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Democrats limp behind Republicans on the messaging game

The GOP has turned to their standards, crime and the economy, to rally voters.

Biden, Obama, Senate candidate Fetterman attend rally in Philadelphia Lokman Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

Democrats’ chances of midterm victory have dwindled as many Republican candidates have hammered home messaging around crime and the economy, while Democrats have largely relied on the fizzling issue of protecting abortion rights and the somewhat abstract concept of protecting democracy.

While those issues appeal to many Democratic voters — abortion in particular was potent during August primaries, just after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade — Republicans’ focus on inflation and crime rates seem to be resonating with their base as well as with some independents.

Crime seems to be particularly emotionally resonant with voters — older, conservative voters, yes, but among liberals as well, the New York Times’s Julie Bosman, Jack Healy, and Campbell Robertson reported on Thursday. Though national statistics paint a complicated picture, violent crime rates have risen overall since 2020, according to a July report from the Brennan Center for Justice. However, violent crime spikes in 2020 were just as likely in Republican jurisdictions as in Democratic ones, that report found.

Nonetheless, Republican candidates in many races have been able to capitalize on their opponents’ support for calls to defund the police in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin, as well as support for bail reform policies. New York GOP gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, for example, has come from behind in a Democratic stronghold by hammering Democrats on bail reform enacted in 2020, even though data shows that those policies are not responsible for the spike in violent crime.

But according to the Post’s analysis, Republicans have devoted the most time and treasure to the economy, and particularly inflation.

“There does seem to be the classic midterm fundamentals at play, but Democrats are trying to reorient the campaigns and the elections around favorable issues to them,” like abortion and democracy, Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College, said. “Republicans have kind of a set playbook,” he said — tying Democratic candidates to President Joe Biden, and attacking them on inflation, crime, and immigration.

“That has become the standardized Republican playbook at this point,” Bitzer said, “but for Democrats, they’re trying to utilize other themes and other policies that, perhaps, are geared specifically to their base.”

Democrats rely on abortion, democracy, and celebrity to push through

Perhaps hoping to pick up independents, some Democrats have rushed to parry those attacks, with candidates including Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents in the Senate, touting their “tough on crime” records. Cortez Masto enlisted a police chief’s support in a recent advertisement; Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is running against Mehmet Oz in that state’s senate race, recently campaigned on his criminal justice bona fides at a senior center on Friday, the New York Times reported.

Fetterman, whose health has become a flashpoint in the campaign following a stroke in May, told voters that as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, he “was proud to work with our police departments, and funding the police.”

“I was like, ‘Where was this the whole campaign?’” Miles Coleman, an elections expert at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, told Vox.

Democrats are also behind on messages about the economy, although polling suggests that voters from both parties have serious concerns about inflation, which continues to affect consumer goods as interest rates also creep up. Polls from CNN conducted in late October show that inflation and the economy would be the most important issue for 51 percent of likely voters when considering their congressional votes. In that poll, 71 percent of registered Republicans said the economy and inflation was the most important issue to them, whereas only 27 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents said the same.

President Joe Biden touted Democrats’ economic accomplishments and promised to crack down on oil companies posting record profits while consumers pay higher prices at the pumps during a campaign stop in California this week. Biden and other Democratic Party stars like former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, as well as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stumped on candidates’ behalf to get out the vote.

“We have to keep in mind that these rallies are less about persuasion and more about turnout,” Coleman told Vox. In other words, trotting out Obama in Pennsylvania likely won’t change an independent voter’s mind, but it could be effective in making the state’s Democratic base more energized to vote.

Even celebrities, including Oprah and Mark Ruffalo, have been deployed to help shore up lagging numbers. Many of those surrogates, like Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, focus on issues like abortion rights and defending democracy against Republican candidates who promote the conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election.

Abortion as an issue peaked this summer, soon after the Supreme Court decided the Dobbs v. Jackson case and overturned the federal right to abortion. But months later, it’s not as galvanizing an issue as it was, as Vox’s Ben Jacobs wrote Saturday:

Democrats thought focusing on abortion rights would pay off in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June reversing Roe v. Wade, particularly after they won special elections in upstate New York and Alaska. However, in states where abortion rights are protected under state law, the issue hasn’t resonated with voters.

“There was a narrative at one point that this was a Roe v. Wade election,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) told the New York Times. “I never thought it was going to be that simple.”

The other major issue that Democrats, and particularly Biden, have been focusing on, is protecting elections and the democratic process in the face of an aggressive, anti-democratic campaign of election denialism on the part of Trump, his allies in the Republican Party, and the candidates he is endorsing. Trump and his ilk have spread conspiracy theories about voter fraud, prompting some of his followers to engage in vigilantism and potentially intimidating voters. There have also been incidents of actual or planned politically motivated violence in recent weeks, which create an atmosphere of unease and fear around politics.

We can’t know what will happen until the results are in

“I’ve been describing this election as kind of a classic midterm election because it is, by all accounts a referendum on [a] president, a referendum on the Democrats who currently control Congress,” Bitzer said, “but there seems to be an undercurrent of something going on that is making this a little bit different — maybe it’s the sense of deep division and polarization has been getting a lot of people engaged and involved.”

Early voting numbers, as well as a look at the primaries this summer, suggests that turnout will be robust, Coleman told Vox. “Nothing to me suggests that this will be a low-turnout midterm.”

Of course, there could be surprises, as Vox’s Li Zhou wrote Saturday. Though this cycle’s Senate toss-up races — those in Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania — have been getting significant media coverage, candidates in Iowa and Utah are making waves against Republican incumbents.

As of now, polling suggests that Republicans will win back the House of Representatives, while control of the Senate is neck-and-neck. But polls are thermometers, not crystal balls — they indicate pubic sentiment at a given time but can’t predict the future.

Vox reporters Rachel M. Cohen, Dylan Scott, and Li Zhou laid out three possible scenarios for the midterms: Republicans could take just the House, they could sweep both chambers, or Democrats could retain control. In all three scenarios, Biden would still face challenges pushing through his agenda:

A Republican-dominated Congress could create something like gridlock, leading to potential battles over the debt ceiling and government funding and giving the Senate the power to hold up Biden’s nominees. A split legislature, with Republicans controlling only the House of Representatives, would put a focus on investigations and, potentially, lead to a vote to impeach Biden. And if Democrats retain control, they’ll face many of the same challenges they did over the last two years.

The outcome of the midterm elections, whatever they are, won’t change the challenge of governing in a deeply, existentially divided country — one in which the two major parties, or at least their elected representatives, seem to be living in two separate realities. And Tuesday’s elections, the New York Times’s Astead Herndon wrote on Sunday, will likely reveal further polarization.

“We should not assume we are at the floor of division,” Herndon wrote. “We are going to get lower.”