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Reporter's notebook: What the midterms look like on election eve

Trump's final midterm rallies
Trump's final midterm rallies 09:01

A Tale of Two Elections

We've known since the beginning of the cycle that the battle for Congress would take place on two different fields: The Senate map runs through states President Trump won and where Democrats are on defense, and the House map runs through suburban districts where Hillary Clinton won and where Republicans are on defense. But closing arguments have brought that contrast into clearer view.

Mr. Trump, and Republicans running in states and districts where the president is popular, are making the election all about immigration. I have heard lots of Republican voters bring his issue up voluntarily, specifically the caravan. In Las Vegas, for example, I talked to two immigrants supporting Mr. Trump — one from Malaysia and one from India — who described the caravan as an invasion. Mr. Trump used immigration as a calling card in 2016, and believes it will be as successful in 2018. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are laser focused on health care. They believe they are on offense in the issue (a remarkable shift from from the previous four elections) because it's such a personal issue for people. The party that is seen as threatening change when it comes to health care gets blamed (i.e. Democrats in 2010). 

After talking to Democratic candidates and voters alike, the concerns about health care involve: rising premiums, threats of taking away coverage for pre-existing conditions, rising costs of prescription drug prices, changes to Medicare and Medicaid, etc. Health care is an economic issue for Democrats — a way to negate positive economic news that might otherwise benefit Republicans. Their argument is that yes, the economy may look good on paper but people are still anxious about health care coverage and costs.

Even if Democrats claim the House, expect Mr. Trump to declare victory by virtue of the Senate.

Trump is on the ballot

Midterms are usually a referendum on the president and party in power. But this one is feeling more and more like a presidential election, with turnout expected to be historic for a midterm. And in certain states, Mr. Trump is arguing that he is on the ballot, and that a vote for a Republican candidate it a vote for him. His campaign schedule is intense, and designed to get his voters to turn out for Republicans. This is a difficult task, one that President Obama couldn't do in 2010 and 2014. But Mr. Trump is still planning to leave it all on the field.

Democratic voters in battleground districts appear to be fueled by Mr. Trump as well. While Democratic candidates in these key races don't focus on the president — nearly every candidate and campaign I've spoken don't want to talk impeachment — they know that negative reaction to Mr. Trump is driving their voters. As much as Mr. Trump is a boon to Republicans in red states, he is also a one-man get out the vote effort for the Democratic base.

The big question I have is whether Mr. Trump can transfer his coalition in a midterm.

I spoke with one Trump voter in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, in a Democratic district that voted for Mr. Trump, who said she loved the president, but wasn't sure about the congressional candidates or whether she would vote. She thinks Mr. Trump is beating all her expectations and needs more allies, but she wasn't convinced a vote for a Republican was a vote for Mr. Trump.

"I don't consider myself a full-blown Republican or depends on the person," said Lori Coleman, who manages a vape store and voted for Obama in 2008 and Mr. Trump in 2016.

"Just because they're an ally [of Mr. Trump] doesn't mean I like them. Because they could say they're an ally for attention. They could say they're an ally just to get votes. And that's what bothers me. I'm more or less going to vote for someone who actually, truly cares about change. Not everybody who says they like Trump is actually a good person or actually cares."

It's the economy, stupid. But is it?

The economy is good, but Mr. Trump's approval numbers don't seem to match. At rallies recently he has admitted that talking about the economy isn't exactly the barn burner that other cultural flashpoints are. The philosophy is that, at least in midterms, people tend to vote out of anger or fear. Just as you don't normally call your utility company to praise them for good service, you may not feel compelled to turn out in an election just to say thanks. A good economy may also give voters the bandwidth to think about other things when it comes to voting.

That's not to say Republicans are ignoring it. GOP candidates in tough districts can use the economy to argue that things are headed on the right track, despite the president. This can play particularly well in states like Florida and Nevada, battlegrounds that were among the hardest hit by the recession. It could play well with women, who are often the heads of the households when it comes to making economic decisions. And it could help Republican candidates looking to carve out a compelling identity separate from the president.

This can all create a challenge for Democrats, who want to show contrast but don't want to appear to be cheering against good economic news. Democrats have been using the GOP tax bill in their economic pitch, arguing that middle class earners could have gotten a bigger break and the legislation has added to the debt. Democrats have also seized on Mitch McConnell arguing that entitlement programs, not the tax bill, are the greatest drivers of the debt and should be reformed. Over the past week, I have heard many Democratic candidates reference McConnell's words.

