Exit Polls Show the GOP May Be Digging Itself Into an Ideological Hole

Ten takeaways from Tuesday’s results.

Donald Trump at a podium with the presidential seal.
President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Mosinee, Wisconsin, on Oct. 24 Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

There are three things you can count on after every election: panic, clichés, and self-serving bullshit. The president will claim to have buoyed his party. The gun lobby will claim to have punished its enemies. The left will fret about racism. The right will boast of a backlash against the left. People on all sides will interpret the results as mandates for their agendas.

Fortunately, there’s a way to sort out what’s true and what isn’t: by studying exit polls. This year, in addition to the traditional survey (organized by Edison Research for ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC), there’s a second poll, organized by NORC for the Associated Press and Fox News). Together, the two surveys tell us a lot about what voters were thinking. They wreck the spin you’re hearing from both parties, and they point to serious underlying problems for the GOP. Here are the main takeaways.

1. President Trump cost Republicans the House. Trump will say he rescued his party. Ignore him. The GOP won handily among people who said Trump wasn’t a factor in their votes. What gave Democrats their majority was a victory margin of 15 to 20 percentage points among people who cited Trump as a factor.

Most voters disapproved of Trump’s job performance and said they viewed him unfavorably. The hardcore anti-Trump vote—those who strongly disapproved of the president’s performance and viewed him very negatively—was around 45 percent. Two of every 8 people said they were voting to support Trump, but 3 of 8 said they were voting to oppose him. The evidence that he hurt his party is decisive.

Voters disapproved of Trump’s performance on immigration, trade, Supreme Court nominations—virtually every issue but the economy. They said he wasn’t honest or trustworthy (by a 26-point margin), didn’t care about people like them (by 17 points), and didn’t have the right temperament to be president (by 29 points). Most voters said Trump’s administration was less ethical than previous administrations; only a quarter said his administration was more ethical. Even on his supposed strengths, he was found wanting. Voters were evenly split on his performance on border security. Most said he wasn’t a strong leader. More said he had made the country less safe from crime (35 percent) than said he had made it safer (27 percent).

2. Brett Kavanaugh hurt Republicans. Remember all that Republican clucking about the “Kavanaugh bump”? Turns out it was just a “Trump-absent-from-the-news” bump. In the network exit poll, voters said by a slight margin, 47 percent to 43 percent, that they opposed Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Those who supported Kavanaugh voted overwhelmingly for Republicans, but those who opposed Kavanaugh voted even more overwhelmingly for Democrats. In the AP/Fox poll, Republicans won among the 25 percent of people who said the Kavanaugh debate wasn’t important to their vote. But among people who said Kavanaugh was somewhat important, Republicans lost narrowly. And among voters who said Kavanaugh was very important—nearly half the electorate—the GOP lost by 13 percentage points.

3. #MeToo didn’t help Democrats much. Many Democrats thought the uprising against sexual abuse and harassment would help them. In reality, it seems to have cut both ways. In the AP/Fox survey, 78 percent of voters said they were concerned about women not being believed in sexual misconduct cases. Forty-three percent said they were very concerned. But these numbers were almost matched by the 74 percent who said they were concerned—and the 38 percent who said they were very concerned—about accused men not getting a chance to defend themselves. Voters concerned about women leaned Democratic, but voters concerned about men leaned Republican. In the network survey, Democrats won big among the 46 percent of voters who said sexual harassment was a very serious problem. But among the 38 percent who said harassment was only a somewhat serious problem, Republicans narrowly prevailed, 50 percent to 48 percent.

One other data point is worth noting: In the AP/Fox survey, 66 percent of voters said that pressure to be “politically correct” has gone too far. It’s not clear what these voters meant, but 66 percent is a higher number than either of the surveys found in support of any conservative policy. Democrats need to figure out what’s triggering this resentment.

4. The gun issue hurt Republicans. Gun owners notoriously vote on this issue, and their opponents notoriously don’t. But this year’s data seem to favor Democrats. In the network poll, 59 percent of voters supported stricter gun control; only 37 percent opposed it. When people were asked which of four issues was most important to their vote, 10 percent named gun policy, and Democrats won these voters, 70 percent to 29 percent. In the AP/Fox poll, 61 percent of voters said gun laws should be stricter (only 8 percent said gun laws should be less strict), and Democrats won these voters 69 percent to 25 percent. People who cited abortion as their top issue overwhelmingly voted Republican, but people who cited guns as their top issue overwhelmingly voted Democratic.

