Fred Yang Analyzes the 2018 Mid-Terms: Reasons for Celebration – And Caution

  Images  by Audrey Rothstein Photography

Images by Audrey Rothstein Photography


In what has become a post-election tradition, WDC was privileged to host Fred Yang, a pre-eminent Democratic pollster, for an analysis of the mid-term election results at our luncheon on Friday, November 16 at the Bethesda Marriott at Pooks Hill.  Mr. Yang is a partner in the Democratic polling firm, Garin-Hart-Yang and is a vice-president of Hart Research Associates.  Mr. Yang is the Democratic pollster responsible (with a Republican pollster) for crafting the bi-partisan NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll.  As he has done after the past two elections, Mr. Yang broke down the results of the mid-term elections for the sold-out crowd, and, with remarkable clarity, provided trenchant analysis of the mid-term voting data.  The upshot:  Democrats have much to celebrate in 2018, but the mid-term results are not necessarily a prelude to a Trump defeat in 2020.

The Big Picture

Yang described November 6, 2018, as a great day both for Democrats and for democracy.  113 million Americans voted in the 2018 mid-terms, the highest mid-term voter participation since 1914.  Democrats and Republicans both voted in high numbers, an indication that voters in both parties were engaged.  According to Mr. Yang, the 2018 mid-terms brought the expected Blue Wave in House districts, state legislatures, and governorships across the country.  As of November 16, the date of the WDC luncheon, Democrats had gained 38 House seats, 7 governorships, and 334 seats in state legislatures, the proving ground for future Democratic leaders.  The only bad news from Election Day was the Democrats’ loss of additional seats in the US Senate.  However, given the large number of seats that Democrats were defending in states Trump won by double-digit margins, those losses were predictable, and were offset by gratifying Democratic victories in Arizona and Nevada.

The Pink Wave

Yang presented data that proved conclusively that women—particularly suburban women—powered the Democratic victories on November 6.  The gender gap, measured as the total percentage difference in how men and women voted, rose to a record high 23%.  The gender gap was driven largely by White women, who in 2016 voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 13%, but who supported Democrats and Republicans equally in 2018.  Suburban women, who voted Republican by 14% in 2016, voted Democratic by 12% in 2018.  Given the large size of the suburban voting bloc, this was a major shift in Democrats’ favor, spurred by suburban women’s dislike of Donald Trump.  As Yang explained, the Pink Wave can also be attributed to the large number of Democratic women who ran for Congress in 2018.  Of the 38 (now 39) House seats flipped in 2018, Democratic women candidates flipped 21 of them.  For the first time in our nation’s history, there are now over 100 women members of the House of Representatives. 

 “It’s Donald Trump, Stupid”

Despite Trump’s rhetoric to the contrary, Yang’s polling showed that the 2018 mid-terms were a clear referendum on Donald Trump.  Trump motivated mid-term voters either in support or in opposition to him and his presidency.   Given that the Democratic vote was 7% higher than the Republican vote, the mid-term election results tracked very closely to Trump’s approval ratings of about 46%.  92% of voters who approved of Trump’s performance in office voted Republican in the mid-terms.  Conversely, 94% of voters who disapproved of Trump’s presidency voted Democratic in the mid-terms.  An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll confirmed Trump’s importance to mid-term voters:   67% of voters responded that they were sending a message in support of or in opposition to Trump with their 2018 vote.  That was the largest number of “referendum voters” since 1994.  Overall, though, this trend is not new.  Dating back to World War II, the President’s party has suffered mid-term losses, which, to Yang, indicates a consistent desire among American voters to see partisan balance between the executive and legislative branches of government. 

