Understanding the Underwhelming GOP Performance

Column: How Democrats defied expectations

voting booth
Getty Images
November 9, 2022

A cloud hangs over Republicans. The election did not go as well as they thought. They expected the results nationwide to resemble the results in Florida, where Republicans walloped Democrats. Didn’t happen. Florida now seems to be as exceptional politically as it is culturally.

Races across the country are much closer than expected. Many have yet to be called. Chances are that the House will flip to Republicans, and Senate control will depend on the outcome of Adam Laxalt’s race in Nevada and a probable December runoff between Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker in Georgia. It may be a month before we know for sure, but Joe Biden can still become the fifth straight president to lose Congress in a midterm election.

Yet any Republican win will be surprisingly close, hard fought, and ugly. The national exit poll and the Fox News voter analysis help us understand what happened. I came away from the data thinking that the 2022 campaign turned on President Biden, abortion, and which party best represents the American center. None of these factors helped Republicans.

Biden is an unpopular president. The exit poll puts his job approval rating at 44 percent. He’s at 43 percent in the Fox analysis. Since 1946, presidents with less than 50 percent job approval have lost an average of 37 House seats. Biden will do better than average.

Why? Because voters distinguished between the man and his party.

In 2018, 38 percent of voters said that they cast ballots to oppose Donald Trump. They broke 94 percent to 4 percent for the Democrats, helping the party gain 41 House seats. A third of the electorate said Trump didn’t figure into their votes. These voters went for Republicans, but only slightly—52 percent to 44 percent.

In 2022, by contrast, only 32 percent of voters in the national exit poll said that they cast ballots to oppose Biden. This group broke for Republicans 95 percent to 4 percent. But an even greater number of voters—almost half of the electorate—said that Biden was not a factor in their votes. They went for Democrats 60 percent to 37 percent.

In the Fox voter analysis, more voters said that Biden was a factor (39 percent) than not (35 percent). But the difference in size between the two camps was small—only four points. And both voted in the same lopsided manner as voters in the national exit poll.

Donald Trump was an unpopular president who polarized the national electorate. Joe Biden is an unpopular president who makes the electorate yawn. Four years ago, the electorate was obsessed with Trump. In 2022 the electorate is thinking about other things.

It is thinking of things like abortion. If you read the polls in the runup to Election Day, you would have thought that abortion rights were fading from voters’ minds. That was not the case. True, 31 percent of voters named inflation the most important issue in the exit poll. But abortion was close behind at 27 percent. And these voters went for Democrats by a greater margin, 76 percent to 23 percent, than inflation hawks went for Republicans, 71 percent to 28 percent.

In the Fox analysis, a whopping 47 percent of voters said that the economy was the most important issue. Abortion came a distant second at 10 percent. Yet Republicans carried only a 31 percent advantage on the economy, while Democrats held a 68 percent edge on abortion.

The public’s views on abortion are complicated. And there are plenty of places, beginning with Ohio, Florida, and Georgia, where pro-life Republicans did fine. Still, it’s clear that abortion rights played a greater part in this election than many observers assumed they would yesterday morning. And in districts such as Virginia Seven, where Republican Yesli Vega lost to incumbent Democrat Abigail Spanberger, abortion may have been decisive.

The Republicans should have done much better on inflation and the economy. They lacked an effective and transparent message on how they planned to fix things. Complaining about rising prices and issuing the "Commitment to America" were not enough to generate a red wave.

Also, celebrity candidates like Herschel Walker and Mehmet Oz don’t have as much credibility on the economy as traditional GOP business types. (Trump was both a celebrity and a businessman, of course.) A complicated issue matrix and vague GOP messages on the economy and life produced a muddled election result.

Finally, since 2016 the GOP has been estranged from the middle of the country. I don’t mean the Midwest—I’m talking about independents, moderates, and suburban voters. Independents went 48 percent to 42 percent for Trump in 2016. Moderates went for Clinton, but by a relatively small 11-point margin. And Trump won the suburbs by 5 points, allowing his overwhelming rural margins to put him in the White House.

It's been downhill from there. In 2018, independents went for Democrats 54 percent to 42 percent. Moderates broke for Democrats by a 26-point margin, and the suburbs split. In 2020, according to the national exit poll, independents went for Democrats 54 percent to 41 percent, moderates broke for Democrats by a 30-point margin, and Democrats won the suburbs 50 to 48 percent. Fox had similar results.

This year, independents went for Democrats narrowly. Moderates broke for Democrats by 15 points. And the suburbs narrowly went for Republicans in the national exit poll, while narrowly going for Democrats in the Fox voter analysis. Our national stalemate continued.

In retrospect, the 2016 election should be viewed less as a victory for Donald Trump than a loss for Hillary Clinton. Years spent overinterpreting the strength of both Trump and the "America First" agenda is one reason so many people, including me, are so surprised at this year’s outcome.

Since Donald Trump became president, Republicans have lost the House, the White House, and the Senate. If they win these institutions back in 2022 and 2024, it will not be thanks to his influence but despite it. The national GOP needs to recognize Biden’s irrelevance, settle on an economic message and agenda that wins public support, take lessons in how to talk about the right to life, and reconnect with independents, suburban voters, and moderates. Maybe the governor of Florida, who just won reelection by 20 points without Trump’s "help," can teach them how to do it.