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.
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.
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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