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Question of choice: Trump was a gift that may not keep giving

What are the odds that Republican voters will still nominate Trump? If they do, Democrats’ chances of keeping the presidency, retaking the House and holding losses in the Senate to a minimum all improve

The 2022 midterm election revealed dangerous cracks in the Democratic coalition, despite the fact that the party held the Senate and kept House losses to a minimum. Turnout fell in a number of key Democratic cities. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city’s “vote count dropped 33 percent from 2020, more than any other county and the statewide average of 22 percent. It’s not just a 2020 comparison: This year saw a stark divergence between Philly turnout and the rest of the state compared to every federal election since at least 2000.”

The Chicago Board of Election Commissioners reported that turnout of registered voters in 2022 was 46.1 percent, down from 60.67 percent in the previous 2018 midterm. According to the Board of Elections in Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, turnout fell from 54.5 percent in 2018 to 46.1 percent in 2022. The Gotham Gazette reported that from 2018 to 2022, turnout fell from 41 to 33 percent in New York City.

The drop in turnout was disturbing to Democratic strategists, but so too was the change in sentiment of many of the voters who did show up, as support for the party’s nominees continued to erode among Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters.

Perhaps most important, the 2022 results revealed that voters did not fully turn against the Republican Party; in fact, Republican House candidates got 3.5 million more votes nationwide than Democrats did, 53.9 million or 51.7 percent of the two-party vote to the Democrats’ 50.4 million or 48.3 percent. This represents just over a 6-point swing in favor of Republicans this year compared with the 2020 House results. Instead, voters, in the main, turned against the specific candidates endorsed by Donald Trump — candidates who in competitive races backed Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen.

“Candidate quality and the toxicity of former President Trump and the MAGA movement hurt certain Republicans where it mattered most,” wrote Charlie Cook, founder of the Cook Political Report, in “GOP Won the Votes, but Not the Seats,” a Nov. 17 analysis. “Some of these ‘non-traditional’ candidates managed to win over the support of G.O.P. primary voters but were unable to appeal to that narrow slice of voters in the middle of the broader November electorate.”

What then are the odds that Republican voters will still nominate Trump? If they do, Democrats chances of keeping the presidency, retaking the House and holding losses in the Senate to a minimum all improve. If the Republican nominate Ron DeSantis, Glenn Youngkin, Nikki Haley or a dark horse, chances are Democrats will face a tough fight on all fronts in 2024.

While there is general agreement that midterm returns are not reliable predictors of the next presidential election, the 2022 results do not uniformly suggest a weakened national Republican Party.

“Overall, it’s a strange election,” wrote Sean Trende, senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics, in “What Happened.” “Had you showed any major analyst these results, along with exit poll findings that Biden would be at 44 percent job approval, no one would have expected this outcome.”

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist made a similar case by email. “Swing voters in swing states and districts didn’t marry the Democrats; they just dumped the Republicans,” Begala wrote. “In the post-Dobbs environment, extremism is not a theoretical concern anymore. The two most valuable players of this cycle for the Democrats are Sam Alito and Donald Trump. Democrats should send them each a fruit basket.”

“I cannot think of a worse way for the House G.O.P. to introduce themselves as a governing party than braying about investigations into Hunter Biden and Anthony Fauci,” Begala argued. “Their candidates won by promising action on inflation, crime and borders.”

Data pointing to the vulnerability of the Trump-endorsed Republicans running for federal and state office raises an interesting question: Should Democrats repeat a tactic used successfully this year to lift the chances that Republicans nominate their weakest general election candidate?

Last September, Annie Linskey reported in The Washington Post that Democratic candidates and committees “have spent nearly $19 million across eight states in primaries this year amplifying far-right Republican candidates.” A post-election analysis by Ellen Ioanes of Vox concluded that the strategy “appears to have paid off in the midterm. Six Democratic challengers in races where Democratic organisations donated to extremist Republican candidates have so far won their contests.”

A number of Democratic strategists and scholars, however, firmly rejected continuing the strategy of purposely investing during the Republican primaries in advertising promoting Trump to Republican voters premised on the calculation that Trump would be the easiest to beat of the most likely Republican nominees in the general election.

Both Begala and Celinda Lake, the Democratic pollster, stood firmly opposed. “We should leave this to Republicans to nominate their own Trump,” Lake said by email. Begala gave three reasons for his opposition.

First, “it undermines President Biden’s powerful message that Trump leads a mega-MAGA fanatical fringe that is a clear and present danger to our democracy.” Second, “Trump is still a massive, major force in American politics — especially in the Republican Party. I don’t want Trump anywhere near the White House.” Third, “while I respect the political success of governors like DeSantis, Youngkin, Hogan and Christie, if the Democrats can’t beat them, we don’t deserve the White House.”

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