Republicans need to accept the reality of mail in ballots, Democrats should be careful what they wish for, and other lessons from the midterms

The GOP is behind the times on getting out the vote in the era of mail in ballots and messaging in a world driven by political passion and existential fights, but Democrats should also be wary of ignoring voter concerns.  The red wave did not arrive this cycle, but that only increases the likelihood of a bigger wave for either side in 2024.

The conventional wisdom in American politics is that Democrats vote by mail or early, and Republicans insist on doing it the old fashioned way, heading to the polls on election day.  Once upon a time, when the early voting period was shorter and the number of mail in ballots were lower, this might have been a viable strategy, but everything changed in 2020, in what Time Magazine described as a revolution in how people vote.  Republicans have completely failed to adapt to this brave new world of voting, preferring to pretend it does not exist.  The results could not be more disastrous.  In Pennsylvania, for example, 1.4 million people requested mail in ballots, and about 70% of those were Democrats.  This represents roughly 25% of the total votes cast, giving Senator Elect Jon Fetterman a huge edge before Republicans have even cast their ballots.  A similar story is unfolding in Arizona, where mail in ballots and early voting are even more prominent.  According to surveys, some 80% of Arizonans prefer these options to in person voting on election day.   Likewise, in Georgia some 2.4 million votes were cast by the Friday before the election, more than half the total universe of approximately 4 million votes.  Therefore, any strategy that relies on in person turnout on election day is doomed to fail.  Democrats have already adapted to this new world, after driving early voting for the past two decades.  Republicans need to respond in kind.

I say this as an election purist:  If it were up to me, we would return to a single election day with old-fashioned absentee ballots, as prescribed by the Constitution itself.  Personally, I have never understood the infatuation with high turn out as I see no benefit in deciding elections based on the uninformed and unengaged on either side.  The world does not conform to one’s wishes, however, and the reality is that expanded voting is here to stay whatever we may prefer.   It’s also worth considering the advantages the extended voting period offers.  If anything, the elections this week were a lesson in turn out.  The Republicans have generally enjoyed an advantage on off year elections, where the conventional wisdom holds that many core Democrat constituencies such as younger voters are not as engaged as a presidential election and do not vote in as large a number as their generally older, more conservative counterparts.  Tuesday’s results appear to demolish that wisdom. In Pennsylvania for example,  approximately 5 million people voted in 2018.  That number increased this year to over 5.275 million while Senator Elect Fetterman’s margin was smaller than that differential.  The vote total remains lower than what would be expected for a general election, but Democrats seem to be closing the gap and seem to be doing it with early voting and mail in balloting.  It should not be surprising that they are taking advantage of this trend.  Motivating a person to do something is not easy under any circumstances.  Motivating them to do something on a specific day is even more difficult.  The expanded window offered by changes in how we vote, makes the entire get out the vote process easier – if you are focusing on the right type of votes.  So far, Republicans simply haven’t been and they will need to if they want to compete in the future, lest the revolution leave them behind.

It also stands to reason that the conventional wisdom, my apologies for repeating the phrase so often in this post, was at least partially correct on the abortion issue:  If nothing else, it served to motivate the Democrat base and potentially cause Republicans to lose votes with single women in particular.  Based on exit polls, the Republicans secured only 31% of this vote.  Though this possibility had been known for months, the GOP still proved incapable of providing a coherent answer of any kind.  Perhaps no one was worse than Dr. Oz, who said at his lone debate with Senator Elect Fetterman that abortion should be between “a woman, her doctor, and local politicians.”  Terrible doesn’t even begin to describe it.  One has an image of a rural sheriff in the examination room, looking on with his gun at his side while a woman is in stirrups.  Even conservative women who saw the exchange were probably saying to themselves, what on Earth is this man talking about?  I can only imagine what independent women, already a bit disconcerted by the earth shaking Supreme Court decision earlier this year, thought.  The inability to come up with a reasonable soundbite is inexplicable.  Seriously, how hard is it to say something along these lines, especially in a moderate state like Pennsylvania?  “Healthcare decisions should be made between a woman and her doctor, but have to consider the life of an unborn child as well.  This life is valuable. It has meaning and importance. What we need to make sure that any woman with a health risk, or the victim of rape or incest has access to the medical care they need while protecting that child’s rights as much as possible.  This is the greatest nation in the world.  I am confident we can figure this out now that we have the chance to debate and vote, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to protect the rights of both women and the unborn.”

