Independents want an end to polarization. Politicians ignore it.
Add to that frenzy a maze run by deeply polarizing negative ad consultants who have pushed back against the most critical bloc of voters, the independents, who continue to swing in support every few years.
“Both parties have resorted to the politics of fear and anger – which may appeal to the grassroots, but independents see it as adding to the animosity that divides the country,” wrote David Winston, a pollster GOP veteran, after analyzing exit poll data. “It’s time for both sides to start defining solutions to problems rather than just assigning blame, or they risk losing the ability to build a majority coalition.”
A Washington Post analysis of more than 1,000 political ads just before midterms
Many activists, especially liberals on social media, will lament this as a kind of false equivalence. But leading politicians from both parties have pointed out that independent voters are recoiling from Donald Trump’s MAGA Republican extremism for the Democrats’ surprisingly strong performance this year.
“They want a bit of stability, they want a bit of grounding. They don’t want the kind of extremism, and that’s kind of inflammatory extremism, that’s mean,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) said in an interview Monday. .
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed that. “We underperformed among independents and moderates because their impression of a lot of people in our party and leadership roles is that they are engulfed in chaos,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
This top-down governance is not the norm.
In fact, in the last 64 elections, the majority in the House has changed hands only 13 times, according to the House History website.
The norm, in fact, is for one party to win a majority in the House – usually mid-term – and then retain power for a good period of around 14 to 16 years. The classic example came in 1894, following an economic depression that began the year before, when Republicans won over 100 seats and held the House until the 1910 midterm elections.
The current instability of power in Congress has only one similar period, just after World War II. The Republicans won the House majority in 1946 (after a 14-year reign for the Democrats) but lost it two years later, only to regain it in 1952 and then lose it in the 1954 midterm elections .
This era was marked by a back-and-forth of Americans trying to sort out our place in the world, as well as a GOP swerve into McCarthyism that the public ultimately rejected.
In the next 52 years, the majority changed only once, in 1994, when the Democrats finally lost power.
This current volatility stems almost entirely from independent voters jumping between the two parties in hopes that one will govern closer to the center.
In a memo Winston sent Nov. 9 to his clients, including congressional GOP leaders, he emphasized how big political waves that topple House majorities are always the result of big shifts in the middle: Democrats won independent voters by 18 percentage points in 2006; Republicans won by 19 points in 2010; and the Democrats won by 12 points in 2018.
Additionally, the 2022 exit poll showed a few data points that should have been dire for Biden: Only 33% of voters this fall identified as Democrats, the lowest total since before the 1980 election, and the Republicans made up 36% of voters.
Those who identified as independents disliked Biden, with just 37% seeing him favorably and 60% unfavorably.
With soaring inflation becoming voters’ primary concern, the recipe was set for a Democratic debacle — until they saw what little Republicans had to offer.
Independent voters favored Democrats by 2 percentage points in the national exit poll, 49% versus 47% for the GOP.
In the past 10 midterm elections, the president’s party has won the independent vote in only one other campaign, in 2002, when George W. Bush’s approval ratings were in the mid-60s to following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The sweet spot for Democrats came with those swing voters who quietly disapprove of Biden’s professional performance. As Winston noted, voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden favored the Democrats by a 52-36 margin in the midterm elections.
“Not many people said Biden was a big factor in their vote. So while they may have disapproved of the president in an abstract way, it wasn’t a ‘knife to the Biden/Dems crowd,’” Nick Gourevitch, a pollster for the Democratic firm Global Strategy Group, written in a tweet thread Friday.
Basically, the Democrats clawed back the governor’s mansions and several state legislatures, retained a majority in the Senate, and nearly held a majority in the House because the voters who mattered most ignored Biden.
But those same voters did not ignore Trump.
The ex-president’s low popularity with independents, after nearly two years away from the White House, remains far worse than Biden’s: only 30% of midterm independent voters had a favorable opinion of Trump, with 66% unfavorable.
Considering this, Republican Mehmet Oz’s Senate strategists run committed one of the most egregious acts of political malpractice in Pennsylvania’s final campaign weekend. They put their candidate on stage in Pittsburgh not only with Trump but also with politically toxic gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano.
Oz had tried to position himself as a reasonable moderate and Democrat John Fetterman as the liberal extremist. Instead, he appeared on stage with an ex-president who received just 39% of the Allegheny County vote in 2020, and with Mastriano, who couldn’t even muster 30% in the second most populous county in the state this year.
In the same city on the same day, Fetterman appeared on stage with Barack Obama, who won the county by about 16 points in his two presidential campaigns. Obama grew up as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. Less than two months into his presidency, Obama nominated the town’s favorite son, Steelers owner Dan M. Rooney, to be ambassador to Ireland.
Fetterman won Allegheny County by nearly 28 percentage points, en route to a comfortable nearly 5-point statewide victory.
Pennsylvania Democrats retained suburbs and won rural voters
In Georgia, pundits have focused on how Christian evangelicals haven’t given up on Herschel Walker after accusations the former soccer star encouraged women to have abortions.
But Walker’s controversies crushed his support among moderate suburban voters: He received 203,000 fewer votes than Gov. Brian Kemp (R), who comfortably won re-election.
An unknown Libertarian candidate received more than 81,000 votes in the Senate race, triple the number of votes an unknown Libertarian received in the Georgia Governor’s Race. More than 17,000 voters in the gubernatorial race simply skipped the Senate contest.
Kemp narrowly lost Cobb County, a suburban stronghold north of Atlanta, winning 47 percent of the vote. Walker received 40 percent.
Now Walker heads to a Dec. 6 runoff against Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) as an underdog.
As Republicans fret, Democrats hail Trump’s shadow in Georgia’s Senate runoff
So after independent voters swung every four years in midterm elections, left then right then left then right, they finally settled right in the middle this year. Democrats will hold the Senate with the narrowest margins, Republicans in charge of the House by a statistically similar advantage.
Democrats could be poised to gain the edge over independent voters, the same way they used the backlash of McCarthyism to control Congress for decades. Or the Republicans could reject Trumpism and claim the center, possibly taking over Washington.
Winston has little hope that either side will make the smart play.
“Strategists have clung to the idea that elections are only about the base – a dogma that this election disproves, like so many others have in the past,” he wrote.