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The Vacillating Voters

Swing voters defy the poll-driven pundits

It’s always a nerve-wracking moment when American voters are called upon to exercise their judgment. The midterm election, especially, is a ritual that makes the country seem chronically confused. The electorate looks at the president they just installed two years previously and rises up to say, “It was a great mistake!” A collective decision is rendered: “We must reverse course and bolster the president’s enemies.” 

But this idea that there is “an electorate” that is making a collective reversal is a fiction—a necessary one for the media, who must construct a post-election storyline. It’s convenient for winning politicians to claim “the voters have spoken.” In reality, the voters are in deep disagreement. The electorate is composed of two solid blocs of voters who have not changed their minds at all since the last election. The vast majority have their minds made up: they support one party or the other.

And then there is the slim segment of voters who hold the fate of the nation in their hands, as their fickle fingers fill out an oval for a Democrat here, a Republican there, maybe choose a Libertarian as a protest, or leave some ballot lines blank. Yeah, last time I voted for a bunch of Democrats, but now I feel like they’ve messed everything up. I’m going Republican this time.

We are subject to the whims of these Vacillating Voters. They are the ones neither party can count on. They consider themselves independent, open-minded. Many of them think they are the most rational of voters, not like those partisans who just follow the crowd. Others will say without embarrassment that they are “apolitical.” They don’t like all the “bickering” between the parties. Why can’t the politicians just work together for the good of the country?

If you paid too much attention to the poll-driven pundits in advance of this year’s midterms, you had a dyspeptic feeling these Vacillating Voters were going to be breaking bad. They were upset about inflation, high gasoline prices, and immigrants crossing the borders. Biden was having a hard time pushing an agenda, so the natural midterm thing to do would be to send more Republican obstructionists to Congress.

Is it possible our Vacillating Voters are as unnerved by Trump’s True Believers as they are about rising gas prices?

It’s likely that when all the votes are counted, we will have achieved the usual stalemate. The U.S. House will fall into Republican control, and the Senate will be deadlocked and unable to pass major legislation, even if Democrats gain a 51-49 advantage or hold on to a 50-50 split. Yet the fence-sitting voters, this time, did not swing as hard against President Biden as the usual midterm pattern would have suggested. What might that tell us? Is there a message in this cycle’s mixed verdict? Is it possible our Vacillating Voters are as unnerved by Trump’s True Believers as they are about rising gas prices? Perhaps the nation’s independent voters have at last woken up to a glaring fact of American political life: the Republican Party is no longer a political party within the bounds of “normal” American politics, but shot through with outright racists, anti-Semites, QAnon conspiracists, Christian nationalists, and election deniers, most of them in worshipful thrall to Donald Trump.

The hesitation to ratify the full Trumpification of the GOP was especially apparent in governor’s races around the country. Pennsylvania’s swing voters looked at the Republican candidate there, Doug Mastriano, an avid Trump supporter and a January 6th rabble-rouser, and said no thanks. Mastriano lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro by a margin of 14 percent. In Maine, a state with an unusually large bloc of independent voters, the former governor Paul LePage—a Trump-style Republican windbag—lost to Democrat incumbent Janet Mills, 55 to 43. In Michigan, the Trump-endorsed Tudor Dixon lost to Democrat Gretchen Whitmer by a similar margin. Wisconsin’s Democratic incumbent, Tony Evers, faced another Trump Guy, Tim Michels, who announced that if he won, Republicans would never lose a race in Wisconsin again. But Michels went down by three points. Soon-to-be former Long Island Congressmember Lee Zeldin, an early Trump sycophant in 2016, lost his governor’s bid in New York to Democrat Kathy Hochul by about six percentage points. Even the mediagenic so-called rising star of the Arizona Republican Party, Kari Lake, was unable to convincingly close the deal, and remains in a too-close-to-call virtual tie with the competent but uninspiring Democrat Katie Hobbs.

At the same time, you could find evidence just about everywhere for how much solid Republican support—buttressed by Republican-leaning independents—we are stuck with even now. Florida and Texas remain Republican strongholds, with Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott easily holding onto their governorships. Not a single incumbent Republican Senator was ousted. Ohio will be sending the two-faced Trump acolyte J.D. Vance to the Senate. Wisconsin narrowly re-elected Ron Johnson, a dull-witted former accountant with an instinctive anti-labor bent, over the state’s dynamic lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes.

