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Midterm delivers partial repudiation of Trump, political division, likely gridlock

photo of donald trump
REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Trump lost in 2018 for the very reasons he won two years ago.

The 2018 Trump and 2010 Obama midterm results are parallel elections in contrast. While in both years the sitting president was not officially on the ballot, nonetheless it was a referendum on them. Both elections signaled partial repudiation of a sitting president and his party, how divided the country is politically, and how the results did and likely will not break the gridlock in the country. Moreover, what the election demonstrated was how Minnesota served as a microcosm of national politics.

schultz portrait

David Schultz

In 2010 the Obama presidency was repudiated at the polls by what the president did and did not do. He bailed out the banks during the height of the economic crisis, but failed to help homeowners, unions, and others who supported him. He took his base for granted and assumed they would show up to vote, but they did not. He was repudiated in an election frustrated by a demand for change that did not occur, but his party also lost because much of the public thought they overreached.

Trump lost in 2018 for the very reasons he won two years ago. In 2016 Trump successfully appealed to the backlash against identity politics by making his own appeal to identity politics. He played on fear and prejudice two years ago, benefiting from the racial backlash against Barack Obama and also from the sexism and mediocrity of the presidential campaign that Hillary Clinton had waged. He won because he tapped into the anxieties and anger of an electorate that had largely been ignored by the economy, Democrats, and the establishment Republicans, and he benefited from a sense of complacency that the Democrats had in thinking that a person like Trump could never win. Trump’s win was also a product of geography and an Electoral College that overweighted votes from rural areas.

Changed conditions

But in 2018 many of these conditions worked against him, or simply did not exist. Officially it was not a presidential election, though everyone knew it was a referendum on Trump. But this time there was no Electoral College to overweigh rural votes; the geography of the election was not on swing states but instead on swing congressional districts where the battle line was in affluent and well-educated districts where suburban women, repulsed by the sexist and racist campaign that Trump waged, showed up this time to vote against him.

Moreover, in 2018 there was no Hillary Clinton on the ballot to run against, reducing Trump’s electorate to a core base of voters that was far smaller than it was two years ago at a time when the Democratics voted in greater disciple and numbers than two years earlier. The result was that Democrats took control of the U.S. House, leaving the Senate with the Republicans and a presidency with Trump. The most likely scenario is political gridlock.

Minnesota a mirror

Minnesota proved to be a mirror of national politics in many ways but not others. Minnesota Republicans tried to nationalize the state elections by running on immigration, but as former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said, all politics is local. Issues that play well nationally don’t always play well locally, and in part that is why statewide Democrats did well.

Minnesota, with four swing congressional districts, showed it was a major battleground that helped decide control of Congress. Minnesota largely followed the pattern of national politics where Democrats won the suburbs and Republicans did well in the rural areas; one can predict that the Iron Range is now permanently lost to the DFL, perhaps turning the Democratic Party ever more into an urban metro party. The key to success for Democrats taking control of the state House also was through the affluent suburbs.

Overall, both 2010 and 2018 were stories in elections that produced divided government and partial rejections of a sitting president, and that made it even more clear how so many of the patterns found at the national level could be seen at the state level in Minnesota.

David Schultz is a Hamline University professor of political science and a visiting professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. His latest book is “Presidential Swing States: Why Only Ten Matter.” 


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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/07/2018 - 12:48 pm.

    I’m writing this at 12:34 – 2-1/2 hours after Professor Schultz’s column was posted, and there are no comments posted yet. Amazing!!

    If the 8th Congressional District is, as Professor Schultz describes it, “permanently lost” to the DFL, political figures at every level should start paying a lot more attention to reports from the very capable Minnesota state demographer. In an increasingly urban and diverse nation (and state), geography is going to matter less and less, and demography more and more, in determining election day winners and losers. It would behoove residents of “greater Minnesota” to stop stomping their feet and fulminating about the “metro-centric” focus of media, economic activity, entertainment, etc. Those in the state’s metro areas would benefit equally from bringing an end to looking down their noses at those living in the hinterlands.

    I’ve yet to meet a parent who didn’t want the best s/he could manage for her/his children, but lots of rhetoric about the differing values of urban vs. rural dwellers would have a casual observer conclude that they have nothing in common. For what it’s worth, that casual observer, at least in my estimation, is simply wrong. I wan’t here for the Paul Wellstone era, but wasn’t one of his signature phrases, “We all do better when we all do better?” More of that sort of approach to state and local government would benefit all of us.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/07/2018 - 01:30 pm.

      Ideology is the big problem. People in urban areas want more and bigger govt. People in rural areas want less govt typically. It seems far too many in America either don’t value individual freedom or simply don’t care about it. When the next big crash happens, hopefully they start to realize that big govt isn’t the solution.

      As for lack of comments, traffic here is very low and the moderation is heavy handed imo. A healthy debate is good but those who control the site need to let people from other perspectives voice their opinions and concerns. Otherwise it’s just an echo chamber.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/07/2018 - 09:01 pm.

        Yeah, those rural folk are hardy, and don’t need no stinkin’ gubmint.

        Of course, we won’t consider the 12 BILLION in welfare farmers are getting to compensate for the new Don Trump taxes, I mean tariffs. (No wait, I was right the first time, because tariffs are taxes.) Or subsidized crops. That stuff’s OK, it goes to mostly white people so it’s not really welfare of government interference.

        And they can’t afford to pave their roads or repair or update their aging water and sewage treatment facilities without state aid from those evil folk in Saint Paul. And if they want want broad band, they’ll pay for it themselves. We know those GOP legislators they keep electing aren’t going to help. Boot straps all the way baby!

