There were those of us insisting the dominant media narrative of a “red wave” was wrong. Kerry Eleveld, Simon Rosenberg, Tom Bonier, and I kept looking at the data and wondering where this fervent belief on the massive Republican wave came from. History, for sure. But it was clear as day that this wasn’t a typical midterm. As I wrote in late August, midterms suck for the party in the White House because 1) midterms are referendums on the incumbent president, and he can never live up to the hype of his campaign. Our broken political system means any president’s agenda will get hacked to death; and 2) supporters of the party out of power feel disenfranchised, which is a crappy feeling. They are extra motivated to do something about it. But this year was clearly different.
1) How can we have a referendum on President Joe Biden, if the last guy won’t get off the stage (as FBI agents swarm around him)? Rather than a referendum, we have a reprise of the 2020 election. And no one motivates the Democratic base more than Donald Trump.
2) Are Democrats truly in the majority if an illegitimate and out-of-control reactionary Supreme Court is overturning decades of established rights, while gutting gun laws and shredding the ability of government to carry out its duties? Conservatives feel disenfranchised, but so do we. And our side doesn’t need manufactured outrages like critical race theory and Honduran caravans to motivate ourselves. Our outrage is real.
Those of us who argued this wasn’t a wave year weren’t riding hopium to our decisions. We weren’t even looking much at polling. Rather, there was hard data to point to: Democratic overperformance in six House special elections after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision and gangbuster voter registration numbers. There was no sign of a drop-off in Democratic performance. The nonpartisan pollsters all showed Democrats highly competitive in both the national House picture and in key Senate and governor races.
As I write this control of the House hasn’t been decided, but when the prognosticators had assumed 20-40 seat Republican pickups, it’s a victory that we still don’t know who will control the House in January … and there’s a good chance it might still be Democrats!
Still, it was one thing for Republicans to push their wave narrative and another for the media to stupidly play along with it. But too many Democrats fell for the doom and gloom and fed into it. And they didn’t just assume Republican talking points, they all knew that things would be different had Democrats just done that thing that they cared about. We saw this from both the party’s left and centrist wings, stupidly assuming they knew better than what the data showed, because “the narrative.”
Let’s start with Hillary Rosen.
She said, “I am not happy, we did not listen to voters in this election and I think we’re going to have a bad night … when voters tell you over and over and over again that they care mostly about the economy, listen to them. Stop talking about democracy being at stake. Voters have told us what they want to hear, and I don’t think Democrats have delivered.”
Note that Rosen was nowhere to be found Tuesday night as voters apparently tossed aside the Republicans’ economic message and responded enthusiastically to the Democratic message on Trump, democracy, and abortion.
Next up, let me put on my fire-retardant suit as I point fingers at Sen. Bernie Sanders in his essay titled “Democrats shouldn’t focus only on abortion in the midterms. That’s a mistake.”
[A]s we enter the final weeks of the 2022 midterm elections, I am alarmed to hear the advice that many Democratic candidates are getting from establishment consultants and directors of well-funded Super Pacs that the closing argument of Democrats should focus only on abortion. Cut the 30-second abortion ads and coast to victory.
I disagree. In my view, while the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered.
Republicans wanted to fight this election on economic grounds. It was not an argument Democrats were going to win. Our best chance was to make the election about something fundamentally more at the core: our democracy and our rights. Gas prices go up and down. Inflation as well. But our rights? Our democracy? We only get one shot at that. So why would we play to the Republicans’ electoral strengths?
Here is Justice Democrats, which also bought into the idea that Democrats were doomed. You know, because of “the message.”
There is a weird tic that many political pros have that their issue is the most important issue, and if only Democrats spoke about their issue, all would be well.
Now obviously I don’t disagree with the broader premise that Democrats are much better for the working class, and that it’s distressing when Republicans walk around pretending to be populists. But Democrats didn’t need to “reclaim” that title to win this election. Justice Samuel Alito and Donald Trump handed us the perfect tools to motivate our voters to the polls, allowing Democrats to sidestep the party-out-of-power’s traditional advantages with economic disenchantment.
Now, had Dems spent the last year blaming Big Oil execs for higher gas prices, pointing to price-gouging and record profits as proof, then that might have been a different story. But it was a missed opportunity that Dems weren’t going to fix in the six months headed into the election, and luckily they didn’t have to. They might want to get on that for 2024, however, because oil execs now know how easy it is to tank Joe Biden’s approval numbers via price manipulation. But that’s a story for another day.
Here’s a whole story of second-guessers a week out before the election because they couldn’t shut up to wait and see what the election results might look like before declaring defeat:
Top Democratic officials, lawmakers and strategists are openly second-guessing their party’s campaign pitch and tactics, reflecting a growing sense that Democrats have failed to coalesce around one effective message with enough time to stave off major losses in the House and possibly decisive defeats in the tightly contested Senate.
Weird, turns out that tailoring messages to people’s states and districts might’ve done the job more effectively than forcing everyone into a cookie-cutter approach that, incidentally, would’ve played to Republican strengths.
“If Republicans are going to attack on inflation, you should turn to them and say, ‘What the hell have you done?’ The answer is nothing,” said Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania. “And I think Democrats should talk about that more.”
Um, Democrats did that. And then they pivoted to abortion and democracy.
“The truth is, Democrats have done a poor job of communicating our approach to the economy,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan who is in one of this year’s most competitive races. “I have no idea if I’m going to win my election — it’s going to be a nail biter. But if you can’t speak directly to people’s pocketbook and talk about our vision for the economy, you’re just having half a conversation.”
Slotkin won that nail-biter, so it’s great that her message worked in a very difficult district. But Democrats staked their national campaign on issues that resonated with their core base and refused to play in the Republican’s chosen battlefield. And the end result? In the national exit polls, look at this:
You know what’s funny? On that inflation question, the Republican advantage was an anemic 52-44 edge. So the Democratic message did make some headway. But on abortion?
That is what Democrats were riding into this election. And note how immigration was fifth on the list? Turns out that issue played to the Democrats’ advantage, with 54% saying immigrants “help the country,” while only 37% said they “hurt the country.”
Look, I have no problem with a postmortem that looks at the data and tries and figure out what went wrong. But if you’re going to be honest about it, entering that discussion without a preconceived ideological angle, then you need to wait for results, pore over the data, perhaps commission additional data, and then make a dispassionate assessment based on that information.
But that's not what any of the people above did. Remember Hillary Rosen saying, “When voters tell you over and over and over again that they care mostly about the economy, listen to them. Stop talking about democracy being at stake”? Yet only 32% of those voters—less than a third—thought the economy was the most important issue.
And now look at Pennsylvania, where Democrats didn’t just sweep the governor and Senate races, but they are on the verge of picking up the state House:
Abortion. See? Abortion! All those white men, including an embarrassing number of Democrats, who decided that the issue was “fading” would have cost us the election had we done what they asked!
Anyway, all’s well that ends well, including egg on the face of ridiculous Democrats who surrendered the election before any votes were counted. All because Republicans set “The Narrative,” and the traditional media and prognosticators were unable to consider the data, the special election results, and the polling.