TERRY SCHILLING: Before Republicans chase ballots, they should fix their muddled message

Since last year’s midterms, there has been much hand-wringing over the Republican Party’s underperformance. Despite an unpopular Democrat president and Congress presiding over massive inflation and rising crime, the GOP somehow lost a seat in the Senate, lost most toss-up gubernatorial races, and was only able to win the slimmest of majorities in the House. Clearly, something went deeply wrong.

Yet ten months later, convincing explanations are still elusive. Many in the party seem to have coalesced around the idea that poor turnout was primarily to blame and that investing in better political infrastructure is the answer. Under this view, all the GOP needs to do is collect more early votes, register more voters, and focus aggressively on turning them out in order to achieve the long-expected “red wave.”

While turnout is certainly important, the evidence from the midterm results suggests an entirely different culprit for Republicans’ disappointing showing. As I and my fellow co-authors explain in our recently released report, “The Failed Red Wave,” the GOP’s problem last year wasn’t primarily with voters. It was with the party’s message.

Although many Republican leaders since last fall have lamented the Democrat advantage in early voting and ballot harvesting, GOP voters actually showed up at the polls. In fact, Republican turnout relative to Democrats in 2022 was far better than the party’s 2020 showing in most key states, including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In Maricopa County, Arizona’s largest, Republicans even held a turnout advantage in the early vote. Meanwhile, turnout in urban Democrat strongholds, and among traditionally Democrat voting blocs, was down from the previous election cycle.

The electorate in 2022 was older, less urban, and more Republican than in 2020, which should have led to substantial GOP gains. Nevertheless, Republican candidates lost in almost every toss-up, statewide race. Simply driving more GOP voters to the polls was not enough. The deciding factor was that a majority of independent voters and even some Republicans were persuaded to vote for the Democrat in these races.

While some pundits have faulted poor “candidate quality” for these results (or, in other words, being too much like Donald Trump), this fails to account for the fact that even explicitly anti-Trump candidates like Colorado’s Joe O’Dea couldn’t improve on Trump’s 2020 margins. To explain a nationwide underperformance by Republicans, Trump-aligned and not, only one plausible culprit remains: the national GOP message.

After a comprehensive review of both parties’ advertising in 2022, we can see why so many voters were persuaded to opt for Democrats. On economics, for example, most Republican candidates went all-in on a vague message emphasizing budget cuts and lowering prices (but with no specific plan to do so), while the Democrats’ message was, in essence, all the popular parts of Trump’s agenda that originally won him the White House.

While the GOP banked on voters blaming Biden and Democrats for raging inflation, exit polling showed they did not overwhelmingly do so. On the issue of crime, the story was similar: outside of New York, Republicans’ nebulous crime messaging failed to make much difference, while Democrats effectively co-opted GOP positions to neutralize attacks.

Meanwhile, Democrats went on offense on abortion, spending nearly half a billion dollars to brand Republicans as extremists for wanting to ban the practice entirely. The GOP’s response was largely to go silent on the issue, all but ceding the argument and allowing the Democrat narrative to stick. Republicans also failed to capitalize on the culture-war issues which had led the party to surprising successes in 2021. 

In retrospect, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the “red wave” failed to materialize. And while party leaders responsible for the midterm messaging may want to shift the GOP’s attention to issues like ballot harvesting, unless Republicans improve their core pitch to voters, they shouldn’t expect future elections to turn out any better.

Fortunately, the GOP is not without successful models to emulate. Donald Trump in 2016, Glenn Youngkin in 2021, and Ron DeSantis in 2022 all showed what a Republican blueprint for victory looks like: embrace a populist economic message and hammer Democrats on their cultural extremism. If the party takes away any lesson from their poor midterm showing, it should be this one. To win in 2024, Republicans need to start with fixing their message—if they do that right, the voters will follow.

Image: Title: Repub ballot boxes