Beyond the noise, this is what the midterms really mean for America
It's a matter of demographics and how they are going to change with time
The midterm elections painted a picture of a divided America, but it’s not 50-50 – it’s closer to 55-45, with an advantage to the Democrats.
The country is split by economics, as always, but perhaps more intensely by culture. And the Republicans have to confront the growing evidence that Trump’s brand of conservatism makes winning elections and governing America pretty hard.
I’m in Pennsylvania, a rust-belt state that Trump won in 2016 against expectations. This year the Republicans lost the governor and Senate races, and fell from 15 House seats to just nine. My hotel is in the first House district, centred on Bucks County, where the Republicans held on by their fingertips.
Winning candidate Brian Fitzpatrick presented himself as a moderate – he says he visits a mosque once a week – and that helped, but look around, and this is also the kind of small-town America Trumpism appeals to.
It’s a pretty, historic suburb where several shops shut at 3pm and, in a repudiation of European health-freakery, the local grocery store advertises “CIGARETTES Lowest Price Allowed by Law”.
Across the state, local politics reordered to reflect national trends. Jason Gottesman, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Republicans, stressed the phenomenon of party switching, which began during Trump’s 2016 campaign and has shattered lifelong loyalties. Pennsylvania’s big cities and suburbs went overwhelmingly more Democrat, but “we got a lot of support from disaffected rural and [small town] Democrats”, notably in areas once dominated by trade unions. The comparison with Brexit in the UK is irresistible.
To be clear: class still matters in US elections. Generally speaking, the poor vote Democrat and the rich vote Republican. But cultural perspective is mixing things up.
Nationally, across all House races, Republicans won men, Democrats won women. The Republicans took those with a high school education or less; the Democrats those with a BA or higher.
The Democrats won white women with a degree by 59-39%. The Republicans dominated among gun owners and Protestants.
The Democrats finished ahead in the national popular vote by about 9%, which confirms the thesis that America’s left is popular among the growing parts of the population, among ethnic minorities, the young, white-collar graduates.
On the other hand, the Republicans actually picked up seats in the Senate. This is because only a third of Senate seats were being contested, including in states where Trump is actually rather popular: Indiana, Tennessee, North Dakota.
Put crudely, the House races probably boiled down to a revulsion against Trump and the return of pocketbook issues such as healthcare and schools.
But the Senate races were more philosophical. They are a reminder that broadly speaking the country remains moderate to conservative.
This all leaves the president in a stronger position than you might think. Yes, he will now face intense scrutiny from the House, but the Democrat leadership is reluctant to push for impeachment and even if they did, the Republican control of the Senate means it probably can’t happen.
We also can’t rule out bipartisan action on, say, healthcare, where Trump’s instincts might be more aligned to the Democrats.
The next two years are going to be loud and divisive, yes, but things already are – and the midterms have turned out to be a confirmation of America’s political direction rather than a surprise.
The Democrats remain self-lacerating. It says so much that they’re touting Beto O’Rourke as their next presidential nominee – a man who made his mark by losing the Texas senate race to Ted Cruz, who makes Richard Nixon look trustworthy.
But let’s imagine Trump can hold his base and can win the 2020 race, what happens after that? Demography is destiny and there’s no escaping the sense that Trump speaks for those who are essentially trying to preserve a way of life – rather than the younger, more culturally liberal Americans who are trying to build a new one.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited