The Red Wave Didn’t Just Vanish

On Election Day, a small but crucial percentage of Republican voters deserted their party, casting ballots for Democratic nominees in several elections that featured Trump-backed candidates at the top of the ticket. These Trump-driven defections wrought havoc on Republican ranks. At the extreme, a once-strong Republican Party in Michigan was shut out at every level of state government.

Look at key battleground states that were critical to continued Democratic control of the Senate. In Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, party-line voting among Republicans consistently fell below the party’s national average, according to exit poll data.

In New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, the Republican vote for the Republican Senate candidate was seven percentage points below the national average, and the Republican vote for the Democratic Senate candidate increased by the same amount; in Arizona, support for the Republican Senate nominee fell among Republicans by six points and support for the Democratic candidate rose by the same amount, again; in Nevada, the drop in support for the Republican candidate was two percentage points, and the increase for the Democratic nominee was once again the same.

Each of these states had a Republican Senate nominee closely tied to Donald Trump, suggesting that Republican voters jumping ship are far more wary of anti-democratic initiatives than many of their elected leaders, Trump included. The same pattern of Republican defection emerged in contests for the governor’s mansion in states where the Republican nominee was closely identified with Trump, including Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Three political scientists — Sean Westwood of Dartmouth, Yphtach Lelkes of the University of Pennsylvania and Shanto Iyengar of Stanford — created the Polarization Research Lab, which conducted weekly surveys with YouGov of a total of 13,000 voters during the final seven weeks of the campaign.

Westwood observed in an email that the major finding of the survey “is that democratic norm violations of the sort many Republicans ran on are an electoral loser.”

Republican candidates, Westwood added, “running on platforms that supported democratic norm violations were standing behind a policy that seems to only resonate with Trump and a small minority of Republican voters.”

While only small percentages of the voters of both parties support violations of election norms, according to Westwood, they “have incredibly distorted views of the other side.”

Both Democrats and Republicans, Westwood said,

Independent voters, in the polarization lab surveys, were equally hostile to democratic backsliding.

One clear conclusion to be drawn from the 2022 elections is that candidates who supported Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen were soundly defeated in competitive states. In close elections, the importance of seemingly small shifts became magnified, and pro-Democratic gains among independent voters in key states reinforced the effect of Republican defections.

Nationally, independent voters were split 49-47 in favor of Democrats, according to exit polls, which are still adjusting their data. In Arizona, they supported Mark Kelly, the Democratic Senate candidate, 55-39; in New Hampshire, it was Maggie Hassan at 54-43; and in Pennsylvania, independents, who make up a quarter of the state’s electorate, supported John Fetterman over Mehmet Oz 58-38, a striking 20-point difference.

The same pattern among independent voters obtained in governors’ races in Wisconsin, Arizona, Michigan and especially Pennsylvania, where independent voters backed Josh Shapiro over Doug Mastriano 64-33. Trump endorsed the Republican nominee in each of these states.

Lelkes noted in an email that

Political parties, Lelkes continued,

Frances Lee, a political scientist at Princeton, wrote by email that she “was very surprised at the extent to which Democrats overperformed the ‘fundamentals’ that normally predict midterm election outcomes, meaning presidential approval, state of the economy, and perceptions of the direction of the country,” before adding:

Instead, Lee argued:

In a Nov. 10 postelection email to leaders and donors in his party leaked to the press, Paul Cordes, chief of staff of the Michigan Republican Party, described the devastating defections, among both voters and donors, that followed the nomination of Trump-backed Tudor Dixon to run against Gretchen Whitmer for governor, along with other Trump-endorsed candidates for secretary of state and attorney general.

“Tudor Dixon did nearly eight points worse than the base Republican vote,” Cordes wrote, arguing that her poor showing at the top of the ticket pushed down support for Republican state legislative candidates, noting that in defeat, “House G.O.P. candidates received 161,000 more votes than Tudor statewide and were on average just 1.3 percent behind Democrats” and “Senate G.O.P. candidates received 150,000 more votes than Tudor, losing by an average of 1.6 percent to Democrats.”

The effect on donors was equally damaging.

“It seems nearly impossible to imagine drawing up a more challenging position for ourselves coming out of the August primary,” Cordes wrote. “Donors for the most part decided against supporting Trump’s handpicked AG and SOS candidates from the April convention, and also withheld millions in traditional investment into the state party.”

Cordes added:

Before the election, Cordes wrote, the state party calculated that

Jenna Bednar, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, wrote by email to say that the Michigan Republican Party is emblematic of the problems that emerged in the 2022 election. “The Michigan Republican Party is in disarray,” she wrote, noting that Tudor Dixon got “just 44 percent of the vote when state House and Senate candidates took 49 percent statewide. Dixon campaigned on Republican ‘red meat’ issues like critical race theory, parental review of curriculum, transgender athletes, and book bans.”

Trump’s allure, Bednar argued,

In a separate email, Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State, cited the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling as a key factor in the election outcome. The Dobbs decision, he wrote

There were, Grossmann wrote, Republican defections from the party of Donald Trump: “Parts of the Republican electorate certainly want to move on from Trump, if only because he is a continuing electoral drag on the party, but that does not mean the anti-Trump faction will be able to accumulate a primary majority.”

