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Crosscurrents on a Democratic Election Day

A Commentary By Michael Barone

Friday, November 23, 2018

Some random observations on the 2018 offyear elections, for Thanksgiving weekend pondering:

1. We hear constantly, and in some respects accurately, that Americans are deeply divided politically. Another way to look at it: The differences between north and south, visible for two or three centuries, are vanishing. As Real Clear Politics analyst Sean Trende tweeted, "Southern suburbs are starting to vote like northern suburbs, northern rurals/small towns starting to vote like Southern rurals/small towns."

Republicans, who lost suburban House seats on the coasts and in the Midwest in the 1990s, lost them this year in metro Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. But Republican House seats occupy almost all the territory in the vast heartland beyond the coastal Democratic districts -- even as the party lost its House majority.

2. A few votes can make a huge political difference in the Senate. Democrats held two Senate seats (Montana and West Virginia), gained two from Republicans (Nevada and Arizona) and very narrowly lost one (Florida) with percentages that, rounded off, came to just 50 percent. The result: a 52-47 Republican majority.

But if all these close contests had gone to Republicans, their 52-47 majority would balloon to a near supermajority of 56-43. If they'd all gone Democratic, it would be only 52-48.

3. The moanings and lamentations about redistricting -- and how Republican redistricting put the House out of reach of Democrats -- should come to a sudden halt. Democrats won a comfortable majority by winning the House popular vote by about 8 percent, a margin inflated by the fact that there were no Republican candidates in 38 seats and no Democratic candidates in only three. The Democrats' share of votes and of seats will turn out to be about 53 percent.

Post-2012 court modifications of district lines in Pennsylvania, Florida and Virginia helped Democrats, and after the 2020 census, Republicans will control redistricting in fewer states than 10 years before due to this year's governor elections and the establishment of supposedly nonpartisan (but usually liberal-dominated) redistricting commissions.

The grave dangers to democracy posed by Republican redistricting, like those posed (without the media much noticing) a few census cycles ago by Democratic redistricting, have turned out not to be so grave after all.

4. Similarly, you have to comb awfully thoroughly through the results to find evidence that the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, allowing corporations to engage in political speech, biased the system toward Republicans and conservatives, as then-President Barack Obama intimated in his 2010 State of the Union address.

In fact, Democrats outspent Republicans in just about every seriously contested race for Senate, House and governor, just as forces backing Hillary Clinton outspent backers of Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats benefited from big contributors like George Soros, and from multitudes of small contributors motivated by fear and loathing of the 45th president. Spending by corporations had little impact one way or the other.

5. Demographics aren't always destiny, at least in the short term. It has been widely predicted, notably by pollster Stanley Greenberg and journalist Ron Brownstein, that an ascendant America with increasing numbers of blacks, Hispanics, unmarried women and millennials will swing America to the Democrats.

In that direction, perhaps, but not always, at least for now, as Donald Trump's election showed. This year, the narrow defeats of black Democratic governor candidates Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida disappointed the ascendantists once again.

Abrams ungallantly blamed her 50 to 49 percent defeat on the illegitimate result of voter suppression, as if history had stopped in Selma in 1965 and the Voting Rights Act was never passed. Actually, Georgia turnout was up 54 percent from 2014, and only 5 percent below the 2016 presidential level. Abrams received 1.9 million votes, 769,000 more than her counterpart four years before.

Florida was even closer, with Republican Ron DeSantis beating Gillum 49.6 to 49.2 percent. The reason, according to The Madison Institute's William Mattox, writing in the Wall Street Journal: "school choice." Florida has more than 650 charter schools and helps fund 100,000 kids' private school scholarships; most beneficiaries are black or Hispanic.

Gillum, endorsed by teacher unions, promised to cut these programs back; DeSantis backed them. As Mattox pointed out, the CNN exit poll showed an unusually high 18 percent of black women, as well as 44 percent of Hispanics, voting for the Republican. School-choice parents almost surely made the difference between victory and defeat.

Bottom line: On a good Election Day for Democrats, there was some conflicting crosscurrents.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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