5. Violence hurt Republicans, but not much. Anti-Semitic, anti-black, and anti-immigration hate crimes preceded the election, and Trump dealt with them poorly. But Republicans countered by focusing on Democratic “mobs,” and that response seems to have limited the political damage to the GOP. In the AP/Fox survey, most voters said that Republicans tend to talk about politics in ways that lead to violence, and most voters said that Democrats don’t tend to talk that way. But the difference was surprisingly small. In the network survey, Republicans lost big among the 23 percent of voters who said “recent extremist violence” was the top factor in their vote. But half the electorate said the recent violence was only one important factor, and Republicans came close to splitting that bloc.

6. Russia fizzled. In the AP/Fox poll, voters were closely divided on whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with the Russian government in 2016. Forty-eight percent said yes; 50 percent said no. But Republicans seem to have persuaded many people to distrust special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. In the network poll, a narrow plurality, 46 percent to 41 percent, disapproved of the way Mueller has handled the investigation. When voters asked whether the investigation was justified or politically motivated, most said it was politically motivated. By a margin of 56 percent to 39 percent, voters said Congress shouldn’t impeach Trump. For all we know, Mueller will release more bombshells after the election. But what he made public beforehand wasn’t enough to tilt the outcome.

7. Voters don’t share Trump’s hard line on immigration. Trump will claim that GOP victories in key states, following his campaign against the migrant caravan, signal popular support for his policies. Conversely, some people on the left will see these Republican victories as an outburst of bigotry. But the numbers don’t support these conclusions. In the network poll, 46 percent of voters said Trump’s immigration policies were too tough; only 17 percent said they weren’t tough enough. In the AP/Fox poll, a narrow majority, 52 percent to 47 percent, opposed a border wall. When voters were asked whether immigrants living in the United States illegally should be deported or offered a chance to apply for legal status, 69 percent chose legal status. And while 39 percent of voters said that immigrants hurt the country more than they help it, 59 percent said the opposite: that immigrants help more than they hurt.

8. The problem for Democrats on race is complacency, not hate. Most Americans don’t agree with white nationalists or with Republican politicians who hype voter fraud. By a margin of 53 percent to 36 percent, voters said they were more concerned that people might be unfairly prevented from voting than that some people might vote illegitimately. In both polls, more than 40 percent of voters said that society favors whites over minorities; fewer than 20 percent said that society favors minorities over whites. But roughly a third of voters said that society doesn’t favor any race, and these voters went Republican by more than 2 to 1. These pivotal voters support the GOP not out of overt animus, but because they believe the country has become fair enough.

9. The economy cuts both ways. In both surveys, two-thirds of voters said the economy was excellent or good, and these people voted decisively for Republicans. But when the question was framed in personal terms—whether your family is doing better or worse financially—most voters said they were only holding steady or losing ground, and these people voted decisively for Democrats.

10. Republicans might be digging themselves into an ideological hole. By some measures, the country is closely divided. In the AP/Fox poll, 49 percent of voters said the government should do more to solve problems, and 49 percent said it shouldn’t. On health care, 52 percent of voters said the Affordable Care Act should be totally or partially repealed, while 47 percent said it should be kept as is or expanded.

By other measures, however, the electorate leans more toward socialism than Republicans, and perhaps voters themselves, would like to admit. Only 41 percent of voters said the government shouldn’t be responsible for providing health care; 58 percent said it should. Seventy percent said our economic system favors the wealthy too much, and 63 percent said it doesn’t favor the poor enough.

Going into the election, some Republicans wondered why Trump was working so hard to stir up fear and anger about immigration. They thought he should run a more upbeat campaign focusing on the economy. The exit polls suggest that Trump’s decision may have been smart. Among voters who named the economy as their top issue, Republicans won by 20 to 30 points. But among those who named immigration as their top issue, Republicans won by 50 to 60 points. By focusing attention on immigration, and by appealing to voters who cared about that issue, Trump may have done more to boost the GOP’s margins than he would have by running on the economy.

But over the long term, this emphasis on base mobilization leaves Republicans with a problem: They’re losing the middle. Both of this year’s election surveys show that Republicans propped up their numbers by winning more than 80 percent of self-identified conservatives. That sounds great, until you notice that conservatives are only 36 percent of the electorate. Republicans didn’t just lose liberals. They lost moderates by 22 to 26 points. And moderates were more than a third of the electorate.

You can win one election as the out party, even with a toxic boor leading your ticket. You can cut your losses in the next election, with the help of a friendly Senate map, by mobilizing a third of the country, even as you alienate the rest. But you can’t hang on that way forever. This year, Trumpism cost Republicans the House. Next time, the price might be higher.