How Trump scrambled the next decade of elections
Days after the 2020 election, House Democrats convened to address some of the party’s most surprising losses, and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Cheri Bustos name-checked one in particular: Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a freshman from South Florida.
Party data missed a huge surge to the right in her Miami-based district, where voters backed Hillary Clinton by 16 points in 2016 — and then voted for former President Donald Trump by more than 5 points in 2020, after he rebounded with Cuban Americans and other Latino groups.
“Trump’s massive overperformance with Cuban voters was simply too much for her to overcome,” Bustos said, according to a person on the conference call.
The 21-point swing toward Trump in the Miami district, which once appeared to be trending deep blue, epitomizes the chaotic, fast-changing political trends of the last four years, which also saw major metro areas from Atlanta to Orange County swing hard toward Democrats. Now, those big shifts are complicating life for both parties, as they try to figure out what those results really mean in preparation for the once-in-a-decade redistricting process.
Traditionally, state legislators and political mapmakers rely heavily on recent election results for clues about how communities will vote in the future — baselines they use to gerrymander advantageous districts for their party. But the whiplash in Trump-era elections make drawing conclusions from those results more complicated this year. And both parties’ strategists know that if they make bad bets, drawing districts based on elections that were driven more by Trump’s singular personality than by trends that will persist until 2030, those mistakes could swing control of the House against them over the next decade.
“People on both sides are going to have to look at these things and try to figure out: Are there any things that we can point to that are predictive, and where do we see the party heading?” said Adam Kincaid, the executive director of the National Republican Redistricting Trust, the GOP’s clearinghouse for redistricting data.
“If you think of American elections as a stock market, did we go through this kind of bubble?” Kincaid said. “And now, is the bubble burst and we’re going to go through a correction for a little while? Or are we kind of in this new kind of bear market for a little bit where we don’t really know where we’re heading next?”
Democrats are grappling with the same questions. Since 2018, Democratic strategists have wondered whether they were “renting” or “buying” the suburban voters who fled Trump in states like New Jersey, Illinois and more, flipping the House during the last midterm. They won’t have another election to test theories and figure it out before they have to compete in new districts next year.
Some strategists fear the level of uncertainty will be much greater than when politicians were preparing new maps 10 years ago. “We’re going to have a lower level of confidence in our ability to predict outcomes based on the historical election data,” said Tom Bonier, the CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm.
In South Florida, in particular, the “Trump effect is a double-edged sword”, said former Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who lost to Mucarsel-Powell in 2018. “While it generated this trend where Republicans are doing better with working-class voters of all races and ethnicities, they’re also losing support among higher-income and college-educated voters in the suburbs. It does make the challenge of drawing districts more daunting.”
Crafting congressional seats is already a complicated process that weighs geography, population growth, the whims of state legislators and a wealth of political data stretching back decades. In the era of Trump, there’s also a myriad of conflicting data points.
Just as in 2010, Republicans have the upper hand in redistricting, fully controlling the map-drawing process in 18 states. They will draw more districts than Democrats, and they have total control in the seat-rich states of Texas, Florida and North Carolina. But those same states are also brimming over with some of the most unpredictable demographics, including Latino voters and affluent suburban voters.
Texas offers a concrete example of rapid realignment. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama won the three rural and Latino-heavy Rio Grande Valley congressional seats by double-digit margins in 2012 and 2016. Then Joe Biden carried them by only a few points, the largest rightward shift in the state.
But the opposite is true in Texas’ massive suburbs. In 2012, Sen. Mitt Romney carried 25 of Texas’s 36 congressional districts, only one of them with less than 55 percent of the vote. By 2020, Trump won 10 seats by less than 55 percent as GOP support cratered among suburban voters who recoiled from his behavior as president. GOP Rep. Dan Crenshaw, for example, represents a Houston-area district that Romney won by 27 points. In 2016, Trump carried it by a third of that margin and by 2020 he won it by just 1 point, with less than 50 percent of the vote.
