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How 2018 reframed the Democrats' biggest

choice for 2020

Analysis by Ronald Brownstein

Updated 11:12 AM ET, Tue November 20, 2018


The election results are in. Now what?

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The election results are in. Now what? 01:55

(CNN) — Though the 2018 election opened intriguing opportunities in the Sun Belt, new data suggest the shortest
path back to the White House for Democrats may be through the three Rust Belt swing states that President
Donald Trump dislodged from the "blue wall" two years ago.

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The party will have to choose -- with its nominee, its resources and its message -- whether it wants to focus most
on rebuilding that wall -- or on expanding its opportunities in a new set of emerging battleground states across
the Sun Belt.

As both parties pick through the results of this month's midterm for clues about possible shifts in the 2020
presidential map, previously unpublished results from the Election Day exit poll show that Trump faced pointed
erosion in approval of his job performance from a wide range of critical groups in Michigan, Wisconsin and
Pennsylvania, the three states that keyed his victory in 2016. In particular, the exit polls showed that in those
three states Trump not only faced surging opposition from college-educated white women, but also suffered
notable attrition among the blue-collar white women who were critical to his success there last time.

Those exit poll results reinforce the evidence from the elections themselves, in which Democrats held a Senate
seat and won the governorship in each state, while also gaining a net of five House seats in Pennsylvania and
Michigan combined. All of those results have cemented a quick consensus among many Democratic strategists
that those three states, which Trump carried by a combined 80,000 votes in 2016, represent the weakest link in
his Electoral College majority.

"The quickest way to win again is to get those three states back into the Democratic fold, and I think we've
already seen tremendous evidence they are ready to come," says Tad Devine, who helped to manage Electoral
College strategy for Democratic presidential nominees from Michael Dukakis to Al Gore and served as a top
adviser to Bernie Sanders in 2016.

Since World War II, the results of midterm elections have not consistently predicted the outcome of presidential
contests two years later. Poor showings by the president's party in the midterm elections of 1958, 1966, 1974,
1978 and 2006 did foreshadow a switch in control of the White House in the next presidential election. But first-
term presidents rebounded to win re-election after significant midterm losses in 1946 (Harry Truman), 1954
(Dwight Eisenhower), 1982 (Ronald Reagan), 1994 (Bill Clinton) and 2010 (Barack Obama).

Presidents who lost 1st-term midterm majorities in Congress and went

on to win re-election
Republican majority
Democratic majority

Term 1 Term 2

Term 1 Term 2

Term 1 Term 2

Term 1 Term 2
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But strategists in both parties believe midterm results can signal shifts in the political currents within individual
states. And those changes can influence each side's calculations about the most promising path to amassing the
270 Electoral College votes required to win the White House.

The widespread Democratic gains earlier this month, especially in the House, buoyed the party's hopes of
ousting Trump in two years. But they also ignited an immediate debate about whether the most promising option
was to recapture the Rust Belt states that Trump flipped in 2016 or target Sun Belt states where Democrats
notched clear gains in 2018, even while falling short in the governors' races in Georgia and Florida and the US
Senate race in Texas.

Fresh insights on that question emerge in new data from the exit poll provided by Edison Research, which
conducts surveys for the National Election Pool, a consortium of news organizations that includes CNN.

The Election Day exit poll asked voters whether they approved or disapproved of Trump's job performance. At
CNN's request, Edison analyzed Trump's job approval in the key swing states along lines of race, gender and

Those results pointed toward clear opportunities for Democrats in the potential 2020 Sun Belt battlegrounds. But
they also left little doubt that Trump is most exposed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Those were the
three states he dislodged from what I termed the "blue wall," the 18 states that had voted Democratic in all six
presidential elections from 1992 through 2012.

A close balance in the Sun Belt

In the key Sun Belt states where exit polls were conducted
this month, Trump's approval rating consistently hovered
right around the critical 50% mark. That ranged from a
high of 52% in Georgia and Arizona to 51% in Florida, 49%
in Texas and 48% in Nevada.

In all these states, Trump demonstrated overwhelming

strength among his core constituency of white men
without college degrees: His approval among them,
according to the exit polls, ranged from 67% in Arizona to
69% in Florida and Nevada to 76% in Texas and fully 80%
Related Article: The battle for the Sun Belt in Georgia. His numbers among white women without
college degrees across the Sun Belt were only slightly less
imposing: Those ranged from just under 3 in 5 approval in
Nevada, Arizona and Texas to two-thirds in Florida and
over 4 in 5 in Georgia.

