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Three Meta-Narratives to Watch on Election Night

Image: Congressional Candidate Clay Aiken Casts His Vote In The Midterm Elections

CARY, NC - NOVEMBER 04: Tucker Middleton, communications director for Clay Aiken, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress in North Carolina's Second District, places campaign signs outside of a polling site at Mills Park Elementary School on November 4, 2014 in Cary, North Carolina. Aiken, a former "American Idol" contestant, is running for political office for the first time. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) Grant Halverson / Getty Images

The 2014 midterms may indeed be the “election that is about nothing,” but as the results come in there are three, big meta-narratives to keep in mind: The stark divide between suburbs and exurbs, the challenge of engaging young voters and the rising populist ire in rural America.

The data suggest that those story lines will be a big part of American politics going forward, particularly in 2016, but when all the 2014 votes are tallied we should have a good sense of where they stand today.

The demographic county types from the American Communities Project, at American University’s School of Public Affairs, offers a way to exploring those topics.

The Suburbs versus the Exurbs:

Comparing the 2010 and 2014 elections with annual data from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll there is a sharp difference of opinion between the dense Urban Suburbs, mostly around major cities (in dark orange on this map), and the Exurbs (in yellow).

There are generally big partisan differences in these communities, with the Urban Suburbs leaning Democratic and the Exurbs leaning Republican, but the splits are much wider in 2014 than they were in 2010 as you can see on this chart.

In 2010, the Exurbs favored Republican control of Congress by about 20 percentage points – 49 percent said they wanted Republican control and 29 percent wanted Democratic control. In 2014, the Republican advantage in the Exurbs has grown to about 28 points – 59 percent versus 31 percent respectively.

But the Urban Suburbs have moved in the other direction. In 2010, people in those communities favored Democratic control slightly, by about five points – 41 percent Democratic versus 36 percent Republican. This year the Democratic advantage has grown to 10 percentage points – 50 percent Democratic to 40 percent Republican.

More people live in the Urban Suburbs (about 66 million people) than the Exurbs (about 32 million). But as we noted earlier this fall, the Exurbs hold bigger percentages of the population in the states with important Senate races and seem more eager to vote in 2014.

In Colorado, watch the turnout and vote coming out of Arapahoe, an Urban Suburb around Denver, and Douglas, an Exurb, for clues about how this election is going Tuesday night.

Where are the 20-somethings?:

Young voters were a key part of President Barack Obama’s winning coalition in 2008 and 2012, but they didn’t turnout in 2010, which hurt the Democrats badly. Some polls show that younger voters who are likely to come out Tuesday, ages 18-29, are more likely to be politically conservative.

There are some signs of conservative-leaning young voters in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal when the data broken out into the ACP types as well. You can see the differences in counties the ACP calls College Towns in and around colleges and universities (in light brown on the map).

In those counties, support for a Republican-controlled Congress looks much like it did in 2010. The 2014 numbers show there is a slight edge for Republican control, 44 percent to 38 percent for Democratic control. In 2010, it was 41 percent to 36 percent in favor of Republican control.

Some of that has to do with who is registered to vote and likely to vote in midterms. In 2012, there was actually an edge for Democrats – 47 percent to 41 percent for Republicans.

So what does the vote look like coming out of those counties tonight? And could there be a longer-term drop off among younger voters considering Obama’s struggles?

There are a few key counties to watch tonight. In Iowa watch the home of Iowa State University, which voted for Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley in 2010 and Obama in 2012. In North Carolina, Wake County, the home of N.C. State, flipped between 2010 and 2012 too.

And watch Douglas, the home of the University of Kansas, to see if that reliably Democratic stronghold has a spike in turnout with surprisingly tight senate and gubernatorial races.

Ire on the Prairie:

One of the big rules of modern American politics is that rural counties are Republican counties. In 2012, Obama lost the counties labeled Rural Middle America in the ACP by about 12 percentage points (they are in royal blue on the map).

But rural places have been very hard hit in the post-recession economy, as Meet the Press Host Chuck Todd noted recently. And there are a lot rural counties in Kansas.

Many have been focused on whether Democrat Paul Davis can defeat Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and whether Independent Greg Orman can win the senate seat occupied by Republican Incumbent Pat Roberts.

Either of those wins would be big news, but pay attention to how close those races are as well. If Davis or Orman win a wide swath of rural counties in the state it may be a hint that the anger in those places is starting to bubble up and make itself felt.

Even if Republicans end up winning both those races, that anger may have longer-term consequences. In the long run, what happens in those rural counties in Kansas could be an important harbinger for the issue environment in the 2016 GOP primary campaign.