How Red-State Democrats Became An Endangered Species In The Senate

One theme of the 2018 election was that Democratic senators from rural, red states became an endangered breed. Three Democratic senators on deep-red turf6 — Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota — lost their seats.7 Two others managed to squeak out wins — Jon Tester of Montana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia — but they saw their support shrivel up in many parts of their states.

In the six years since these senators last appeared on the ballot (in 2012), Democratic support has become increasingly confined to America’s metro areas. In their states, which are heavily rural, it’s tough for candidates to win with cities alone — they must appeal to rural voters. These five Democratic incumbents didn’t all manage that; as it has for Democrats nationally, their support deteriorated significantly relative to 2012 in areas outside of cities and suburbs, according to a county-by-county analysis of U.S. Senate results.8

Let’s start in Indiana. After winning by 6 percentage points in 2012, Donnelly lost by 6 points in 2018. Donnelly improved upon his 2012 performance in only three counties — Boone, Hamilton (these two are in the Indianapolis suburbs) and Monroe (home of Bloomington, where the Indiana University flagship campus is located) — and even there, just barely. As you can see in the map below, the size of the circle — which represents the margin of Donnelly’s or his Republican opponent’s win — stays about the same in these counties. In contrast, the red circles in most of Indiana’s rural counties swell in size, representing how most other counties — especially lower-population ones9 — swung far out of Donnelly’s reach. Donnelly’s loss of rural support, coupled with his inability to make up for those losses with more votes in urban areas, sealed his fate.

In Missouri, McCaskill lost by 6 points six years after winning her previous race by 16 — a really robust margin for a Democrat in a state that Mitt Romney simultaneously won by 9 points. But her overperformance in 2012 was thanks, in part, to her opponent, Rep. Todd Akin, who was abandoned by the Republican Party after his “legitimate rape” comments. In 2018, her Republican opponent Josh Hawley was a better candidate than Akin, and McCaskill didn’t outperform her previous vote margin in a single county. She lost the least amount of support in Missouri’s urban areas, particularly St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia (home of the University of Missouri’s main campus). But her margin dropped by huge amounts in less populated counties. In the most severe example, she lost Clark County (population 6,807), in the northeast corner of the state, by 45 points. She won it in 2012 by 16 points — a 61-point swing! McCaskill proved unable to avoid this urban-rural difference despite a concerted effort to appeal to rural voters.

North Dakota’s U.S. Senate margin shifted to Republicans by 12 points — from a 1-point Heitkamp win in 2012 to an 11-point Heitkamp loss in 2018. Re-election was always going to be difficult for Heitkamp in such a red, rural state, but she did worse in 2018 in every single county except three. The one county where she improved the most was Cass County (Fargo), which is by far the most populous county in the state. The other two counties where Heitkamp did better are actually quite low in population: Rolette County and Sioux County. But they are both around 80 percent Native American, a heavily Democratic demographic that may have been especially energized to go to the polls this year because of North Dakota’s new voter-ID law, which made it harder for many people who live on reservations to vote.

Tester’s performance in Montana, however, defies clean categorization. The rural-urban sorting is still there to some degree: Tester improved upon his 2012 performance in 10 counties (including four of the six with populations greater than 50,000 — those containing Bozeman, Butte, Helena and Missoula) and did worse in 46 mostly smaller ones.

But there are exceptions: Tester lost Yellowstone County (Billings), the state’s largest county, by 4 points after winning it by 1 point in 2012. And Tester improved his margin by 8 points in Beaverhead County and 5 points in Madison County, both of which have populations under 10,000.

What probably saved Tester is that he didn’t drop off by as much in sparsely populated counties as other Democratic senators did. In counties with fewer than 20,000 residents, Tester’s average dropoff was 8 percentage points. Donnelly’s was 27 percentage points, Heitkamp’s was 21 points and McCaskill’s was 43 points. As a result, Tester won the state overall by 3.6 points — just a shade worse than his 2012 margin of 3.7 points.

A big part of why Tester triumphed while the other three didn’t is that he appears to have been the only one who maintained his appeal among rural voters. That might be because voters in Montana are significantly more elastic — that is, persuadable — than those in Indiana, Missouri or North Dakota.

Democrats were probably lucky to hold onto the final red state we looked at: West Virginia. Manchin’s 24-point win in 2012 all but vanished in 2018; he won by 3 points. Manchin improved upon his 2012 margin in just one county, Monongalia (Morgantown).10 He more or less held steady in West Virginia’s largest county, Kanawha (Charleston), faring just 3 points worse. Manchin consistently lost ground in the remainder of the state’s mostly sparsely populated counties, including Mingo County, the heart of West Virginia coal county. Once reliably blue, Mingo County leaned 16 points more Republican than West Virginia as a whole in the 2018 Senate election.

