It’s clear there were many story lines and factors at play in the 2018 midterm elections. November’s election gave Democrats their largest gains in the House of Representatives in a generation, as they picked up 40 seats. What’s more, the next Congress features the largest-ever class of women legislators.
As pollsters, Ipsos is not only analyzing the lessons to learn about voters, but how they can apply them in 2020. There are two main trends from 2018’s near-record vote that will be important to monitor: President Trump as the motivation for voters, and white, college-educated women as a key population within the electorate. The confluence of these two factors will be a central development to watch in 2020, to understand the chances of Trump’s reelection or whether the partisan winds will shift yet again.
The Trump factor
President Trump and his view of what America should stand for, loomed over everything this cycle. On social media, President Trump was the leading topic of political discussions. He also pushed the main issue for Republicans, immigration, using rhetoric about a “migrant caravan” marching toward the U.S. to mobilize his base.
On the Democratic side, the anger and outrage toward Trump was palpable, and a clear driving force for their vote. Leading up to the election, Ipsos/Reuters polling examined which emotions drove Americans’ sentiments toward the president, the election, and the current state of the country. Democrats felt a particularly deep sense of rage, with 7 in 10 feeling extremely angry toward President Trump.
Anger is not new to the American electorate, says Chris Jackson, director of Ipsos’ public polling practice. “In many ways, what we saw in 2018 was the inverse of Republican anger in 2010, when they made substantial gains in the first midterm after President Obama was elected,” he says. “What did feel different this time, however, was the level of pervasiveness of these negative emotions. Anger is the driving force of every single main issue in this country now, from Democrats’ anger about the border wall and family separation to Republicans’ unhappiness with threats of impeachment. It is unlikely that it will dissipate any time soon.”
White, college-educated women
On Election Day, Democrats made gains with all demographic groups, compared to 2016. “While women of color turned out in larger numbers, helping nearly flip the Georgia governor’s seat, they remained consistent in voting blue. However, white, college-educated, often suburban women, whose votes tend to swing from election to election were at the root of many of the midterm pickups. They headed to the polls on the issues of healthcare, the desire to see more women in politics, and as a reaction to Trump. In a recent post-election poll, nearly 7 in 10 women voters from across the country said President Trump factored into their vote.
The voting behavior of white women remains one of the key components to understanding electoral trends: they are the median group swinging back and forth between parties, symbolizing the direction of the electorate writ large.
However, the schism between groups of white women is only widening. Take white, college women, for example. In 2016, they were evenly split in their support for Republicans and Democrats, according to CNN national exit polls. This time around? A 20-point Democratic advantage, per 2018 CNN exit polls.
On the other hand, white, non-college women favored Republicans in this election by 14 percentage points, showing a 34 percentage-point difference between the two groups. This partisan difference between white college women and white non-college women is wider than it was in 2016.
Where do we go from here?
Looking at these two major factors is just the beginning. Though speculation of 2020 presidential candidates is already widespread, what’s mentioned less is that 40 brand new Democratic members of Congress will need to defend their seats in fewer than two years. Can Republicans break through with white, college-educated women to be successful?
Will Democrats’ animosity toward President Trump drive continued engagement, even amidst a crowded presidential primary? What impact will a potential recession, a divided Congress, an ongoing investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and myriad other still-unknown factors have?
Pollsters don’t have a crystal ball. What they can do is account for changing demographic trends in this country and continue to monitor the growing divides and discontent among the American public. In doing so, they may be able to shed light on the changing electoral landscape, with women at the epicenter.