2020 was no fluke for congressional Republicans, no matter the Georgia runoff results

House and Senate candidates outperformed expectations — and Trump

Freshman members of the Texas delegation pose for photos on the House steps Monday. Congressional Republicans outperformed the president in 2020 by focusing on legislative priorities that connected with voters, Winston writes.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Freshman members of the Texas delegation pose for photos on the House steps Monday. Congressional Republicans outperformed the president in 2020 by focusing on legislative priorities that connected with voters, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 6, 2021 at 6:00am

It may be morning again in America for Republicans as you read this Wednesday, or not, but as I write this column the day before, the Georgia Senate showdown is still underway and very much undecided and the Electoral College vote count looms on Capitol Hill. One thing is certain: What happens in the next 48 hours in Georgia and the halls of Congress will change the political dynamics of the next two years. 

What it won’t change, however, is how and why President Donald Trump lost and Joe Biden won.

And it also won’t change the fact that congressional Republicans outperformed the president and upended the expected blue wave by focusing on legislative priorities that connected ideologically with a broader electorate. 

If Trump had simply done as well as the party as a whole, he might be preparing for another four years in the Oval Office; but he opted to run a base campaign that turned on personality instead of policy. 

A center-right electorate

We know from the exit polls that Republicans won 74 percent of those who said they voted on policy. But among those who voted on personality, about 23 percent of the electorate, Biden was the overwhelming winner. 

It wasn’t Biden’s newfound progressive policies that won the day.  There was no “mandate for action.” We now know the country was moving to the right, but the Trump campaign made the election more about the president than his policies — a costly error, especially given the more positive ideological positioning of voters toward GOP policies. 

In 2020, the national electorate did an ideological U-turn, heading back to center-right territory, where the voters have been for decades and becoming slightly more Republican. This came as quite a shock to Democrats, who expected voters who moved slightly left in 2018 and gave them big gains would continue down the same path in 2020. They didn’t.

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In 2016, voters identified as conservatives over liberals by a 9-point margin; but in November, that edge for conservatives jumped to 15 points.

In fact, self-defined conservatives even outnumbered moderates at the congressional level, 39 percent to 38 percent, for only the second time since 1984.  The only other election where conservatives topped moderates was 2010, the year House Republicans picked up 63 seats.

Party identification also improved for Republicans as they gained 2 points against the Democrats. In 2016, 33 percent of voters identified as Republicans to 36 percent as Democrats. In November, that gap had narrowed to 36 percent Republican to 37 percent Democrat.

Trump spent the last four years appealing to his base when he needed to reach out to independents and moderates, who, in the end, became his Achilles’ heel. Despite a more conservative mood in the country, Biden was able to win independents by 13 points. For some perspective, Hillary Clinton lost this important group by 4 points in 2016.

Among moderates, Trump went from losing them by 12 points in 2016 to losing them by 30 points four years later, falling prey to the idea, promoted by much of the consulting community, that “it’s all about the base.” 

Neither the Democratic nor the Republican party base is big enough to deliver a national election on its own. It isn’t complicated. It’s all a matter of numbers. Why so many consultants and pollsters think growing the base is a sensible substitute for winning independents remains one of the great political mysteries of the ages. 

A convincing victory

Republican congressional candidates, especially, benefited from their focus on center-right policies that appealed to both the base and independents. They embraced a strategy that took advantage of an improved political environment for conservative policies and delivered a victory you haven’t heard much about. 

To get an idea of the strength of the congressional Republican win, the Winston Group looked at House races nationally and in key target states. Here are some of the findings you probably haven’t seen before.

  • House Republicans outperformed Trump, getting 47.7 percent of the vote nationally to his 46.8 percent. 
  • House Republicans got a higher percentage of the vote than the president in 34 of 50 states.
  • House Republicans got more raw vote than Trump in 24 of 50 states, even though turnout for the presidential race was 5.86 million votes larger.
  • In terms of the percentage of the congressional vote, House Republicans won the key states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia, but lost North Carolina. If Trump had been able to replicate that result, he would have won the election.
  • Additionally, in Georgia and Wisconsin, House Republicans got more raw votes than Trump as well.
  • House Republicans did better than Trump nationally with Hispanics, college graduates and independents.
  • Finally, the 117th Congress has seen a record setting number of Republican women take their seats in the House. Actions often speak louder than words, and GOP House leaders earned a victory lap for one of the best recruitment efforts in years.  

As Democrats campaigned under the illusion that the electorate was becoming more progressive, congressional Republicans offered a more commonsense policy agenda that was more in tune with voters. The campaigns of Sens. Susan Collins, Thom Tillis and Joni Ernst, for example, took advantage of the shift in party ID and ideology by focusing on their own legislative records and policy initiatives. Trump, on the other hand, let Biden make the race all about personality instead of the president’s accomplishments.

Going forward toward 2022, Republicans must develop a strategy to improve their standing with independents and women, even rural women, which remains a critical challenge for the party. The last time Republicans won the House, they won both groups. Democrats expected to beat Trump. What they didn’t expect was a defeat down ballot or a country that returned to its centrist roots. 

But the Republican gains in the House and the reelection of so many targeted GOP senators by wide margins was no fluke, regardless of what happens in the next 48 hours.    

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.