A month has passed since the Presidential election and by now we can be sure that the Midwest was the region that not only swung the election for Trump but swung the furthest right from 2012 to 2016. While Democrats are quick to indict the inept Clinton campaign (they certainly have reason to) they should also consider that few predicted the Midwest would swing so red. And that is a problem for Democrats.
Over at Fivethirtyeight.com, one of my favorite statisticans, Harry Enten (despite his liberal leanings), has already tested out this idea. Enten took Presidential approval data from 2012 and Obama’s margin of victory and matched Obama’s 2015 approval numbers (2016 numbers have not been released yet) to Clinton’s vote share in 2016. The results are below.
|DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL VOTE MARGIN||OBAMA’S APPROVAL RATING IN STATE RELATIVE TO NATION|
For the most part the table shows a clear correlation between Obama’s 2015 approval dropping in states he won in 2012 and Clinton’s performance. For example, in Maine the President won the state by 15 percent but by 2015 his approval was in negative territory. Clinton’s margin in the state was a narrow 2.7 percent. Likewise, in Midwest Iowa and Ohio, the President saw his approval drop into negative territory and the states went full-bore for Trump.
Some polls in 2016 managed to catch this sea-change. But, for the most part they did not fully capture just how red the Midwest had become in a mere 4 years. For example, even when Trump was sinking nationally after the Conventions or the release of the Hollywood TV tape his numbers stubbornly did not move in Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and even Michigan.
Historically, the Midwest has swung between the parties. Ohio did not get a reputation for being a national bellwether by chance. Likewise, until partisanship became more deeply entrenched in the 80’s the region often swung between the parties at all levels of governance.
American politics is cyclical and often a trend favoring one party will be countered by another. With the advent of the South becoming strongly Republican the Midwest correspondingly turned a shade of blue. At least in federal races. At the state and legislative level the region still was redder than not.
I’m forced to think back to the 2004 election which was the first election I seriously considered. Looking at the Congressional map the Republican majority at the time was not based out of the South but the Midwest (keep in mind back then white, Southern Democrats still existed). Republicans needed this region’s votes and they got them (at least in Congressional contests).
Of course the 2006 and 2008 elections bucked this trend. Still, it is worth noting that in the wave election of 2010 the Midwest gave the GOP more Senate and House seats than any other region in the US (more than the South). Even in 2012 when Obama was crushing Romney in the region the GOP maintained their strong majorities in legislative and Congressional delegations (though redistricting did play a part in this).
Ir is hard to extrapolate exactly when the region turned against Democrats. But between 2012 and 2014 the region sure looked pretty darn red. Iowa elected Joni Ernst to replace liberal icon Tom Harkin and the party did not lose a single governorship. Even if the environment was tough for Democrats they still should have been able to take mansions in Maine or Florida or another contested state. Nope.
Now, as Democrats go forward they are searching for answers to find a way to appeal to Midwestern voters. Some Democrats have floated the idea of populism in the form of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Bernie Sanders did well in the region (winning Michigan and Wisconsin).
However, if populism offered the party a sure-fire way forward the party should have done better in federal races. For example, Russ Feingold in Wisconsin and Ted Stickland in Ohio should have done better than Clinton if populism promised a way forward. Instead, both actually fared worse than Clinton in their comeback bids.
This is not to say Democrats should not actively try to fine-tune their message to create a broader coalition. But, the party is competitive in Sunbelt states partly because it has alienated voters in the Midwest. Running on a new platform might make them lose ground in these states.
This election, Democrats were stuck in awkward electoral spot where Sunbelt states like North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and Arizona became bluer but not enough to give Clinton in Electoral votes. Meanwhile, the Midwest had become red enough for the right Republican to finally get their Electoral votes. That does not portend well for a quick Democratic recovery.