Conventional wisdom holds that Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives because they got clobbered among college-educated women. They did take a beating in that demographic, but opposition from college-educated women doesn’t account for why the GOP lost. The real reason Republicans lost 40 House seats? They lost Independent suburban men.
Exit polls make this clear. Comparing data from the 2014 national House poll and the 2016 presidential and national House polls to those from the 2018 national House polls demonstrates that while the party lost ground among both sexes, men moved more against Republicans than did women. Little difference exists between how men and women of either party voted in any of the three elections. Republican women did not abandon the party (or its presidential candidate, in 2016) and Democratic men and women gave their party (and Hillary Clinton, in 2016) overwhelming majorities. The fact that more men say they are Republican than Democrat and more women say they are Democratic than Republican creates a large gender gap—but this gap predated Trump and was virtually unaffected by him, either in 2016 or in the midterms.
Among Independents, significant differences exist between men and women, with women likelier to support Democrats in all three elections. What matters, though, is how much each group has shifted since 2014, when Republicans won the House. In 2014, Independent men gave Republicans a 19-point advantage, while Independent women gave the GOP only a four-point edge. That yields a 15-point difference—the gender gap among Independent voters. This year, Independent men voted for Democrats by a seven-point margin, while Democrats carried Independent women by 17 points. The Independent gender gap, however, shrunk from 15 to 10 points. That’s because, while women moved 21 points in the Democrats’ favor, men moved 26 points. Independent voters from both sexes shifted blue, but men shifted substantially more.
These data are consistent with what the 2016 exit polls showed. Independent men gave Republicans and Trump an identical 12-point margin, while Independent women voted for Democrats in the House by one point and Clinton by five. Independent men are why Donald Trump is president, and their switch this election is why Republicans lost so many seats in the House.
These facts have great import going forward. While Trump and the GOP must gain more female support, they also need to gain more votes from men. An agenda that focuses almost exclusively on women may help reduce the Democrats’ advantage with female voters, but it likely won’t do much to regain male support. Since we can see, from 2016, that men were likelier to stick with the party and its nominee, a Republican focus on women might leave the party chasing the harder-to-get voters.
Instead of focusing on gender, Trump and Republicans should look at voters’ attitudes. The party and the president won in 2016, despite widespread dislike of Trump, because of what I call “reluctant Trump” voters. These voters tended to agree with Republicans on domestic and foreign policy issues, but they neither liked Trump nor thought he was fit for the job. They reluctantly supported him over Hillary Clinton, however, because they also disliked her and because they were closer to Trump and the GOP on the issues. In short, they chose the lesser of two evils.
Midterms, however, are notoriously poor elections for “choice” campaigns. Voters are primarily motivated by their opinions about the party that holds the White House, and they vote accordingly. The out-of-power party also rarely wages a campaign comprehensive enough to permit voters to know what they might be voting for. The Democrats merely followed longstanding practice in offering no clear agenda to compete with the national GOP. Voters thus did not have to make a choice between competing visions for America.
Presidential elections, by contrast, are inevitably about choice. Large midterm victories in 1994 and 2010 did not help Republican candidates Bob Dole in 1996 or Mitt Romney in 2012 when they ran against Democratic incumbents. That’s because voters looked at the alternatives and decided that they preferred the course they were on—even if they had expressed grave misgivings about it two years prior—to the one they would adopt by choosing change.
Republican efforts going forward, then, must be focused on giving Independent men and women an acceptable choice. They can’t control who the Democrats select to run against Trump, but they can take advantage of any weaknesses that that candidate might possess to set up a clear choice between the parties and their leaders. This has been done before: George H.W. Bush overcame a 17-point deficit in 1988 by showing how the Democratic nominee was out of touch with the country on defense and cultural issues. If Trump and the Republicans understand clearly why their party lost in 2018, they can offer a clear contrast in 2020—one that can help them win.