Reflections on a Blue Wave

Some weekend thoughts after the most important election of your lifetime.

  • The blue wave was real. Election narratives are always open to interpretation, but when you consider what Democrats accomplished in light of the the obstacles they faced, the sweep and strength of their victory Tuesday is striking. They smashed a supposedly impenetrable gerrymander, minimized Senate losses despite facing the most hostile map in living memory, and at the state level expanded their presence in the Sun Belt while staging a comeback in the Midwest.
  • The blue wave was big. With millions of ballots still uncounted, Democrats have netted 33 House seats and should see that number rise to the high 30s. Their net losses in the Senate will likely be two or three, depending on what happens in Arizona, where they are still counting ballots, Florida, where they are about to re-count them, and Mississippi, where there will be a December run-off. Democrats picked up seven governorships, including the Midwestern states of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Kansas, and cling to the long shot possibility of flipping Florida and Georgia, where razor-thin elections still haven’t been called. Just as significantly, Democrats claimed a majority of state attorney general offices and reclaimed better than one-third of the roughly one-thousand state legislative seats they lost during the Obama years.
  • The blue wave was a pink wave. For the first time, over 100 women will serve in the House of Representatives. Most of them are Democrats. Many are first-time candidates inspired by their opposition to the Trump presidency. They were powered by an unprecedented 23-point gender gap, with women supporting Democrats by a 3:2 margin. For the past two years, far too many political analysts wondered if the energy we saw everywhere among women opposed to the administration would transfer to electoral politics. Now we know the answer.
  • Democratic voters showed up. Women showed up. Young people showed up. Latino voters showed up. People who never before voted showed up. Democrats historically struggle during midterm elections because their supporters have been less engaged in politics than Republicans. Not this time. Nothing jumpstarts voter turnout like an existential crisis.
  • So did Republican voters. In rural precincts, especially in the South and Midwest, Republicans turned out and voted for their party at rates comparable to two years ago. The country is still deeply divided and Trump voters remain deeply engaged. Their turnout was atypical for a wave year, when the outcome is usually characterized by relative apathy on the losing side.
  • But there are more Democratic voters. What made this wave possible was unusually high turnout among Democrats and a leftward shift by independents. Tuesday’s electorate reflected the divisions we have been seeing in opinion polls for the past two years, with Democrats and independents trending in a different direction from Republicans. Right now, the Republican Party is being propped up by white Evangelical voters, who are Donald Trump’s single biggest source of political support. They are whiter, older and more male than the general population, but it is noteworthy that male voters overall moved left this year and older voters split their ballots fairly evenly between the two parties.
  • The path back for Democrats runs through the suburbs. It’s no surprise that Democrats swept the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. It’s a bit more surprising that they are poised to dominate Orange County, for decades a bastion of conservatism in southern California. It’s very surprising that they won suburban House seats in South Carolina, Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah. Suburban voters, especially college educated white women, turned away in force from the party of Trump, and unless Trump changes direction and does something to appeal to these voters, he risks pushing them permanently into the arms of Democrats and fueling a Democratic resurgence.
  • Trump will not change direction or do anything to appeal to these voters. After Clinton and Obama were thumped in their first midterm elections, they read the results, made adjustments and survived. Donald Trump claimed victory. That should terrify his party.
  • The path back for Democrats also runs through the Sun Belt. Democrats have been losing elections in the South for over a generation. Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida may end up continuing that trend, but with a big difference. The formula for years has been to nominate conservative, white, middle-aged male Democrats who would invariably lose big to even more conservative, white, middle-aged male Republicans. Beto, Abrams and Gillum embraced generational and cultural diversity and a progressive agenda, and each came within a hair of winning, even in states where the electoral process was stacked against them. They spearheaded a surge of new voters who helped Democrats win down ballot, offering proof that Democrats can compete as progressives nationwide. In this regard, their campaigns were successful failures. The moment may not yet be here, but the demography is rapidly rising to meet Democrats in the Sun Belt. Four or six years from now, all three would win.
  • No, I won’t say who I think the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee will be. This is the question I am asked most, and my answer until last Tuesday was that the 2018 election would determine the shape of the 2020 campaign. With the midterms over but with two dozen or more prospective candidates testing the waters, it’s foolish to speculate about which one of them will succeed. But I do think 2018 gives us some clues about the kind of candidate primary voters will favor. The O’Rourke, Abrams and Gillum campaigns offer proof of concept that Democrats can run openly as progressives in hostile territory and provides a blueprint for ways to expand the presidential map. This aligns with the wishes of a base that appears hungry for an aggressively progressive candidate with the skills to rally the left and what’s left of the center. Newly engaged voters are ready to go younger and embrace the gender, racial and religious diversity that has been targeted during the Trump years. Being able to speak to household issues like healthcare and economic security will help. Having ties to Wall Street will not. Knowing how to run a genuine national grassroots campaign may be essential. And whoever emerges from the overcrowded field will have to earn it. There will be no coronations this time.