In next week’s midterm elections, President Donald Trump is poised to put his stamp on each party’s demographic and geographic base of support as surely as he formerly fastened it to one of his hotels.
A CNN analysis of the demography of the most competitive districts in the House of Representatives, almost all of which are now held by Republicans, shows that the outcome in 2018 appears poised to reinforce the divides familiar from Trump’s election in 2016.
Democrats’ top opportunities to capture Republican-held seats are concentrated in well-educated, higher-income and preponderantly white districts. Most of these seats are centered on economically thriving suburbs around major metropolitan areas where Trump faces widespread resistance among white-collar voters, especially women, on cultural and personal grounds.
With only a few exceptions, Democrats face more uncertain prospects in Republican-held House seats centered on the blue-collar, exurban and rural communities where Trump remains popular, the analysis found. Of the 43 Republican-held seats that CNN considers leaning toward the Democrats or toss-ups, only nine are in districts where the white population exceeds the national average and the share of residents with college degrees lags the national average.
This stark divergence carries several clear implications, both for election night and beyond.
The trench dividing America
Most immediately, it means that Democrats, while still favored by most analysts to win control of the House, are operating with relatively little room for error because they are trying to gain the 23 seats they need predominantly on one part of the playing field: well-educated suburban seats. Even if they do reach a majority next week, its likely the Democratic hold on the House will be precarious and very slim unless they can also capture a respectable number of the small-town and blue-collar seats now considered toss-ups.
The longer-term implication is that this election now seems highly likely to widen the trench between a Democratic Party that increasingly controls the major metropolitan areas largely skeptical of Trump and a GOP whose dominance is barely dented in the rural and exurban areas where he remains strong.
Already, the CNN analysis shows, about two-thirds of House Republicans represent districts where the education level lags the national average and nearly three-fifths hold seats where the median income is lower as well. By contrast, about 53% of Democrats hold seats where the education level and median income exceed the national average. If Democratic gains next month are concentrated mostly in white-collar seats, the Republican caucus will tilt ever further toward lower-education and modest-income seats while the Democrats will bend further toward the opposite – expanding the distance between the two sides and making compromise between them even more difficult.
That geographic divergence represents the stark separation in demographic responses to Trump’s tumultuous presidency, with minorities, millennials and college-educated whites, especially women, recoiling from him in large numbers and blue-collar, older and evangelical whites providing him robust, even record, levels of support.
Not a wave, a realignment
In an NPR/Marist Poll released late last week, for instance, Democrats led on the “generic” ballot for Congress by 76 percentage points among African-Americans, 42 among Latinos, 35 among 18- to 29-year-olds and 9 among whites holding at least four-year college degrees. Republicans led by 56 percentage points among white evangelical Christians, 28 among rural residents and 21 among whites with less than four-year college degrees. College-educated white women preferred Democrats by 18 percentage points; non-college white men backed Republicans by 33 points.
“It’s part of the sorting of the parties more by demographic characteristics, education being a very important one,” says Gary C. Jacobson, a professor of political science emeritus at the University of California at San Diego who specializes in Congress. “The whole story of this election is Trump and how he affects voters. He clearly has driven away educated voters, especially educated women, with his style. Rural people, blue-collar people, don’t mind it so much. They cut him some slack because they think he is on their side.”
Similarly, longtime Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg argues that those debating whether this election will produce a Democratic “wave” are analyzing it through the wrong lens. It’s more likely, he says, that this election, punctuated by unusually high turnout, produces a realignment in which the groups alienated from Trump – led by college white women, minorities and millennials – consolidate around Democrats just as the groups that favor him, such as blue-collar and evangelical whites, consolidated behind Trump in 2016.
“I think he got his realignment … but now we are seeing the reaction to that,” Greenberg said.
To analyze the House battlefield CNN senior political producer Aaron Kessler used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey five-year average to create a demographic profile of each House district. Each district was measured on whether it ranked above or below the national average across a series of key characteristics, including education and income levels, the share of the population that is nonwhite and the median age.
Then we compared those results with the latest CNN ranking of the 96 House districts considered most likely to switch parties (that includes 95 seats described as toss-up, lean or likely toward either party, and one Republican-held seat now considered “solid” for Democrats). That analysis produced several distinct patterns.
Democrats are best-positioned in wealthier, more educated districts that didn’t like Trump in 2016
The most striking is the concentration of the Democrats’ very best chances in relatively affluent and well-educated districts. CNN rates 14 seats now held by Republicans as solid, likely or leaning toward the Democrats next week. The median income exceeds the national average of $55,322 in all of those except the Tucson-area seat being vacated by Arizona Republican Martha McSally (who’s running for the Senate), where former Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick is a strong favorite.