Maybe it was the crudité?
With inflation at its highest point in four decades, high prices were seemingly destined to be the defining issue of the 2022 midterms. Indeed, voters consistently cited concern over inflation in public opinion polls throughout the year.
So you’d expect Republicans to hammer this issue over the course of the 2022 campaign, likely with a flood of TV ads featuring GOP candidates in grocery stores lamenting how Democrats caused generationally-high prices. Yet those types of spots were few and far between, and became almost impossible to find as the calendar flipped from summer to fall.
So what went wrong?
Well, a year ago, such an economic focus was common in GOP campaigns. Glenn Youngkin, for instance, produced an effective TV spot for his Virginia Gubernatorial effort. Lamenting the price of groceries, Youngkin pledges to eliminate the commonwealth’s grocery tax and reverse those high prices.
“Because saving a little extra on milk and bread, and all of this, it adds up,” the candidate concluded in an ad so effective that it was one of the few spots his team decided to translate into a Spanish version.
When Youngkin first aired this commercial, back in September 2021, the inflation rate in the United States was 5.4%. Over the next nine months, though, the rate continued to skyrocket up to 9.1%. As a result, Republican groups poured millions of dollars into PAC ads hitting Democrats on inflated gas and grocery prices.
This pipeline of cash continued to flow into the summer, with AdImpact finding over $40 million worth of 2022 GOP ads mentioning inflation. One example included an NRSC spot in Wisconsin that accused the Biden Administration of costing families $5,000 a year through the rise in inflation.
By this point, Democratic candidates like Gretchen Whitmer felt the need to respond to this type of attack. “Everything is going up, the price of gas, childcare, even a box of cereal costs four bucks,” the Michigan Governor lamented in one TV ad before declaring “I can’t solve the inflation problem, but we’re doing things right now to help.”
In August, however, Republicans underwent a concerted messaging shift away from inflation and towards crime. It’s unclear exactly why this change took place. Democrats were beginning to gain in the polls at this time, but that shift was clearly the result of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs abortion decision and had nothing to with economic conditions.
Nevertheless, crime became the dominant issue of the fall campaign. Yet unlike inflation, the crime rate in the U.S. was nowhere near a generational high, so this was a curious decision by the GOP to switch their message for the final fall months.
This about-face permeated throughout the entire Republican messaging ecosystem, including individual campaigns, affiliated super PACs and conservative media outlets. Increased mentions of crime on Fox News proved particularly useful, as it facilitated more mentions of crime throughout the entire press corps.
If you lived in a TV market with a competitive Governor, Senate or House race you were absolutely bombarded with commercials jam-packed with security footage of criminals running wild – supposedly thanks to lax Democratic policies. The most outrageous of these ads were produced by Citizens for Sanity, a group associated with Trump Administration official Stephen Miller.
At the time, this crime offensive was seen as a stunning success for the GOP. In the Pennsylvania Senate race, for instance, the aforementioned Dr. Oz got traction by attacking Democratic nominee John Fetterman’s tenure on the PA Board of Pardons. Characterizing Fetterman as “the most pro-murderer candidate in America”, Oz suddenly saw a double-digit deficit disappear over the fall.
Why? Well, despite the GOP’s crime offensive, the economy and inflation remained the top issue on the minds of voters. In fact, the national exit poll of 18,571 respondents found a plurality of 31% citing inflation as their top issue. Republicans won these voters by a margin of 71% to 28%. Crime, however, finished a distant third place, tied with gun policy at 11% (27% of respondents felt abortion was the most important issue). Furthermore, crime voters supported the GOP at a much lesser rate, 57% to 41%, than those concerned with inflation.
This dynamic is even more pronounced when you look at the individual races, like the PA Senate race. In that contest, an exit poll found that the 28% of voters who said inflation was their top issue supported Oz (72% to 27%), while the 11% who cited crime actually narrowly favored Fetterman (51% to 49%).
There’s been no shortage of debate over why the Republicans underperformed on Election Night. Donald Trump, his brigade of 2020 election deniers, and the Supreme Court have all received their fair share of blame.
The GOP’s messaging pivot from inflation to crime, however, has been almost completely ignored in these post-mortems.
So what caused the change? Maybe Republicans thought crime was their best opportunity to counter the Democratic message on abortion and win the culture wars. I suspect, rather, that the GOP learned the wrong lesson from the 2020 election.
Despite Democrats winning the Presidency and the Senate that year, Republicans were still able to pick up 14 House seats. A fierce dispute broke out as to why House Democrats had underperformed, with many moderate Dems pointing towards progressive calls for police reform.
It appears that Republicans attributed their down-ballot successes in 2020 to their “Defund the Police” attack line against Democrats. So as Election Day 2022 neared, they chose to go back to the strategy they believed had worked before. Obviously, that approach backfired.
In retrospect, perhaps poor leadership was the cause of House Democrats’ 2020 problems. After all, their message that year wasn’t focused on COVID but rather the ACA. Plus, 2022 proved that House Dems succeeded despite the DCCC, as Chair Sean Patrick Maloney managed to blow his own re-election race.
If crime was overrated as an issue in 2020, and proved ineffective in 2022 as well, then it stands to reason that it would be a mistake for the GOP to emphasize it again in 2024.
Ultimately, the error Republicans made this year is believing their own talking points on crime. Gifted with extraordinarily high voter dissatisfaction with the economy, the GOP managed to move the national debate off their most beneficial issue and paid the electoral price. Now they’re left to ponder the most painful question of all: What if?