Hindsight is generally regarded to be 20/20, but for trends affecting the nation’s political parties and voters, it is more accurately 2010.
That was a midterm election year imbued with subtle, though powerful, literal red flags that signaled sweeping change bubbling up across flyover country. Arkansas was a harbinger of the remarkable nature of that change, breaking a blue-state chokehold on majority-Democratic House of Representatives delegations that stretched all the way back to Reconstruction.
Looking back, the destruction of a nearly 140-year-old record should have registered higher on the political Richter scale for the national Democratic Party. Change was in the air all across America, and not the kind Barack Obama had campaigned for two years earlier.
Indeed, one likely reason Democratic leaders ignored the seismic shifts in the nation’s electorate was their delusion rooted in confusion: They misread Obama’s victory.
He won the presidency in 2008 on his personal merits, not his party affiliation—had Democrats watched 2010 more keenly, they would have seen critical indicators that Obama’s popularity didn’t translate to the party.
We are a federalist nation of self-governing states, and while national headlines often revolve around Washington, the lives of citizens are affected most by statehouse politics.
A “state government trifecta” occurs when one political party holds three positions of power in government: the governor’s seat and majorities in both legislative chambers.
Starting with the election of 2010, there have been eight different election opportunities to change the various states’ trifecta status. The 10th opportunity will occur this fall.
Prior to the 2010 midterms, there were 16 states with Democratic trifectas (Arkansas among them), and nine states with Republican trifectas. After the polls closed on Nov. 2, however, the landscape had changed radically: 21 states experienced a change in their trifecta status.
Imagining a U.S. map with red and blue coloring, the pre-election 2010 states were scattershot. Half had divided governments, and the other half were spread out across the continent, with no more than three or four of either color adjacent to each other.
When the dust had settled after the 2010 midterms, the total number of state trifectas had grown to 32. Even more telling, the red trifecta states had increased from nine to 21, and formed swaths across the mountains, plains, Rust Belt and South. The number of blue trifectas fell from 16 to 10.
But the tone and tenor of Democrats was anything but reflective or contemplative, and even seemed contemptible in consideration of exit polling data from around the country.
When asked about the nation’s most pressing issues, 62 percent of voter respondents said the country was headed in the wrong direction. Significantly, the number of voters who identified themselves as conservative jumped by 28 percent from the previous midterm.
Suddenly the sagacity of a campaign slogan like “Make America Great Again” starts to settle in.
With the 2012 elections, the Republican trifecta dominance continued as the party added three more states, while Democrats added only one. Apparently, the identity of key transition states was either overlooked or ignored amid euphoria over Obama’s re-election.
Neither Michigan, Indiana, Ohio nor Pennsylvania had been under single-party control before 2010, and Wisconsin had a Democratic trifecta. After election day in 2012, all five were in the Republican trifecta camp, joined by North Carolina and Virginia.
Maybe the slippage seemed gradual at the time to Democrats charged with watching for icebergs and minefields in the roiling political waters, though it’s hard to imagine any Democratic strategist monitoring the trifecta map data and not becoming alarmed.
On the eve of the 2016 election, the stark significance of the political trifecta shift in six short years painted a national picture of freight train momentum. The 2010 Democratic lead of 16-9 had dwindled to a deficit of 6-23.
One day later, the red sea swelled even more, as Republicans picked up trifectas in Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri and New Hampshire, as well as the presidency. After West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice switched his party in 2017, the GOP held trifectas in 26 states, as it still does today.
The trifecta factor may well figure into the coming confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Among at-risk “red state Democrat” senators who are up for re-election this November, four represent the Republican trifecta states of West Virginia, Missouri, North Dakota and Indiana.
Trump’s popular vote victory by percentage points in those states was, respectively, 41, 20, 36 and 19.
Even though it’s not a trifecta state (yet–both legislative chambers are Republican with double-digit majorities), Montana gave Trump a 20-point victory, and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s seat there is at risk this year.
Were Kavanaugh a weaker nominee, conservative trifecta electorates might understand a nay vote. But most conservatives hold fast to principles above partisanship. At the end of the day, they believed Obama was right when he said elections had consequences, even when they disagreed with his Supreme Court picks. They believe that still, and harbor expectations accordingly.
Red-state Democratic senators would be wise (more than their party’s leadership has been) to pay attention to the trifecta trends.