Want to Know What Happened in the 2018 Midterms? Look at Rural America.

Something has been bugging me about how we’re interpreting the midterms.

By G. Elliott Morris / November 26, 2018

Updated December 12th, 2018: read my final post-midterms take on Democrats’ success in rural America for The Economist here

There is (unsurprisingly) a debate over (A) what happened in the US midterm elections and (B) how they matter in the larger context of US politics. I’ve spoken out in this debate already, but for posterity’s sake I am including (and expanding briefly upon) the discussion here.

Last week, Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for the New York Times and one of the top analysts around, wrote:

More ominous for Democrats was that the deep losses this year among rural and some exurban whites were not just confined to Southern states where they nominated unabashed progressives with hopes of transforming the midterm electorate. They lost four Senate seats, as well as governor’s races in states like Iowa and Ohio, with more conventional candidates whose strength in cities and upper-income suburbs was not enough to overcome their deficits in less densely populated areas.

As Democrats look toward the 2020 presidential election, this demographic chasm is alarming party strategists who fear that it could cement the G.O.P’s grip on the Senate and make it difficult to defeat President Trump.

I have two comments:

Indeed, looking at the first graph below, you will see that Democratic House candidates beat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance all over the map, but especially in rural areas. What is notable is that Democrats seem to have slightly bounced back — or “boomeranged” — in these areas that swung toward Trump between 2012 and 2016, but they did not lose significant ground in areas that swung toward Clinton in the same period.

In other words, Democrats may have expanded their coalition in rural areas in 2018 — reversing some (not nearly all!) of the polarization to the right that occurred in the region between Obama’s and Trump’s presidencies — without sacrificing gains they have made in recent cycles.

Why? That’s a subject for a different post. Indeed, I’m writing about just that for our print edition this week. Stay tuned…



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