The national popular vote tells a very different story of the midterms

The Republicans managed to win the national popular vote for the first time since 2014, but a poor performance in competitive states prevented a red wave.  Once, progressives were fond of calling this an “undemocratic” result, but the truth is that our system is exquisitely designed and the GOP needs to look to the states to chart their future.

Once upon a time, the national popular vote was all the rage in progressive circles and the conclusion was clear:  The United States was fundamentally undemocratic because Democrats frequently won the national popular vote, but not the Presidency, the Senate, or the House of Representatives.  In the lead up to this year’s midterm elections, the Brookings Institute described the “challenge to democracy” as “overcoming small state bias.”  In their view, “the vitality of any democracy depends on the ability of democratic institutions to keep pace with changing times. But in the last quarter century, important democratic institutions like the Senate, the Electoral College and the Supreme Court have not kept up with changes in our culture and the electorate. That failure has resulted in a structural imbalance in national politics.”  They identified the Senate as the root of our democracy problem, believing the Founders “could  hardly have imagined the chasm that divides today’s America between the fast growing, populous, increasingly diverse states along the two coasts and the more numerous, more homogenous, less densely populated, slower growing states in between.”  There are many falsehoods in this statement, starting with the wisdom of the Founders in giving states a vote and the truth that California and New York are shrinking while still-red Texas and increasingly red Florida are growing, but they are not relevant for our purposes here.  We need only note the conclusion they reached, that is “Just to break even in the Senate, Democrats need to win more of the national vote for Senate than the Republicans. With the even split in the current Senate, the 50 Democratic senators represent 56.5% of the voters, while the 50 Republican senators represent just 43.5% of the voters. In 2018, the Democrats won nearly 18 million more votes for Senate than the Republicans, but the Republicans still gained two seats.”

As a result of this analysis, predictions for the elections last week were dire, “Political data analyst David Shor projects that to have an even chance of holding on to the Senate this year, Democrats need to win the national vote for Senate by four points. If they win 51% of the national vote for Senate this year, they’ll likely lose a seat—and control of the Senate. And Shor’s model projects that in 2024 if the Democrats win that same 51% majority, they could lose seven seats.”  A funny thing happened on the way to the actual results, however.  The Republicans secured a substantial victory in the national popular vote so frequently cited by progressives as being critical to our democracy, but they did not prevail in the Senate, lost governorships, and are likely to have only the tiniest of majorities in the House.  According to the Cook Political Report, 51.7% of voters nationwide voted for a Republican for Congress compared to only 46.8% for Democrats, a difference of almost 5 million votes.  This is essentially the inverse of 2020, where President Joe Biden received 51.3% of the vote compared to 46.9% for Donald Trump, a massive swing in favor of Republicans in just two years.  The gains compared to 2018 were even more substantive, when the Democrats captured 53.4% of the vote.  The result also happens to be the inverse of progressive predictions:  Democrats lost the national vote by almost 5 points, and yet they might well increase their Senate majority depending on the results of the runoff in George on December 6th.  They also managed to hold Republican House gains to an absolute minimum.  If the Republicans do secure a majority as expected, it will be by at most three seats.

Ironically, I have yet to hear a single progressive view this counter-intuitive outcome as a threat to democracy as they have in the past whenever the results are not in their favor.  Instead, President Joe Biden and others have declared last Tuesday a “good day for democracy itself,” leading many conservatives like myself to believe that democracy in their eyes is whatever advances their own goals.  To be clear, I do not write this post to claim the result is undemocratic.  On the contrary, I am an ardent believer in the wisdom of the Founders and the care they took in designing our system of government, nor am I naïve enough to believe that there is some inherent moral superiority in prioritizing a national popular vote above all others.  The American political system and structure of government is exquisitely fine-tuned to balance power between the people, Congressional districts, and the states as a whole, combining the benefits of popular government with the stability of a representative republic.  This is by design to distribute power and reduce the chance for its accumulation by any single faction or region.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that the results of the election, though I do not like them myself, show that the Founders have achieved precisely what the Brookings Institute claimed they couldn’t possibly have imagined in the first place:  Democrats prevailed or at least maintained the status quo because of the diversity of the country and because of the structure of our electoral process, not in spite of either.  Whether the root cause of Republican woes was Donald Trump, poor candidates, bad leadership, a lack of resources and money, or whatever else, Democrats were able to hold back a red wave specifically because of the results in key states and districts including Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada while Republicans were able to run up the numbers in Florida, Ohio, and even New York to some extent.  If the electorate was nationalized, we would not be talking about how poorly the Republicans performed.  An approximate 10 point swing in two years would have been considered a huge success, and would have been enough to declare a red wave.

