AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
For Democrats, fall has come to be the harshest season. It is the time when the dreams of summer, driven by outlier polls, and a disengaged electorate, can make anything seem possible. In 2014, the summer was a time when the generic ballot was tied and they could believe they would hold the Senate. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s victory was seen as assured, and Democrats took to speculating over whether Donald Trump would withdraw from the race. In 2020, Democrats could convince themselves that the BLM unrest of the summer promised revolution, not reaction, and that the ostensible refusal of Republicans to wear masks might win them 56 Senate seats. Even in 2018, Democrat expectations included Senate gains and the crushing victory of their candidate for Florida Governor, the young African American mayor Andrew Gillum, a possible future president, over “MAGA Congressman” Ron DeSantis. Further back, Al Gore and John Kerry also established large polling leads in the summer only to see them disappear in the fall.
October has had a way of shattering Democrat hopes. Democrats have tended to blame this on “bad luck,” or if agency is to be ascribed, “October Surprises.” In 2004, this was the so-called “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” attacks on John Kerry’s war record. In 2014, it was Ebola. In 2016, it was Hillary Clinton’s emails, and the announcement of a renewed investigation into them. In 2018, it was the Kavanaugh hearings, while in 2020 it was the death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
The problem with this approach is that it is selective, and tries to find excuses. It ignores that Republicans suffered equally sudden “October surprises” such as the strategic leak of the “Access Hollywood” tape against Donald Trump in 2016, or Trump contracting COVID in October 2020, resulting in the cancelation of the second debate. That these October surprises supposedly did not hurt Republicans as the other October developments hurt Democrats raises questions Democrat strategists and much of the media would prefer not to ask. Why is it, for example, that Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death or the Kavanaugh hearings hurt Democrats more than Republicans?
If Democrats considered that question, they might not have made the same mistake in 2020 that they made with Kavanaugh in 2018, or discover, as they are now doing in October of 2022, that running an entire campaign focused on abortion in a time of unprecedented insecurity is not a pathway to electoral success.
It may well be too late for Democrats in 2022. Polling is an inexact science, but when every metric from polling, to spending, to early voting moves in the same direction, something is happening. Over the last four weeks, there appears to have been a decided shift toward the GOP at virtually every level across almost the entire country. Nationally, the generic congressional ballot, which reverted to a tie this summer, has seen Republicans leap to a 2.9 percent lead, according to the RealClearPolitics average. Furthermore, the 48 percent the GOP is averaging is the highest at any point in the last five years. This number may itself be an underestimate, as the Economist/YouGov and Politico/Morning Consult have Democrat leads of 5% and 4% respectively, whereas the GOP leads in all of the other 14 most recent polls.
Individual races provide more evidence of Democrat struggles. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently released internal polling showing a tie in Rhode Island’s Second Congressional District between GOP Candidate Allan Fung, and Democrat Seth Magazinger. Joe Biden won the district by 11.4 percent. The DCCC in turn seems to have abandoned spending in Nevada’s Third Congressional District, cutting $2 million in planned advertising for Congresswoman Susie Lee. Joe Biden won the district by 8 percent in 2020. The DCCC’s own chairman, Sean Patrick Maloney, needs all the help he can get. He has suddenly found himself in a tough battle for reelection in his own Hudson Valley district which Joe Biden carried by 10 percent.
At the gubernatorial level, national Democrats spent almost $14 million in Florida in 2018. They are spending less than half a million dollars this year. As was the case with Maloney’s House race, increasingly Democrats are having to play defense in races they thought were safe. These include not just states like Oregon, where Democrats have been struggling for months, but also Colorado, Michigan, and Minnesota, where relatively popular Democrat governors seemed headed to comfortable reelection victories over weaker GOP candidates only to have polling close to the low single digits in each over the last few weeks.
