American politics fated to remain on ‘the knife’s edge’ as voters align between candidates in durable patterns
In key races across the country, the electorate is continuing to divide along the demographic and generational lines that have left the two parties in rough parity for years – limiting each side’s ability to score unexpected breakthroughs or to amass sweeping gains in November.
A wide array of public polls shows that in key contests, voters are aligning between Republican and Democratic candidates in remarkably similar patterns, with only very few exceptions. Almost all major contested statewide races are being defined by a huge gender gap that could prove even larger than in the past several elections. Voters in races almost everywhere are also sharply dividing along lines of education and generation. And while the gap in partisan preferences between Whites and voters of color may narrow somewhat from recent experience, the racial contrast in support for the parties remains stark as well.
“These cleavages are everywhere,” says Democratic strategist Celinda Lake, who served as a lead pollster for President Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign.
Because so many contested races are so close, even small shifts in attitudes among these different groups still could tilt most of the toss-up races toward one side and provide them a clear victory. As the party out of the White House during a period of economic dissatisfaction, history suggests the GOP is clearly best positioned to benefit if any such late movement develops among voters. But it appears at least as likely that these deeply etched divisions will produce a result that again leaves the eventual winner clinging to only narrow majorities in the House and Senate.
A closely split result would underscore how difficult it will be for either party to break out of their bitter current stalemate. Amid the worst pandemic in a century, and widespread discontent over Donald Trump’s performance and priorities as president, Democrats anticipated sweeping gains in the 2020 election. But then they unexpectedly lost seats in the House and failed to capture several Senate seats they believed within reach even as Biden won the White House. Now, even amid the worst inflation 40 years, the original Republican expectations from last spring of a towering “red wave” in congressional and gubernatorial races may prove equally illusory, even if Republicans remained favored to flip control of the House.
If the demographic, generational and geographic alignments within the electorate on display again this year cannot be dislodged by events as momentous as a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, or once-in-a generation inflation, or a Supreme Court decision overturning of the 50-year constitutional right to abortion, it is not clear what can reconfigure them. The real signal from this year’s election may be that American politics is fated for years to remain caught on what UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck calls “the knife’s edge” between two increasingly divergent, and even hostile, political coalitions.
Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster, for instance, says flatly, “I would be shocked to see a 52-48 Senate either way.”
Indeed, many analysts in both parties believe the most likely outcome next month may be a Senate again divided exactly 50-50 between the parties – something that has not happened in two consecutive elections since the direct election of senators began just before World War I. Even if Republicans take the House, it now appears likely they will hold a smaller, and more fractious, majority than seemed probable earlier this year; if Democrats defy the odds to defend their already-slim majority, their margin almost certainly will be historically tiny.
The demographic divergences between the two coalitions this year begin with gender. The “gender gap” – the tendency of women to vote relatively more for Democrats, or alternately, for men to vote relatively more for Republicans – has been a widely discussed feature of American politics since 1984, but it could loom especially large this year.
The major data sources studying how Americans vote – including the Edison Research exit polls conducted for a media consortium , the Pew Research Center’s Validated Voters study and the projections by Catalist, a Democratic voter targeting firm – generally agree that in the 2018 House elections and the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, Democrats won most women and lost most men (Pew had the two sides splitting men evenly in 2018.) Overall, these sources determined Democrats ran about 13 percentage points better among women than men in 2016 (when Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton was the first female major party presidential nominee) and around 8-12 points better in 2018 and 2020.
If the trends now evident in polls persist through Election Day, the gender gap this year will likely land toward the higher end of that scale. The latest CNN national survey conducted by SSRS found Democrats winning 60% of the two-party vote among women on the “generic” congressional ballot and just 43% of the two-party vote among men. Other recent generic surveys from CBS and Fox News have shown a smaller gender gap, though also with Democrats winning among women but losing among men.