A new midterm electorate?

With turnout anticipated to make records for a midterm, I'm interested to see what the winning coalitions will look like. Democrats have been arguing that in difficult races like Texas, they are aiming to turn out voters who typically don't participate in midterms — young and minority voters, in particular. They are counting on over performance among these groups to make up the gaps in polling.

Florida, Florida, Florida

It's difficult to find a state that better encompasses all of the above themes. The governor's race between Andrew Gillum and Ron DeSantis is a base versus base election. And since they're both young, it could help tell us something about the future of their respective parties. 

Mr. Trump narrowly won the state, and it will be critical to his own 2020 bid. How does this race drive turnout across the ballot? The U.S. Senate race is critical, as are two districts that went for Clinton: the 26th and 27th. Younger voters will be a deciding constituency, as they are beginning to outpace older voters there, Florida political analyst Susan MacManus has told me. National issues from guns to immigration to the economy and the Hispanic vote are all coming into play in Florida.

And on the Hispanic vote: As both parties battle to turn out Latino voters, it's important to remember it's not a monolithic group. And the president's rhetoric on immigration is playing differently among different groups. I spoke with Cuban, Colombian and Venezuelan immigrants in Miami and they were largely supportive of Trump and Republicans. They said that they didn't want to see the United States become like the countries they left. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Republican running for Congress in Florida's 27th congressional district, told me that sentiment is powerful in her district, even as she disagrees with the president's rhetoric. I found a similar sentiment among two Latin American immigrants I spoke with in San Antonio who were supporting Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

But Democratic congressional candidate Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, an immigrant from Ecuador running in Florida's 26th congressional district, told me this about the president's rhetoric on immigration: "As an immigrant, I can tell you that it's been very offensive….We are seeing images of people living in desperation. We need to find some common ground and really talk about immigration and have those conversations that are tough to have, but we need to find real solutions."

Democrats in Trump Country

There are dozen Democratic districts that Mr. Trump won in 2016, as well as governor and U.S. Senate races in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Democrats are well positioned in all of them — many of them poised to win. Is the tide turning back to Democrats in the Midwest and Rust Belt? Or is this temporary, a result of either poor-performing Republican candidates or voters not responding to candidates not named Trump. Alternatively, are the president's policies on trade and taxes turning supporters away from the GOP?

I'm also keeping my eye on whether voters split their tickets in these areas, thanks to high name recognition. In Ohio, for example, could voters back both Republican Mike DeWine for governor and Democrat Sherrod Brown for Senate?

Democrats in these areas have carved out a separate identity from the Democratic party, while still campaigning on party themes around health care and the tax bill. Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright, who represents a Trump district near Scranton, told me last week, "What I am hearing is that people know how hard I work for them around here and how much I care about them. And that's why in the neighborhood of 33,000 people in northeastern Pennsylvania voted for Donald Trump and Matt Cartwright on the same ballot two years ago. I'm the same guy, and they're the same people."

Republicans in Clinton Country

There are two dozen GOP districts Hillary Clinton won that are top targets for Democrats this cycle. (Most are in California, New Jersey, New York, and Florida. But also, keep an eye on Kansas!) Voters have shown an appetite for splitting tickets there before. Will this time be different? Can a GOP incumbent convince voters he or she is different from the president?

"This is a highly educated district, and people in this district vote for the candidate. And proof of that is Hillary Clinton carried the district and I carried the district," Republican Rep. Leonard Lance, of New Jersey's 7th congressional district, told me recently. "The most important issue is bipartisanship. That's what I hear about most...I treat everybody with civility and respect. I think I am well known for that."

On the Senate side, we are watching Nevada, where GOP Sen. Dean Heller up for re-election in a state Clinton won. But Heller also won election, narrowly, in 2012 at the same time Obama carried his state.

Who Run the World?

As Beyonce would say: Girls. But in the case of the 2018 election, it's college-educated women, specifically. This is the most influential group when it comes to the battle for control of the House, which runs through the suburbs. According to our CBS polling, a vast majority of college educated women vote in midterms and plan to do so in November. A plurality want their vote to send a message to Mr. Trump. And most name health care as a top issue.

Polls show white, college-educated women are backing Democrats this cycle by a significantly greater margin than they did in 2016. Clinton won this particular demographic by just six points in the last presidential contest. Today, various polls show white, college educated women backing Democrats by upwards of 30 points. Another key demographic: Black women. This voting group was a top factor in electing Doug Jones to the Senate in Alabama last year, and figures to be just as consequential this week. 

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