The Republican’s messaging in general wasn’t quite as poor as Dr. Oz on abortion, but still left something to be desired.  What’s missing was passion.  Love them or hate them, progressives excel at messaging that inspires passion.  In their view, existential threats lurk around every corner.  You can’t trim a dollar from the federal government without Democrats telling you someone will starve and lives are at stake; every dollar they want to add to the bloated budget adds to the glory of everything.  You can’t ask a voter for ID without being accused of Jim Crow style voter suppression; people voting without so much as properly dating a ballot are the saviors of democracy.  To them, a Civil War is always on the horizon, where they must save us from a Nazi regime. Much of this is, of course, hyperbole, but the simple truth is:  It works.  People need to feel like they’re voting for something meaningful or against something meaningfully disastrous, even if the meaning is not entirely accurate.  The Republicans, meanwhile, built their campaign around pocketbook issues, which while important, are boring, especially as voters have already experienced the price increases, making them akin to the old adage about a frog in boiling water.  Putting this another way, the Democrats were protecting democracy and human rights, while Republicans were promising to save you a few dollars when you fill up your tank or go to the grocery store.  This is not exactly the stuff from which political revolutions are made.

I would suggest two larger themes that might have resonated better with moderate voters:  First, your way of life is at stake.  It’s easy to think this election is about the price of gas and food, but it’s not.  It’s about how much more of this you can take.  It’s about how Democrats wanted to lock you in your house and keep your children out of school for two years, then force you to take a vaccine or lose your job.  They went after your freedom and your rights.  Now, they’re literally driving you broke.  Yes, they claim to be the party of democracy and human rights, but they’re frauds who stripped your children of their right to an education, they stripped you of your right to work, and now they’re stripping you of your hard earned money.  You’re smart enough to decide for yourself, but seriously how much more of that can you take?  How much more can your children take?  Second, it’s time to stop living in fantasy land and move back to the real world.  You cannot believe a word the Democrats and the media say about me or anything that’s important to you.  Have you seen President Joe Biden lately?  He shakes hands with thin air and can barely speak.  This is not normal.  It’s crazy.  I know it.  You know it.  They know it.  The truth is that he’s only in office because they lied to you in 2020 and they’re lying to you now.  Meanwhile, prices are going up faster than they have in forty years and they’re forcing you to choose between feeding your family and filling up your tank.  They will keep lying to you and telling you all of this is a good thing, but you know it’s not. There are two choices.  You can pretend that supporting an addled senior citizen who’s driven the country off a cliff continues to be a good idea, or you can wake up and come back to the real world.  Because, if you vote for my opponent, you’re voting for Joe Biden and all the lies that go with it.  If you vote for me, you’re voting for both your sanity and your pocketbook.

Surely, progressives will insist messaging like this is a unique combination of fear mongering, exaggeration, and outright lies with some misogyny and racism mixed in, but so what?  They are going to attack the opposing side anyway, saying much the same thing whether defending Biden’s record from wonkish attacks or a debate over the optimal tax rate.  You might as well show some fire and give people a reason to get passionate about their vote.  The alternative is an endless rerun of Tuesday’s lackluster performance.  Even there, however, there remains a silver lining:  A 1994 or 2010 style “shellacking” might have given President Biden and his fellow Democrats pause heading into 2024.  They might well have wondered how they lost the country after two short years.  Instead, the President made clear on Wednesday that there will be no soul searching on his part, no outreach to disaffected voters, or any attempts to change direction.  A reporter asked him point blank what he was going to do to address concerns about the economy and the country as a whole moving in the wrong direction.  His response?  “Nothing.  I’m not going to change anything in any fundamental way.”  The truth is:  Assuming the Republicans do not win two of the three outstanding Senate seats, there’s little benefit to controlling both Houses of Congress when you do not also sit in the Oval Office.  The structure of our system of government requires both Houses to support major legislation, and GOP control over the House of Representatives will completely halt the progressive legislative agenda as effectively as if they controlled the Senate as well.   The big spending days are over either way, and the big investigative days, looking into Afghanistan, Ukraine, Hunter Biden, the FBI, and everything else, are here the same either way.  The only difference will be judicial appointees, which are a legitimate concern, but President Trump already stocked the bench with young legal talent and the impact is likely to be limited.

In other words, Democrats should be careful what they wish for.  Control of the Senate nets them next to nothing, especially without any accompanying humility.  I do not say this to rationalize a poor performance.  Obviously, I would have preferred the bloodbath I so confidently predicted in the real world.  The outcome of this election was not good from the conservative point of view. At the same time, I find myself in the rare position of agreeing with CNN’s Stephen Collinson, who wrote yesterday morning, “US democracy, which almost buckled two years ago, just delivered a perfect reflection of a polarized nation that mistrusts its leaders and isn’t ready to unite on a new path.  Tuesday’s midterm elections gave Americans two more years to collectively decide what they really want by likely ushering in a divided government that is certain to be acrimonious but will prevent Democrats or Republicans from engineering a major ideological shift.”  The exaggeration of US democracy almost buckling aside, the battle is already engaged for 2024 and it will present voters with an even starker choice.

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