Comment: GOP extremism explains why Democrats fared well

Yes, independents were worried about inflation but were more concerned over draconian abortion measures.

By Matthew Yglesias / Bloomberg Opinion

As has been noted repeatedly, before and after this week’s elections, for the president’s party to do well in the midterms is unusual.

One of the few such cases on record, in 1998, came amid a sex scandal and with Congress already in opposition hands. Another, in 2002, happened under the shadow of 9/11. There is no similar controversy or cataclysm now, yet as of this writing, Democrats are favored to hold the Senate and have a puncher’s chance of holding the House, while actually gaining governor’s mansions and a couple of state legislative chambers.

How did they do it? As best as I can tell, they did it the old-fashioned way: by making their case to persuadable voters. This was especially true on the issue of abortion, where Democrats were able to contrast their views with the extreme positions of many (admittedly weak) Republican candidates.

It’s not yet fully clear which factors contributed most to the Democrats’ showing, and it probably won’t be for a while. But exit polls provide a clue. In 2006, independent voters went for Democrats by 18 points. Four years later, they swung Republican by 18 points. In 2018, Democrats won independents by 13 points. In a “normal” midterm, Republicans would have won them handily in 2022. Instead, they went for Democrats by 2 points. Two points isn’t much, but for a presidential party in a midterm, it’s staggering.

What delivered these results was an extremely abortion-heavy advertising strategy that met with a lot of skepticism from complacent conservatives ; and from many factions of the Democratic Party.

It was neither the kind of hard-edged populism that the left favors nor did it involve the style of triangulation and ideological recalibration that moderate Democrats tend to call for. It also frankly seemed a little odd, since voters by large margins kept telling pollsters they were mostly concerned about inflation and the cost of living.

I did speak to some political consultants during the campaign who liked the abortion strategy: people who test and evaluate ads and messages for a living. It’s true, the testers told me, that voters are worried about inflation, and that all candidates should expect to get plenty of questions about inflation, and they should be able to express empathy with voters and propose solutions. In advertising terms, however, it was hard to come up with anything inflation-related that actually moved voters, in part because thinking about the inflation issue just naturally made people more favorably inclined toward the Republican Party.

By contrast, on the issue of abortion, voters trusted Democrats more. They didn’t like the Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, and they were afraid of draconian abortion bans. Relatively few of them thought this was the most important issue on the ballot. But to the extent that you could get voters to think about abortion rights, some of them swung Democratic.

It’s important to note that this mechanism is entirely consistent with 80 precent or even 90 percent of the electorate rolling their eyes at the drumbeat of abortion ads. Most voters are pretty consistent partisans who aren’t persuaded by any ads. But those aren’t the voters this campaign was going after. It was aimed at a small but real block of voters who could be motivated to check the right’s moves on abortion.

Normally, midterm elections witness an effort to counterbalance the president. But Joe Biden skillfully put together a legislative agenda that hasn’t generated much backlash. And then there was the unusual specter of a big right-wing policy win delivered by the Supreme Court. So it was possible to motivate independent voters to support Democrats to check Republicans.

This didn’t work everywhere, of course. It’s probably not a coincidence that Democrats underperformed in New York, where it really wasn’t credible to say that abortion was on the ballot. It’s also worth noting that, despite his culture-warrior reputation, Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida signed a fairly moderate 15-week abortion ban (it leaves more than 90 percent of abortions legal and keeps clinics in business) and shut down talk of doing anything more.

But across most of the country, swing voters leaned Democratic in a way that’s very unusual for a midterm; because they were persuaded that Republicans were too extreme. It’s an unfamiliar development, but in its way a reassuringly old-fashioned one.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans.”

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