Despite enjoying a national partisan preference, Republicans were out-electioneered by the Democrats in the 2022 midterms.
Conventional wisdom is prone to overstatement. Hence, National Review’s post-2022 election edition lamented a Republican “debacle.” The Republicans’ midterm performance was not a debacle; neither was it great, however. It was decent, bordering on good. Consider the progress made since the 2020 election.
In 2020, Democrats and Republicans were tied in partisan identification. By 2022, the Republicans led by three points, according to the network exit poll, conducted by Edison Research, while the Associated Press VoteCast survey gave Republicans a six-point edge. These figures were reliable gauges of the national split in the popular vote.
Republicans hit the macro- and micro-vote targets necessary to achieve a large victory. In macro terms, exit polls gave the Republicans a 5-percent lead in the national popular vote. At the time of this writing, Republicans hold a 3.5-percent lead. As the Democrats won the national congressional vote in 2020 by 3 percent, the midterms saw an impressive 6.5 percent Republican swing.
In micro terms, the Republicans increased their vote share in nearly all demographic groups. Republicans won handily among men and among married women. Republicans gained significant ground with white voters, especially college-educated and suburban whites, but they gained even more ground with minority voters. From the 2020 election to the 2022 election, the AP VoteCast analysis found these swings to the Republicans:
• whites, no college education: +6 points
• whites, college education: +9 points
• hispanics +12 points
• blacks +14 points
Republicans received 39 percent of hispanic votes, the best ever midterm tally among that group. In almost every heavily hispanic district, the winning margin tightened between the parties. Republicans also received 14 percent of the black vote in 2022, up from 6 percent in 2018.
The Republicans’ small majority in the next House of Representatives defies precedent. A Republican popular-vote advantage of a few points, such as we had this year, normally translates into a smashing victory in House seats. Historically, such a vote margin would provide Republicans with a minimum net gain of 33 seats—and more likely 39 to 53—depending upon the geographic vote distribution.
In 2020, for instance, the Republicans’ congressional vote had been so efficiently distributed that a national popular-vote loss of three points nonetheless produced a 13-seat net gain. Yet a further six-point swing to the party since 2020 failed to give the Republicans a sizeable House majority … because the 2022 election was ahistorical.
In 1966, Republicans lost to the Democrats by 1.5 million votes but gained 47 seats. In 1978, the Republican deficit was 6 million votes, yet the party gained 14 seats. In 1994, a 5-million-vote advantage gave Republicans 54 additional seats, while in 2010, a 6-million-vote victory produced a net gain of 63 seats. In 2022, however, a 3-million-vote lead netted the Republicans a comparatively paltry nine seats.
When all national indicators and trends favor the opposition, political history shows the incumbent party not only loses the election but loses in a most convincing fashion. In 2022, Democrats confronted a perfect anti-incumbent storm: an unpopular president; a poor economy; high inflation; rising crime; a flailing foreign policy; voters favoring the opposition on the most important issues; party registration trends heavily favoring the opposition; more enthusiasm and stronger primary participation among the opposition party’s supporters.
So how did the 2022 election manage to defy history?
Democrats threaded the electoral needle, or drew to an inside straight, to use a poker analogy. Yet it was neither their candidates’ qualities, policies, nor communication skills that enabled Democrats to limit their losses.
Somehow, the Democrats turned the Republicans’ traditional “efficient vote” advantage on its head. Huge numbers of Republican votes were wasted in solid red and solid blue districts while Democratic votes were exceedingly efficient this time, appearing disproportionately in swing districts. In other words, Democratic turnout spiked precisely where the party’s candidates needed it.
This reversal of the two parties’ respective vote-to-seat ratios was the direct result of the tactical decisions taken by strategists at the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They knew Democrats could not retain their majority by persuading voters that President Biden was doing a good job or that the country was in better shape than when Donald Trump was president. Instead, they appreciated the fact that Democrats had to win the turnout battle—as opposed to the persuasion battle—in order to survive the electoral war.
Only by deploying an overwhelming arsenal of technological and logistical resources targeted at specific districts, counties, and precincts were the Democrats able to neutralize their disadvantage on enthusiasm, policy, and partisanship grounds.
Winning the turnout battle always requires winning the campaign ground game, that is, the process of identification and mobilization of voters known as the Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign. Traditionally, a campaign’s phone banks and door-to-door canvassing are focused upon the primary goal of ensuring that voters show up at the polls on Election Day. In a brilliant tactical move, Democrats instead focused upon the pre-Election Day vote, especially absentee balloting, otherwise known as Vote By Mail (VBM), as the only plausible method to maximize their turnout.
But where would Democrats find these absentee voters in this particular election, given that a significant number of regular Democratic voters decided this time not to vote at all? The partisan turnout deficit could only be countered with the addition of a large number of “low propensity” voters (25 percent of all voters), those who may vote occasionally but often do not vote for several elections in a row. Democratic campaigns leveraged relentless VBM microtargeting techniques, including text messaging, and traditional door-to-door canvassing to target these low propensity voters, who would otherwise not bother to vote because they knew little about the midterm election and cared even less about the issues.
