The State of Trump’s Party

The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 47-

This week:

  • Can Republicans consolidate gains in the Rust Belt?
  • Will Trump’s victory be more lasting than Obama’s was?
  • How the parties fared with different voting groups in 2016

President 2016 Trends

Donald Trump’s victory continues to surprise everyone, and especially to confound liberals. Those Democratic partisans still defending rather than criticizing Hillary Clinton have argued that she came within a combined 110,000 votes of carrying Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which would have been enough to make her president.

Okay, that’s fine. But by that standard, John Kerry came much closer to winning the White House in 2004 than she did in 2016. Kerry lost the popular vote, but he came within about 65,000 votes of winning Ohio and the presidency.

Or to turn it around, Trump came within 91,000 combined votes of carrying Minnesota, Nevada, Maine, and New Hampshire for an even more solid win at 329 electoral votes. That would have put him just three short of the 332 that President Obama won in 2012 — again, despite Trump’s loss of the popular vote.

In fact, none of that stuff happened. The voters chose as they did in the real world. Democrats have more than enough trouble on their hands right now without agonizing over the imaginary closeness of an election in which their entire “Blue Wall” collapsed.

Make the Rust Belt Red again? Republican ascendancy in the Rust Belt has been slow in coming. It did not begin this year, but it might well have taken Trump’s candidacy to push the party over the finish line.

For many years, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin had been trending Republicans’ way when their presidential voting habits are compared to those of the U.S. as a whole. And it stands to reason. There are millions of habitual Democratic voters in places like LaPorte County, Indiana and Noblesville, Ohio. They have been voting Democratic because of economic promises, not really wanting to participate in the increasingly assertive liberal culture war that has become a much more important part of Democratic politics in the last ten years.

Despite all the doubters, Trump really did win these so-called “conservatives of the heart” to whom Pat Buchanan had once referred. The question is whether the party can make it stick now that it’s happened, or whether Trump is, like Barack Obama, a sui generis phenomenon that no other Republican can imitate.

It might well be that the Republican Party is entering an era of strength, even if the long-term demographic challenges it faces are troubling. Trump’s campaign was chaotic, constantly filled with media controversies that he often gleefully egged on and stories about Republican infighting. This seemed to suggest Republican weakness, but it might have actually concealed the fact that the party has made great strides in its ability to close the deal with voters.

Along with Trump’s undeniably unique appeal to non-traditional Republican voters, and the enthusiasm of his supporters, the RNC deserves a lot of credit in his win. Trump’s new chief of staff, Reince Priebus, spent most of his tenure as RNC chairman raising money to develop a data-heavy get-out-the-vote operation modeled after that of President Obama, which would bring the GOP to parity with Democrats.

Trump’s late trips to Minnesota and Michigan indicate that the party and the Trump campaign had all the information they needed to make smart decisions about where to send the candidate.

In Wisconsin, which Clinton failed to visit even once after the Democratic primary was over, the state GOP was aided by Scott Walker’s constant need to win elections, including the recall campaign that was waged against him (Walker overperformed the polls) and the subsequent 2014 re-elect. The state party’s machinery has become perfectly tooled because of the state’s constant political rancor and close elections for everything from president to state Supreme Court to state legislature.

As we noted last week, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., can credit his improbable survival with an intense and successful effort to drive up turnout in Republican strongholds; Trump can credit his (and this shows up clearly on the map) to the appeal he had in rural areas that normally vote Democratic.

If Wisconsin is an example of a state where the GOP is newly competitive, then Ohio is all the more so. Despite opposition to Trump from the state’s popular Republican governor, and despite Clinton’s last-minute visits to receive endorsements from rock and sports stars, Trump won by the biggest margin anyone has since 1988. It may be premature to suggest that Ohio is the next Missouri — a midwestern swing state as recently as 2000 that has since gone solid Red — but it’s not out of the question.

Pennsylvania will now be considered a true swing state, which is better than it had been for the GOP. And then there’s Maine, which Trump lost by only 20,000 votes (he did win one of its electoral votes) and Minnesota, which is sure to become more of a Republican target in the future.