Among college-educated white men, Trump maintained imposing margins in Florida, Georgia and Texas, but
they divided about in half over his performance in the Southwest battlegrounds (Arizona and Nevada).

Among college-educated white women, the pattern was similar, with one twist. Trump was competitive in Texas
and Georgia (where these women split about evenly over his performance). But he faced more widespread
resistance again in Arizona and Nevada, this time joined by Florida; about 3 in 5 of them disapproved in each

Among minorities, Trump faced disapproval ratings exceeding 60% among nonwhite voters both with and
without college degrees in Arizona, Nevada and Texas, states where Hispanics dominate the minority population;
in Georgia, where most minorities are African-American, Trump faced a minority disapproval rating of almost
80%. In Florida, where both groups are present, he faced disapproval from just over 3 in 5 nonwhites with
degrees and fully 7 in 10 of those without, though the Republican US Senate and governor candidates showed
surprising resilience
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The narrow overall verdict on Trump's first two years
suggests that all of these Sun Belt states could be
competitive in 2020. But the results do raise red flags for
each side. Nevada was one of the Hillary Clinton-won states
Trump's camp hoped to target in 2020, but both the
election results (Democrats elected a governor and senator)
and the exit poll findings (with his weakness among college-
educated white men and women and limited support
among Hispanics) suggest that will be a very tough climb for
him. And while there was no exit poll in Colorado, the
Democrats' strong showing there, particularly in the white-
Related Article: It's not a blue wave. It's a collar Denver suburbs, sends the same message (as well as
pinpointing staunchly pro-Trump Republican Sen. Cory
realignment of American politics Gardner as perhaps the GOP's most endangered incumbent
in 2020).

Democrats will face a choice of resources

On the other hand, Trump's overwhelming support among non-college white men and women in Texas, Georgia
and Florida underscores the challenge for Democrats of winning those states in a presidential year, when
working-class whites usually turn out in higher numbers.

Democratic strategists are insistent that Florida remains a "coin flip" between the parties (particularly after a US
Senate race decided for Republican Rick Scott by about 10,000 votes out of more than 8 million cast). But based
on these patterns, the party will likely face a more intense debate than previously about how much time and
money to invest in the Sunshine State.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke's sweep of Texas' metropolitan areas in his unexpectedly strong showing against
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz showed Democrats a viable pathway to competing in the state. And if O'Rourke is on
the ballot again this
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against Republican Sen. John Cornyn -- the state may look more attractive to Democrats at the presidential level.
"If he's back on the ticket, any presidential candidate is going to invest in Texas," predicts Austin-based
Democratic consultant James Aldrete.

But if O'Rourke himself isn't the nominee or vice president, it remains unclear whether any other presidential
candidate could commit to the enormous television advertising that would be required to seriously contest the
state. "If you are going to come into that with real resources, that could be worth a half-dozen other states,"
notes Devine.

Beyond Florida, the Sun Belt states that emerged from the
2018 results as the most widely agreed-on targets for
Democrats are likely Arizona and North Carolina. Though an
exit poll was not conducted in North Carolina, the election
results there showed continuing Democratic strength in
suburban areas. But the results also suggest Democrats
may face the same 2020 headwind as in Georgia, Texas
and Florida: little erosion for Trump in the blue-collar and
rural communities that powered his victory last time. Arizona
may be the most promising new Sun Belt opportunity of all,
with Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema's US Senate win over
Related Article: It's not a blue wave. It's a Rep. Martha McSally providing clear evidence that white-
collar suburbanites there moved away from the GOP even
realignment of American politics more than their counterparts in Texas or Georgia. Maricopa
County, surrounding Phoenix, was the largest US county
that Trump carried in 2016, but Sinema won it by about
60,000 votes.

A new shine on the Rust Belt

Sen. Sherrod Brown celebrates his campaign victory at the Hyatt Regency on November 6, 2018 in Columbus,
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Across the Rust Belt, with one glaring exception, the evidence from 2018 looks more consistently encouraging
for Democrats. Generally, Trump's overall approval rating in the exit polls across the key Rust Belt states was
slightly lower than in the Sun Belt states.

In Minnesota, the Midwestern state Republicans most hoped to flip to Trump in 2020, the results and the exit
polls offer him little encouragement. Democrats won two Senate seats (including a special election) and the
governorship, and the exit poll put Trump's approval at just 45%.

