Did Republican Unenthusiasm Cause Their Underwhelming Midterm Performance?

Everyone is wondering why the Republican Party failed to perform better in the 2022 midterms, especially when they appeared primed to succeed brilliantly. Various explanations have been offered focusing on personalities and tactics. Perhaps it is Trump fatigue. Perhaps money should have been spent more wisely on various competitive races. Republicans need to learn how to compete in jurisdictions that permit mail-in voting.

These explanations all deserve serious consideration. I would suggest, however, a bigger and more basic issue: a lack of enthusiasm among Republican voters, arising from the ineffective performance of the Republican Party in the first two years of the Biden presidency.

This explanation at first seems unlikely. After all, the polls indicated the Republicans were much more enthusiastic than the Democrats. But the polls indicated a lot of things that did not come to pass. In fact, while Republican voters were more enthusiastic than their Democratic counterparts, they were not as enthusiastic as they might have been.

Voters willing to cast a ballot for House Democrats fell precipitously since the 2018 midterms. Then House Democrats won more than 60 million votes nationally. This year they will have won only about 47 million votes. Meanwhile, Republican voting for House candidates improved over 2018, but only by a little bit. Republican House candidates won almost 51 million votes in that year, and this year seem poised to win only a little more than 52 million votes nationally.

Here some history may be instructive. The number of people willing to vote in House elections is always higher in a presidential year than in a midterm, no doubt because many less motivated voters are driven to vote by the high-stakes spectacle of the presidential contest. Participation in House elections, then, always falls off considerably in a midterm election. But it tends to fall far more for the party that controls the White House than for the party that does not. Probably this is because the voters of the president’s party are somewhat disappointed in the results of the past two years, or complacent because of their recent victory, or both, while the voters of the opposition party feel some urgency to vote to check the power of the president they oppose. 

In the 1994 midterms, House Democrats could mobilize only about 65 percent of those voters who had been willing to vote for them two years prior when they had Bill Clinton on the ballot. In contrast, the House Republicans were able to mobilize 82 percent of those voters who had been willing to vote for them two years prior, with the failed George H.W. Bush on the ballot. As a result, House Republicans won 36.3 million votes in 1994 to the Democrats’ 31.5 million votes. These raw numbers, in turn, generated the massive Republican wave of that year. 

Something similar happened in the 2010 midterm elections. Democratic participation in House elections fell much more than Republican participation, probably for the same reasons. Republican House candidates won 44.8 million votes, or 86 percent of the total votes that had been cast for them two years before with John McCain on the ticket. In contrast, Democrats won only 39 million votes, or a paltry 60 percent of the votes that Americans had been willing to cast for House Democrats with Barack Obama on the ticket. Again, the result was massive gains of House seats for the Republicans.

The pattern was not quite the same this year, however. Voting for House Democrats fell off as one might have expected, especially given Biden’s low approval ratings. Their 47 million votes nationally amounted to about 61 percent of what they were able to get two years ago with Joe Biden on the ticket (77.5 million votes). Republican participation fell off, too, but more than it has in the past. The 52 million Americans willing to vote for House Republicans this year represents only about 71 percent of the almost 73 million people who were willing to vote for House Republicans two years ago with Donald Trump on the ticket. 

Recall that in 1994 and 2010, the GOP had mobilized 82 percent and 86 percent of its presidential year electorate, respectively. If Republicans had been able to do something like that this year—say, splitting the difference, getting 84 percent of their previous presidential year voters to turn out—they would have won a whopping 61 million votes in this midterm election—14 million more than the Democrats. And that result surely would have been sufficient to generate far more gains in seats and a comfortable House majority. Moreover, such a Republican turnout for House candidates would surely have powered a better performance for Republican Senate candidates as well. 

In short, if the Republican Party had turned out its prior voters this midterm as it has in the past, it would now have big majorities in the House and Senate. 

The question, then, is why so many Republican-leaning voters chose to sit out this election. I would suggest the following answer: For the last two years, the Republican Party in Congress has failed to act as an effective opposition party, with the result that many Republican voters felt no urgency about voting this year. Why vote to empower the Republican Party if it has not been using its existing power to thwart the partisan foe?

In contrast, congressional Republicans had mounted an effective opposition in the first two years of Bill Clinton’s and Barack Obama’s terms—with the result that the GOP motivated their voters and made big gains in those presidents’ first midterms. The Republicans’ rhetorical posture towards those presidents was sharply critical and conflict oriented. Famously, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that the Republican aim was to ensure that Barack Obama would be a one-term president. No Republican in Congress voted for any of the major legislation proposed by Clinton or Obama. Their voters then rewarded their steadfastness—big time.

This accounting of events is open to an obvious objection: Why say that congressional Republicans have not acted as an effective opposition for the last two years? After all, like their forebears, they did not vote in support of Biden’s big legislative wins. This objection can be answered, and answering it sheds further light on the nature of partisan politics in our age of sharp polarization.

The answer to this objection is that the standards of acceptable opposition have been raised, so that the Republicans’ dutiful refusal to vote for Biden’s major initiatives is now insufficient to motivate their own voters, who instead demand a more spirited and determined opposition. In fact, the standards of partisan opposition were raised by the behavior of the Democrats in Congress during the first two years of Donald Trump’s term as president.

Congressional Democrats generally treated Trump’s presidency as a national emergency and did everything in their power to thwart him. House Democrats spoke of the possibility of impeachment from the day Trump was elected, even before he took the oath of office. Senate Democrats, though a minority, used their procedural powers to delay everything Trump sought, including his nominations to necessary executive offices. This behavior, though aggravating to Republicans, was amply rewarded by Democratic voters, who turned out in massive numbers in the 2018 midterms. Of course, they saw the urgency in voting: they hated Trump, and they saw that their representatives had done everything they could to stymie him and make him disreputable. 

Because the Democrats so raised the standards of opposition during the Trump years, Republican opposition to Biden seems relatively spineless by comparison. To be fair, a House minority is relatively powerless. Minority senators, on the other hand, have considerable power. Republican senators, however, did little to impede Biden’s nominations. Nor did Republicans in Congress sufficiently exercise their leverage over the budgeting and spending process. 

It’s strange. You would think that self-respecting, spirited, competitive people—people who deserve to be leaders of a great national party—would have exacted some retaliation for the behavior of congressional Democrats during the Trump years. But it was back to business as usual.

But business as usual would seem to be insufficient to motivate Republican voters today. This is easy to understand. Tit for tat is an elementary (although incomplete) principle of justice. As Aristotle observed long ago, human beings feel humiliated and slavish when they cannot retaliate for harms done to them. The harms that Democrats visited on Trump’s presidency were, however, also harms done to Republican voters, who—as free citizens—expect a fair opportunity to be represented. In the last two years, the remaining Republican national leaders have failed to stand up for them adequately.  

To be sure, it is prudent and decent to give a new president a chance to do the job. Congressional Republicans behaved astutely and justly in refraining from a too-strident opposition in the early part of Biden’s tenure. But by the time he had failed in Afghanistan and opened the nation’s borders, there was ample justification to treat his presidency as a crisis justifying total opposition. But Republicans failed to rise to the standard set by Democrats a few years before and thus left their own voters with little reason to vote.

This discussion returns us to the reason Donald Trump was able to win the Republican nomination for the presidency in the first place: namely, the deeply held belief among Republican voters that their leaders do not fight for them with anything like the determination that Democrat’s fight on behalf of their constituents. Republican officials may have many reasons to lament the rise of Donald Trump, but if they want their party to succeed they need to be able to learn the lessons of his rise and persistence within the party.

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