A similar trend has played out in Senate races. Despite a barrage of “October surprises,” Democrats have failed to improve their numbers in Georgia, where Senator Raphael Warnock is locked in a tight race with Herschel Walker. That Warnock’s numbers seem stuck in the mid-40s is ominous given Brian Kemp’s substantial lead in the gubernatorial race, as it indicates most of the undecided voters will pull Republican ballots for every other office. In Wisconsin, Ron Johnson seems to have established a solid lead and is well on his way to victory over Lieutenant Governor Mandala Barnes after running a campaign focusing on his opponent’s record on crime.
What must worry Democrats now is how races where local factors are most favorable compared to national ones are also where the greatest movement is taking place. The reason the polling out of Colorado, Michigan, and Minnesota is scarier for Democrats was that they featured incumbents with good polling running against flawed opponents who they were outspending by margins of as much as 10 to 1. If money or local factors mattered, these races should not even be close to competitive. If they are not, it implies national factors are taking precedent. If these races are turning against Democrats, what hope do they have in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which Democrats should have no business winning in a political climate worse than 2020?
Just as the nationalization of the midterms has led to polls closing in states like Michigan, it has seen Vance establish a solid lead, Mehmet Oz pull into a tie in Pennsylvania, and both Arizona and New Hampshire, which national Republicans seemed to write off as recently as two weeks ago, close to within the low single-digits. The NRSC actually canceled its spending in New Hampshire only to return last week, as polls tightened.
The nationalization of races presents a wider strategic problem for Democrats. Their campaign strategy focused heavily not on promoting their own policies, or even making a case for why their policies would be better than those of the Republican Party, but rather on portraying individual Republican candidates as “extreme” and “unacceptable.” Democrats failed to make any sort of case for Democrat majorities.
Worse, even in the cases where they were successful at portraying GOP candidates as extreme, such as the Pennsylvania Governor’s race, the successful demonization of Doug Mastriano ironically allowed every other Republican candidate on the ballot to appear much more moderate. Democrats, by failing to provide their own voters with any reason to vote for them, have given them no reason to turn out, evident in disastrous early voting figures in states like Florida and Nevada. By focusing only on scare campaigns against GOP candidates, Democrats had little to fall back on when these attacks fell flat. By focusing largely on the personal, Democrats implicitly communicated to voters that they had few credible issue-based attacks to make on Republicans when it came to voters’ top concerns: the economy, crime, and the border.
Furthermore, Democrats themselves contributed to the nationalization of the election by fully embracing a culture war campaign fought on abortion. Real divisions existed within the Republican coalition, especially at the state level, but Democrats, by reframing the issue in partisan terms, made legitimate concerns less persuasive to voters. It also encouraged every Democrat candidate to talk about abortion all the time, and to do so in terms dramatically different from any Republican, which made differences among Republicans regarding restrictions appear quite minor compared to Democrat opposition to any restrictions at all.
Most importantly, however, by forcing a national message on local Democrats regarding abortion and “democracy,” Democrats robbed their strongest candidates of any unique appeal they might have had. It is hardly shocking that Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota or Jared Polis of Colorado cannot take credit for comparatively responsible economic stewardship, or in Polis’s case, an opposition to COVID lockdowns and mandates, when neither is allowed by their base to talk about those things. Instead, they talk about abortion non-stop, and perform in polls like national Democrats as a result.
In turn, by ensuring that their national message was negative (on abortion and January 6th), Democrats could only mobilize their anti-Republican partisans for whom these things were persuasive. No swing voters are incentivized to vote for Democrats because things might get better if Democrats win. The only argument is that things might get worse if Republicans win, and on issues the voters are hardly focused on. As the vast swath of the middle electorate believes the economy, crime, and other key issues are getting worse, Democrats’ message offered almost no reason to support them.
The polling then should not be surprising, nor, barring a larger error than we have seen since 2012, should the results next week be a shock. What is more surprising – but perhaps it shouldn’t be – is how Democrats keep repeating the same mistakes. Somehow, they expect a different outcome. Based on current trends, it does not look like they will get one.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.