        Such trite non-sense.

        • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/08/2018 - 09:15 am.

          What Trump gives out isn’t really relevant. Or would you like to discuss the hundreds of billions in food stamps, welfare, etc going to the urban population as well? The federal govt shouldn’t be subsidizing anyone but that doesn’t detract from my comment.

          Rural communities could in fact fix their own infrastructure if St Paul wasn’t stealing most of the money to spend m the metro (where roads and streets are still a disaster).

          • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/08/2018 - 09:58 am.

            Please provide data that supports your rhetoric that the Metro is subsidized by rural MN.

          • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 11/08/2018 - 10:27 am.

            Nationally, food stamp participation is highest overall among households in rural areas (16%) and small towns (16%) compared to metro counties (13%).

            In 23% of rural counties, at least 20% of households participate in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, meaning they get monthly food stamps to help them purchase certain types of food.

            Of the top 100 counties with the highest percentage of the population on benefits, only 12 counties are urban/metro (we know what you mean). Of those 12, 10 are in GOP controlled states.


            Also, I would enjoy some statistical fact to prove your assertion that Greater MN subsidizes the metro. If you could provide facts that prove that point in _any_ US state, I would be surprised.

      • Submitted by ian wade on 11/08/2018 - 07:18 pm.

        You don’t seem to have a problem voicing your opinion here, so your charge of “heavy handed” moderation isn’t valid.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 11/07/2018 - 03:48 pm.

    I’ll remind bob barnes that when the last big crash happened, in 2008, it was the government’s interventions that saved the economy. It took massive government intervention to right the ship, but I guess in rural Minnesota the ideological preference for government to go away (and not tax them!) holds strong until there’s a natural disaster to face and only government is big enough, or deep-pocketed enough, to save the situation. You know, like big floods?

    And, although rural Minnesota seems to have an inferiority complex when it compares itself to the huge economic engine that the Twin Cities metro area is, and all the taxes the metro generates to spread around Minnesota, I don’t think anyone in the Twin Cities “looks down on” outstate. It’s outstate that has the problem, despite getting outsized benefits from the state and federal government in comparison with the tax/benefits ratio in the Twin Cities.

    Thanks. we’re real glad to help.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/08/2018 - 09:59 am.

      You got it. One state, baby. The Metro needs rural MN, and rural MN needs the Metro. We rise or fall together.

    • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 11/08/2018 - 03:56 pm.

      One last try. The feds only bailed out the banks in 2008. The problems were papered over with more debt. They are still with us today. Your own post is actually looking down on rural people. You might want to look at what percent of the gas tax is spent in the metro area and how much is spent on bike trails and light rail etc. (things rural people have little to no use for).

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/07/2018 - 09:11 pm.

    Partial repudiation??? Given the significant head wind of a fantastic economy (which started humming in 2017. Just kidding, the recovery started in 2009), Dems did fantastic. Taking the House, and winning 22 of 24 Senate races should not have happened.

    Given how Democrats added to their House numbers in 1998 on the strength of the economy, Don Trump’s forces vastly under-performed that standard.

    When was the last time the party in power, when the unemployment rate is this low, got creamed so badly?

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 11/09/2018 - 11:33 pm.

      I believe that the House takeover (number of seats switched) is within the normal range for a President’s first mid-term (i.e. Clinton, Obama) but the increase in Senate seats by the President’s party is an outlier.

      It is hard to say just when the party in power got creamed this badly with unemployment this low, since unemployment hasn’t really been this low in, well, a rather long time (and with millions more people needing to have jobs just to meet the low rate).

      “Fantastic” will be the wave of change brought in by Speaker…Nancy Pelosi.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/10/2018 - 03:04 pm.

        Well, unemployment was nearly this low in 1998. Of course, that was during Clinton’s second term, when one would expect more voter fatigue relative to the first mid term in 1994. And Clinton and the Dems road that low unemployment rate to a gain of a handful of seats, not a loss.

        Given that, we should have expected the incumbent party to do at least that well, and they failed miserably.

        Losing nearly 40 seats in an economy this good is in no way “within the historical norm.” Not. Even. Close. Some in the GOP apparently are pleased with the results, but I doubt those in the know are. Just look at Don Trump and the way he lashed out at the post election press conference. His legislative agenda is done, there will be numerous investigations, and he knows it. If that guy thinks 2020 is still “looking really easy”, he’s lying to us or to himself.

        As far as the Senate, it’s a different map from one election to the next, as only one third of the seats are up each time. The House makes for a more apples to apples comparison. But note that while R’s were licking their chops over these Senate elections in the wake of the 206 elections, hoping for a 60 seat majority, the D’s won a solid majority of the Senate races.

  4. Submitted by Mary Haltvick on 11/07/2018 - 11:50 pm.

    “one can predict that the Iron Range is now permanently lost to the DFL”

    One might predict that CD8 is lost to the DFL but I would hesitate to say that about the Iron Range. Checking the election results on the MN Secretary of State website, I found that voters in the string of towns that are the Iron Range (Hibbing, Virginia, Chisholm, Buhl, Mt. Iron, Eveleth, Gilbert, Biwabik, Hoyt Lakes), went for Democrats Klobuchar, Smith and Radinovich. I also wouldn’t use the terms CD8 and Iron Range interchangeably.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 11/08/2018 - 10:02 am.

      This is a good point. As population has shifted in the state, CD 8 has grown geographically, and I would expect it to grow again after the census, as long as we keep 8 seats. CD 8 has been stretching southward, and that has contributed to it’s rightward tilt. Iron miners should know their labor rights are not respected by the GOP.

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