For the 2022 midterm elections virtually everyone was convinced that the country was in for a red wave. The only question was how big it would be. In the event while the vote counting is still continuing on at its glacial pace some things have become clear and some potentially powerful story lines are being developed that are almost devoid of empirical evidence.
First, what is clear is that the Republicans lost, and lost badly. They missed the opportunity to gain control of the Senate; in fact on balance, they actually lost one Senate seat. That assumes that Warnock (D, GA) is re-elected on December 6 when he faces challenger Herschel Walker in a run-off brought about because neither crossed the 50% threshold on November 8. If the Republicans capture the House, it will only be by the barest of majorities.
This in spite of the fact that inflation, the economy in general, crime, parental rights and chaos on the Southern border were themes that (according to polls) were uppermost in the minds of voters. These are natural Republican issues that Republican candidates emphasized relentlessly. And they still lost.
It seems clear, assuming that the polling was even close to accurate, that the public thought that Republicans were the better party for dealing with inflation, crime, the economy and the Southern border. But they lost, and lost badly anyway. What explains why the public’s major concerns were the ones where the Republicans had a clear advantage, and still explains why the Republicans lost so badly?
In its primaries the Republican Party nominated lots of cranks who lost winnable races. Consider that conventional, i.e., non-Trumpian Republican incumbent Governors, won easily in Florida, New Hampshire, Georgia, Texas and Ohio. But except for Ohio, Trump selected Senatorial candidates went down to defeat, and even in Ohio the Republican Governor (DeWine) outperformed Trump endorsed Senatorial candidate J.D. Vance by around 15 points. Not only that, in Michigan, Arizona and Nevada, Republican election deniers went down to defeat. And that leaves out Pennsylvania where Trumpkin Mastriano got crushed in the gubernatorial race and dragged the Senate race down with him.
Second, the story line that is quickly becoming the conventional wisdom is that the Democrats performed so well because they relentlessly focused on abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. That argument has a certain surface plausibility, so it’s worth taking a look at the data we have so far to evaluate it.
In electoral terms it is simply a fact that pro-life Republican Governors easily won their races when pitted against pro-choice Democratic rivals in Republican leaning states. Certainly this was the case in Georgia, Texas, Ohio and New Hampshire to name 4 states. But that result did not obtain with Trump backed Senatorial candidates.
In addition, the claim is made that young people, especially young women, turned out to vote in record numbers to support abortion rights in the wake of the Dobbs decision. The problem is that this theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny very well. For one thing, it assumes that the electorate in 2022 was substantially different from the pre-Dobbs electorate of 2018.
But if exit polls are to be believed, the electorate didn’t change very much between 2018 and 2022, especially with respect to women and young people. According to CNN’s exit polls, women made up about half the electorate both in 2018 and 2022. However, in 2022 the Democrats’ advantage among women actually shrank from 19 points to 8 points. Similarly the Democratic advantage among 18 to 29 year olds shrank 10 points from a 38 point advantage to a 28 point advantage from 4 years ago. The Democratic advantage among 30 to 44 year olds shrank as well, going from 19 points to 4 points.
Meanwhile Republicans won over white women by 8 points compared to breaking even 4 years ago. Democrats also lost ground with every other racial / ethnic demographic group. So what explains how the Republicans could pick up relative support among all these groups and still lose so badly?
First, the electorate in 2022 wasn’t all that different from the electorate in 2018. The pre-pandemic 2018 electorate cost the Republicans about 40 seats. That result clearly reflected dissatisfaction with Trump’s performance, and perhaps a large dollop of buyer’s regret. The evidence indicates that the same people showed up in 2022 as in 2018 and voted against Trump inspired candidates. Again.
In 2020 while Trump lost the Presidency the Republicans actually picked up 14 House seats. That was a straightforward repudiation of Trump—but not necessarily Republican policy, such as it was. So the same electorate that displayed little use for Trump in 2018 and 2020 showed up again in 2022 and emphasized the original message. And keep in mind that it was the Republican Trump acolytes who lost in 2022. Republican Governors who defied Trump won their races—and by large margins.
Second, it is arguably the case that exit polls reflect voter attitudes toward generic categories, in this case Republicans vs. Democrats. Clearly the public showed exasperation with progressive policies with respect to crime, inflation, the economy and the Southern border. Moreover exit polls indicated that, par for the course, both Republicans and Democrats blame each other for any threats to Democracy.
It is therefore reasonable to conclude that while the voting public thinks that generic Republicans are more likely to deal with their most important policy concerns, they simply do not trust plenty of the actual Republicans who captured their party’s nominations in the primaries. It is well to remember here that there is a world of difference between primary and general election voters.
It stands to reason therefore that there is a large gulf between Republican primary voters and the general voting public. At the heart of the gulf is, naturally, Donald J Trump. It is clear that the public has had enough of his narcissism. And it is also clear that he is simply incapable of winning another election. While his brand of politics—incoherent as it is—improbably squeaked through in 2016 against one of the most despised women in America, it rode to defeat in 2018, 2020, 2021 and now 2022.
It now appears that Trump is on his way to being shown the door by Republican elites. (Yes, I know we have been here before). But this time there are credible challengers to Trump’s power, and most Republican Party leaders know it. It is up to them to do what they can to avoid a repetition of Trump’s march down the escalator leading to the hostile take-over of the Republican Party. It won’t be easy but they should work hard to put the Party of Lincoln back on the road to sanity.