Conversely, the most daunting Rust Belt results for Democrats came in Ohio. Though Democratic Sen. Sherrod
Brown, a potential 2020 contender, won re-election, his margin was narrower than expected and Republicans
comfortably held the governor's mansion. In the exit poll, 52% of Ohio voters approved of Trump's performance.
And while college-educated white women tilted slightly away from him (with 52% of them disapproving), he
retained very strong numbers there among non-college white men (67% approval), college-educated white men
(62%) and non-college white women (59%).

But, if anything, Trump's continued Ohio strength among those groups only underscored his more precarious
position with them in the other key Rust Belt battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

"I think Ohio is much more of a core red state than the other three," says John Brabender, a Pennsylvania-based
GOP strategist. "The other ones are at their hearts blue states that will sometimes vote Republican. And it better
be an awfully good year."

In the exit poll, Trump's approval rating among voters stood at only 44% in Michigan, 45% in Pennsylvania and
47% in Wisconsin. In each state the share of voters who strongly disapproved of his performance exceeded the
share that strongly approved by at least 15 percentage points, a daunting margin.

Across the three states, key demographic groups also reacted to Trump in similar ways. Among white men
without college degrees, Trump remained strong, drawing positive job marks from 70% of them in Pennsylvania,
65% in Michigan and a somewhat more equivocal 57% in Wisconsin. He remained relatively solid, though
somewhat diminished, among college-educated white men as well, winning approval from nearly 3 in 5 in
Wisconsin, just over half in Michigan and just under half in Pennsylvania.

Republicans lost support from Rust Belt women

But Trump showed conspicuous weakness with women across all three states. His disapproval ratings among
college-educated white women reached 69% in Pennsylvania, 67% in Michigan and 64% in Wisconsin.

Perhaps even more ominously, his disapproval rating in the three states among white women without college
degrees spiked to between 46% and 48%, considerably more than in any other battleground state. His approval
rating with them in each state stood at just 51% to 53%. That was closer to his unsteady position with those
women in Democratic-leaning Minnesota (where they divided about equally over his performance), than in more
reliably Republican Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia.

In most places, Democrats were frustrated by their inability to recover more ground with working-class white
women (56% of them voted Republican in House races, according to the exit poll). But in the three states where
those women will likely matter most in 2020, they displayed clear second thoughts about Trump.

Brabender says these reactions capture "the paradox" of Trump's style: While his iconoclastic and often
belligerent language convinces many working-class voters, especially men, that he's committed to shaking up
the system on their behalf, it also alienates more moderate voters, especially women. "The paradox is that what
the others see as evidence this is going to be a different type of president, among some of the more moderate
voters, particularly women, they have problems with that tone," he says.

Because African-Americans compose the preponderance of the minority population in Michigan, Pennsylvania
and Wisconsin,
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All these patterns loom over the upcoming Democratic presidential primary.

Two types of Democrats to challenge Trump

Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker attend the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for
Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in Hart Building on September 4, 2018.

One of the core choices Democrats will face in picking their 2020 nominee is whether to nominate a candidate
best suited to mobilize younger and nonwhite voters who don't usually turn out, or one most effective at
reassuring center-right whites who usually vote Republican but have recoiled from Trump on personal and
cultural grounds. (The first group could include Sen. Kamala Harris of California, O'Rourke and Sen. Cory Booker
of New Jersey; the second Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and an array of current and former governors.) That
debate carries a clear geographic implication: "Mobilization" candidates are probably best positioned to compete
in the Sun Belt, while "reassurance" candidates may be more effective in the Rust Belt.

The 2018 results leave both paths open to Democrats -- and indeed they indicate that Democrats must compete
on both fronts, because they are not guaranteed success on either. When Trump himself is on the ballot -- and
able to create contrasts, particularly around cultural and racial issues, with a Democratic nominee -- Democrats
may struggle to hold the ground they regained earlier this month with working-class whites in the big Rust Belt

Even so, the clearest signal from this month's results may be a variation on the old dictum from the legendary
Ohio State football coach, Woody Hayes. Stressing a straightforward running game over a flashier passing
attack, Hayes famously declared that the best route to victory on the football field was "three yards and a cloud
of dust."

For all the glitter of their new Sun Belt opportunities, Democrats eyeing the cracks in Trump's armor that
emerged this month in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania may likewise conclude that the surest path to
success in 2020 will be "three states and a cloud of dust."
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