Exit polls aren’t always 100 percent reliable. For example, in 2016, the exit interviews suggested that Donald Trump would lose Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina by small margins. He won all of them.
Let’s take it as given that 2018’s exit polls are likely flawed in the same way. Still, they are among the most interesting polls because they reflect the views of actual voters — not “registered” or “likely,” but the real McCoy. Margins of error we shall always have with us, but they shouldn’t stifle all punditry.
Some of the data about this year’s crop of voters is similar to what we’ve seen in past contests, but there are some trends that should give both Republicans and Democrats cause for reflection.
A majority of voters (56 percent) were over the age of 50. This helped Republicans, as older voters skew more Republican. But it didn’t help as much as it could have: Even among older voters, enthusiasm for Republicans was muted. Of those ages 50 and above, only half gave their votes this year to a Republican candidate. Among the younger set, by contrast, lopsided percentages voted for Democrats. The 18- to 24-year-olds gave 68 percent of their support to Democrats. Among 25- to 29-year-olds, 66 percent voted Democrat. It was 59 percent among voters in their 30s and 52 percent among those in their 40s.
As in the past, white voters have tilted Republican, while minorities strongly favor Democrats. Fifty-four percent of white voters chose Republican this year, while 90 percent of blacks, 69 percent of Hispanics, 77 percent of Asians and 54 percent of other races voted Democrat. That Republicans have failed to make inroads with minority voters — who, come what may, will constitute a larger and larger share of the electorate in the years to come — will yet cause tears. But even in the shorter run, like 2020, this should make Republicans nervous. Whereas 52 percent of white women voted Republican in 2016, the party lost ground in 2018. An equal number of white women gave their votes to Democrats (49 percent) as to Republicans (49 percent).
Another reliable group for Republicans has been married adults. Fifty-two percent of married voters chose Trump in 2016. Fifty-six percent had been Romney voters in 2012. But in 2018, the percentage of married people who voted Republican dropped to 47 percent. Now, it’s possible that many Republican voters sat out this midterm and we are thus getting a skewed picture of how married voters will behave in 2020. But that’s not a good sign for the party’s health, either. Republicans are usually better about voting in off years than Democrats.
What about the white non-college men we’ve heard so much about? Seventy-one percent voted Republican in 2016. In 2018, there was a little slippage. Only 66 percent voted Republican this time. Results were similar for white non-college women. It may not mean anything, but when races are won by such slender margins, who can say what’s significant and what isn’t?
Many politicos suggest that elections these days are decided by riling up and turning out the base, not by persuading the middle. Maybe that’s right. But if it isn’t, Republicans might want to look over their shoulders at what’s happening with independents. Fifty-four percent of self-described independents voted Democrat in 2018, compared with only 42 percent in 2016. Among those calling themselves “moderates,” 52 percent voted for Clinton two years ago, while 62 percent voted Democrat on Tuesday.
Democrats, too, should comb these exit polls for clues to where they’ve gone wrong. Fifty percent of voters said Trump’s immigration policies are either “about right” (33 percent) or “not tough enough” (17 percent). Portraying immigration policy as a contest between the big-hearted and the bigots is not going to serve Democrats well.
A solid 56 percent of voters oppose the suggestion that Congress should impeach President Trump. While 54 percent of voters have an unfavorable view of the president, that is nothing like the 90 percent disapproval among Democrats. Opinions of the Democratic Party aren’t so hot, either. Only 48 percent have a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party (versus 44 for the Republican Party), and only 31 percent have a positive view of Nancy Pelosi.
A number of high-profile, high-octane, lefty candidates were defeated — Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum and (likely) Stacey Abrams. This should cue the Democrats to look to their right for more viable choices. In the Republican Party, alas, it was mostly the moderates who were defeated — another artifact of Trump’s rise. The sensible middle still waits for a voice.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.