It’s been 10 days since the midterms, and the narrative seems to be centering on a theme: Republicans have lost the suburbs. Certainly, if you just look at the top line data, where it looks as though Democrats managed to flip somewhere around 40 suburban congressional districts, it looks grim for the GOP’s prospects. As they say, results matter and the GOP did pretty badly in the results department.
But when you dig into the reasons why the GOP had such poor results, you might be more surprised to discover that the weakness in the suburbs being panned by any number of talking heads isn’t as terrible as they want you to believe. For starters, let’s examine the overall turnout numbers in those suburbs.
Map of 2018 turnout by county, compiled by the Wall Street Journal
The above turnout “heat map” is pretty simple to read. It compares voter turnout from 2018 to 2016. The closer the number of total votes cast, the darker the shade of blue, the more vote totals came to be the same. Yellows mean there were more votes cast in 2018 than in 2016. So, when you look at this, two things that jump out at you: first, turnout in the Rust Belt and Mid-Atlantic states, along with California, was much lower than in the rest of the country. Second, turnout was exceptional in the Northern Plains, the Desert Southwest, Georgia, and Florida.
This seems to go against the idea that we’re being spoon fed by the pundits: that Democrats mobilized new midterm voters to turn out, and those new voters chose Democrat representation. It might be a good idea to build a list of seats that actually flipped. Or maybe even a map.
Thankfully, Axios has both. Here is the list of seats that flipped from “red” to “blue”:
- Arizona’s 2nd
- Iowa’s 1st & 3rd
- California’s 10th, 25th, 45th, 48th, 49th
- Colorado’s 6th
- Florida’s 26th & 27th
- Georgia’s 6th
- Illinois’ 14th & 6th
- Iowa’s 1st & 3rd
- Kansas’ 3rd
- Maine’s 2nd
- Michigan’s 8th & 11th
- Minnesota’s 2nd & 3rd. Republicans flipped the 1st & 8th
- New Jersey’s 11th, 7th, 2nd & 3rd
- New York’s 11th & 19th
- New Mexico’s 2nd
- Oklahoma’s 5th
- Pennsylvania’s 5th, 6th, 7th & 17th. The GOP flipped one blue seat red, the 14th district.
- Texas’ 32nd
- Virginia’s 2nd, 7th & 10th
- Washington’s 8th
Of the 39 seats flipped by Democrats, 28 happened in districts with lower than usual turnout. That hardly indicates that Democrats motivated voters to turn out in droves to crush the Republicans. Rather, it shows that Democrats turned out in comparable numbers to past elections but Republicans stayed home. Is there any way to test this theory?
Turns out we can sample the districts. Since I once lived in New Jersey, I decided to check on the districts that flipped there. I compared the vote totals each candidate received in 2018 against the vote totals for each party’s candidate in 2016. Additionally, my current district is Pennsylvania’s 1st (it used to be PA 8), which even after the State Supreme Court redrew it is largely the same as it was, so I included it. It was the rare Republican hold in the Northeast and seems a good test case of my theory. This is what I came up with:
2016 GOP Vote
2018 GOP Vote
2016 Dem Vote
2018 Dem Vote
What you see in race after race is that the Democrats didn’t fire up their base to get out to the polls and vote. Their vote totals remained within historical normals, with the exception of NJ 11. The reason three of those four districts flipped is Republican voters stayed home: GOP turnout was down by 20% across those districts. New Jersey 11 is something of an outlier. Democrats ran an exceptionally strong candidate for a seat with a retiring member, whose family has held it in one form or another since the nation was founded. It doesn’t take much to see how voters would opt for a change.
Our test case, PA 1, is directly across the Delaware River from New Jersey’s capital in Trenton. What you see happened there is that while once again, Republican turnout was down about 20%, Democrat turnout was also down and the GOP was able to hold the seat. The reason Democrat turnout was down in this particular district is again likely candidate driven. Scott Wallace was largely viewed as a carpetbagging socialist around here.
Of course, this begs the question: why was the GOP able to turn out voters in other parts of the country, but not in these older suburbs? What was it about their messaging that failed to get their voters off their couches and into a voting booth?
The media narrative is that the Democratic victory was propelled by legions of college educated white women exploding from their suburban homes in a rage against the President on Election Day. However, the media narrative fails to mention that on Election Day 2016, those same college educated white women voted overwhelmingly against the President, too. The media narrative is misleading because it fails to acknowledge that while college educated white women represent a substantial part of the suburban population, they are neither the dominant nor even most representative demographic group. This is hardly surprising, since the media hates acknowledging anything that might disturb their narrative.
While the preferred demographic characterization may be true for the suburbs around NYC or DC, it certainly doesn’t comport with the districts that flipped in 2018. Yes, there are white college educated women in them. But they are still in the minority of residents. Most denizens of these old suburbs are still blue collar workers with families, not unlike my neighborhood. In fact, an easier way to demonstrate this might be to introduce you to some of my neighbors (disclaimer: names changed to keep things civil!)