AARP, the giant lobby for seniors, has contracted with the firms headed by the lead pollsters in 2020 for Trump (Fabrizio Ward) and Biden (Impact Research) to conduct surveys across the major Senate and governor races – an ambitious project that has produced the most comprehensive set of publicly available surveys conducted with the same methodology. In the seven major competitive Senate races the two firms have polled, Republicans led among men in every state, and Democrats led among women in every state except Wisconsin. (The Democratic lead with women was also very narrow in Florida.)
Recent statewide polls by the non-partisan Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College likewise showed Democrats holding at least an eleven-point lead, and often much more than that, among women in the Senate races in Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Georgia. Republicans led among men in each of those contests except for Arizona (where the Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly is a former astronaut) and Pennsylvania (where Democratic nominee John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor, has a brusque blue-collar style.) The latest CNN polls in Arizona and Nevada showed Kelly and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, respectively, holding double digit leads among women, but trailing among men – Kelly narrowly and Masto by a crushing twenty-point margin. In the CNN polls, the two genders sharply divided in the Arizona and Nevada gubernatorial races as well.
Powerful forces this year are driving apart the preferences of men and women. Most surveys show that the decision by the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to revoke the nearly 50-year constitutional right to the procedure is more important as a voting issue to women than men. With men, inflation outstrips any other concern in most polls, such as a recent national NPR/Marist poll.
The persistence and severity of the gender gap has prompted Lake to formulate a simple rule: Democrats win when they can amass a margin among women (who tend to cast a majority of the votes in most states) at least as great as the GOP advantage among men.
The generation gap is another thread through these polls. With only occasional exceptions, Democrats consistently run better with younger than older voters. That advantage is greatest among the youngest voters aged 18-29, but now frequently extends to voters in their early 40s, the oldest Millennials. Democrats have been consistently weakest among voters in the later stages of their working careers – roughly from 45-65 – before recovering in several states to post more competitive numbers among seniors aged 65 or older, who are sensitive to Democratic appeals on Social Security, Medicare and reducing prescription drug costs, as the AARP surveys show.
Education looms as potentially the most important cleavage this year. “When you combine across nine different polls in battleground states, the education gap is almost 3 times the size of the age gap and ten points bigger than the gender gap, so I absolutely think it’s going to be a significant predictor in these races,” says Matt Hogan, a partner at Impact Research, the Democratic half of the bipartisan AARP polling team.
Looking across racial lines, the major data sources on recent voting behavior generally found Democrats winning around 60% of all voters holding at least a four-year college degree in both 2020 and 2018, and just slightly less than that in 2016. Democrats again drew support from almost exactly three-fifths of those college graduates in the two-party “generic” ballot test in the most recent CNN national poll, although some other generic polls have shown a narrower edge. In the AARP, CNN and Marist surveys Democrats seem on track to reach that threshold as well in Senate races in such states as New Hampshire, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Colorado, plus in governor races in Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. (A notable exception: the CNN poll showed Masto narrowly losing college graduates in Nevada.)
Republicans have been stronger among voters without a college degree. Looking across racial lines, the GOP narrowly carried most of those voters in both 2018 and 2020 and won them by a bigger margin in 2016. Their advantage is, of course, especially pronounced among White voters without a college degree, who have transformed since the 1960s from the backbone of the Democratic coalition to the foundation of the Republican electorate. In 2020, Biden won just about one-third of those working-class Whites, up slightly from Hillary Clinton’s historically anemic total in 2016, but down a bit from the party’s showing in 2018.
The latest CNN poll on congressional preferences showed Democrats this year again stuck at about one-third support from Whites without a college degree. State polls show some individual Senate candidates running slightly better than that, including Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Rep. Tim Ryan in the Ohio Senate race. But it’s common in these surveys to find the GOP candidate winning 60% or more among these working-class Whites.
The same divergence in priorities that is sustaining the gender gap is also contributing to the educational chasm. For working-class voters, who often operate with smaller economic margins, inflation is a pervasive and biting daily challenge; for white-collar college-educated voters, it is often more of an inconvenience. That frees relatively more college-educated adults to vote on the issues around abortion rights and preserving democracy that favor Democrats. As I’ve written, the central tension that could decide next month’s election is how many voters prioritize economic issues and how many stress abortion rights and democracy, a balance likely to vary from state to state. Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s lead pollster in 2020 and the Republican half of the AARP team, says that while abortion has helped Democrats both motivate their voters and define their Republican opponents, in the campaign’s final weeks “I think we are seeing a shift away from that, and back toward economics, which benefits Republicans.”