Yet at the same time, Crenshaw, a second-term Republican, beat a well-funded challenger by 13 points. In an interview, he said Trump’s narrow victory margins in suburban districts did not portend much for Republican candidates for Congress. Democrats didn’t pick up any seats in Texas in 2020.
“If you’re willing to take an unemotional and unbiased look at what happened, it’s pretty obvious where the general public is,” Crenshaw said. “And that’s a good thing for Republicans — if we’re just willing to learn the lesson and stick to the agenda and be nice.”
To maximize their edge, both parties seek to draw districts that spread out their supporters into as many places as possible, creating a large number of moderately safe seats, where incumbents can win with about 55 percent of the vote or so. Until 2018, traditional GOP-drawn seats like those held in states like Texas, Michigan and Georgia. But demographic changes and Trump-fueled shifts overwhelmed them, making them some of the most competitive races in the country in 2018 and delivering the House majority to Democrats that year.
In Travis County, Texas, which includes Austin, Republicans “got through the decade by dividing it into five pieces,” connecting suburban, high-growth areas to exurban and rural communities, said Matt Angle, a Democratic consultant in the state. “And it worked, but by the end of the decade, there was so much population growth, three of them were highly competitive.”
“I expect we’ll see that happen again around Houston and Dallas,” he added.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former National Republican Congressional Committee chair, warned against Republicans pushing that formula and setting the party up for losses in an unforgiving environment.
“I’ve watched us get in trouble by stretching the rubber band too great,” Cole said. “If you’re running into what you think might be a good election, and this could be a good election for us, don’t get greedy. Don’t. Because there are going to be some bad elections out there.”
For Democrats, the combination of rapid population growth and a Trump-spurred realignment proved to be a winning formula. And they are hoping they don’t lose the new voters that Trump pushed to their camp.
Trump’s populist streak helped Republicans win three Minnesota districts in white, rural working-class areas and made for tighter-than-expected races for members like Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Bustos, the former DCCC chair who represents northwest Illinois. Because those trends preceded Trump, operatives from both parties expect them to continue into the next decade.
Democrats had also seen some gains in the suburbs before 2016, but Trump accelerated that shift, bringing them seats that were previously out of reach but are now held by the likes of Democratic Reps. Colin Allred in Dallas, Lizzie Fletcher in Houston and Sean Casten and Lauren Underwood outside of Chicago.
However, Democrats are wary of relying too heavily on Trump-era data, in case it paints too rosy a picture of their prospects in places like those.
“Things like education level have actually been more durable as a predictive measure of competitive seats over the course of several cycles, even than Trump himself,” said Kelly Ward Burton, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Instead, she said, “You think of Trump as a factor in that mix, not as like its own one thing that you’re looking at. It’s sort of irresponsible to put all your eggs in one basket, frankly, in terms of looking for competitive seats.”
But the fact that Republicans have openly mused about the need to redraw districts to account for the purpling of the suburbs around Atlanta and Kansas City suggests that they accept that some voters who left their party in droves won’t return.
“The Trump era in the suburbs will not be an anomaly when it’s apparent that Trump continues to cast a large shadow over the party,” said one former Republican member of congress, who represented a suburban district and was granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “That being said, I think we’re in some sort of hybrid existence, where the muscle memory of many of these districts is reflexively Republican and I think it is hard to believe that these suburban areas are now full-throated Democrats.”
Back in Florida, Mucarsel-Powell said that her district swung so quickly because Republicans “targeted communities of color with misinformation and voter suppression,” on top of a “Trump-specific focus on targeting Hispanics.”
“We have to be extremely cautious and vigilant for what Republicans are doing already to target these groups,” Mucarsel-Powell added, saying that she largely maintained her share of support among Cuban American voters from 2018 to 2020. “We need long-term investment in these communities and we can win them.”