New York Times (Opinion)
By Nate Cohn
February 22, 2017
There has been no shortage of reports that President Trump is still very popular in the bars and diners of the old industrial towns that decided the 2016 presidential election.
But if you want to meet the voters who will decide the biggest political story of the 2018 congressional elections, you might have to fly right over the blue-collar workers of Youngstown, Ohio, and go talk to the real housewives of Orange County, Calif.
Yes, it’s early. But if we’re already breathlessly checking in on Altoona, Pa., then add the O.C. to the mix.
Orange County was the heart of Sun Belt conservatism and one of the most reliably Republican bastions of the 20th century. It voted Republican in every presidential election from 1936 until 2016, when it voted for Hillary Clinton by a nine-point margin.
It’s hard to think of a place that was less relevant to Mr. Trump’s fortunes in 2016. Mrs. Clinton’s success in Orange County, and in well-educated and Hispanic areas elsewhere in the Sun Belt, helped her win the popular vote — though there was no payoff in the Electoral College. But it’s districts like these that will decide whether the Democrats can make a serious run at control of the House.
There is no guarantee that the Democrats can put the House in play, even if Mr. Trump’s approval ratings remain as low as they are now or slip further. The Republicans have so many safe seats that they could even survive a so-called wave election like the ones that swept Democrats to power in 2006 and out of power in 2010. The Democrats need 24 seats to retake the House.
But whether the Democrats can do it will come down to places like Orange County, which is more populous than Iowa. Four congressional districts that have at least some territory in the county still have Republican representatives, and all four were carried by Mrs. Clinton.
It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the road to a Democratic House begins and ends at Laguna Beach.
Darrell Issa, who represents the California coast from southern Orange County almost to La Jolla, is probably the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent. That’s based on factors that tend to predict which districts are likeliest to be competitive — like the result of his last election (he won by just 1 point) and how the district voted in recent presidential contests.
By the same measures, the 24th-most vulnerable Republican is Dana Rohrabacher, whose district is immediately north of Mr. Issa’s — stretching up the Orange County coast from Laguna Beach to Sunset Beach. In between, Ed Royce and Mimi Walters represent the 13th- and 20th-most vulnerable districts.
Of course, the exact House battleground will be shaped by a lot more than these few factors. Democratic recruitment and Republican retirements will play a big role, and a competitive race will expose the vulnerability or resilience of individual Republicans to a degree that recent elections have not.
But Orange County is not an outlier. Across the nation, the most vulnerable Republican incumbents among the 50 or so most competitive seats tend to be in relatively well-educated, metropolitan districts with above-average Hispanic populations. It’s the opposite of most of the 2016 presidential battleground states, which were whiter, less educated and far less Hispanic than the country as a whole.
Mr. Trump might still be riding high in central Pennsylvania steel towns, but there are plenty of signs that his support remains weak in precisely the districts where House Republicans are most vulnerable. The most recent Pew Research poll found that Mr. Trump had just a 38 percent approval rating among white voters with a college degree, with 61 percent disapproving. Mrs. Clinton probably won well-educated white voters by only a narrow margin, so the Pew result seems to imply a weakening in his standing.
Mr. Trump’s best poll of the month, from Fox News, had his rating among college-educated white voters at just 45 percent. Most Hispanic voters, unsurprisingly, remain deeply dissatisfied with the president as well.
Of course, Hispanic turnout is notoriously weak in midterm elections. There are several districts that look competitive on paper but might prove elusive to the Democrats if the electorate remains as old and white as it was in 2014 or 2010.
The well-educated, often traditionally Republican-leaning voters who supported Mrs. Clinton in 2016 will be a puzzle for both parties. Mr. Trump will plainly be a burden for some Republican politicians, who will agonize over how much to distance themselves from the president.
Democrats have a different challenge. The party’s increasingly dominant progressive wing could be a liability in these moderate districts. Only two of the 24 most competitive districts went for Bernie Sanders in a primary contest. Many broke for Mrs. Clinton by landslide margins.
That’s a fact that’s unlikely to quell the internal Democratic debate over the party’s future. But it does offer near-term clarity on one debate: whether the party should seek to resurrect its strength in the Rust Belt or build on its strength in diverse and affluent suburbs. To some extent, this is a false choice. But there really is no choice at all when it comes to the battle for the House in 2018.
The competitive districts are mainly suburban, and there are startlingly few competitive working-class districts in the old Rust Belt that are traditionally Democratic but that are held by Republicans. That’s due to aggressive Republican gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Even in those states, the potential battlegrounds are suburban — including the four Republican-held districts around Philadelphia. All four count among the 31 most plausibly competitive districts.
None of this is to say that the white working-class voters who defined the 2016 cycle will be unimportant in 2018. The races for Senate seats and governor’s mansions will often play out in the same white working-class battleground states that decided the 2016 election. There are a few competitive Republican-held districts in Iowa, New York and Maine with large numbers of white working-class voters. In a wave election, many more white working-class districts could come into play elsewhere.
But elections are, well, decided by everyone. Dismissing well-educated, diverse and metropolitan America as the “bubble” in 2018 could prove to be as big a mistake as dismissing rural, white working-class America in 2016.
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