THE MID-TERMS happened a month ago, but are still not over. When the dust settles at last, the Democrats will pick up between 39 and 41 of the House of Representatives’ 435 seats, a net gain larger than any of their “wave” elections since 1974, the cycle after Watergate forced Richard Nixon from office. In the Senate, Democrats held on to seats in six states that Donald Trump won in 2016 and gained one in Arizona, though lost out in Florida, Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota. The morning after the election it appeared that the result reflected a revolt in the suburbs, and by college-educated women, against the president’s party. That was true, but with a bit more distance and number-crunching it is clear that this is not the whole story.
Democrats did far better in rural America, particularly in the rural Midwest, than is commonly understood. If the baseline is how Hillary Clinton performed in 2016, Democrats actually saw their largest increase in vote share in rural constituencies, especially those in the Midwest (see chart). Compared with Mrs Clinton’s performance in 2016, the average rural House district was eight points more Democratic this year, compared with a five-point Democratic outperformance in suburban districts and three points in urban seats.
According to an analysis by Catalist, a political-data firm, working-class white voters in rural areas across the country shifted their votes towards Democrats by seven points. For blue-collar suburbanites, the difference was just two. Yet Democrats managed only 11 upsets in rural congressional districts, compared with 28 in the suburbs, because the party’s candidates start so far behind in sparsely populated places.
Why did the vote tallies in rural America look so different this time round? One answer is turnout, rather than shifting loyalties. Numbers from the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, a group of public-opinion researchers, suggest that only 1.5% of voters went for Mr Obama in 2012, Mr Trump in 2016 and a Democrat in 2018. Not many voters change their minds.
That is not the only answer, though. Some political scientists argue that Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential candidacy saw a political realignment. The divisions between whites and non-whites (especially blacks and Muslims) were more important to a candidate’s success than at any time in the past century, according to political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck, who write about the power of white identity in their new book, “Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America”. Whiter, less educated areas of the country swung hard towards the insurgent Mr Trump in 2016. In 2018 the issue of race was not on their minds to the same extent.
According to The Economist’s analysis of survey data from the Voter Study Group, feelings of racial resentment and anti-immigrant sentiment were less predictive of white Democrats’ vote choices this year than in 2016. With Mr Trump not on the ballot, white members of the Obama coalition in the Midwest who deserted Mrs Clinton returned to their past allegiances. They were also freer to think of issues like health care. A study from Morning Consult, a public pollster, found voters who identified health care as the nation’s most important issue were 28 percentage points more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.
It could be that this year’s Democratic House candidates were simply more appealing than Mrs Clinton. Democratic Senators such as Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester and Joe Manchin enjoyed success even as their states of Ohio, Montana and West Virginia have drifted further and further towards Republicans, suggesting that individuals can still sometimes trump partisan allegiance. It may also be that racially conservative, ancestrally Democratic rural whites were just allergic to Mrs Clinton.
The fact that the Democratic Party is not yet dead to rural whites matters for its future. The past few elections have suggested that an electoral coalition of college-educated whites and non-white voters does not have enough bodies to propel the party to political power on its own. If the next presidential election is like the one in 2016, when working-class whites fled from the Democrats at astonishing speed, the party’s candidate will struggle. If it is like 2018’s, when more stuck around, the nominee’s prospects will be much better.