The question we have to ask ourselves now is: What does this mean for Republicans moving forward?  For starters, it suggests that GOP challenges were confined to key battlegrounds and not distributed evenly across the country, what I have referred to as the “baffling” regionality of our political era.  The electorate shifted substantially against Joe Biden and the Democrats in general, likely for reasons such as inflation, crime, border security, and general competence that have been covered in detail both on this site and the mainstream media.  The shift, however, was not reflected where Republicans most wanted and needed it to produce the anticipated red wave.  In my opinion, this means any effective post mortem should focus on precisely what went wrong with those states, and should avoid lazy conclusions like Donald Trump endorsed candidates simply can’t win, therefore everything is his fault.  Candidate quality, of course, could be an issue, but as a general statement it means nothing.  Much ink has been shed criticizing Don Bolduc in New Hampshire and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, to cite two examples.  Clearly, Dr. Oz was an awkward campaigner, had trouble connecting with blue collar workers, and botched a response on abortion so badly it made most people cringe.  The race might well have been winnable otherwise and the same might be said of Herschel Walker in Georgia assuming he loses the runoff, but those observations cannot be extended to Blake Masters in Arizona or Adam Laxalt in Nevada, both of which appeared to be solid, well-spoken, reasonably charismatic candidates.  If candidate quality didn’t drive the loss, what did?

In at least some cases, reports are surfacing of a schism in the GOP itself.  Tudor Dixon lost the Michigan governor’s race to incumbent Gretchen Whitmer.  The state Republican party promptly washed its hands of the whole affair, blaming factors completely beyond their control.  In a recent memo, they noted that it was “nearly impossible to imagine drawing up a more challenging position.”  Their candidate was “relatively unknown with no name ID and was…untested.”  Ms. Dixon’s campaign had “no money and no statewide operations,” plus she spent too much time trying to secure the endorsement of President Trump.  According to state party leaders, she “spent three weeks of working for and receiving an endorsement from Donald Trump,” then jumped right “into a general election audience with a more unfavorable opinion of the former President than President Joe Biden.”  In other words, the loss is entirely Ms. Dixon’s fault with an assist from Donald Trump.  The only problem is:  It’s completely unclear if any of this is remotely true.  Governor Whitmer won election by securing 2.4 million votes.  Donald Trump secured over 2.6 million two years ago.  If the state GOP secured those same votes this time around, Ms. Dixon would be Governor Elect.  Therefore, what does Trump’s popularity in the state have anything to do with it?  Nor does the state Republican party take any ownership over the lack of organization and funding provided to Ms. Dixon, both of which one would naturally expect for a first time candidate.  To hear them tell it, they might as well have been innocent bystanders or objective observers of the loss with nor role in fundraising or organization, simply watching it from afar instead.  “Historically,” you see, “our Republican gubernatorial nominees have raised several millions of dollars and built out teams during the primary, with preparations to expand an already strong operation as soon as they advance on the general.  Unfortunately, Dixon did not have that luxury.”  Rather than accept their role in this debacle, they conclude the memo by blaming Trump once again.  He “provided challenges on a statewide ballot” and they found themselves “consistently navigating the power struggle between Trump and the anti-Trump factions of the party,” which by the way is precisely their job:  To bring the party together to support their candidate, especially given that the former President wasn’t on the ticket.

