How First-Time Voters Led Change in a Deep-Red State

Election night’s most surprising Democratic victory defies the trend of a growing urban-rural chasm.
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First-time voters jumped from 10 percent of the electorate in 2016 to 16 percent in 2018. That increase accounted for more than half of the Democrats’ margin of 9.3 million votes, driving their House sweep.

Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images 

The midterm elections of 2018 have been portrayed as a strong victory for Democrats looking to put a check on the excesses of President Donald Trump. But there’s a warning embedded in the results.

Beyond Democrats’ gain of nearly 40 seats to take control of the House of Representatives, the specter of widening national division looms even larger.

Election returns show rural areas (as in Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Tennessee, Georgia, etc.) turned even redder, while more urbanized areas (coastal California, downstate New York, the Washington, D.C., area, but also parts of the urban and suburban Midwest such as Dallas, Kansas City, and Des Moines) went from blue to bluer.

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What happened? Basically, returning voters voted only slightly more Democratic in 2018 than in 2016. But the key difference is that new, first-time voters, jumping from 10 percent of the electorate in 2016 to 16 percent in 2018. That increase accounted for more than half of the Democrats’ margin of 9.3 million votes, driving their House sweep.

There’s a silver lining to all this, but it’s unclear whether it’s applicable to other parts of the country or if it’s an outlier. The biggest illustration of a promising new reality is election night’s most surprising Democratic victory, one that defies the growing urban-rural chasm.

Political wonks from Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com to The Guardian’s election analysts agreed in bafflement that the biggest, unpredicted lurch to the left occurred in the 5th Congressional District in the middle of deep-red Oklahoma.

The gerrymandered district combines once-Republican Oklahoma City with two reliably GOP rural counties. Its voters supported Trump by 13 points in the 2016 presidential election. It also handily elected Republicans to Congress since 1975, including two-term incumbent Steve Russell by margins topping 20 points. FiveThirtyEight gave Republicans 6-in-7 odds of easy triumph this year.

Then, the 5th District handed Democrat Kendra Horn a 51-to-49 percent victory as a stunning 80,000 more voters turned out than in the 2014 midterm. Horn out-campaigned the complacent Republicans. (Full disclosure: I live in the district and worked as a low-level door knocker in the Horn campaign. Like every other observer, I was shocked when she won. I thought she would lose respectably.) Her media strategies (boosted by a last-minute donation from Michael Bloomberg’s Independence USA PAC) and a door-to-door movement of scores of regular volunteers were pivotal in her 3,300-vote victory margin.

The assumption that Trump’s angry base is motivated by job and income losses—troubles liberal reforms can address—is misplaced.

Horn’s campaign also was boosted by a larger electoral movement. Analysis of the district’s 269 precincts from inner Oklahoma City to its sprawling suburbs and gated exurbs, to rural Pottawatomie and Seminole counties finds a wholesale, multiracial, urban-suburban-rural voter shift against Republicans of astonishing proportions.

From the last midterm election in 2014 to 2018, voter turnout in the district surged by 23 percent for Republicans, but a volcanic 110 percent for Democrats. Every precinct showing substantially increased Democratic voting, and of the 269 precincts, 257 swung toward Democrats; just 10 shifted Republican. In the 40 rural-county precincts, hardcore Trump territory, 39 turned more Democratic. Democrats won two-thirds of new voters in those rural areas, three-fourths in Oklahoma City, and 88 percent in the suburbs.

The 5th District’s 2018 results revealed different White voting blocs, all of which moved toward Democrats. Reversing decades of White flight to the suburbs, the Whitest and youngest areas of Oklahoma City are now downtown as thousands of young apartment dwellers flood booming central districts. “Anti-racism” commentator Tim Wise says those young urban Whites amount to gentrifiers in minority neighborhoods who call the cops when Black people intrude in “their” new pottery studios, but those millennial districts nonetheless voted 75 to 90 percent Democratic, rates similar to Latinx, Black, Asian, and Native American populations. Wealthier White districts adjacent to downtown that once housed conservative oil and commerce elites also registered Democratic landslides.

At the opposite end, exurban and rural voters harbored even bigger surprises. Gated, guarded Gaillardia, 15 miles from downtown, overwhelmingly White and wealthy, tripled its vote for Democrats. The district’s two arch-red rural counties saw their Democratic proportion of the vote double. In between, racially diversifying suburban areas, where Republicans had trouble across the country, also shifted decisively left.

Oklahoma City’s trends reveal the increasing geographical and political alliance of younger urban Whites with races of color. Nationwide in 2018, Whites under age 30 voted Democratic by 12 points; urban Whites show 40-point pro-Democrat margins.

The Oklahoma 5th District’s broad-based blue trend appears the exception rather than the rule, however. In 70 of the state’s 77 counties (all rural), Republican votes increased more than Democratic votes. Only the urban areas or counties with universities or significant Native American population moved toward Democrats, even amid a vigorous campaign by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Drew Edmondson.

Nationally, the canyon between White and non-White, and between urban and rural widened. Rural, older White voters like Trump more and more. Urban, younger, and newer voters, the opposite.

The assumption that Trump’s angry base is motivated by job and income losses—troubles liberal reforms can address—is misplaced. Census data show Whites in Trump-voting areas actually gained thousands of jobs and dollars in real income under former President Barack Obama’s economic stimuluses from 2010 to 2016—and saw more improvement than other races did.

Yet, as cities invest rising wealth in infrastructure and development, rural voters elect Republicans who starve shared services. In Oklahoma, plagued by teacher shortages, shortened school weeks, severe class cutbacks, epidemic opiate abuse, and small-town hospital closures, rural voters again overwhelmingly elected candidates who promised to cut public spending and refuse federal money for Medicaid expansion. In several surveys, Trump voters cite racial resentments, not economic loss, as what drives them.

My belief that racist, xenophobic, and religious bigotries were just convenient, self-serving conceits (ones we all avail to varying degrees) has been shaken by discovering the severe damage older Whites in Trump’s bastions are inflicting on themselves. Trump supporters are becoming more entrenched in aging exurban, small-town, and rural areas, where drug and gun deaths, suicides, murders, violence, and other crimes perpetrated by Whites are rising rapidly, along with extremist politics.

The racialized fears of a multicultural America driving those voters are more organic, ingrained, and permanent than concerns about economics; reforms, time, and “education” have not softened them.

One place where this trend is breaking down is in Oklahoma’s once bright-red 5th District. From a revived downtown to its diversifying suburbs, to depopulated oil towns and farms that once epitomized “Trump country,” this is an amplified version of the national trend in which new voters voted in much larger numbers and very differently from returning voters. That’s a compelling lesson for progressives: Jettison past-oriented appeals to White voters and embrace future-facing strategies that expand the electorate. It seems that those new voters truly are the future.