Democrats also decided to ignore safe Republican and safe Democratic districts. They targeted dozens of districts Biden carried narrowly in 2020, as well as some with small Republican margins from 2020 and 2018. Democrats artfully employed a heavily financed, well-planned VBM project in those competitive districts, where their efforts would actually make a tangible difference in seats. The party’s VBM infrastructure was constructed and executed with the essential logistical assistance of labor unions and nonprofit organizations. Focusing these collated resources upon a full-throated VBM campaign, Democrats exploited every opportunity provided by loose—arguably unconstitutional—rules governing the conduct of VBM in swing states. With the normal safeguards absent, Democrats leveraged the “no rules really apply” method of facilitating and counting absentee ballots.
Consequently, turnout was higher in swing states, such as Arizona, than in 2018. Turnout was lower nationally, and most noticeably lower in blue states, such as California, where liberal hispanics were especially underwhelmed by President Biden and the Democratic Congress. As a result, House race outcomes had a strikingly regional skew.
A modest, albeit significant, popular-vote win for the Republicans would lead one to conclude that the party would do extremely well, vote-wise, in safe red districts, do quite well in swing districts, and enjoy the occasional bump in support in safe blue districts. The logical net result would be a sizeable majority of seats. Yet the 2022 election saw the anomalous distribution of Republican and Democratic votes, and hence, of seats.
Compared to 2020, the Republicans did increase their vote share in safe Republican districts, as one would expect. Counterintuitively, however, they also gained substantial votes in districts Biden won by more than five points in 2020. They enjoyed support surges in safe blue districts throughout California as well as Connecticut, Illinois (Chicago), Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, and in New York (Long Island), which saw a 12-percent Republican swing.
But in the swing states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, in districts Biden won by less than 5 points in 2020, Republican support increased very little, if at all.
In stark contrast to the Democrats, the Republican National Committee (RNC) did not prioritize swing districts. Instead, the RNC ran an expensive national GOTV campaign tailored to maximizing Election Day turnout, literally coast to coast. The tangible upside of this strategy is the growth in Republican support on the two coasts and a smattering of new seats, especially in New York. The tangible downside is that the Democrats successfully defended many Midwestern, Southeastern, and Southwestern districts ripe for poaching by the Republicans.
An anomaly is that demographically similar districts in different states had significantly different outcomes for no obvious substantive reason. The consistent explanatory variable is the Democrats’ exploitation of VBM in some districts in some states but not in comparable districts in other states. This is the only way so many vulnerable incumbent Democratic representatives could defeat comparatively strong Republican candidates in swing districts in an anti-incumbent year.
Polling throughout 2022 found neither the presidential nor congressional records of the Democrats were nationally popular. Only by deploying an overwhelming arsenal of technological and logistical resources targeted at specific districts, counties, and precincts were the Democrats able to neutralize their disadvantage on enthusiasm, policy, and partisanship grounds.
The most important midterm lessons for Republicans involve electioneering and policy.
The inherent weakness of the Republican approach to electioneering is the physical limit on how many voters may be persuadable and actually motivated to vote in person on Election Day. The inherent strength of the Democratic approach to electioneering is the apparent lack of a tangible limit on the number of absentee ballots that may be produced until, and frequently beyond, Election Day, as well as the number of ballots that may be procured post-Election Day.
Democrats exploited the opportunities provided by swing states that allow ballot harvesting, mass mail-in balloting, and weeks of early voting. They had months to prepare their ballots; they simply had to look at how many Republicans were registered and churn out more ballots than that number.
The Republicans’ need to adjust to a VBM-centered world is therefore paramount. VBM must be the centerpiece of a sophisticated new ground game acknowledging that voting begins 50 days before Election Day. Money and manpower need to focus upon executing ballot harvesting and early voting in a few dozen swing districts. Taking a page out of the Democrats’ playbook, Republican volunteers must visit voters, door-to-door, in nursing homes and on college campuses, to assist in the filling out and collecting of ballots.
It is not mission impossible. Republicans used to dominate absentee voting. In fact, a decade ago, Democrats feared that Republican domination of VBM would be Mitt Romney’s silver bullet in the 2012 presidential election.
Although Democrats at present demonstrate a significant operational advantage in vote maximization, Republicans enjoy a significant substantive advantage on policy and are clearly favored on the issues most important to voters: the economy, crime, education, and immigration. There was a red undercurrent in state and local education elections, too, that indicates a Republican opening to reconnect especially with suburban women. Socially conservative hispanics are similarly disturbed by woke-based educational policies. Working class hispanics no longer believe Democrats represent them on bread-and-butter economic issues. And young, working-class black men continue to drift away from the Democrats as well.
Young voters, in general, are a heavy lift for conservatives, but Generation Z is not quite as liberal as the Millennials. While Democrats carried the youth vote, those aged 18 to 24 voted for Democrats less than those aged 25 to 29.
Most voters seek an outsider presidential candidate who will advance a populist conservative agenda. A winning electoral coalition awaits the next Republican nominee to confidently, aggressively, and unapologetically paint the campaign with broad, bold conservative strokes. Ditto for those congressional candidates whose platforms and tactics ignore the unwise counsel provided them by establishment consultants.
Is this too optimistic? Consider the calculation performed by Republican Party pollster Patrick Ruffini. He reckons that if the 2022 House results were replicated in 2024, a Republican candidate would win the electoral college by 297 votes to 241.
Despite an underwhelming midterm seat haul in the House, there remain solid reasons for Republicans to view their electoral glass as half-full. The conventional wisdom is wrong. The party’s future can be bright, assuming its leaders make the appropriate adjustments in election strategy and the candidates present unabashedly conservative platforms.