These effects compound each other. For years, white men without a college degree have been the GOP’s strongest demographic group: Republicans carried about two-thirds (or more) of them in both 2018 and 2020, and the CNN poll shows the party positioned to match or even slightly exceed that in the congressional vote this year, according to detailed results provided by the CNN polling unit. In the latest Marist and CNN Senate polls, Democratic nominees have rarely reached even 35% of the vote with these men.
Conversely, college-educated White women have evolved into a core Democratic group: most sources showed Democrats winning about 60% of them in both 2018 and 2020, and the CNN poll showed the party slightly exceeding that level in this year’s congressional vote. The Marist and CNN polls show Democratic Senate candidates around or above that level in every major Senate race except Georgia (a Southern state where more White voters of every variety tend to lean right.)
The stark polarity between these two groups have led Bolger, the Republican pollster, to develop a yardstick that’s a variation on Lake’s theme: he believes Republicans are favored in any race where their margins and turnout from non-college men of all races surpasses the Democratic advantage among college-educated women of all races.
Generation also influences gender. The Supreme Court’s ruling overturning abortion rights has turbocharged support for Democrats among younger women, a group that already leaned toward the party.
“Younger women are very engaged and very fearful and angry about the court’s decision: they are the most Democratic- voting group bar none,” says Katherine Spillar, executive director of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a liberal group that on Monday released an extensive study about the gender gap.
The equation is more complicated among older White women, particularly the large number of them without a college education, says Lake, who conducted the polling for the foundation’s study. They also tend to support abortion rights, she says, but they are less likely than younger and college-educated women to prioritize it above inflation in their vote. “You are not going to get non-college educated women if you don’t have both an economic conversation with them and a Roe v. Wade conversation, particularly with the older end of them,” Lake said.
Lake believes non-college educated White women of every age may be the critical swing voters in this election, a verdict Bolger also leans toward. In the CNN poll, Democrats were winning only about one-third of them for Congress, somewhat less than the party’s showing in 2020 and considerably less than its strength in 2018.
Gender and education also intersect meaningfully with race. Latino men, especially those without a college education, have become much more of a swing group open to voting for Republicans; to a lesser extent, so have Black men. Democratic support among all voters of color slipped from slightly more than three-fourths in 2018 to just under three-fourths in 2020. One of the decisive variables this year may be whether Republicans can extend those gains, particularly among male and non-college minority voters. Fabrizio predicts they will, based primarily on frustration over the economy. Hogan, the Democratic pollster, worries that he may be right. “We are seeing a continuation of” the GOP’s 2020 gains, he said, “both among Latinos and among Black voters as well…that is primarily driven by concerns about the economy.”
With inflation this high that seems entirely possible. But large-sample surveys of Latino voters by The Washington Post/Ipsos and the Pew Research Center have not yet found evidence of big Republican inroads: each survey found Democrats holding more than three-fifths of the two party vote among Latino voters, less than earlier in this century but almost exactly their level in 2020. Nor did the Post/Ipsos poll find evidence of GOP improvement with male or non-college Latinos. Still even small Latino shifts could threaten Democrats in closely contested states. Nevada, where many Latinos have been squeezed first by both the COVID-related shutdowns in the gambling industry and then by inflation, may be the state where economic discontent among those voters most threatens Democratic prospects.
This latticework of allegiances has produced a political system in which neither side has lastingly sustained an advantage over the other, arguably since the late 1960s. This year, Democrats will need to defy history and political gravity to avoid significant losses at a moment of such widespread economic discontent. But the persistence and pervasiveness of these demographic divides in races around the country suggests that whichever side ultimately controls the House and Senate, this year’s fiercely fought campaign will not move us very far off of that “knife’s edge.”