by Connor O’Brien
- The average Republican House district entering the 118th Congress has a median income more than $10,000 less than the average Democratic district, a gap virtually unchanged from 2020.
- House Republicans captured their narrow majority thanks to inroads in comfortable and mid-tier areas while also expanding the party’s dominance of the nation’s most distressed counties.
- Republican candidates grew their vote shares in each of EIG’s five Distressed Communities Index (DCI) quintiles, and made their biggest inroads in districts rated as “comfortable” by the DCI, increasing their vote share by 6.4 percentage points.
- Democratic candidates performed worse than 2020 and 2018 across all district and county types, but held on to a majority of prosperous districts and narrowly won more votes than Republicans in those areas.
- While losing their House majority, Democratic candidates won 57 percent of “prosperous” Congressional districts, little changed from 2020.
- Republican candidates have increased their county-level vote share in all Distressed Communities Index quintiles in two consecutive election cycles. Republican candidates took home 64 percent of the vote in the country’s most distressed counties.
The results of the 2022 midterm elections defied both popular expectations and many clearly-defined narratives. Trends varied dramatically from state to state, as Democratic candidates improved on President Joe Biden’s 2020 margins in Pennsylvania but unexpectedly lost key House seats in neighboring New York. Similarly, although Florida Republicans swept key races across the state—driven in part by large shifts in voting preferences among Hispanics—the much-anticipated Republican wave in other largely Hispanic border districts across the Southwest largely failed to materialize.
As Republicans made gains in most of the country, the 2022 midterms reaffirmed some clear, long-standing voting trends along socioeconomic dimensions. Exploring results through the lens of EIG’s Distressed Communities Index (DCI)–which places communities in one of five quintiles from prosperous to distressed–at both the Congressional district and county levels, we find that House Republicans captured their narrow majority thanks to inroads in comfortable and mid-tier areas while also expanding the party’s dominance of the nation’s most distressed counties. Growing their share of the national House vote by 3.1 percentage points (a majority of about 3.4 million votes), Republican candidates improved their margin in economically comfortable districts by 6.4 points. Democratic candidates performed worse than 2020 and 2018 across all district and county types, but held on to a majority of prosperous districts and narrowly won more votes than Republicans in those areas.
Democrat-won districts had higher median incomes, but Republican-won districts generally perform better on measures of growth.
Averaging across Congressional districts, places won by Democrats and those won by Republican candidates look broadly similar on component measures of the DCI like poverty, housing vacancy, and the rate adults are out of the workforce. However, on average, the median household income was more than $10,000 higher in districts won by Democrats than those won by Republicans. Despite a change in party control in the House, the gap between the average Democratic and Republican district did not budge between 2020 and 2022. Republican-won districts, meanwhile, registered slightly stronger job growth and increases in business establishments from 2016 to 2020. Republican-won districts have modestly higher vacancy rates while, on average, fewer people in Democratic districts have at least a high school degree, reflecting Democrats’ hold on many high-immigrant and very urban districts as part of their coalition (Democratic districts tend to have much higher rates of college degree attainment, too). Overall, Republican-won districts were on average slightly more distressed than Democratic districts, averaging a DCI score of 52 compared with an average of 47 for Democratic districts (note: a score of 0 on the DCI is most prosperous and 100 is most distressed).
The Republican House majority will disproportionately represent “at-risk” and “distressed” Congressional districts but made the biggest inroads in “comfortable” districts.
Each party will head into the next Congress in January representing different geographic coalitions. Democrats once again won a large 57 percent majority (50 of 87) of Congressional districts in the top quintile of economic well-being (districts deemed prosperous on the DCI), similar to the 59 percent the party took home in 2020 House races. Democratic candidates won a narrower majority of seats in the next quintile down, or those termed comfortable. Republican candidates won majorities in the remaining quintiles, however, including 54 percent of seats in distressed districts across the country.
With two consecutive elections resulting in very narrow House majorities—and a net total of only 10 seats swinging from Democratic to Republican control compared to House results from 2020*—the share of seats captured by each party by DCI quintile is not radically different for the incoming Congress. Nevertheless, there were some compositional changes that will affect the shape of each party’s coalition come January.
