AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
One of the most detailed state-by-state breakdowns to date of the 2022 midterms points to Democrats’ money advantage and their mail-in voting and ballot harvesting operations as a primary cause of Republicans’ underperformance last November – factors that could advantage Democrats even more in 2024 if the GOP doesn’t learn its lesson.
The analysis comes from political science professor James Campbell of the University of Buffalo, SUNY, and was released last month on Real Clear Politics.
Following what was in many ways a disappointing night for Republicans last November, most mainstream pundits were quick to pin the blame on specific issues at play in the race, like backlash to the Dobbs Supreme Court decision, weak GOP candidates, or a supposed rejection of former President Donald Trump’s MAGA agenda. But Campbell argues that those explanations ultimately fall short of explaining the significant gap between polling results and the actual outcome on Election Day.
“All grounds for expecting a big red wave remained intact to Election Day,” Campbell writes. “What changed in public opinion to account for the startling difference between the midterm’s widely expected outcome and the actual outcome? Nothing. The implication of this is inescapable: looking to public opinion for the cause of the November surprise is looking in the wrong place.”
Campbell zeroes in on eight states in particular where GOP expectations fell particularly flat: Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin. In these eight states, all 14 Democrat Senate and gubernatorial candidates fared better on Election Day than they did in pre-election polls – in many cases much better.
Of these 14 races, 11 were competitive. Democrats won nine of them, an impressive 82 percent success rate. The only GOP candidates who won were Senator Ron Johnson in Wisconsin and Joe Lombardo in his Nevada gubernatorial bid. Democrat House candidates in these eight states similarly overperformed.
“Whatever happened to the red wave happened substantially, though not entirely, in these eight states,” Campbell concludes.
Campbell next identifies five ways in which these states differ from the other 42 states: their partisanship, their competitiveness in 2022 statewide races, their extensive use of mail-in voting, their level and party division of campaign spending, and their relative voter turnout rates. Mail-in voting and campaign spending are of particular importance for Republican voters and campaigns to understand.
The eight states where Democrats far outperformed pre-election polls stand out for their extensive use of mail-in balloting – a factor which maximizes the effectiveness of Democrat ballot harvesting operations. In Pennsylvania, Campbell reports, Democrats won a stunning 78 percent of all mail-in ballots. In Michigan and Wisconsin, that figure was 72 percent and 73 percent, respectively.
Democrats’ mail-in voting and ballot harvesting operations in those races were so effective in part because of the massive amount of money Democrats allocated to them. “In all but one of The 8 States’ races,” Campbell writes, “the Democrat outspent the Republican. The median spending difference in The 8 States favored the Democrats by $21 million.”
In other words, Democrats identified which states they could most effectively ballot harvest in, and then devoted significant financial resources to doing so.
From this emerges what Campbell calls the “Breakwater Theory.” In short, the Breakwater Theory contends, “Republicans in 2022 were caught flat-footed in securing reasonable limits to easy/early mail-in voting and were badly outspent by Democrats who used the rules and their resources for rounding up enough votes in the right places to block the red wave.”
Democrats did not, Campbell writes, “do relatively well because they convinced skeptical voters late in the campaign they had governed successfully through the first half of President Biden’s term, or because the midterm had morphed into a ‘choice’ election. There was no epiphany.”
This analysis suggests that Republican pundits and strategists who view the 2022 midterms as a referendum on the GOP’s agenda or Trump’s continued influence over the party are mistaken. Republicans’ true weakness was not their messaging strategy or policy platform (although some argue that also could have used work) but their failure to match Democrats’ voter turnout system – an operation which Campbell explicitly compares to “a 21st century incarnation of the machine politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
The question now becomes what Republicans will learn from this moving forward.
As Matt Towery, the co-founder and chairman of polling company Insider Advantage reported in a piece for Real Clear Politics late last month, so far the answer seems to be, “not much.”
“The failure of the GOP to flood nursing homes, bingo halls, and mortuaries (OK, that one is a joke, of a sort) in search of voters willing to cast early ballots remains, as of today, unaddressed,” Towery writes. “They [Republican leaders] must come to understand that in our post-COVID era, the rules for who votes when and where, and under the aegis of ‘voter outreach,’ has changed forever.”
“Democrats know how to spend buckets of money to advance what could best be termed ‘selective democracy’… The GOP has only months remaining to create armies and methods to match those efforts.”
Since Towery published his piece, there have been some encouraging signs that GOP leadership is heeding his warning. Earlier this month, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel announced a new “Bank Your Vote” campaign to increase Republicans’ “absentee return rate, early in-person voting, and ballot harvesting success.” Many Republican campaigns are also beginning to build-out mail-in voting and ballot harvesting operations of their own.
What remains to be seen is if these efforts will succeed in countering Democrats’ early vote advantage, or if they will be too little, too late.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @ShaneHarris513.