It should not be lost on Republicans that some of their reliable Red states are going to become more competitive in the future than they are now. Arizona and Georgia could eventually go the way of Colorado and Virginia. All the more important, then, to expand the map beyond the old Blue-Red paradigm of 2000 — and Trump has helped them start the process.

House 2016 Analysis

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. In that spirit, we’re about to give you several thousand words on the strength and future prospects of the GOP.

Part of the question Republicans need to be asking themselves now is how much of Trump’s win can be replicated in future elections. It’s hard to say, but one way of measuring party strength while filtering out the noise of individual candidates and personality-driven elections is to look at the national vote for U.S. House, which occurs every two years and which often clashes with the presidential result. (Note that House Republicans won the national popular vote this year by about 3.4 million, despite fielding fewer candidates.)

When looking at that vote over the years, as we are about to do, it also helps to filter out whether one party or another had an especially bad year for reasons peculiar to that year. If we’re interested in seeing how Republicans are doing with various groups, and in whether Trump’s win filtered down to the party’s down-ballot candidates (not all of whom even supported Trump), one approach is to compare each group’s voting patterns compared to the average voter.

This is what the following charts aim to do.

In the charts below, we look at voting patterns among various groups based on the media exit polling done on election day in the last 18 House elections, ending with 2016.

The actual election result is always the x-axis — which is to say, the average voter is always a “zero.” Each group is thus measured either with a positive number (more Democratic than average) or negative one (more Republican than average). By looking at this measurement over time, we see more than just whether one or another group votes for a given party — we also see whether it is becoming more or less loyal to that party, or whether it has shifted its loyalty altogether.


image-4Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2016 election, and certainly the most important shift among religious groups, came with self-described white evangelicals. They again voted in roughly equal numbers to Catholics (26 percent of the electorate versus 25 percent), and the 65-point victory margin they gave to Donald Trump is the largest in at least three decades, and possibly ever. So is the 68-point margin they gave to GOP House candidates in this month’s election.

As for Catholics, despite hand-wringing about Donald Trump repelling them with his high-profile spat with Pope Francis, he ended up carrying the self-identified Catholic vote by 7 points. (Mitt Romney had lost it by two points.) And Catholics voted Republican by exactly the same margin down-ballot. This ratifies a change of loyalty that began in 2010. Catholics (of all races) have now voted more Republican than the average voter in House races for four consecutive elections — something that has never happened before. Catholics had never favored Republicans more than the broader electorate in any election between 1982 and 2008.

We remarked on this phenomenon after the 2014 election as well, but this time it’s even more significant because the margin has grown despite demographic pressure in the opposite direction — i.e., the increasing share of U.S. Catholics who are Hispanic.

A small surprise: Voters who described themselves as belonging to some other religion besides Christianity or Judaism — a very Democratic group — have trended nearly ten points more Republican since 2012. This group includes Muslims, of whom there are about 3.3 million total in the U.S., some smaller number of whom actually vote. “Other” religious adherents made up 7 percent of the electorate this year.

Among the religiously unaffiliated, it appears that they have shifted ten points more Democratic over the last decade. (It could also be that many more Democratic voters now describe themselves this way to exit pollsters than they used to.)

Jews comprised a very small segment of the electorate once again (3 percent), and remained well within their historical range of voting behavior.


image-7This chart is mostly useless, because its overall trends reflect the inflation of the U.S. dollar more than they reflect changes in voting behavior. Which is to say, when this question was asked in 1982, a household bringing in more than $30,000 a year was firmly in the middle class, which is clearly no longer the case, and over time more and more voters have shifted into higher income groups.

However, there is a reason we share it. One group noticeably bucked the inflation trend this year: the lowest income group. Yes, it remains Democratic, but its counterintuitive shift toward the mean indicates that there were Trump coattails for Republican House candidates among lower income white voters. This might also reflect a slight slump in Democratic partisanship among black voters compared to the two Obama elections.


image-2Along with black voters, voters from union households have historically been one of the Democrats’ essential coalition partners. But this is a declining constituency. Their share has fallen from 26 percent of the electorate in 2000 nationally to just 18 percent in both 2012 and 2016.

By losing union household voters by a mere eight points, Trump nearly neutralized this constituency’s value to Democrats. Romney had lost them by 18 points, and George W. Bush had lost them by 22 points in his razor-thin 2000 victory.