Republican defections at the margins are one of many explanations of the party’s dismal performance on Election Day.

A publicly released postelection analysis by Neil Newhouse and Jim Hobart, partners at the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, found, for example, that a far higher percentage of Democrats, 81 percent, believe “Republicans represent a threat to democracy that, if not stopped, will destroy America as we know it,” than Republicans (69 percent) believe the same thing about Democrats.

In addition, Newhouse and Hobart reported, abortion, which worked to the advantage of Democrats, “was more of a factor than the pre-election polls indicated,” with almost as many voters, 31 percent, saying it was a high-priority issue as the 32 percent who identified rising prices and inflation, an issue that benefited Republicans. Almost identical percentages identified concern over democratic backsliding, at 25 percent, a pro-Democratic issue, as the 26 percent who identified jobs and the economy, a pro-Republican concern.

The two Republican pollsters asserted, “This election was NOT good news for former President Trump.” Not only did many of his handpicked candidates lose, they continued, but “there is clear evidence that GOPers may be falling out of love with President Trump.”

Independent voters, Newhouse and Hobart wrote, “particularly late deciders who opted for Democratic candidates, could very well have been in reaction to President Trump more aggressively inserting himself into the midterm dialogue.”

Significantly, Newhouse and Hobart provided data showing that through 2020, a larger percentage of Republicans considered themselves “to be more a supporter of Donald Trump” than “a supporter of the Republican Party.” That came to an end in January 2021, and by this month, 67 percent said they were “more a supporter of the Republican Party,” more than double the 30 percent who said they were “more a supporter of Donald Trump.”

Two political scientists, Ariel Malka of Yeshiva University and Paul Frymer of Princeton, each cautioned by email against overinterpreting the results of the election.

“I am skeptical that concerns about democracy are a great part of the explanation for Republicans’ weak performance,” Malka wrote:

Malka noted that “abortion strikes me as potentially more relevant for explaining the break from historical midterm patterns.” Although it may have energized some Democrats, he added, the key is that “it might have been a decisive factor for a chunk of independents and even some moderate Republicans who oppose strict bans.”

Trump, Malka argued, remains the favorite to win the 2024 nomination: “A strong majority of Republicans are favorable toward Trump, and this favorability has proven robust in the face of scandals, negative coverage and so on.” Some members of the Republican elite, Malka wrote, “would like their voters to form a stable belief that the midterms showed Trump is a liability for the party. But these elites will have their work cut out for them.”

Frymer wrote:

Will Republican voters turn against Trump?

“Maybe a bit,” Frymer wrote,

While “Dobbs appears to have been important,” Frymer stressed his belief that

From Nov. 6 through Nov. 8, Stanley Greenberg conducted a survey of 2,520 registered voters for Democracy Corps, including a 1,130 oversampling of voters of color, the results of which were released on Nov. 15. The conclusions Greenberg drew from the survey and earlier polling this year are a mixed bag for both parties.

“Two-thirds rate the economy negatively,” according to Greenberg, “yet Democrats did not prioritize the economy in this election and the president is still trying to convince people this is a good economy. This may be the toughest to make progress on.” In addition, the “failure of national Democrats to address the economy meant rural areas and white working-class communities were a political wasteland.”

The Democratic Party, according to Greenberg, “got respectable support with Hispanics, as well as young people, but women across the whole spectrum played the biggest role. Unmarried women, white college women and under-50, white working-class women all raised their vote level since October, no doubt motivated by the abortion issue.”But, Greenberg warned, Democrats remain “at risk with Hispanics and Asian voters if they do not rethink what they prioritize, what their policies offer, consciously battling for all in our coalition, and acknowledging past mistakes, and having an inclusive vision where all make progress in America,” noting that the Biden administration’s 2021 expansion of the child tax credit is “uniquely popular among Hispanics.”

Crime, Greenberg wrote,

There is another word of caution for Democrats. The party’s single most important achievement in 2022 was to maintain control of the Senate, preventing Republicans from blocking Biden’s judicial and executive branch appointments.

The Senate seats up for election on Nov. 8 gave Democrats many more opportunities, with 21 seats held by Republicans and 14 held by Democrats. In 2024, however, 23 Democratic seats will be up for grabs — including two independent seats (Angus King in Maine and Bernie Sanders in Vermont) — making it that much harder for Democrats to keep their thin majority. Eight of these Democratic seats are in purple or red states (Montana and West Virginia, for example) offering multiple opportunities to the Republican Party.

In contrast, all 10 of the Republican-held seats up for election in 2024 are in solidly red states.

There is ample evidence of widespread support among Republican voters for Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, a claim designed to foster not just democratic norm violation but the violence that burst into view during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

An overwhelming majority of Republican elected officials have either endorsed the lie or remained acquiescent in the face of crumbling adherence to basic democratic norms. Republican legislators in red states across the nation have enacted legislation to restrict voting that leans Democratic and to transfer power to decide election outcomes from election officials to politicians in state legislatures.

In other words, 2022 produced a significant election that Democrats can legitimately celebrate, but it may have a short half-life.

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