There are two relatively new, 20 something couple that moved in within the last 18 months. Across the street are John and Kate. John is an accountant, Kate a physician. Nice people, whose politics unsurprisingly run liberal – but the reality of home ownership has made them somewhat less liberal than when they moved in. Next door to me are Hank and Jen. Hank is an electrician, Jen a LPN still working on her RN. True salt of the earth types, they’re pretty much apolitical.
As for my more established neighbors, there a retired husband and wife across the street. They’re in their 80’s, he is battling Parkinson’s and his wife is doing what she can to care for him and is very involved with her church. There is a widow on my other flank, whose children are constantly trying to get her to move because of her health. Also on this block are a mechanic and his wife, a bartender, an HVAC tech and his wife, who stays home with their children, a cable installer and his wife, a hairdresser and finally, a divorced salesman in the tech industry. This particular block is representative of the town overall. It remains a largely working-class community, with perhaps a third of the residents having at least a bachelor’s degree. Although not represented on my block, roughly 40% of the town’s residents would identify as something other than Caucasian.
Hardly the picture the media has spent the past few months painting of suburban demographics and life.
So, if we accept that those opposed to the President (on whatever grounds) in these communities continued to turn out, while those who do support him failed to vote, what other factors drove those behaviors? After all, Mr. Trump’s approval and disapproval numbers haven’t moved very much since his election. Nor has the intensity of support or disapproval moved very much since then. If we accept the premise that the primary motivating factor for Democrats was opposition to the President, then why weren’t Trump voters in these older suburbs equally motivated to turn out in support? This is a particularly intriguing question when we see in the parts of the country where they were similarly motivated, Republicans were able to hold their seats and even make gains in the Senate.
Understanding these motivations is the key. Not to belabor the point, but Democrats didn’t offer the working class voters in suburbs anything new. They didn’t offer a governing vision that captured the imaginations of the working class, a slate of programs that motivated them to change their allegiance or convince them that a platform based on “resistance” was attractive. In other words, they didn’t win. Republicans lost, and they lost because they failed to connect.
Where Republicans failed to connect with the suburbanites who didn’t bother to vote is not hard to identify. President Trump (and by extension, the down ballot Republicans in those districts) won by emphasizing the wallet issues that have always motivated these voters. However, rather than campaign on those same issues this term, the GOP playbook was to emphasize the standard, Bushian corporatism while the President played to nativism. It’s likely the nativism played well in many districts, but it doesn’t hit the top 5 concerns of the typical suburban voter. As for corporatism, the suburban voter has as much distrust of that as they do anything the GOP could campaign on.
What the working-class, suburban voter wants to hear about is good jobs at decent wages, decent schools for their kids, secure retirements, lower costs around their health care and daily expenses, and to have a sense their children can live a better life than they. They want secure communities and a secure nation. And yes, most of them believe they’re being overtaxed and under-served by every level of government.
This is the “populist” message that won President Trump the White House, distilled. It is not Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney or any of the Bush brother’s message. It is something that seems separate from conservative orthodoxy, since for the better part of four decades conservative economic orthodoxy has been built around the concept of the trickle down, but in reality the entire purpose of trickle down economics is to deliver populist results. The problem is that mainstream Republicans have a hard time talking to this message, since it sounds remarkably like what was once the Democrat economic message.
Another problem Republicans have with the populist message is understanding that many government programs need to be be reconfigured for the 21st century. Their default position has been to end them for so long they’ve lost sight of the fact that some actually do some good, and a few tweaks could greatly improve them. By all means, get rid of the ones that are wasteful but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. By the way, targeting actual government waste remains a winning message and one that gets buoyed by saving the programs the public has, in many ways, come to rely on.
We could begin with Social Security, as an example. My preference would be to phase the program out, but the reality is after 83 years, it isn’t going anywhere. While pretty much everyone recognizes the system is either in or nearing a fiscal crisis, nobody seems willing to do much of anything to ensure it will be there in 40 years, when John, Kate, Hank and Jen will be counting on it as a substantial part of their retirement income, much as the retirees in my neighborhood already do and the rest of us in our 40’s and 50’s are planning on it being there as part of ours shortly. The GOP continues to push the idea of replacing the current funding formula with what amounts to a collective 401(k) while increasing the age at which retirees can collect what amounts to reduced benefits. I hate to break it to them, but while this plan makes wonkish sense it is a losing message with suburbanites.
One Republican who seems to grasp the reality that the GOP’s current economic message is lacking is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. He has recently been pushing a plan he calls, “Home Economics.” Now the plan itself is more of a broad outline that is very light on specifics, but it does address the concerns of those voters that failed to turn out on Election Day. He emphasizes the ideas of upward mobility, wage growth, family stability and community. I am not saying it is a perfect outline, but it is a start towards recognizing the deficiencies in the current GOP message (also, given his performance in the 2016 primaries, Rubio probably isn’t the best messenger).
While Democrats are cheering their wins this term and congratulating themselves (as in 2008) on capturing “demographic superiority,” they are making the mistake of abandoning the populist economic message. At the same time, while vilifying corporate interests they have become even more reliant on them than the GOP. It is an opportunity where the Republicans, if they are smart and understand where their voters are today, should leap to take advantage. Doing so doesn’t mean abandoning the core values of Buckley conservatism; if anything, it means an actual return to those values.
They have two years. The question is, will they step up to the plate?