I’m just going to use the following Tweet as shorthand for giving you a comprehensive regional breakdown of congressional race polling data:
By far the Democrats' strongest region in Senate + Gov + House polling has been the Midwest, and I don't think you'd really gather that from the tonality of the reporting, which tends to fixate on demographic change and therefore finds races in the South & the West a lot sexier.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) October 10, 2018
It’s true that the Democrats are seriously contesting seats in California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, and Florida that can best be explained by changes in the racial and ethnic makeup of the states or districts. But where we’ve seen the clearest snapback is in the mostly blue states of the Midwest where the Democrats have either won presidential contests routinely or have at least won occasionally. A few examples include Sen. Joe Donnelly looking very competitive in Indiana, which went heavily for Trump after voting for Obama in 2008, the Iowa governor’s race is looking like a dead-heat after Trump won the state by a bigger margin than he won Texas, and recent polls showing Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown cruising to reelection and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray surging into a narrow lead in the Buckeye State.
Trump’s victory came about because he surprisingly won Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin which were all considered part of an impenetrable blue wall for the Democrats, but the Democrats look extremely strong in both the senate and governor’s races in all three of those states.
This can’t be explained by demographic change and it isn’t based solely on turnout models and assumptions. A lot of Democrats who voted for Trump in the industrial Midwest just have no intention of voting for a Republican in the upcoming midterms.
Now, when you build a theory of the case here, you should be mindful that you’re trying to explain the Midwest. A wholesale national explanation won’t do. So, for example, you can’t just argue that voters are disillusioned or angry with the president without explaining why this is more pronounced in one region than in others.
It’s the formerly blue element that distinguishes the Midwest from other Trump strongholds. Many midwestern lifelong Democrats were attracted to Trump precisely because he was taking a battle-ax to the Republican establishment and so it’s unsurprising that these voters won’t transfer their loyalty from Trump to down-ticket conservatives. Because of union membership and socioeconomic status and tradition, these voters having been voting against Republicans all their lives. They made an exception for Trump and many still support him. Some will even vote for candidates that promise to help the president or that Trump has explicitly endorsed. But the snapback comes from the fact that most longtime Democrats supported Trump but not the party he leads.
In this sense, it has hurt Trump most in the Midwest that he let Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell run Congress largely how they saw fit without taking out his battle-ax at all. With the exception of trade and tariffs issues, Trump has followed the traditional conservative movement line by pursuing tax cuts for the rich, anti-labor policies, the denial of access to health care, and court appointments approved by the Federalist Society. This hasn’t kept the promise of being a different kind of Republican who keeps the little guy in mind.
In traditionally red states, these standard Republican policies are reassuring to the majority of voters, many of whom were wary of Trump and supported him mainly because the alternative was Hillary Clinton. But in traditionally blue states, this has amounted to a betrayal.
Now, when a bunch of white working class union workers abandoned the Democratic Party for a guy credibly accused of sexual assault and promoting xenophobic and racist immigration policies, a lot of the more progressive part of the Democratic base concluded that these voters were so sexist and racist that they were gone forever and didn’t belong in the left’s coalition in any case. The idea that they were motivated by stagnating wages or hollowed out communities was widely mocked. But the midterms are going to test the theory that these voters left the Democratic Party for good.
I always thought that they took a flyer on Trump because they didn’t perceive him as a true Republican and they wanted someone who would disrupt the gridlock that had developed between the two parties that was preventing Congress from addressing almost any pressing issues of concern to their communities. They didn’t think Trump would develop into a hard-right Republican on economic or legal issues, and they never endorsed or voted for those policies.
Certainly, Trump’s tribal appeal to their whiteness was effective and raw racism played an enormous part in how Trump was able to make inroads with this group. But Republicans had been making many of these appeals to them for decades with only modest success, and they had largely voted for a guy named Barack Hussein Obama twice. Making racist appeals didn’t strike me as a durable plan if Trump didn’t actually govern with a new cross-party set of policies.
We’ve now arrived at the 2018 midterms, the first real test of Trump’s ability to build, sustain, and grow a political coalition, and he hasn’t endorsed a single Democrat or received the endorsement of a single Democrat. Since he didn’t even try, it is hard to say that he failed in creating a new kind of political movement distinct from either party, but the fact is that he needed to achieve this in order to fulfill the faith of his midwestern Democratic supporters.
On a national scale, Trump has been satisfied to let the polarization grow, with the result that more and more traditional Republican suburban districts are slipping away from the GOP. But, specific to states like Pennsylvania and Michigan and Iowa, he’s losing a big chuck of his supposedly deplorable vote. They wanted something different and, where it matters, Trump has given them what they had always rejected when voting against the Doles and Bushes, McCains, and Romneys.