The Deepening American Divide

A political scientist on how “the 2018 results are intensifying the 2016 cleavages.”

Anti-Trump protestors rally outside of McKenzie Arena, where U.S. President Donald Trump was holding a rally in support of Republican Senate candidate Rep. Marsha Blackburn, November 4, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Anti-Trump protesters rally outside of McKenzie Arena, where U.S. President Donald Trump was holding a rally in support of Marsha Blackburn, on Sunday in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Blackburn won on Tuesday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

To discuss the results of tonight’s election, I spoke by phone with John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University, and the co-author (with Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck) of the new book Identity Crisis: The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle For the Meaning of America. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity and took place as results were still pouring in, we discussed the big lessons to be learned from the midterms, what Trump’s focus on immigration is doing to American voters, and whether the Democratic Party—despite its large national margins in the House—needs to change.

Isaac Chotiner: Your book essentially argues that politics is becoming increasingly correlated with identity. How do you think tonight’s results confirm or push back against that thesis?

John Sides: To me, the midterms look like the identity crisis that we saw in 2016 in two ways. One, the continued salience of issues like immigration, mainly because of what Trump said and was doing particularly in the closing weeks of the campaign, but really all the way through the first two years of his presidency. It’s not as if we changed the subject to infrastructure week. In some sense, American voters are being confronted with the same series of racially charged messages that they heard in the last campaign.

And the second thing is that people’s views on issues like immigration were much more strongly related to how they were going to vote in the House election than was true in 2014 or 2012. And that was already baked in six months ago. That wasn’t even a consequence of the caravan, or anything like that. And so in some sense, when you have politics and partisanship increasingly aligned with these identities, it will matter in races up and down the ballot even when Trump himself isn’t on the ballot.

Why are you singling out immigration, and what other issues fall in that basket?

The lesson from 2016 was that it was a constellation of immigration, views of African Americans, views of Muslims. I haven’t looked at all those things as they pertained to the congressional race this year, but if you look at the ideas and messages and debates we have continued to have after Trump’s election, the centerpieces of his presidency, and therefore the information Americans are confronting, Muslims continue to be a part of that. Racially charged politics focusing on African Americans continues to be a part of that. And certainly, you can see individual candidates using that playbook. It may not be the dominant theme for all candidates, but obviously racially charged messages from people like Brian Kemp in Georgia are very much in the same spirit.

Do you think Democrats can do anything specific to blunt these messages?

I don’t think it’s very easy. One thing that we show in the book is that the alignment between partisanship and issues like race and immigration has been building for a number of years. And some of the surprising shifts that helped Trump win in 2016, the so-called Obama-Trump voters in the Rust Belt, the seeds of that were already there. This wasn’t a temporary aberration or random stroke of luck for the president. It was part of the structure of party coalitions, and he exacerbated it and brought it further along.

In some sense what we are seeing tonight is that Democrats don’t have to get them back to win in some places, because of the countervailing reaction that is going to help them [in places] that have larger numbers of better-educated white voters and nonwhite voters.

OK, but do you think the Democratic Party needs to change? I ask not because they can’t win the House—they did tonight—or the presidency again, but rather because, given the way our system works with the existence of the Senate and the electoral college and urban voters being underrepresented in the House, they really can’t ever hope to have as much political success if they don’t?

That’s a very fair point. But it’s still messier than that. Sherrod Brown in Ohio, the governor’s race in Michigan, the statewide races in Pennsylvania. In some sense the demographics, which aren’t necessarily always working to their advantage can be overcome, and not because the Party reinvented itself or its message, but really because there are dynamics on the ground that involve some specific candidates, and a host of other factors, which means you don’t have to execute a grand strategy in the bowels of the DNC offices to be able to compete in places that surprised you in 2016.

Every election, the losing party is told they have to do something. How often does that advice turn to be true or necessary? The track record is not good. In 2004, John Kerry loses and there are op-eds the next day about “values voters” that the Democrats need to appeal to. Does Obama win because of values voters? No, he does nothing to appeal to them as far as I can tell. Then after 2012, the same story: Republicans have to get on the right side of young people and woman and racial and ethnic minorities. Well, they go as far as possible in the opposite direction. So for that reason I tend to be a little bit cautious assuming you have to fight the last battle to win the next battle.

What did you make of Democratic strength in the Midwest tonight, and lesser success in the Southeast? There had been this sense that the Midwest was trending away from Dems and hope that Florida and North Carolina and Georgia and Arizona would slowly move into their column.

Florida is a close state, statewide. It’s a close state tonight. I don’t want to make our vision of Florida hinge on a one or two percent shift in the outcome, which is what it would take to go from two Republican wins to two Democratic wins. As for Texas and Arizona, these are trending in the Democratic direction, and Clinton did better in these states than Obama did. But that process is still underway, and there was no guarantee they would pull it off tonight. But what you can probably can see in the Texas Senate race—that’s one of the best outings the Democratic Party has had in years, if not the best, since 1994. The loss is hard for Democrats to swallow, but behind the loss is a victory, which has to do not with just a successful candidate like Beto, but the fact that there is the potential for the state to continue to shift. It doesn’t feel good to lose, but it doesn’t mean there are not some silver linings if you are Democrats in these states.

Any other big takeaways tonight?

You are seeing continued polarization, and the easiest way to pick that up when you just have very crude maps is the urban-rural divide. And give the urban-rural divide proxies in terms of beliefs and values, it suggests in some sense the 2018 results are intensifying the 2016 cleavages. I am saying this early, but the early returns from rural places in Missouri represent a pretty sharp shift from how Claire McCaskill did six years ago. Some of the battle lines are hardening or sharpening, and it’s quite likely those geographic divisions are overlaid with the attitudes we talk about in our book—questions about identity and exclusion and inclusion in the American polity.

What did you make of Trump’s chances going into 2020 before tonight, and what do you think now?

It hasn’t changed at all. It’s a pretty equivocal set of circumstances. You have on the one hand pretty robust economic growth, which is the number one thing a president wants to get re-elected, but Trump is polling maybe 20 points below where he should be given how positively people feel about the economy. The question is whether the personal price he has been paying for his scandals and controversies overshadows the economy, which was already on display in 2018. Republicans wants to talk about the economy. What did Trump say? Trump said it wasn’t interesting. That is a quote from his rally. So instead he talks about the caravan. None of that is helping him reap the benefits of economic growth. Normally the economy and approval would line up with each other. That’s what I mean when I say equivocal. One thing says re-election; the other thing says maybe not.