Overall, in all five states, there is a clear relationship between the size of a county and how its political preferences changed from 2012 to 2018.

Democrats lost more ground in lower-population counties

The average margin shift from 2012 to 2018 in U.S. Senate races in Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia, by county population

Average margin shift
Counties by population Indiana Missouri N.D. Montana W. Va.
0-10k people R+25 R+47 R+22 R+9 R+29
10-50k R+25 R+39 R+15 R+5 R+30
50-100k R+13 R+28 R+12 D+1 R+20
100-500k R+9 R+18 D+3 D+5 R+2
500k+ R+2 R+9 N/A N/A N/A

North Dakota, Montana and West Virginia have no counties with more than 500,000 residents.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, ABC News, secretaries of state

As you can see, the smallest counties overwhelmingly lurched toward the Republican. Higher-population counties shifted less dramatically to the right — and even moved toward the Democratic incumbent in some states. Since most people in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Montana and West Virginia live in lower-density areas, that was a recipe for Republican success. (Montana and West Virginia are exceptions, of course, although Manchin’s support did erode; it’s just that he had such a large cushion from 2012 that he could withstand the sharp dropoff. Tester is the only one who was able to keep rural losses to a minimum, and even then, Montana’s urban and rural areas still diverged to a small degree.) While the combination of lower Democratic support in rural areas and higher Democratic support around cities may help the party in more urbanized states like Texas, it’s a bad trade for them in states like these and may make winning a majority in the Senate, with its small-state bias, more difficult.

Can Heitkamp Pull Off A Second Upset In North Dakota?

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

Democrats’ chances of holding on to the North Dakota Senate seat — which is critical if they stand any chance of winning the upper chamber — look quite bleak according to a recent Fox News poll. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp has long faced a tough uphill battle to win re-election in a state that President Trump carried by 36 percentage points in 2016. As you can see from the seven polls we’ve collected on the race so far, Heitkamp has trailed Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer for months. And two recent polls suggest that Heitkamp lost even more ground in the last couple of weeks, falling 10 to 12 points behind her opponent (before poll adjustments); in early September, she was only 4 points behind.

FiveThirtyEight’s Classic forecast currently gives Heitkamp just a 1 in 3 chance of winning re-election. Those odds aren’t great, but Heitkamp surprised everyone in her first bid for the seat in 2012 — more on that in a moment.

There is some speculation that Heitkamp’s vote against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination — a decision that was both politically and personally difficult for her — may have eroded the senator’s support among voters.9 But it’s difficult to say what impact, if any, her vote against Kavanaugh has had, as there hasn’t yet been any polling since the vote. That said, since the North Dakota contest is one of the most competitive Senate races this year, there will probably be at least a few more polls in the final weeks before the election.

Make no mistake, the polling so far is not great for Heitkamp, but this is a political candidate well acquainted with being an underdog. Heitkamp trailed her opponent in several polls in 2012, only to go on to win by less than 1 percentage point. It was one of the biggest election upsets that year. What’s more, her victory came even as Barack Obama lost the state to Mitt Romney by 20 points.

Although Heitkamp was able to pull off an improbable victory in 2012, there are already some signs that she might not be able to do the same this time around. Our polls database shows that eight polls conducted in October 2012 had her losing the race by as much as 10 points or winning it by as much as 6 points. But polls this year tell a different story. Only one poll has found her ahead, and it was conducted in February. The most recent poll suggests she’s trailing by as much as 12 points.

The political environment is more favorable for Democrats this year than it was in 2012, which could give Heitkamp a boost, but unfortunately for her, North Dakota has likely moved more to the right since she was elected, making it tougher for Democrats to compete there. To give you a sense of just how hard it is for Democrats to win in the state right now, consider North Dakota’s 2016 Senate race, where Democrat Eliot Glassheim lost to incumbent Republican John Hoeven by a whopping 62 points. And in this year’s congressional race,10 the Democratic candidate has less than a 1 in 100 chance of winning.

It could also be that Rep. Cramer is a stronger candidate than Heitkamp’s 2012 opponent was. That year, Rep. Rick Berg was a one-term congressman and one of the wealthiest members of Congress, who drew criticism for his ties to a controversial property-management company. But Cramer, a three-term Congressman, seems to be just as well liked as Heitkamp. What’s more, President Trump has a 64 percent approval rating in the state and has endorsed Cramer and even held a rally for him earlier this summer.

