Opinion

2018 Midterms: A Missed Opportunity for Republicans

They should have been touting good economic news. Instead they drowned it out

In the final days of the campaign, Republicans kept their focus on curbing immigration, popular with the base but also controversial and divisive. That was a mistake, Winston writes. Above, members of a migrant caravan clash with Mexican riot police at the border between Mexico and Guatemala on Oct. 19. (John Moore/Getty Images file photo)

OPINION — We’ve assessed the 2018 campaign that began and ended with the fight for the election narrative. Our conclusion: This was not a base election. Independents decided the outcome, breaking for Democrats by 12 points.

It was a missed opportunity.

By “we” I mean the Winston Group, which on Tuesday released an extensive postelection analysis of the 2018 midterms. We looked at exit poll data from the National Election Pool and Edison Research, along with our own Winning the Issues survey, done Election Night. 

Here are the takeaways. The Friday before the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans were handed a gift in the form of the October monthly jobs report. Described by a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden as “pretty much everything you could want in a monthly jobs report,” it was a clear sign that Republicans’ center-right economic policies were moving the economy forward, affecting not just job growth, but finally wage growth as well. And the timing couldn’t have been better, coming just four days before the election.

This moment was potentially the culmination of the fight for the narrative of the election. Democrats had been focused on the issue of health care most of the year. Since passage of the tax cut bill, Republicans had made some efforts to create a focus on the economy, but as the election drew near, they found themselves embroiled in less positive issues — immigration and the caravan story.

That bifurcation diminished the impact of the “good news” economic report that should have dominated the final days of the campaign. Instead, Republicans, as they did throughout the campaign, drowned out the economic message.

First, the tax cut debate was too often put in the context of Nancy Pelosi, rather than telling voters what was actually in the tax bill and how it helps ordinary Americans and their families. Then, the closing focus in the final days of the campaign was on the immigration and caravan message, popular with the base but also controversial and divisive, particularly with independents. Republicans lost late deciders by a 12-point margin.

In this election, according to the exit polls, the electorate believed the economy was excellent or good (68 percent), rather than not so good or poor (31 percent). This was a major improvement from 2016, when only 36 percent believed it was excellent/good and 63 percent saw it as not so good/poor.

Among those believing it was excellent/good, Republicans won 60-39. Among those who saw it as not so good/poor, Democrats won 83-14. However, isolating those who said the economy was “good” as opposed to “excellent,” Republicans won these voters only 51-47. Those saying the economy was only “good” made up a 51 percent majority of the electorate.

Republicans were given a jobs report that validated the signature accomplishment of the Republican Congress, but the data from Winning the Issues show the economy and jobs issues came in third in terms of what voters heard from Republicans.

What the GOP had was a “failure to communicate” with voters about the personal impact of the tax cut bill against the backdrop of Democrats and the majority of the media telling them the bill was “only for the rich.” The Winning the Issues post-election survey found that while voters favored the tax cut bill 45-31, with independents favoring it 41-33, there was still a significant knowledge gap. More people believed the bill would not lower taxes for “people like them” (36-42 will-will not). Independents were even more inclined to think it would not lower taxes for them (30-43).

Voters believed the tax cut bill reduced rates for corporations and the wealthy (67-17 believe-do not believe), but not that it would reduce rates for everyone (32-50). Independents were less likely to believe it reduced rates for everyone (27-51). Of the voters who believed the bill would lower their taxes, Republicans won them 73-26.

The opportunity was there. Clearly, the electorate was not aware of the basic elements of the bill, and as a result, was unaware of the potential benefits at risk. So when Republicans said Democrats were going to take away their tax cut, only one-third of the electorate thought they had something to lose.

If a majority of voters had understood that the tax cut bill was going to lower taxes for them, this would have decisively helped Republicans.

Instead, the combination of the immigration and the caravan issues dominated the GOP economic message voters heard by a 2:1 margin. That Republicans focused on that instead of the positive jobs report in the last days of the campaign gave Democrats a significant edge with late deciders, but it wasn’t just late deciders who changed their vote preference in this election.

Compared to 2010, when Republicans put together their current majority coalition, the margins with certain key groups shifted significantly. Examples are:

Independents: +19 in 2010, -12 in 2018 Suburban independents: +25 in 2010, -6 in 2018 Rural (small city) independents: +27 in 2010, -2 in 2018 Women: +1 in 2010, -19 in 2018 Suburbs: +13 in 2010, even in 2018 18-29: -13 in 2010, -35 in 2018

There were other elements in play in this election that swayed the outcome. Democrats enjoyed a sizable money advantage; Republicans had an unusually high number of retirements; and Democrats’ health care messaging was persuasive with voters, especially independents. In contrast, the Winning the Issues post-election survey found that among those voters who heard an immigration message from GOP congressional candidates, the top issue heard, 35 percent were more favorable as a result, while 59 percent were less favorable.

But as concerning as the post-election data should be for Republicans, the numbers don’t show major changes in party ID or ideology that would normally accompany a significant political realignment. The country remains center-right in its views, and the Republican Party is the center-right party, particularly in contrast with a Democratic Party becoming even more liberal.

And shifts in voter preference can be short-lived, as we saw going from 2006 to 2010.

Our analysis concludes: “The post-election survey makes a strong case that voters want solutions designed to help people still living paycheck to paycheck. Voters’ top four issues/news stories related to household and personal economics along with health care, but they were frustrated by campaign discourse that centered on the respective party bases and their issues. And we know that neither party’s bases are large enough to form a winning majority coalition.”

Our recommendation? “Republicans should refocus on the economy, their economic record, and solutions to household issues as first steps toward rebuilding their majority coalition for 2020.”

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Correction Saturday, 1:51 p.m. | An earlier version of this column misidentified the jobs report that came out the Friday before the midterm elections. It was the October report. 

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