MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In the final five weeks of this 2018 election season, President Trump held two dozen campaign rallies...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much, Georgia. This is like being at a Georgia football game. This is incredible.
KELLY: ...Rallies in which the president painted Democrats as a left-wing mob, warned about the national emergency - his words - posed by a caravan of migrants and threatened to revoke birthright citizenship. Well, in the thick of those rallies back in October, I called longtime Republican strategist and pollster Whit Ayres and asked about the president's political tactics. Ayres told me they're symptomatic of the politics of our age.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
KELLY: Is it the president's responsibility leading the entire country to try to rise above the politics of our age even four weeks out from the midterms, to find some way to try to bring Americans together and not divide?
WHIT AYRES: Mary Louise, there is no way I can answer that question...
KELLY: (Laughter) Why not?
AYRES: ...Without getting myself in trouble.
KELLY: With the campaign now behind us, we have called Whit Ayres back. Hey there, Mr. Ayres.
AYRES: Hey, Mary Louise.
AYRES: Pleasure to be with you.
KELLY: I'm glad you agreed to come back and talk again. Let me throw that question to you again 'cause that was a long pause last month when I asked about the president's responsibility to unite and not divide. You're chuckling. Would you care to answer it now?
AYRES: Well, the president's strategy worked very well in deep red states, ones that he carried, where Democrats were running for re-election. Basically 2018 reinforced and accelerated the patterns we saw in 2016 with Democrats winning the popular vote election, reflected in the House, and Republicans winning the Electoral College election, reflected in the Senate. We were helped by the fact that the Senate map was the most Republican-leaning in our lifetimes.
KELLY: I want to come back in a moment to your case that this has been a great election for Republicans. But to my original question, which wasn't quite that. It was, does the president have a responsibility to unite Americans and not divide?
AYRES: I think the president is the president of all Americans. And that is the way I think most American presidents have approached the job and that I hope President Trump will approach the job over the next couple of years.
KELLY: To - let me put it this way. Setting aside whether you agree with it or not, you're saying the president's strategy - this focus on the caravan, the focus on the border - that it was good politics.
AYRES: No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying it worked in some places, and it didn't work in others. It was good politics in deep red states and deep red congressional districts. It was not good politics for the suburban areas that determine control of the House. It was very much of a split decision, Mary Louise, with Republicans having a good year in the Senate and Democrats having a good year in the House and in governors' races.
KELLY: Well, so what is your takeaway from this week's election? Why was it such a different story in the House and in the Senate?
AYRES: Because everybody in the country votes on their House representative, which is very similar to a popular vote election, which Hillary Clinton won in 2018. But the Senate election was very different. It was a very different set of states. And it enhances the influence of smaller, more rural states where the president is particularly popular.
KELLY: Did you buy the argument that some, including the president himself, made that this vote was a referendum on President Trump and his presidency?
AYRES: In those areas where he tried to make it a referendum I think that's probably fair. And in those areas where his approach did not go over very well, in the suburban areas, that's probably fair as well. And he ended up with a split decision this year just like he did in 2016 between the popular vote and the Electoral College.
KELLY: Those suburban areas that you've alluded to - the election results do suggest that Republicans have a problem, a growing problem with attracting voters in urban areas and in suburbs. The election results also suggest Republicans have a problem winning votes from people of color. How do you win those people over?
AYRES: Well, that's a challenge going forward for the Republican Party. In the last two elections, Republicans have traded larger, fast-growing suburban counties for smaller, slow-growing rural counties. That works sometimes, as the president showed in 2016, but it's hardly a formula for long-term electoral success.
KELLY: One challenge would seem to be that the president has through his rhetoric complicated this issue. Would you agree with that?
AYRES: I think that's a fair statement.
KELLY: Does the GOP need to win these voters over given the...
AYRES: Of course they do.
KELLY: ...Changing democratics (ph) of the country?
AYRES: Of course they do. This is a very diverse country, and it is becoming more diverse by the day. And in order to win a majority of the popular vote in the future, the Republican Party is going to have to appeal to more people who do not look like white men and older people. They're going to have to appeal to a more diverse coalition of minorities and now college-educated women who live in the suburbs.
KELLY: Whit Ayres, Republican pollster and strategist and president of North Star Opinion Research, thanks very much.
AYRES: Surely, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.