While Donald Trump was unquestionably “on the ballot” in the mid-terms, so were healthcare, the economy, and immigration.  In exit polling, 23% of voters indicated that healthcare was their most pressing concern, and of those, 83% voted for Democrats.  Polling showed that 64% of Americans now believe that the government should play a role in healthcare. The Affordable Care Act and coverage for pre-existing medical conditions are now winning issues for Democrats.  The economy, a strong suit for President Trump, was the second most important issue for voters.  66% of Americans view the economy in favorable terms, which is the highest favorability rating since 2002.  President Trump has a 55% approval rating on the economy, which should help him in 2020, barring an economic downturn.  On immigration, the third most important issue for voters, Republicans again had the advantage.  For voters who said that immigration was their most important issue, 64% voted for Republicans.

Voters also made clear that there is no popular mandate to impeach President Trump.   By a 13-point margin, voters believe that the Russia investigation is politically motivated, and voters oppose attempts to impeach President Trump by a 15-point margin. It was also not clear what effect the Kavanaugh confirmation battle had on the mid-terms.  As Yang explained, the Kavanaugh hearings began just after Labor Day, which is when many voters begin to engage anyway, so it is difficult to tease out whether increased Republican interest was just the usual post-Labor Day spike in voter engagement.  What is clear, according to Yang, is that the Kavanaugh hearings pushed Donald Trump off the front pages, which benefitted Republicans.  The more Trump is in the news, the more Democrats win.

The Results in Maryland 

Apart from Democrats’ inability to unseat Larry Hogan, Democrats in Maryland had a great Election Day.  Brian Frosh won re-election with a higher percentage of the vote than he captured in 2014, and Ben Cardin won a larger percentage of the vote than Chris Van Hollen won in 2016.  Democrats defeated two incumbent Republican County Executives and flipped three County Councils.  In addition, Democrats picked up the 9th District State Senate seat and won six of seven open Delegate seats held by incumbent Republicans.  And, although he did not win the Governor’s race, Ben Jealous won significantly more votes than Anthony Brown won four years ago, and he brought out more Democratic voters, which helped the down-ticket races.

2020:  No Sure Thing

Although November 6 was a very good day for Democrats, there is no clear indication that the results portend a Democratic victory in the Electoral College in 2020.  One reason is that, according to Yang, Democrats have completely lost rural America, and rural America represents a disproportionately large number of electoral votes.  Trump won 61% of rural voters in 2016 and 62% in 2018.  Furthermore, 61% of non-college educated Whites voted Republican in 2018, down only slightly from 2016.  As Yang noted, the basic alignment of voters that emerged in 2016 and allowed Trump to win the White House did not fundamentally change in 2018.  In addition, the economy and border security remain Donald Trump’s strong suits, and those issues will surely be front and center in 2020. 

Yang noted two additional mid-term factors that, while positive for Democrats, have not historically been predictors of electoral success in the following presidential election.  First, Trump’s mid-term approval ratings are hovering around 46% -- consistent with the mid-term approval ratings of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan, and much better than those of Harry Truman, all of whom won a second term.  Second, although Democratic governors and senators were elected (or re-elected) in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin (states which cost Hillary Clinton the White House by just 53,766 votes), Republicans won the governorships of those states in 2010 and 2012, while Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012.  It is therefore difficult to predict the 2020 presidential vote from the 2018 results in those races.  Also, as Yang pointed out, if we look to the Senate as a closer representation of the Electoral College than the House, Republicans now hold 52 Senate seats, with Mississippi to be decided in a runoff on November 27.  [Democrat Mike Espy lost that race.] So, we have our work cut out for us!

When asked to describe a perfect Democratic presidential candidate, Yang suggested that the Democrats need a candidate who can connect with the concerns of rural and working Americans as well as urban and suburban voters, and one who is not perceived as being “from Washington.”  He further suggested that new Democratic messaging will be most successful coming from a younger candidate.  Yang added that he believes that climate change will soon become the “third rail” of politics, particularly for Millennials, and that Democrats must call out President Trump’s lies as well as provide a positive vision for the future of the country. Regardless of the candidate chosen, it was clear from the data Yang presented that Democrats must continue the progress made in 2018 to increase the size of the Democratic electorate, keeping the new Millennial and suburban voters—particularly women—in the fold.