2018 Was A Very Good Election For Democrats, And An Even Better One For Their Future

This piece is part of a series by NDN analyzing the 2018 election.

Much has been made about whether to call the 2018 midterms a “wave” election for Democrats. During election night, pundits were quick to capitalize on some early evening setbacks for Democrats to argue that the Party had underperformed their polls. However, with a dominating performance in California and strong results in Arizona coming in over the past week, it is clear that 2018 was indeed an historic wave election for Democrats.

National Popular Vote

The House popular vote is the best way to conceptualize the election results as a whole. It includes every voter in the country, isn’t affected by district gerrymandering, and ignores the partisan lean of the Senate seats up in a given year’s cycle. As of November 17th, Democrats had a 7.7% lead in the popular vote ahead of Republicans, and this is likely to end up close to 8% once all of California’s ballots are counted. How does this compare to previous elections? Firstly, it will likely be the largest popular vote win by any party in a national election since 1996 (when Democrats won by 8.5%) – larger than Republican’s 6.8% margin in 2010, Obama’s 7.2% margin in the 2008 presidential election, and likely Democrat's 8% margin in 2006. Second, compared to the three definitive midterm “wave” elections of the modern era (1994’s 7.1% margin for Republicans, 2006’s 8% margin for Democrats, and 2010’s 6.8% margin for Republicans), it is right at the top. Third, while Democrats have passed the 7.7% margin twice in the modern era, this margin is larger than any Republican electoral margin since 1988 (when Bush won the presidency by a 7.8% margin) and any Republican House margin since 1946 (when Republicans won by 8.5%). Fourth, the Democrats have won 53% of the vote in 2018 so far and are on track to hit near 53.2% once all of California comes in, which beats Obama’s 52.9% in 2008 for the largest percentage won by Democrats since 1986. Finally, the 37-40 seat pick-up by Democrats (depending on a few seats not yet called) will be the largest gain by Democrats since 1974. Clearly then, this election was one of the best showings by either political party in recent decades.

Young Voters

Even more decisive than its actual results, however, was what this election said about the future of the two-party system. In every demographic group that will increase its share of the electorate in future years, Democrats won unprecedented victories. Firstly, young people. Democrats won the 18-29 age group by 35%, the largest margin by any party for that demographic group ever recorded (data goes back to 1992 for House races and 1976 for Presidential ones). For context as to how dramatic a shift this has been, in 1998 this age group went 50-50 to Democrats and Republicans. For all under 45s, Democrats won by 25%, also the largest margin ever recorded for this group. As late as 2004, Republicans were winning this demographic group by 1% (and by 6% in 2002). The catastrophic Republican performance among young people cannot be overstated. In every single state with an exit poll in 2018, Democrats won the 18-29 group, including deep red seats like Mississippi (D+6 among 18-29 year olds), Tennessee (D+16), and Georgia (D+29). In Texas, a state where Republicans won 18-29 year olds by 5% in 2008, Democrats won that age group by 42%.

Hispanic and Asian Voters

Hispanic voters, who made up 11% of the electorate this year compared to 6% in 1998, showed a very similar trend. Democrats won the Hispanic vote by 40% in 2018, the 2nd highest margin among this demographic group since 2000 after Obama’s 44% margin in 2012. By comparison, Democrats won Hispanics by only 26% in 2014. Among Asian voters, who this year comprised 3% of the electorate versus 1% in 1998, Democrats won by 54%, their highest ever margin among this demographic. Among college-educated voters, meanwhile, Democrats won by a 20% margin, also the highest margin for either party since at least 1992. This compares to a Republican win of college-educated voters by 3% in 2014 and by 8% in 2010.

Democrats won an historic victory in 2018 among all voters, but their dominating victories among all of the emerging demographic groups should cause Republicans significant concern. In the early 2000s, the Republican Party put significant effort into reaching these voters, and they were rewarded in the 2004 presidential election with historic support from under 45s (R+1) and Hispanics (D+9). Under Trump, however, the party has harshly veered from that trajectory and has been decisively repudiated by those groups as a result. The R+1 among under 45s in 2004 has turned into a D+25 in 2018, while the D+9 among Hispanics in 2004 has turned into a D+40 in 2018. Unless Republicans can dramatically change how they are viewed by these groups, their long term path to power seems difficult.