Voices & Choices

Understanding the Trump effect in the wake of the 2017 election

Understanding the Trump effect in the wake of the 2017 election

A major issue FairVote encountered when deciding how to discuss the 2016 election was whether “Trump Effect” that is, the ways in which Trump realigned the electoral map along demographic and regional lines, as shown above, is representative of the new national environment. In Monopoly Politics 2018 we said: 

One of the major challenges of forecasting 2018 is, ironically, our success in forecasting 2016. Judging 2016 solely by congressional outcomes, it was an extremely typical year, with the electorate evenly divided, and almost all incumbents easily winning re-election and 374 of 374 of FairVote’s Nov. 2014 high confidence projections proving to be accurate. Yet all of this normalcy took place within the context of Donald Trump’s stunning victory, with the remarkable shift in the political order that it entailed, as shown in Figure 1.9.

Which begs the question: what is the new normal? Is it the map reshaped by the Trump election, or the far more typical map of Republican success in the U.S. House?

A year later, the results have been highly conclusive. Trump’s vote share in areas that had elections this year was not just highly predictive of the eventual results, it was far more predictive than 2012 results, and fit into the trend of increasing nationalization of American politics. The Trump realignment may not be permanent, but it is the current baseline of for U.S. elections, even under circumstances where partisan waves cause significant deviation from that  baseline.  

As shown in the charts below, 2016 partisanship predicted almost five percentage points more of the variation within the 2017 state legislative contests (VA and NJ assemblies as well as the NJ State Senate) than 2012 partisanship. Partisanship did not just dominate 2017 state legislative contests, as shown by fivethirtyeight, it even crowded out many typically influential factors such as incumbency. 

So is there a Trump effect? Yes and no. These results suggest Trump’s victory map has important national implications for 2018 and beyond. However, it also suggests that Trump’s path to victory may have less to do with Trump himself, and more to do with trends within the American electorate that predate Trump, and are continuing in his wake (such as Democrats frequently discussed issues with the white working class).  

For the time being, it is likely that partisan fundamentals will put Republicans on the defense and Democrats on offense everywhere. After all, most of the partisan shifts of 2016 are now significantly eclipsed by Democratic advantages on the generic ballot. Still, the results of the 2017 state legislative elections suggest that long term the most significant trends of 2016, Republican shifts within the midwest and rural north, and Democratic swings in urban areas, the south, and the west, are realities both parties will have to reckon with.

FairVote’s own projections for 2018 relied, as they do every cycle, on only the most recent presidential election - 2016. The results this year suggests that doing so will remain as accurate as ever, notwithstanding the unique characteristics of the 2016 presidential contest. As always, the winner-take-all characteristics of our elections will remain. The case for changing that system remains as strong - or stronger - than ever.


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