Electorate Makeup Will Be Key to Midterm Outcome

With the last primary of the 2018 midterm cycle over, it’s now official: The general election has begun. With 50 days to go, who are midterm voters?

“A midterm voter is little bit older, a little bit whiter and more educated” than a presidential election voter, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball Report. While this demographic is usually a positive for Republicans, he cautioned that “educated voters are becoming more Democratic with each election.”

Midterms tend to be low-turnout affairs. In presidential elections, somewhere between 60 to 70 percent of registered voters typically go to the ballot box, whereas in a midterm the number hovers around 40 percent. The drop-off is pronounced among millennials and minority voters.

Millennials are enthusiastic about issues but unreliable on Election Day, particularly in midterms. In the 2016 presidential election, 19 percent of the electorate was millennial voters, while only 13 percent of that group made it to the polls in the 2014 midterms. Similar trends are present among black and Hispanic voters.

In primaries, the top priority for candidates is to attract party loyalists, who are generally more partisan. But in a general election, candidates need to appeal to a wider audience by capturing centrist voters. Exit polling from the 2014 elections show that about 40 percent of the voters identified their ideology as moderate whereas 23 percent identified as liberal and 37 percent as conservative. In 2014, independent voters supported Republicans by 54 percent to 42 percent, and Republicans picked up 13 seats in the House. In 2016, independent voters supported Donald Trump by 46 percent to 42 percent, a margin that likely provided the difference in his victory. In tight elections, independents are often the voting bloc most crucial to victory.

“Independent voters are swayed by results and put off by dysfunction,” said Matt Gorman, communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee. “What we’re seeing in polling is that voters think there will be more dysfunction in Washington if Democrats take over. … The Democrats have gone so far hard left in the primaries it’s hard to see how they can move to the middle in the general” election.

One of the biggest demographic changes from the 2014 midterm to the 2016 presidential election was married women. In 2014, this group, which made up 30 percent of the total electorate, voted 54 percent to 44 percent for Republicans. In 2016, however, married women supported Hillary Clinton by two percentage points over Donald Trump. “Much of this midterm is going to come down to the key demographic group of suburban college-educated women, and they don’t like the president,” said Kondik. Among the unknowns for this election are: Will married women continue to move away from the Republican Party and will they show up?

“Polling is showing that educated suburban women like Trump’s policies, but not his tweets,” said Sarah Chamberlain, CEO of Republican Main Street Partnership. She believes suburban women could be won over if Trump would “put down his phone, be less negative and talk about his accomplishments.”

When voters are asked to identify the most important issue in the election, it doesn’t matter if it’s a midterm or presidential election: They overwhelmingly say it’s the economy. Republicans are hoping that voters reward them for stronger economic growth and an improved job market. “The economy is a winning issue for the Republicans this year and voters will reward the party which will continue those policies” said Gorman.

Is that wishful thinking? We’ll know in seven weeks.

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.

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