As Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAverage tax refunds down double-digits, IRS data shows White House warns Maduro as Venezuela orders partial closure of border with Colombia Trump administration directs 1,000 more troops to Mexican border MORE's president has likely shifted the political dividing line from "red" states and "blue" states to metropolitan areas versus rural ones.

Much of that has to do with the way that the president managed to reorient the Republican party toward people without college degrees who have more culturally traditional outlooks.

"What's really going on is there's a geographic division where you're seeing rural areas become more and more Republican and more conservative, more Trump," Lee Mirengoff, the director of the Marist Poll, said Friday.

This process had begun decades ago in the late 1960s as Republicans, beginning with Richard Nixon, began orienting their party to focus on cultural issues rather than economic concerns.

Democrats contributed to the evolution beginning in 1994 after then-president Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonInviting Kim Jong Un to Washington Howard Schultz must run as a Democrat for chance in 2020 Trump says he never told McCabe his wife was 'a loser' MORE shifted his party away from issues like raising taxes or increasing welfare spending toward a focus on cultural issues like LGBT rights and abortion which were more salient for educated middle- and upper-middle-class Americans who weren't as concerned about income inequality.

The midterm elections of 2018 solidified many of the same trends that emerged during the presidential contest between Trump and Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDem strategist says Clinton ‘absolutely’ has a role to play in 2020 Left-leaning journalist: Sanders would be 'formidable candidate' against Trump Clinton hits EPA for approval of pesticide dump: ‘We need bees!’ MORE, Mirengoff noted.

"These suburban areas, the areas that Hillary Clinton did well in, was the place where a lot of Republican congressmen lost their seats," he said.

According to a survey of 28,000 voters conducted for the election by the National Opinion Research Center, men living in small towns or rural areas voted for the GOP overwhelmingly, 62-35 percent. Women living in the same regions backed the GOP as well, 52 percent to 45 percent.

In suburban areas, men leaned slightly toward Republicans, 50-47 percent while suburban women backed Democrats overwhelmingly, 58 percent to 39 percent. Women and men in large urban areas backed Democrats by even greater margins.

The metropolitan/rural split is even beginning to supersede longstanding regional differences of opinion. North and South used to be a meaningful distinction. Increasingly, that's no longer the case.

Despite Trump's success leveraging conservative religious and racial attitudes among white voters, Democrats' success in suburban areas showed they can win if their candidates veer away from divisive cultural issues, Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution said.

"Let's face it, the growth of the Democratic caucus is all out of purple districts," Kamarck observed. "You've got a whole new crop of freshmen; they are not out of the Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersSanders endorses Oakland teachers strike Dem strategist says Clinton ‘absolutely’ has a role to play in 2020 News media has sought to 'delegitimize' Tulsi Gabbard, says liberal journalist MORE wing of the party. So I don't think you can say that this is a party that's going far-left."

While Democrats did well in 2018 by winning the House, if they want to keep winning in 2020 when Trump's loyal voter base will be energized to continue to support him, they'll have to keep their focus on economic issues, Kamarck argued.

"Democrats have to keep on the pragmatic road," she said. "They've got to talk to talk about jobs and they've got to talk about healthcare. To the extent that Democrats let themselves get too off the track in abstract cultural issues, they're going to not do that."

Things would be much more difficult in 2020 for Democrats if Republicans abandoned their unpopular efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Kamarck said.

"I think health care's going to continue to be a big issue, unless the Republican party has learned their lesson and they just fold on this," she argued.

At a post-election news conference, Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKids confront Feinstein over Green New Deal Trump selects Kelly Craft for United Nations ambassador Union leader says Green New Deal would make infrastructure bill ‘absolutely impossible’ MORE (R-Ky.), who will once again lead the GOP in the upper chamber in 2019, seemed to indicate that Republicans will abandon their years-long effort to undo former president Barack ObamaBarack Hussein Obama4 ways Hillary looms over the 2020 race Obama goes viral after sporting black bomber jacket with '44' on sleeve at basketball game Obama attends UNC-Duke basketball game MORE's signature legislative achievement.

"I think it's pretty obvious the Democratic House is not going to be interested in that," McConnell said when asked about his health care policy objectives. "We're going to have to obviously now address those on a bipartisan basis."

—Matthew Sheffield