Obama-Trump voters turn back to Democrats

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AMONG the many ways that Donald Trump has transformed American politics is by rearranging the country’s electoral map. In 2016 he broke through the “blue wall” that the Democrats fancied themselves to enjoy in the upper Midwest, winning three states with large populations of white voters without college degrees—Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania—that had not supported a Republican for decades. He also set record lows for a Republican presidential candidate’s performance in areas with higher levels of schooling, such as Orange County, California. This proved to be a prudent trade in the presidential race: the higher-education regions that repudiated him were clustered in uncompetitive states like Texas and California, whereas the lower-education ones that embraced him were concentrated in hotly contested battleground states.

In the 2018 mid-terms, however, Mr Trump’s party appears to have been stuck with all of the electoral costs of this strategy and none of the gains. Whites with college degrees still flocked to the Democrats: Orange County, previously home to four House Republicans, is expected to send none to the next Congress. However, many of the regions that defected from the Democrats to support Mr Trump in 2016 returned to their liberal roots this year.

Recently released vote breakdowns of Senate races by county show a clear “boomerang” pattern. The more ground Hillary Clinton lost in a county in 2016 relative to Barack Obama’s performance in 2012, the more ground Democratic Senate candidates picked up in 2018 compared with her vote shares. In many cases, the reversal was nearly complete: on average, counties that “swung” from the Democrats to the Republicans by around ten percentage points from 2012-16 shifted nine points back towards the Democrats from 2016-18. Most of these counties were in the Midwest, which has emerged as America’s most politically fickle region.

Democrats cannot rest on their laurels for long. Even in a “wave” election in which voters flocked to the polls to reject the unpopular president, incumbent senators in Ohio and Michigan were only re-elected by mid-single-digit margins, while those in Indiana and Missouri were defeated handily. In a less favourable political environment for the party—which, barring an economic slowdown, the 2020 presidential campaign is likely to feature—it might be the Democrats’ turn to suffer whiplash from these “swingiest” of counties.

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