Compared to the initial composition of the last Congress, Republicans will enter the new session representing seven more comfortable districts and seven additional seats in mid-tier districts, the middle DCI quintile. On the other hand, while the party won 58 percent of at-risk districts, they will represent seven fewer such districts in the 119th Congress.
Republicans outperformed their national vote share in economically worse-off Congressional districts.
In terms of overall votes cast, Democrats continued to draw votes disproportionately from prosperous and comfortable districts and ran behind their national share of total votes cast for House candidates (the “national popular vote”) in other types of districts. Republican candidates, winning approximately 50.5 percent of the national vote, exceeded that margin by 4.6 points in at-risk districts and 2.8 points in distressed districts.
Republican candidates made the biggest inroads in comfortable and mid-tier House districts, though their share of the vote rose in every quintile of the DCI. Compared to 2020, Republicans grew their vote share in comfortable districts by 6.4 percentage points and 4.2 percentage points in mid-tier districts, but only grew their share of the vote in distressed districts by just 1.5 percentage points.
In other words, while recent trends have largely held at the Congressional district level–Democrats outperforming in prosperous districts and underperforming in more distressed ones–Republicans managed to make gains in more well-off districts.
Republicans continued to dominate distressed counties nationwide.
Data at the House-district level indicates that the incoming Republican majority was won largely by making inroads in comfortable and mid-tier districts. However, a note of caution is warranted here: redistricting changed district boundaries in many states, sometimes dramatically. Moreover, House districts rarely conform to the shape of regional economies. A county-level look at votes cast in the midterms by party allows for a more granular evaluation of how local economic well-being relates to political preferences controlling for any effects of redistricting and largely confirms what the district-level analysis finds.
Republican candidates grew their vote shares in each of the five DCI quintiles and most in comfortable and mid-tier counties, just as the Congressional district-level data showed. After losing the overall vote in comfortable counties with only 45 percent of the vote in 2020, Republican candidates won nearly 51 percent of votes in such counties in 2022 while Democratic House candidates captured 47 percent.
After a 2018 election which saw Democratic candidates recapture the House majority and win an 8.6 percent national popular vote victory, Democrats have seen their vote shares decline in two consecutive elections across all DCI county-level quintiles. In November, they captured little more than one-third of votes cast for House candidates in distressed counties.
Republicans’ dominance of distressed regions is in no small part due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of counties considered distressed with county-level election results available (544 out of 623) are rural and outside of a metro area. In such places, Republican candidates won 69 percent of the vote, and most of these counties are located in the South or Appalachia. Where Democrats won distressed rural counties, they were often home to large Black, Hispanic, or Native populations that are typically aligned with the party. Democratic candidates did win majorities in the handful of urban and suburban counties considered distressed, though these counties accounted for less than ten percent of the four million votes cast in distressed counties nationwide.
With a national popular vote margin of about 3.1 percentage points, Republicans won the overall popular vote in all DCI quintiles except the top, prosperous counties. GOP candidates won the overall vote in comfortable counties by 2.1 points, mid-tier counties by 3.6 points, at-risk counties by 18.4 points, and distressed counties by over 30 points. (Importantly, at the county scale, rural areas—which skew heavily Republican—tend to perform worse on the DCI than metropolitan areas.) Democrats, meanwhile, captured a narrow plurality of votes in prosperous counties, winning 49.3 percent of all votes cast compared with 48.6 percent of those cast for Republican candidates.
Despite a flip of the House from Democratic to Republican control, the socioeconomic characteristics of the average “red” and “blue” districts remain little changed. In districts faring well on EIG’s Distressed Communities Index, Democratic candidates continued to fare the strongest, while Republicans generally fared better in more distressed places. The Republican majority, meanwhile, was won by making gains in well-off districts, though the party made at least modest inroads across the country. Nevertheless, the geographic coalitions backing each party going into the 118th Congress will look very much like those of the last one.
Note: Due to the passing of Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), Democrats enter the 118th Congress occupying 212 seats, rather than the 213 the party won in November. Totals here reflect election results.