Star Wars, Rothenberg and the Fight for Voters’ Attention
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
Candidates, campaigns and fundraising dominate the conversation about elections. But there’s another key ingredient that doesn’t get enough attention: the voters’ focus.
“Elections are about what elections are about,” I heard my friend and former boss Stuart Rothenberg say dozens of times over the years. And it’s an important reminder as we look ahead to 2022.
The money and time spent on television ads in each race are designed to build up one candidate or tear down another, while also trying to steer the focus of voters to favorable issue terrain. Defining the election for voters is part of every campaign.
For example, in this year’s race for governor in Virginia, Republicans want the election to be a referendum on critical race theory. That’s because 48% of independent voters in Loudoun and Fairfax counties had a negative view of critical race theory, according to a GOP poll taken in early June. That’s compared with 31% of independent voters in the same two counties who had a positive view of the academic concept most often taught at the graduate school level. Critical race theory is certainly even less popular outside the Northern Virginia areas included in the survey.
Democrats, on the other hand, want voters in Virginia to be focused on former President Donald Trump, who lost Loudoun County to Joe Biden 62% to 37%, lost Fairfax County to Biden 70% to 28%, and lost the entire commonwealth to Biden by 10 points in the 2020 presidential election.
“Your focus determines your reality,” according to Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn in the Star Wars saga. In political terms, the voters’ focus can determine the winner.
Historically, midterm elections are referendums on the party in power. With Biden in the Oval Office and Democrats narrowly in control of Congress, that’s good news for Republicans. In midterm elections going back decades, the sitting president’s party has lost an average of 30 House seats (Republicans now need to gain just five for a majority) and three Senate seats (Republicans have to pick up just one for a majority).
But Trump’s determination to interject himself into the national conversation (including endorsing dozens of candidates) could complicate that historical advantage for the GOP.
Instead of a typical referendum election (in this case, a referendum on the Democrats), the midterms could be a choice election between Democrats and Trump. Voters who aren’t excited about what Democrats have done with their power may choose to hold their nose and support them when reminded of Trump’s tenure.
That framing, with Trump sharing the spotlight, still might not be enough for Democrats to maintain control of Congress. But getting voters to remember and consider the former president they ousted from office is a much better proposition for Democrats than asking them to simply cast judgment on the state of the country before the election.
Alongside critical race theory (which is becoming a catchall for a swath of culture war grievances unrelated to race relations), Republicans also want midterm voters to focus on the crime rates in urban areas. It’s worth the effort for the GOP, considering the 2020 election. Voters who said crime and safety was the most important issue when making their decision chose Trump over Biden by 71% to 27%, according to exit polls.
Democrats would prefer that voters focus on a country that is healthier — physically, economically and socially — than it was in the final year of Trump’s term. And they hope to contrast their record of governing as more palatable compared with Republicans, whom they will portray as beholden to Trump and too quick to defend or dismiss the Capitol riot on Jan. 6.
So, what will the 2022 elections be about?
“Elections are about what elections are about. And we don’t yet know what these elections will be about,” according to Stu’s full remark.
We have a pretty good idea of what Democrats and Republicans want voters to focus on, but that will go only so far. Breaking news events will compete for voters’ attention and help shape the national conversation, without regard for what the candidates and parties want to talk about. And we won’t know what those news events will be until we get there, probably at least a year from now.
Quality candidates and hefty fundraising continue to be critical elements of any race. But any theory about what’s going to happen in the midterm elections has to include what issue(s) voters will be focused on. And we just don’t know what these elections will be about yet.
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