In 2012, Heitkamp’s strategy was to focus on local issues, like farming and energy, and avoid partisan politics. But that same strategy might not work as well this time around as she faces an increasingly nationalized landscape where more voters opt for the same party in every race. Furthermore, Heitkamp did not have a voting record to criticize in her first run. Now she does. Heitkamp has voted in line with Trump just 54 percent of the time, far less than we’d expect based on Trump’s margin of victory in her state. She voted against the Republican attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act and against the GOP’s tax plan, opening her up to attacks from conservatives. But voting alongside Republicans may not have helped her re-election bid either. Her vote for the Keystone XL pipeline for example, could hurt her with Native American voters, who helped put her in office in 2012. And even if most Native American voters still support her, new voter ID requirements in the state are expected to depress turnout among tribe members in this election.

In the end, voting against Kavanaugh may be the least of Heitkamp’s worries. Heitkamp has less than a month to improve her poll numbers (or outperform them), and if she doesn’t, Democrats’ longshot odds of taking back the Senate become much longer.

Other polling nuggets

  • In Tennessee, a Siena College/New York Times live poll, which updates in real-time as respondents are called, has Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn leading her Democratic opponent, former Gov. Phil Bredesen, by double digits. FiveThirtyEight’s classic forecast, which considers both polling and fundamentals, now gives Blackburn a 4 in 5 chance of winning, allowing Republicans to keep control of the seat. But our Lite forecast, which only uses polling data and listed the race as a toss-up last week, now gives Blackburn a 3 in 4 chance of taking the seat.
  • In Virginia’s 10th District, a Washington Post-Schar School poll found Democrat Jennifer Wexton with a double-digit lead over Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock. The FiveThirtyEight Classic model gives Wexton a 5 in 6 chance of unseating Comstock.
  • CNN found a 35-point gender gap in its most recent generic ballot poll; that’s up from a 29-point gap last month. Sixty-three percent of women and 45 percent of men said they were more likely to support a Democrat in their congressional district. Only 33 percent of women said they were more likely to support a Republican candidate, compared to 50 percent of men who said the same.
  • 80 percent of adults in sub-Saharan Africa own a mobile phone according to a survey conducted by Pew Research Center.11 While that percentage has held steady since 2014, rates of internet usage and smartphone ownership have increased.
  • According to a Pew Research Center survey, 38 percent of Canadians and 31 percent of Mexicans believe that the U.S. government respects the personal freedoms of its people. That’s down significantly from 2013, when 75 percent of Canadians and 55 percent of Mexicans said the same. What’s more, in 21 out of the 22 countries surveyed, negative perceptions of the U.S. government were more common than they had been in 2013.
  • 42 percent of adults in the U.S. say that they “strongly disagree” with the notion that they are interested in the political and social opinions of celebrities whose work they enjoy, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted with The Hollywood Reporter.
  • A poll of young people aged 18-24 conducted by the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and GfK found that 34 percent say they are “extremely likely” to vote this November. If that comes to pass, it would be an unusually high turnout rate for young adults in a midterm election.
  • A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that two different sampling methods for national political polls, random digit dialing (RDD) and registration-based sampling (RBS), yielded similar results. RDD involves finding a selection of potential voters that is representative of the national electorate by dialing random numbers, while RBS involves conducting polls using a list of registered voters. Many national polls use RDD, but this research suggests RBS may also produce good results.
  • Brazil’s presidential election has gone to a runoff after no candidate gained at least 50 percent of the vote during the first-round elections on Sunday. Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro won 46 percent of the vote, while his best-performing opponent, leftist Fernando Haddad, won just 29 percent. Although polling prior to the first round suggested that a Bolsonaro-Haddad runoff could be close, a Datafolha poll published after the first round of voting found Bolsonaro leading Haddad 58 percent to 42 percent. The runoff election will be held on Oct. 28.

Trump approval

The president’s net approval rating currently sits at -10.7 points , according to our tracker. That’s about the same as it was one week ago. But Trump is doing better with voters than he was one month ago, when he had a -13.5 net approval rating (40.0 percent approved and 53.5 percent disapproved).

Generic ballot

Democrats haven’t improved their position by much over the last week. According to our generic congressional ballot polls, Democrats lead Republicans by an 8.3-point margin (49.7 percent to 41.4 percent). Last week, Democrats had a 7.7-point advantage over Republicans. One month ago, they were doing slightly better with an 8.6-point margin against Republicans.

Check out our 2018 House and Senate forecasts and all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the midterms.

CORRECTION (Oct. 12, 2018, 9:15 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Rep. Marsha Blackburn as an incumbent senator in Tennessee. Republican Bob Corker currently holds the seat.