growing diversity gaps between Democratic and Republican representation. Only 9% of Republican members-elect (2 of 7 in the Senate, 2 of 37 in the House) are women. The total number of GOP women House members cratered, from 23 to 13. By contrast, 58% of Democratic members-elect (3 of 3 in the Senate, 35 of 63 in the House) are women. This election saw the biggest jump in the number of new women voted into the House since 1992—and all but two are Democrats. Only one of the 44 Republican members-elect is nonwhite. In comparison, one-third of the Democratic members-elect (22 of 66) are nonwhite.
  • The Democrats have drifted left on policy—but not on actual representation. In recent years, the Democratic agenda has moved steadily leftward. Once-fringe policies, such as single-payer health care, tuition-free college, or a jobs guarantee, entered the mainstream in 2016 with Bernie Sanders’s campaign and have been bolstered by progressive Millennial media stars like newly elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democrats are also increasingly hostile to big money, with candidates who used to cozy up to Wall Street interests now calling for tighter financial regulation. But not many leftist challengers have actually been elected. High-profile candidates like Florida’s Andrew Gillum and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, both of whom were endorsed by Sanders, lost.
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