Perhaps needles to say, Ms. Dixon was not impressed.  She took to Twitter to state the obvious, “This is a perfect example of what is wrong with the @MIGOP.  It’s an issue of leadership – Ron Weiser, Meshawn Maddock, and Paul Cordes all refuse to take ownership of their own failures.”  She continued, “It’s easy to come out and point fingers now, but the truth is they fought against me every step of the way and put the entire ticket at risk.”  Based on reports out of Pennsylvania, the same scenario played out there as well, and likely in other locations. Schisms in parties, unfortunately, are difficult to resolve.  This will continue to be a challenge long after President Trump is gone, despite establishment protestations to the contrary.  At the same time, the national party should not act like an objective observer either.  The mandate should be simple to everyone at all levels:  Get your act together and do your damn job, no excuses.  The people pick the candidates.  You help them get elected, and that is the end of the story.  Alas, that is also easier said than done when the national party appears to be equally incompetent at fundraising, allocation, organizing, and getting out the vote.  Ultimately, the conundrum of the 2022 midterms comes down to a single question:  How is it possible that Republicans failed to get out the vote in key states when the overall election shifted 10 points in their direction?  The Democrats, obviously, were focused tightly on the voters they needed to motivate in the states they needed to win, taking maximum advantage of early votes and mail in ballots.  What precisely were the Republicans doing that they couldn’t identify and secure a relative handful of votes in an environment that favored the party?  Sadly, if the reaction from the Michigan GOP is any indication, we cannot expect an answer to be forthcoming soon.  Electoral politics in a complex system with a diverse population is hard.  Blaming President Trump for a party’s failure to get out the vote isn’t.

Fortunately, there are at least some prominent Republicans speaking up against this tendency.  J.D. Vance, the Senator Elect from Ohio, took to The American Conservative to note the obvious, “Don’t Blame Trump.  Any midterm autopsy ought to focus on how to close the national money gap, and how to turn out less engaged voters.”  The future Senator began by describing something “odd [that] that happened on Election Day.  Before the results were in, everyone was optimistic, even jubilant, and taking full credit for the coming victory.  “Every consultant and personality I encountered during my campaign claimed credit for their own faction. The victory was a testament to Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), one person told me. Another argued instead that SLF had actually bungled the race, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC)—chaired by Rick Scott—deserved the credit.  But then the results rolled in, and it was clear the outcome was far more disappointing than hoped. And every person claiming victory on Tuesday morning knew exactly who to blame on Tuesday night: Donald J. Trump. Of course, no man is above criticism. But the quick turn from gobbling up credit to vomiting blame suggests there is very little analysis at work. So let’s try some of that.”  In Senator Elect Vance’s view, one I concur with, the Republicans have a money problem, where “on every marquee national race, Republicans got crushed financially.  The reason is ActBlue. ActBlue is the Democrats’ national fundraising platform, where 21 million individual donors shovel small donations into every marquee national race. ActBlue is why my opponent ran nonstop ads about how much he ‘agreed with Trump’ during the summer. It is why John Fetterman was able to raise $75 million for his election.”  Republicans both raise less – and steal more.  “Republican fundraising efforts suffer from high consultant and ‘list building’ fees—where Republicans pay a lot to acquire small-dollar donors. This is why incumbents have such massive advantages: much of the small-dollar fundraising my own campaign did went to fundraising and list-building expenses…Democrats don’t have this problem. They raise more money from more donors, with lower overhead.”  Republicans also have a turn out problem, especially in an era where voting happens by mail and across weeks of time. “Building a turnout machine without organized labor and amid declining church attendance is no small thing,” the Senator Elect noted before getting to the irony of the whole debacle. “Our party has one major asset, contra conventional wisdom, to rally these voters: President Donald Trump. Now, more than ever, our party needs President Trump’s leadership to turn these voters out and suffers for his absence from the stage.”

The irony couldn’t be richer and the challenge more real:  Trump remains the key to a block of voters the GOP desperately needs, but seems incapable of understanding how to earn their votes.  Therefore, the blame game is likely to continue, even if no one is fooled.

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