Historic. That pretty much sums up the 2018 midterm elections. We crossed – and crushed – the 100 million votes barrier for a midterm, ending up somewhere in the realm of 114 million votes cast. As a percentage of registration, it may end up being the highest midterm turnout on record, approaching presidential turnout in some states. We recognized this trend in our polling data, as seen in the public polls we conducted ten days out.
The composition of the electorate was also interesting. 16% of participants – 18 million people – were first-time voters in a midterm election, according to the National Exit Polls. This group was younger (47% age 18 – 29 and 36% 30 – 44) and leaned heavily Democratic, with 62% of them choosing a Democrat for the US House. 46% of these first-midterm voters were non-white.
35% of midterm voters were under the age of 45. Those under 30 voted Democratic by 34 points and voters age 30 – 44 were D+19. We saw similar data in our own exit polling in deep-red Alabama. Younger Alabamians chose the Democratic candidate for Governor by 12 points, while voters over the age of 50 supported the Republican candidate by 37 points. Talk about a swing!
College graduates preferred Democratic candidates by 10 points, and Republicans only won $100k+ voters by 5 points. These voter groups usually give Republicans a good cushion, but not this year. At least it wasn’t a surprise: every single one of our 438 surveys this year showed this trend.
White midterm voters were R+10, Latino voters were D+40, and Asian voters were D+54. Republicans must alter course on how we talk about issues and what we focus on. This is possible, but it takes effort, resources, and time. Research is the key to help us understand what matters to diverse communities and how best to communicate that Republican ideals are the best way to advance the causes of those communities. In that research, we need to learn what drove them to vote so heavily Democratic, what motivates them as people, and what will break the long-time trend of being anti-Republican.
In a changing state legislative district in Montgomery, Alabama – the birthplace of both the Civil War and Civil Rights – one of our clients went beyond the traditional Republican playbook and saw massive success. In his August benchmark survey, he was only at 46.6% against a completely unknown Democrat. We learned the top issue by almost a majority (47%) was education, followed by public safety. Using the information from our polling, the client executed a highly-targeted campaign that didn’t hit on any traditional Republican issues. He engaged the African-American community, which is usually written off by Republican candidates. The result? He earned 61% of the vote and outperformed the top of the ticket by 11 points.
Looking back at 2016, Donald J. Trump took a similar tack by finding a niche and expanding turnout among the group. This approach led to him winning Rust Belt states that had not voted Republican since the Apple IIe came out. Those same voters turned against Trump’s party in 2018.
As we now turn to the 2020 election cycle – yes, there are crazy people like us already thinking about it – what can we learn from the 2018 midterm elections, and how can those lessons be applied to ensure victory in two years?
First, Republicans cannot ignore younger voters. Despite the economy booming and consumer and business confidence at record highs, these voters aren’t satisfied with how Republicans handled the other issues, like healthcare, guns, and immigration. They care more about quality of life issues than simply “am I better off financially than I was two years ago.”
Second, Republicans must branch out beyond their traditional comfort-zone issues of the economy, national security, and the 2nd Amendment. I’m not suggesting we change our position on any of the important topics, but victory in 2020 depends on us broadening the discussion. Just look at Senator Rob Portman’s massive 2016 win. It happened because he talked about addressing the opioid crisis, and by means other than simply getting “tough on crime.”
Third, donors need to double down and spend now on research. Yes, it seems a bit self-serving, but investing resources early to understand this rapidly changing electorate will pay long-term dividends. The president, our congressional candidates, and our legislative candidates all need to know the six to eight key issues that speak to the 15% of voters who are persuadable beyond party. Additionally, we need a thorough understanding of how to re-motivate the 2016 Trump voters. This will require a tight balancing act so as not to turn off the base while reaching out to swing voters.
Fourth, one-size-fits-all campaigns have to go. I love TV ads, and they’re the fastest way to move numbers. At the same time, they need to be more nuanced in messaging and targeting. Digital is a great tool, but it needs more coordination with the other targetable tools of voter persuasion. And while we’re on the digital topic, please quit running TV ads online; invest in creative that fits the audience and channel, which is different from Facebook to Instagram to pre-roll.
Most importantly, we need to invest more in one-on-one relationships with voters. The only time voters hear from Republican candidates shouldn’t be in ads and a knock or two at the door. The only way voters will know Republicans care is if we take time to be involved in their communities, understand their issues, speak their language, and appeal to their core motivators.
All in all, 2018 was not a horrible election year for Republicans when looking at it through a historical lens. There were significant cracks in the coalition that brought President Trump to power. The American electorate is becoming less friendly toward Republicans, and Republican candidates have room for improvement in their approach to campaigning. But I’m confident we will learn the lessons from the 2018 midterms, invest more in motivation and messaging research, and win the 2020 cycle.