Republican House candidates lost union households by only 11 points this time. Because the average voter was also more Republican, this is no better than 2012 on the chart.

But there is a reason we share it here. Although most of the groups pictured in these charts do not show a significant difference between midterm and presidential year voting habits, it does appear that union members have see-sawed between the two recent elections.

On the margin, it appears that the die-hard union midterm voters are significantly more Democratic. The extra marginal union household members who show up only to vote in presidential years seem more likely to vote GOP than their comrades.


image-3Republicans have a real long-term problem here. The belief that voters become more conservative with age (or that more conservative members of each age cohort begin participating later in life) is not without foundation, but at no point since 1982 have the age cohorts been so far apart in their voting patterns.

Remember: The youngest age cohort nearly tied between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, and its vote for House was only two points more Democratic than the average voter. Today, the thought of such a thing happening again seems almost ridiculous.

There are five plausible reasons for this departure, and all probably play some role.

One is Barack Obama, a transformational political figure looked up to by many young people the same way many young conservatives looked up to Ronald Reagan in 1980. Never underestimate the power of an icon.

Second, the culture wars seem to be repelling older age groups from the Democratic party, whereas those younger voters who actually participate in elections seem more attuned to liberal cultural norms on aggregate.

Third, it is noteworthy that the departure began during the Iraq War. There is no question that that event influenced many younger voters to turn away from the party of George W. Bush.

Fourth, the death of Democrats who came of age in the FDR years has sharply shifted the oldest age groups in a more Republican direction. This is one of the least remarked phenomena of the early Twenty-First century, but one of the most significant.

Fifth, and perhaps most important in the long run, an increasing share of young people are non-white today, due mostly to an population increase among Hispanics and higher black voting participation than at the beginning of the century (again thanks in large part to Obama). Some of these will grow up to be more Republican, but on aggregate this is a challenge for the GOP, because on aggregate they are growing up in a culture where no one currently votes Republican.

Donald Trump did not do nearly as badly with 18-29-year-old voters as some expected — he lost them by 18 points, compared to Mitt Romney’s 23 points. Republican House candidates lost them by only 16 points, compared to 22 points in 2012, but compared to a more Republican electorate this time around, they did not trend in a GOP direction.

Unless Republicans find a way to reach the younger generation, they are going to hit a brick wall sometime in the next four presidential cycles. Yes, older people are living longer, but they can’t live forever. A wildly successful Republican presidency that contrasts sharply with Obama’s could also really help change the game.


image-6Yes, here’s that big question-mark looming over the Republican Party, alluded to above. On the presidential level, exit polling suggests that Donald Trump did better than Mitt Romney with non-white voters — but that’s not a huge surprise, given that Romney was running to unseat the first black president.

Even if Trump’s ability to co-opt the white working class was enough to produce an electoral majority in 2016, the GOP needs to win a greater share of black and Hispanic voters if it is to remain competitive in, say, 2028.

And note that it would not be necessary to win majorities with either group. If Republicans could lose the Hispanic vote by just 20 points and the black vote by just 60 points (instead of 80), Democrats would probably never win another presidential election.

Within the House vote, there is evidence that Republicans lost a little bit of ground in 2016 with Hispanic men, who had been trending a bit more Republican, but nothing especially alarming. However, the slight move in a Republican direction by younger blacks might be interesting, especially if it plays out in future elections. Older blacks are tend to be more liberal and brand-loyal to Democrats than black Millennials. This doesn’t mean the latter will ever be a Republican constituency but could represent an area where the GOP can make some inroads with the right message.


image-5This process did not begin with Trump either, but it certainly culminated with him, at least in terms of presidential-year elections. His incredible improvement in GOP voting performance among non-college educated voters (50 percent of the electorate) did indeed create coattails for the House GOP, although Trump did slightly better with them than House Republicans did.

But the number of non-college voters has been in decline, and it’s still a marginal constituency. College graduates without a postgrad degree, on the other hand, split their votes for House evenly between the two parties, meaning they were three points more Democratic than the average voter (as the chart shows) in 2016. This is something the GOP will need to be mindful of, because it can’t afford to lose a constituency that has been solidly Republican but was already trending away from them gradually even before this election.