Still, the fact that Democrats this year avoided the usual massive midterm setback is no small matter. After Barack Obama’s first two years, there was a powerful backlash: the Democrats lost sixty-three seats in the House, and six in the Senate in the 2010 midterms. They also experienced a net loss of six governorships and nearly seven hundred legislative seats. It was that disastrous election that put the Democratic Party in a hole they are still digging themselves out of—because Republicans ruthlessly used their power to gerrymander legislative and congressional districts, especially in swing states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

It’s a common assumption on the left that Republican gerrymandering is the only reason the GOP is now competitive in the battle for control of the U.S. House. Yet even though Republicans are unable to muster a national majority in presidential years, having lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, it’s not quite so clear-cut when you look at Congressional votes, especially in midterm elections. In that 2010 wipeout, the total popular vote for all House races showed Republicans winning by 6.8 percent. Democrats bounced back in the presidential election year of 2012, winning about 1.4 million more House votes than the Republicans. (They gained eight seats but had been set back so far in 2010 that they didn’t regain control of the House.) But in the midterms of 2014, Republicans gained thirteen House seats and ran up another popular vote victory: 40.1 million votes for the GOP, 35.6 million for Dems. In the 2018 midterms a reaction against Trump resulted in 60.7 million Democratic House votes to 50.9 million for Republicans. And this cycle, Republicans appear to have won more votes, with the Cook Political Report tabulating 51.2 million votes for Republicans and 45.5 million for Democrats as of November 11.[*]  Some of those swings no doubt have to do with one party doing a better job than the other in motivating its base to turn out. But it’s also visible evidence of the Vacillating Voters, supporting Democrats one cycle and then turning to Republicans in the next.

How are candidates supposed to win these voters? Some of them are barely tuned in and care nothing about Washington policy-talk; some of them are utterly clueless; some of them are drawn to the candidate who seems passionate and charismatic; some of them like unshowy pragmatic pols who can “work across the aisle”; some respond to cool reason; and some are motivated by raw emotional appeals, such as when leaders stoke fear of crime or immigrants. 

Many Democrats will see a lesson in John Fetterman’s victory over Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate race, which was clearly not decided on the fine points of public policy. It’s tempting to say the lesson is “aggression wins.” Fetterman went after Oz from the start, painting him as a New Jersey interloper, an owner of multiple mansions, a celebrity who knew nothing about the Pennsylvania working class. You could draw the same lesson from Ron Johnson’s victory over Barnes in Wisconsin. Johnson took a page from the old Lee Atwater racism playbook; because Barnes is African American, Johnson played up fears of crime and suggested, in a blitz of TV ads in September, that Barnes would be soft on criminals. But the problem with “aggression wins” is that it is seldom a strategy available to Black candidates. Could Barnes have gone after Johnson in the relentless way Fetterman pursued Oz without being caricatured as an Angry Black Man? Did Senator Raphael Warnock feel compelled to hold his fire against Herschel Walker in Georgia, even after evidence emerged that Walker’s personal life was a comic opera of hypocrisy and scandal?

You never know how the Vacillating Voters are going to react—appeals that work on some of them repel others. They swing one way and then another because politics presents so many false hopes, so many confusing claims, so many choices between people who seem too power-hungry or too wishy-washy or too . . . something. This cycle, we looked nervously to these voters to see if they would reject the most aggressive Trump-Republicans and help turn the nation away from the dark path Trump’s party represents. Enough of them did so that a storyline emerged: voters want a less Trumpified Republican Party. With that we breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe another Trump presidency is a nightmare deferred.

Our Vacillating Voters will surely be open to an alternative, though. What if a Republican leader emerges who is less clownish than Trump, maybe someone with leadership experience in a large state like Florida, for example—someone who takes a tough stance against immigrants and wants to make sure teachers imbue students with traditional lessons about American greatness? A well-educated and well-spoken Republican could win these wavering voters back. You know what? they might say, in their open-minded way. A guy like that could really make America great again.


[*]  Update:  With almost all votes counted at the end of November, the GOP had about three million more votes for House candidates. The GOP total was at 54.2 million with Democrats winning almost 51 million.