The battleground for the 2020 presidential election may have been mapped out by Tuesday’s midterms and exit polling shows it lies smack dab in the middle of America’s suburbs.
Nearly 50 percent of the electorate is suburban, which this year was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats -- at 49 percent each -- according to the National Election Poll, the exit poll of almost 19,000 respondents often cited by the national media. For the last two decades, suburban voters have leaned slightly Republican, as was the case in 2016 when Donald Trump outpolled Hillary Clinton by four percentage points. In contrast, urban voters supported Democrats by a 33-point margin in this year’s midterms, while Republicans carried rural areas by 14 points.
"There’s an old adage in demographics that density equals Democrats, but the Democrats are starting to show significant strength in the less dense suburbs,” said Karlyn Bowman, a demographics expert at the American Enterprise Institute. She predicted that “the suburbs will continue to be a competitive area of focus” in 2020.
Sarah Chamberlain, president of Main Street Republican Partnership, noted that “Republicans won or lost by a little bit -- it wasn’t a blow-out in the suburbs.”
One of the biggest shifts in suburban voting patterns involves married women. In 2016, for the first time since exit polling began in 1980, married women slightly supported the Democratic presidential candidate, 49 to 47 percent. That shift became more pronounced this year with married women supporting Democrats by 54 percent to 44 percent. “Trump’s temperament and demeanor has exacerbated the movement of married women towards the Democrats,” said Bowman.
In 2018 there was also a pronounced education gap, as white college-educated women supported Democrats by a whopping 20 points, 59 percent to 39 percent, whereas white college-educated men supported Republicans, though by a much narrower margin, 51 percent to 47 percent. Republicans overwhelmingly captured white non-college-educated men (+34) and women (+14).
“The divides keep growing, with there being big gaps between urban and rural, and between college versus non-college educated voters,” said Joe Lenski, executive vice president of Edison Research, which conducts the exit polls for the national media. “Last night, the Democrats made significant gains in the suburbs and it was evident all over the country. For the Democrats, suburban educated women were the tipping point in many congressional races.”
In most elections, whichever candidate or party captures independent voters usually wins, and this was the case in the 2018 midterms. Two years ago, Trump carried independent voters, 46 percent to 42 percent, whereas the Democrats won independents on Tuesday, 54 percent to 42 percent. This was particularly pronounced among independent men, who flipped from supporting Trump in 2016 by 12 points to supporting the Democrats by seven this year. The trend of independent women supporting Democrats widened from a five-point advantage in 2016 to a 17-point lead in 2018.
“Independent men are flipping to the Democrats because independent women are turned off by the tone of the Republican Party and they are talking to their husbands, fathers and brothers,” said Chamberlain.
In 2016 one the hardest figures for the left to digest was that white women supported Trump, 52 percent to 43 percent. While the 2018 midterms set a record for the largest gender gap -- with women supporting Democrats by a whopping 19 points -- once again white women were not fully aligned with the Democrats and broke evenly at 49 percent for Republicans and Democrats.
“If these trends continue to tick downwards, Republicans will continue to lose elections,” said Chamberlain. “Trump needs to stop tweeting, stop name calling and focus on his accomplishments and policies.” She added, “These suburbanites will come back to the Republican Party if we talk about the ideas and policies that matter to their lives.”