Throughout his 22 months in office, President Trump has focused intensely on a single political priority — maintaining the support of his base, even at the risk of alienating millions of other voters.
Tuesday night’s election proved both the wisdom and the risk of that approach.
In a deeply divided country, Trump’s efforts to stoke his supporters’ enthusiasm helped his party expand its margin in the Senate. But his heated attacks on opponents and denunciations of immigrants also helped Democrats retake control of the House and make major gains in races for governor.
White House aides were quick to pronounce the outcome a victory for the president. But if it was, it came with ominous overtones for his next big political challenge, in 2020.
Democrats won significant victories statewide in each of the big mid-Atlantic and Midwestern industrial states where Trump secured his upset victory two years ago. Their control of the House will give them license to investigate him and his associates for the next two years, a prospect no president welcomes, especially not one seeking reelection.
Overall, Democratic congressional candidates won considerably more votes than their Republican opponents. Like winning the popular vote in the presidential race, that doesn’t give a party any additional power. But as a rough gauge of public sentiment, it sets a troubling marker for Trump.
In 2016, he became only the fifth person in American history to win the presidency while losing the popular vote. No one has pulled that off twice.
The night provided a split decision in which the country’s liberal, Democratic cities and its conservative, Republican rural areas moved further apart politically than ever, leaving neither side with the sort of clear majority needed to resolve major national issues.
That’s not just a political abstraction. Settling big national issues almost always requires one party having the political strength to put its ideas into law.
Without that, Congress can only tinker: Both Trump and Democratic leaders, for example, have said they might agree on more money to build and repair roads, bridges and other types of infrastructure.
But Tuesday’s results point to two more years of political trench warfare and the worsening of major problems — an immigration system that both parties decry as broken, a healthcare system that remains the world’s most expensive even as it fails to cover everyone, rapidly rising federal debt, festering inequality.
Unsurprisingly, roughly three-quarters of voters in exit polls conducted for the major television networks said that the country is becoming more divided politically. Fewer than 1 in 10 said Americans are becoming more united.
For a generation, despite the efforts of four consecutive presidents starting with Bill Clinton, neither party has been able to create a long-lasting electoral majority. This period stands as the longest in more than a century in which neither party has managed to maintain clear dominance, controlling both the White House and Congress.
People in both parties who run campaigns, as well as academic experts who study them, provide a surprisingly consistent list of the reasons why stalemate has proven so persistent.
Personal leadership shortcomings are not the main problem, said UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck, coauthor of a newly released book, “Identity Crisis,” which analyzes the causes of Trump’s 2016 victory.
“I don’t think this is a failure of these leaders” as individuals, she said.
Instead, successive presidents have been stymied by a fundamental shift in politics in which both of the two major parties have grown more homogeneous and the mix of national concerns increasingly has turned toward issues of identity. Those two trends hardened partisan lines, making bipartisan compromise tougher and complicating any effort to forge a broader coalition.
Legislators “can shave a dollar per hundred off a tax bill, but how do you get gradations of equality?” Vavreck asked. “These issues are harder. It’s harder to see what compromise would look like.”
As each party has grown more internally united — one liberal, one conservative — party membership has increasingly overlapped with other ways in which people identify themselves — race, religion, region, even occupation and the entertainment choices people make. That has alienated the two sides further from each other, said Lilliana Mason of the University of Maryland.
“If you’re a Democrat, and you go to church with a Republican … it makes you understand them in a way that you wouldn’t have,” Mason said. As Americans have sorted themselves out along partisan lines, “we’ve seen a move away from cross-cutting identities” of that sort. As those dwindle, “people tend to be more intolerant” of those they see only as adversaries, she said.
Republican voters are now overwhelmingly white, conservative, older, rural, often evangelical Protestants. Democrats have have become the party of cities, of racial and ethnic diversity, of college graduates and younger people, and are largely secular. And politics increasingly revolves around “who you are, what your identity is,” Mason said.
Partisan media outlets and social media choices reinforce those identity lines.
A person watching CNN or MSNBC would find that “the world they’re reporting on is a different universe than the world Fox News is reporting on,” said longtime Republican strategist and pollster Whit Ayres.
“You have the ability to listen to only those outlets that reinforce what you already think” and emphasize “the rightness and goodness of your side and the evil and wrongness of the other side.”
Polling provides extensive evidence of the strain that sort of partisanship causes. Almost two-thirds of Americans, 63%, say that when they talk about politics with people with whom they disagree, they find they have less in common than they thought, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center.
Over half of Americans, 53%, say they find such political conversations “stressful and frustrating,” Pew found.
That number has grown since 2016, when partisan divisions already ran deep. That year, Pew found that about half of people surveyed in each party said the other side made them feel “afraid.” More than 4 in 10 said the other party’s positions were “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.”
“If the other side is not just misguided, but evil, then compromise becomes all but impossible,” Ayres said.
At the extreme, belief that the opposing party represents a threat becomes a justification for political violence, said Mason. The share that sees violence as potentially justified remains small, only in single digits, research indicates, but “that’s still millions of people,” she said.
The issue that best encapsulates the way those divisive trends have shaped politics is the one Trump chose to focus on in the closing weeks of the campaign: immigration.
Since the last major overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws more than 20 years ago, opposition to high levels of immigration has become a core part of the Republican message, starting with denunciations of illegal entries, but expanding in the last few years to legal immigration as well.
Attitudes toward immigration formed some of the strongest predictors of a vote for Trump in 2016. Since he took office, the issue has defined much of his tenure, from the travel ban in his first month to family separations on the border this summer and denunciations of immigrant caravans this fall.
During the tenures of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, groups of lawmakers tried to strike immigration compromises in the old style — horsetrading over specific policies — only to discover that the issue had taken on a visceral, emotional symbolism that made such agreements impossible.
Trump’s raw attacks on immigrants have cemented the loyalty of many of his supporters. But that has come at the price of alienating many other voters, especially college-educated white suburbanites who see diversity and tolerance of differences as important values, and who also feel little economic threat from immigrant labor.
When party coalitions become defined so much by identity and values, bringing new groups into the tent becomes a fraught exercise, said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
“Everyone assumes that everybody else is immutable except the group you’re interested in,” Mellman said. “They say, ‘Oh, we’ll bring in this group and add them,’ but things move. When you bring in one group, you alienate other people.”
Eventually, if history provides a guide, the country’s political stalemate will end.
Many Democratic strategists believe that despite Trump’s victory in 2016, his dependence on older voters and the Democrats’ strong advantage with younger ones means that Republican power can’t last.
“The Republican party is driving itself off the cliff in battling the trends in the country,” said Democratic strategist Stan Greenberg, who was Clinton’s pollster during his presidency. “They’ve bottled up addressing any of our problems, and when the crash comes, it will usher in an era of reform.”
That could happen, but as Brookings Institution scholar William Galston said, periods of lengthy political stalemate don’t sort themselves out easily.
In 2016, Trump’s election “broke up a frozen party system,” he said. Tuesday’s election provided “our first snapshot” of what may come next, he said, adding, “It’s going to take a while for a new structure to form.”
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