08.31.2023 0

Greater than expected Democratic Party turnout tilted 2022 midterms after fall of Roe as Joe Biden nearly beat the midterm jinx

By Robert Romano

After leading national generic Congressional ballot polls for months on end during the 2022 Congressional midterm elections, Republicans and other political observers almost uniformly were predicted a so-called Red Wave to sweep the GOP into majorities seen in the 1994, 2010 and 2014 midterm elections.

But it didn’t happen. Republicans picked up just nine seats in the House of Representatives, barely picking up a majority, and lost one seat in the Senate, performing well below historical averages wherein the opposition party usually gained about 35 seats in the House and three in the Senate. Midterms are typically poor affairs for the incumbent party, but President Joe Biden nearly beat the midterm jinx.

So, what went wrong?

A new autopsy by the American Principles Projects, “The Failed Red Wave,” looks at the outcome and attributes the GOP’s subpar gains principally to its messaging on issues, and challenges conventional wisdom that it had something to do with turnout or candidate quality.

Certainly, the report is correct about turnout, as Republican turnout wasn’t necessarily a problem in 2022. They got 54.5 million votes for House candidates, far more than any midterm cycle that was favored by the GOP (2014, 2010, etc.). 2014 and 2010 saw much lower turnout, which helped propel big GOP wins.

In 2014, Republican candidates received 40.1 million votes to Democrats’ 35.6 million, a 51.2 percent to 45.5 percent rout, winning 247 seats.

In 2010, Republicans received 44.8 million votes to Democrats’ 38.9 million, a 51.7 percent to 44.9 percent outcome, winning 242 seats.

In contrast, in 2022, again, Republicans managed their greatest midterm turnout operation in history, garnering 54.5 million votes. That would normally be enough to win big, but Democrats also managed to turn out 51.5 million, resulting in a much smaller 50.6 percent to 47.8 percent margin, winning just 222 seats.

But was the problem really messaging?  

A major factor to consider was higher than expected turnout for Democrats, albeit at 51.5 million still less than Republicans’ 54.5 million, likely owing in part to the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and reopening the door for states to restrict abortions.

In the CNN 2022 exit poll, Republicans lost independents 49 percent to 47 percent after leading them for most of the year. Certainly, that could point to a persuasion problem.

The American Principles Project report suggests, “Arguably, the single biggest national policy change in the previous two years was a conservative one: the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which returned decision-making over abortion policy to the people and their elected representatives. Democrats took advantage of this change in basic midterm dynamics almost immediately, putting abortion front and center in their campaign messaging. Meanwhile, most Republicans, for various reasons, deliberately chose not to respond. This was a massive mistake. It was almost immediately apparent that the Dobbs decision was having an enormous effect on the election — turnout in Democrat primaries spiked, Democrats started winning special elections, and the generic ballot shifted away from the GOP. And yet party elites continued to urge candidates to remain silent.”

Here, the report assumes that the voters in question were very persuadable.

And yet, Republicans managed to secure their House majority with a significant number of those pro-choice voters—without whom they could not have possibly won—indicating that many of them had been persuaded to vote Republican, about 11.8 million.

The same CNN exit poll found voters believed abortion should be legal by a 60.6 percent to 37.9 percent margin. But that’s just who showed up for the midterms, when turnout was 107.7 million. Whereas, in the 2020 CNN Exit poll, when turnout was 159.7 million, the margin was 51 percent to 42 percent in favor of abortion.

Therefore, in 2022, the electorate was disproportionately pro-choice. The issue wasn’t messaging needed for those who voted, but perhaps for those who didn’t. Meaning, despite record turnout for the GOP, Republicans still would have needed to have done more to turn out even more pro-life voters, likely with targeted messaging, to offset the edge Democrats’ possessed after the fall of the Roe decision, which proved to be a galvanizing force for Democrats.

While I am certain that messages matter and campaigns matter, especially in individual races, I am uncertain how alternate messaging would have impacted Democrats’ get out the vote machine, but it might have been more capable of boosting pro-life supporters to the polls. In this case, Democrats capitalized on the end of Roe, doing just enough to offset what could have otherwise been gargantuan losses.

In the 2024 reelection cycle, I expect turnout won’t be their problem, but the GOP’s, as it typically is when running opposition against an incumbent president. To win in 2024, Republicans will need to continue to court pro-life voters as a major part of their overall constituency. If they believe that their work is already done now that the Supreme Court has acted, that could suppress turnout, whereas if they can connect how large Democratic majorities could be used to stack the Supreme Court to overturn the Dobbs decision, they can again be reignited to the polls. But the trick would still be in simultaneously keeping the pro-choicers who voted for the GOP in 2022.

Robert Romano is the Vice President of Public Policy at Americans for Limited Government Foundation.

Copyright © 2008-2023 Americans for Limited Government