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May 23, 2023

Learn the Right Midterm Lessons — or Lose in 2024

The road to the White House runs through factory towns and flyover country.

The field of Republican presidential hopefuls grows larger by the week. But do any of them stand a chance of beating Joe Biden next year?

The president’s approval ratings remain anemic. He can take comfort, though, by thinking back to what happened last year.

Every indication pointed to a Republican landslide in the 2022 midterms. Yet the polls and pundits were wrong. The GOP barely scraped together a House majority and actually lost a Senate seat.

Unless Republicans figure out what went wrong in November, they risk a similar humiliation in 2024 when their nominee takes on Biden.

In this political mystery, there are all too many suspects. Many seem obvious: The GOP nominated bad candidates. Voters wanted to punish Donald Trump. Women alarmed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade flocked to the Democrats. Or maybe the polls were just wrong.

In a meticulous study for RealClearPolitics, the political scientist James E. Campbell considers and rejects each of those explanations.

If the nominees were so bad, why did they poll so well?

If voters wanted to rebuke Trump, why didn’t that hurt Republican numbers long before Election Day?

Most attempts to account for the “red wave’s” failure to swell fall short for the same reason. If voters soured on the GOP for whatever reason, polls should have picked up on their feelings. The trend should have been visible in advance.

Yet the polls weren’t exactly wrong, according to Campbell. They were inadequate.

A poll isn’t a prediction; it’s a survey of a limited number of respondents. Reputable polls try to survey the most likely voters. Last year, that led them astray.

Campbell proposes a “Breakwater Theory” of the 2022 election. In eight key states, which made the difference between the predicted red wave and the eventual red puddle, Democrats beat the polls by mobilizing unlikely voters.

Those eight states — Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Washington and New Hampshire — all had “Democrat-friendly easy and early mail-in voting rules,” Campbell notes. And Democrats maximized their opportunity by concentrating midterm spending in those states.

Seven of those eight states had Senate races, and as Campbell reports, “The Democratic Party and its supporting outside groups and individuals spent in excess of $700 million on these seven races, over $200 million more than Republicans spent.”

There is more in Campbell’s analysis. But the bottom line is that Democrats picked their battles more wisely than Republicans did. Extra campaign spending and accommodating election rules brought out marginal Democratic votes that pollsters mostly missed. Those eight states were the breakwater that stemmed the red tide.

Two Republican countermeasures for 2024 require no imagination. The party has to target its spending better. And as much as the GOP would like to see stricter election laws, it must play the game by the rules now in place. That means pouring resources into getting out the early vote and mail-in vote for Republican candidates, rather than conceding those categories to the Democrats.

But another smart tactic goes against one of the most cherished cliches of campaign consulting. With good reason, campaign professionals tell their clients to “hunt where the ducks are.” Look for voters where you already know you have support. Don’t waste limited resources hunting in unlikely places.

In 2016, however, Donald Trump defied the experts’ advice. He ran an old-fashioned in-person campaign, showing up in places that hadn’t seen a candidate from either party in years, if not decades. His roving rallies were in contrast to the familiar circuit Hillary Clinton followed. And they won him states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that hadn’t gone Republican since the 1980s.

COVID-19 worked to Joe Biden’s advantage in 2020. His presence on the campaign trail wasn’t much missed at a time when most Americans were avoiding public gatherings. And while Trump held some rallies, especially toward the end of the campaign, he couldn’t do what he had done in 2016.

The Republican nominee will have to do it in 2024.

Just as the GOP has to compete with Democratic mail-in and early-vote efforts, Biden will be competing in a sport he would rather not play if the Republican forces him to take to the trail in state after state.

Donald Trump enjoys that game. Ron DeSantis is young enough that he should play it well. The contrast between his youth and Biden’s senescence will only be more striking when voters witness it firsthand.

Yet the most important thing is that Republicans be as smart and enterprising about mobilizing less likely voters as Democrats were last year.

Even as they aim to beat him in next year’s primaries, Trump’s rivals must learn from his example. They have to find unlikely voters in unlikely places. The road to the White House runs through factory towns and flyover country.

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