The midterm elections reshaped the 2020 presidential campaign landscape by taking some longstanding battlegrounds off the map while adding new swing states, presenting challenges for President Donald Trump and the crowd of Democrats eager to run against him.
Perhaps the most significant shift in 2018 came in upscale, highly educated suburban areas that had voted Republican for generations and broke for Democrats this year.
College-educated whites favored Democrats by eight percentage points after preferring Trump by three points in 2016, according to national exit poll data for the 2018 election that was published by CNN. That was driven by a 20-point Democratic advantage among white women with college degrees, raising concern among Republicans about an eroding base.
“We can’t let the suburbs become a part of the realignment,” said Republican consultant Brad Todd, whose clients include Missouri Senator-elect Josh Hawley. “Democrats’ numbers in urban areas and coastal areas are skyrocketing, much like our numbers are in the heartland.”
“Suburban seats in California and the Northeast are going to continue to be difficult for us,” he said. “But we need to win suburban seats in the Sun Belt and the Midwest.”
Trump’s polarizing presidency has accelerated divisions among voters — by education, race and geography — that have been building over several elections. The results of midterms, in which Democrats took control of the House and gained at least seven governorships while Republicans expanded their Senate majority, don’t necessarily foreshadow the fortunes for a president seeking a second term. Both Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton presided over losses for their party in Congress but won re-election two years later.
Still, the outcome gives an outline for targets for the 2020 campaigns of both parties.
Two formerly swing states, Ohio and Iowa, are tilting toward Republicans as two onetime GOP strongholds, Arizona and Georgia, are suddenly competitive. Nevada and Virginia are becoming more reliably Democratic, as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin swung back toward the party. Florida looks strong for Trump, yet retains the title of the nation’s most important — and most narrowly divided — swing state.
Those states make up more than half of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the White House. In much of the rest of the country, the two parties solidified their advantages going into 2020. Nationally, Republicans won men, whites and voters over 45 years old, while Democrats won women by an extraordinary 19 points and led among non-whites and voters under 45.
“Even if states like Ohio and Iowa continue to trend away from Democrats, there is a path to 270 electoral votes in 2020 that will go through Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania,” said Brian Fallon, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Florida “will be a nettlesome issue” for any Democratic nominee in 2020, he added, while arguing that the state isn’t out of reach.
Exit polls show strengths and weaknesses for both parties beyond the geography.
The GOP’s strongest support came from whites without a college degree – particularly men, who they won by 34 points nationally. That enabled the party to run up the score in rural areas across the country, leading to the defeats of Democratic incumbent senators in North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana.
In Missouri and Indiana, about two-thirds of the voters lacked college degrees, according to exit polls. Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill’s 9-point lead among college-educated voters was swamped by her 13-point deficit among voters without degrees. Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly won college graduates by 7 points, but lost non-college voters by 17 points.
That rural strength also translated into bright spots for Republicans in Ohio and Florida that carry warning signs for Democrats in the 2020 election. The party’s voters will have to decide whether to pick a nominee who tries to win by igniting progressive passions, or one with broader appeal who’ll seek to limit the damage among rural white voters.
“Ohio is now red,” said Brad Shattuck, who served as a strategist for GOP Representative Troy Balderson, who was re-elected after winning a special election earlier in 2018. “Trump has transformed the state and has been able to hold his coalition together there.”
In Ohio, Republicans won a contested governor’s race and held all their House seats despite a tough national environment. Governor-elect Mike DeWine overcame lopsided defeats in the Cleveland and Columbus metropolitan areas by dominating rural parts of the state with high concentrations of white voters without college degrees. He won Muskingum County by a 2-to-1 margin and built margins as high as 3-to-1 in remote counties like Brown and Adams.
But Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown managed to win reelection in the state, in part based on his pitch to working-class voters. He’s among the Democrats considering a bid for the party’s nomination in 2020.
Ohio has picked the winner in every presidential election since 1964, but its days as a national bellwether appear to be coming to an end.
In Florida, the races for governor and senator are headed for a recount with Republicans leading in both. That’s a grim sign for Democrats given the friendly national environment.
Despite Trump’s strengths in rural areas and small towns, a big question from the 2018 election is whether suburban demographics will block his quest for a second term.
Some of that will depend on whether Democrats overplay their hand and go “too far left” in ways that alienate the voters they won in 2018 by running as pragmatists, Rep. Ryan Costello, a two-term Republican who chose to retire rather than contest a suburban Philadelphia district, said. If they don’t, he said, the president is in for trouble.
“Trump is kryptonite in the suburbs,” Costello said. “I would expect, at this moment in time, that he will deteriorate 5 to 10 points with the suburban demographic in 2020. Because, look, he’s not going to be running against Hillary. Some people who tried him out may not be willing to digest that in 2020.”
Todd said the party’s suburban woes are about Trump’s attitude, not policies.
“Donald Trump’s difficulties with women in the suburbs are not because he cut taxes or appointed conservative judges. It is over more style and tone than it is over policy,” he said. “Realignments are fluid. This one’s still underway and we have yet to see how it’ll settle out.”