It’s Time to Listen to the Politicians
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
With the 2022 elections coming to a dramatic close, it’s time to remember some biennial advice: listen to the politicians.
A natural question would be, why in the world would you ever suggest listening to a group of people who are as trustworthy as my 11-year-old son alone with a bag of Halloween candy?
Because sometimes there’s a difference between what happened in an election and what politicians think happened in an election. The latter is almost more important because what politicians think happened will drive their future behavior.
The rhetoric from the politicians is a window into their mind, and their takeaways will often preview their potential legislative agenda, oversight mentality, and overall campaign strategy heading into the next elections. So even though votes are still being counted, and voters in Georgia have to endure another few weeks of campaigning before the Dec. 6 runoff, there are some post-election narratives and dynamics brewing that will guide the two parties’ strategies in the near future.
Here are three key issues to listen for as the politicians diagnose the results and look ahead to 2024.
A key question is, will Republicans blame former President Donald Trump for their party’s weak performance?
Most of the highest-profile candidates endorsed by Trump struggled in competitive general elections around the country. Some of them lost, such as Doug Mastriano and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, Blake Masters in Arizona, Adam Laxalt in Nevada, and potentially Herschel Walker in Georgia, while others such as J.D. Vance in Ohio and Rep. Ted Budd in North Carolina couldn’t pull away from their Democratic opponents early enough and forced Republicans to spend millions of dollars just to hold those GOP seats.
It’s easy to see how those candidates’ personal views and proximity to the polarizing former president contributed to their losses. And some have been willing to blame Trump. “To me it’s Donald Trump,” GOP analyst Scott Jennings told NPR on election night. Jennings was a critic of Trump before the elections as well.
Some politicians are ready for the party to move on from Trump. When asked if she’d endorse the former president in 2024, GOP Sen. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming told Politico, “I don’t think that’s the right question. I think the question is who is the current leader of the Republican Party. Oh, I know who it is: Ron DeSantis.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone in the GOP is on the same page. “Donald Trump remains a very popular figure in the Republican Party in each corner of the country. And remember when he was on the ballot in 2016 and 2020, we won a lot more seats than when he wasn’t on the ballot in 2018 and 2022,” Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana said on Fox News Sunday.
When host Shannon Bream noted that Trump’s picks had a hard time in 2022, Banks responded, “He had also supported many candidates who won around the country, too. He wasn’t on the ballot in 2022.” Those comments were subsequently circulated by Trump.
The 2022 results weren’t enough to deter Trump, who didn’t waste any time announcing his 2024 run. At this stage, Trump is at least a complication for Republicans, and arguably a liability altogether in swing states. But his future power and influence within the GOP won’t necessarily match what political analysts think — it will be guided by whether Republican voters think it’s time to move on. If not, Republican politicians will continue to cling to him either out of admiration or fear of retribution from his supporters.
The Dobbs decision was a critical moment in the 2022 elections. The reversal of Roe v. Wade and the subsequent action by some states to eliminate access to legal abortion galvanized Democrats, closed the enthusiasm gap between the two parties, and seeded doubt among independent voters about what Republicans might do with more power.
But if Republicans don’t believe the party’s position on abortion is a liability, then there will be no inspiration to change.
“Most Americans are not ‘pro-abortion’ by any stretch. The position of today’s Democratic Party – abortion on demand until birth, paid for by taxpayers – has never been popular. Even immediately after Dobbs, it garnered only 10% support,” wrote Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of SBA Pro-Life America in a Fox News op-ed after the election, pushing back against the narrative that Republicans underperformed because of GOP candidates’ stance on abortion.
According to the CNN exit polls, 59% of voters this year said abortion should be legal in all (29%) or most (30%) cases, and those voters favored Democrats by 75-point and 22-point margins. Voters who said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases supported GOP candidates by more than 88%, but made up a smaller share of the electorate (36%).
Dannenfelser pointed to GOP Senate victories in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina as evidence that “reasonable adults” with a “well-articulated pro-life position centered around consensus measures” can win. She also described Dobbs as a “once-in-a-lifetime seismic event.”
But Republicans ignore public sentiment at their own risk. A majority of voters in Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina said abortion should be legal, according to the exit polls. That sentiment was stronger in other states with competitive Senate races won by Democrats. At least 62% of voters in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Hampshire said abortion should be legal.
With Democrats outperforming expectations in 2022, the party might be tempted to hitch their wagon to a Biden 2024 re-election bid. That’s a bit premature.
Democrats won in spite of Biden, not because of him. He remains an unpopular incumbent with a poor job approval rating. There’s a reason why he didn’t visit the most competitive states or appear with candidates in the toss-up House and Senate races. That’s because Biden is a liability. He’s an elderly man who oversees a country that a majority of Americans believe is on the wrong track.
Democrats can celebrate holding control of the Senate, gaining governorships, and coming within just a few seats of holding the House in the face of a stiff political breeze. But that breeze was created by Biden’s poor political standing and public questions about his leadership.
Democrats shouldn’t assume that the better-than-it-could-have-been results mean the public is satisfied with the party’s leadership on the economy, urban crime and border security. Voters were just uncomfortable handing the reins over to the GOP.
But if Democratic politicians and strategists believe that Biden has his mojo back, then there will be fewer calls for him to step aside in 2024, and the president’s re-election efforts could complicate Democrats’ chances of holding the White House.
Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is email@example.com.