It is said success has many parents, but failure is an orphan. Not being heartless, let us wrap our minds around one—I repeat, one—of the orphans of the failure that helped turn the presumed midterm elections’ “red wave” into a sitz bath of blame.
Throughout the campaign, the Republican Party adopted a not-unsound strategy, which can be encapsulated in the following syllogism:
- Among all voters, rampant inflation is the number one issue.
- These voters are more likely to vote Republican.
- These voters will create a “red wave” that will sweep Republicans into federal and state offices.
The first two premises held true. Yet the conclusion was erroneous. Why?
While properly focused upon inflation as a key driver of a segment of voters, this segment was smaller than expected. Compounding the GOP’s problem, those voters were more likely to already be Republicans. Why didn’t more independents and Democrats prioritize inflation as their number one issue and vote accordingly?
Obviously, abortion drove turnout for Democrats and many independents. Where it was available to the electorate, voters chose state proposals guaranteeing abortion rights and Democratic candidates. The proponents of the “red wave” narrative had mistakenly expected enough of these voters would split the difference on cultural and economic issues by voting for abortion rights proposals and Republican candidates to stem inflation. Again, assuming many of these voters believed electing GOP candidates would help stem rampant inflation (and that is a big if), did this swing segment of the electorate ignore their economic pain to vote for both abortion rights proposals and Democratic candidates?
Perhaps some did. Still, for a large swath of pro-choice independent and Democratic voters there is a more elemental explanation, one based upon the salience of an issue to a voter. Simply, for vast segments of the Democrats’ electoral coalition—including these swing voters—the economic pain of rampant inflation was an irritant, not an existential threat, to their financial livelihood.
Many Americans are aware of the debate, which often breaks along partisan lines, of what exactly constitutes a recession. What is less well-known is that the current round of rampant inflation has serious economists scratching their heads. Bluntly, while “hot take” armchair economists, such as politicians, have tossed about errant conclusions grounded in their ideology concerning class warfare and capitalism, etc., actual economists are far less certain of both the cause of this inflation, and how to stop it.
Nonetheless, without delving into a tangle of economic jargon, the best working definition for political purposes comes from “The Great Communicator” President Ronald Reagan: “A recession is when your neighbor loses his job. A depression is when you lose yours. And a recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”
Thus, the flaw in the GOP’s midterm election strategy: they conflated the economic pain of rampant inflation with the deeper pain of a typical recession. Prior to the midterm, there had not been substantial job losses. Employing the Reagan equation, odds are your neighbor hadn’t lost his job; you haven’t lost yours; and therefore Democrats (mostly) didn’t lose theirs.
While the economic pain of rampant inflation is concentrated on middle- and working-class voters, among whom the GOP continued to make in-roads, for many pro-choice independent and Democratic voters, inflation was an annoyance but not an existential threat to their way of life. As such, it certainly wasn’t a compelling reason for voting Republican.
For instance, consider the case of college graduates. Despite inflation and the Federal Reserve rate hikes to quell it, employers are still hiring. Even when the major job losses start—and they will start—employers usually eliminate older, more highly paid workers and hire less-expensive younger workers, i.e., recent college graduates. Moreover, heading into the election college students were not fighting to hold onto their dwindling economic earnings; they were fighting to secure the $10,000 in student loan debt relief cynically proffered by Joe Biden and the Democrats.
Not surprisingly, the college students, who are also extremely pro-choice, saw no divergence between their cultural and economic interests, and voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates. (Perhaps, there is the silver lining. As a federal court has rightly ruled against Biden’s debt cancellation scheme, college students are getting a crash course in the Democrats’ political cynicism.)
Of course, there are other economic groups where the diminishment of economic concerns facilitated the perpetuation of the Democratic coalition during the 2022 midterm election, such as upper middle-class and wealthy voters, college educated and/or single women and men, et al. Realizing this too late after having conflated rising inflation with a full-blown, job crushing recession, the GOP has learned their own painful lesson regarding the convergence of economics and civics: people vote their pocketbooks . . . unless they don’t.
In the future, the GOP must campaign across a broader range of issues and more deftly articulate a message which can resonate with voters—indeed, to begin they should craft a message. And, first and foremost, Republicans need to remember that when surfing the political zeitgeist, a wave is what you make of it.
And so is a ripple.