House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Opinion writer

It now looks like the Democratic victory was bigger than we first thought: Democrats may win upwards of 35 House seats, and according to Nate Cohn’s projections, they are on track to win the national House popular vote by seven to eight points, roughly their margin in the wave of 2006, and slightly larger than the Republican margin in 2010.

Republicans, to be sure, won far more seats that year. But Democrats won fewer seats this time because of structural disadvantages such as gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic voters in urban centers. As Cohn explains, the amount of seats they did win in the face of those hurdles actually demonstrates how well the party performed. This was, Cohn notes, a “wave.”

Which gives rise to a question: What does all this mean for 2020?

One of the biggest stories of the election was the big shift to Democrats among college-educated whites, a marginally Republican-leaning constituency that has been badly alienated by President Trump.

A new analysis from CNN’s Ron Brownstein sheds light on just how big that movement was — and on what that might mean for Trump’s reelection chances. As Brownstein notes, the election further polarized the two coalitions, between the GOP coalition made up of blue-collar, small-town, rural, exurban, aging and evangelical Christian whites, and the Democratic one comprised of young voters, nonwhites and college-educated white and suburban voters, particularly women.

Democrats won House seats not only in cities and suburbs of big metropolitan areas that already lean blue. They also picked off seats in more Republican-leaning suburban areas, around places such as Richmond, Dallas, Houston, Des Moines, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Charleston, S.C.

These are places, Brownstein notes, where “Republicans had, until now, resisted the general movement of white-collar communities toward the Democrats.” But the Democrats’ House gains in these areas were fueled by the defection of college-educated whites to their party, which happened even as non-college-educated whites delivered the Republican Party their gains in the Senate, in white, more blue-collar red states:

Exit polls … found that just 40 percent of college-educated white voters said they approved of Trump’s job performance, while 59 percent disapproved. The numbers were essentially inverted among white voters without a college education: 61 percent approved while just 39 percent disapproved.

Driven by those divergent reactions to the president, non-college educated whites gave Republicans a resounding 24 percentage point advantage in House races, according to the exit poll.  College-educated voters preferred Democrats by eight points, the poll found. That was a huge shift from both 2014 and 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans won them by margins of at least sixteen percentage points.

The result is that the new Republican-minority House caucus is mostly concentrated in blue-collar, white and rural and small-town districts. By contrast, the new Democratic-majority House caucus is more diverse, and importantly, more affluent and more educated. Note this stat on the incoming class of House Democrats:

Three-fifths hold seats where the median income is greater than the national average, and just under three-fifths hold districts with more college graduates than average.

This is due to the infusion of college-educated and suburban whites, some from affluent white-collar suburbs, into the Democratic coalition.

Among the big questions this raises: Is a new version of the Democratic coalition of young voters, minorities, and educated, socially liberal, secular whites emerging that is particular to the Trump governing era — one that didn’t quite deliver for Democrats in 2016 but is now more energized and cohered in reaction to Trump’s governance? Can that hold together, given some of the strains that may arise around differing economic priorities among these groups?

To be clear, I’m not saying this coalition necessarily can deliver a victory in the electoral college, which imposes new complications on the equation. The heavy blue-collar-white concentrations in the industrial Midwestern states that Democrats need to win require them to hold down Republican margins among that demographic. It is notable in this regard that Democrats won all six Senate and gubernatorial contests in the three “blue wall” states Trump cracked — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. But as Alec MacGillis points out, Democrats did terribly in Ohio (with the exception of Sherrod Brown), suggesting that maybe it’s drifting in a redder and redder direction. That, plus Democratic losses in Florida, offer pause.

The flip side of this big polarization among white voters is that, by further energizing blue-collar whites, Republicans built on their Senate majority. As Adam Serwer points out, given the relentless xenophobic and race-baiting messaging employed to make that happen, it’s clear there is a fundamental difference between the two coalitions: The GOP one is at least to some extent organized around discomfort with evolving, multi-racial America, while the Democratic one, the one that wrought a new House majority, is evolving, multiracial America.

In other words, something big and important did happen in this election, despite the punditry that strains mightily to find ways of minimizing the Dem victory: A multi-racial majority coalition, one fueled by historically enormous turnout, did rise up in reaction to Trumpian governance to decisively and emphatically put in place a new check on his rule in the form of a Democratic House. And it may be prompting a realignment.

This was in part driven by college-educated-white revulsion at Trump’s racist and misogynist provocations and his ethno-nationalist agenda. But it’s also important to note that the Trump-era GOP agenda joins those things with orthodox GOP economics, and the latter’s utter failure to offer answers on health care surely also helped drive college-educated whites to Democrats. In other words, that demographic likely rejected the Trump-era GOP agenda’s fusion of ethno-nationalist cruelty and regressive plutocracy.

It remains to be seen whether this House majority coalition will hold, and whether it is enough to form at least the underpinnings of an effort to defeat Trump in 2020. But this did constitute a big victory, whose significance we are only beginning to appreciate.