Republicans are doing the opposite of popularism
Democrats aren’t the only ones who can take unpopular stances on salient issues
Last Tuesday, the August inflation numbers came out, and they weren’t very good. Total inflation was 8.3% over a year ago, with core inflation up more than six percent as well. Even as gas prices continue to trend down, overall prices are stubbornly on the rise.
But much of the conversation on Twitter and on other news sites that day wasn’t about inflation at all. Rather, it was focused on new legislation introduced by Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator from South Carolina. Graham’s new bill would implement a federal ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest, or pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother.
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His Republican Senate colleagues weren’t pleased, as the below quotes – taken from this Politico article – make clear:
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) called it a “messaging bill” — one that doesn’t tackle the big themes Republicans are trying to run on in the midterms.
“What I want to do is have a discussion about the inflation numbers today and a number of other things that I think are going to have a consequence in the election,” said Tillis.
“I don’t think there’s an appetite for a national platform here… I’m not sure what he’s thinking here, said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “I don’t think there’s much of an appetite to go that direction.”
Colorado Republican Senate nominee Joe O’Dea went further:
“A Republican ban is as reckless and tone deaf as is Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer’s hostility to” compromise, said O’Dea.
But Graham, in a press conference announcing the legislation, stood his ground:
“There is a consensus view by the most prominent pro-life groups in America that this is where America should be at the federal level,” Graham said. “I don’t think this is going to hurt us. I think it will more likely hurt [Democrats].
The electoral situation has gotten a lot better for Democrats:
Over the last few months, the electoral projections for the Democratic party have dramatically improved. Whereas once the party looked likely to lose at least a few Senate seats, and was in danger of a wipe out in the House, they now look favored to hold the former chamber, and appear surprisingly competitive in the latter.
Whenever political conditions change, it’s always difficult to disentangle why. But in this case, there seem to be two obvious reasons:
First, gas prices have fallen substantially. Given the clear correlation between Biden’s job approval and gas prices, we have strong reason to think this is having an effect on Democrats’ electoral standing. But it seems highly unlikely that gas prices are the whole – or even most – of the story.
Here’s a chart you may have seen before.
It shows Democrats’ performance in special elections since Biden’s inauguration, separated by whether the election happened before or after the Dobbs decision came down.
Democrats have gone from underperforming by 2% on average – indicating, as we would generally expect, a midterm environment that leans toward the out-party – to over-performing by a massive amount.
This has coincided with abortion rights increasing in political salience – and Republicans taking toxically unpopular, high profile stances on the issue. Here’s a quick run down of some data on the subject:
In July, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 73% of Americans said abortion would be extremely influential to their vote in 2022. That was an increase of 14% from the same poll’s findings in February, and it placed abortion as the third most important issue (behind inflation and gas prices)
Pew Research found a 13% increase from March to August in the percentage of voters who say abortion will be “very important” to their midterm vote
Last week, a Politico poll found that abortion is the 4th most salient issue to Americans right now
This increase in salience is being driven, unsurprisingly, by liberals.
Among voters who name abortion as a top priority, Politico finds that Democrats are winning them by a 26% margin
A recent Wall Street Journal poll found that voters trust Democrats to handle abortion by a 21% margin, and that restrictions on abortion – including policies like the one Senator Graham just proposed – are now toxically unpopular
And last but not least, an NBC news poll found that by a 51-32 margin, battleground state voters think Republicans are more extreme than Democrats on abortion
Putting this all together:
A lot of digital ink has been spilled on this blog about “popularism,” the theory of politics that can mostly be boiled down to “Democrats should talk more about popular things and less about unpopular things in order to have a better chance of winning elections.” Often, the implications of popularism are taken to be that the left should moderate its policy agenda, and should try to talk about issues in a way that better appeals to the median voter.
This advice makes a lot of progressives very mad. In response, you’ll often see arguments against the empirical foundations of the idea that “focusing your communications on deliberately appealing to the median voter will help you win elections.'' These arguments often focus on what Matt Yglesias has termed the progressive “mobilization delusion:'' that by embracing stridently leftwing rhetoric, Democrats can turn out their base and more than compensate for losing ground with swing voters.
But perhaps if we flip the script, and instead of looking at the progressive left, look at the theocratic right, it will be easier for progressives to see how this doesn’t make very much sense.
Right now the end of Roe has led to the consequences that were predicted by Yglesias in Slow Boring a few months ago:
The big picture, though, is this. For years, the Roe decision was a huge gift to abortion rights but also a gift to the Republican Party. By taking extreme abortion restrictions off the table, it forced Republicans to only talk about popular ideas. It also created a situation where, to be considered an ally of the choice movement, Democrats were expected to sign on for some very unpopular positions. Eliminating Roe endangers abortion rights gravely, but also means the American people will be more exposed to extremist pro-life activist demands.
The end of Roe has created an intra-coalition political nightmare for Republicans – one that mirrors the left-vs-slightly-less-left morass we saw in, for example, the 2020 Democratic primary. Look at the below tweet by conservative writer Alexandra DeSanctis, posted after Arizona Republican Blake Masters removed extreme anti-abortion rhetoric from his website in advance of the general election:
National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson made the same argument about Masters in a recent piece titled “Don’t reward cowardice with your vote,” where he wrote:
Maybe Blake Masters was never really pro-life in the first place, or maybe he was and buckled under pressure. Either way, he doesn’t deserve your support.
These dynamics – the hardliners demanding the politicians toe the line, even in difficult swing state campaigns – should be familiar to anyone who has spent time watching how Democratic politicians and liberal activist groups interact. As they hew to their base’s most radical members, Republicans are being forced to adopt politically toxic positions. And the radical stances taken by the most conservative state legislatures are reported on by the national media, making it difficult for more moderate Republicans to distance themselves from the party brand, which is increasingly seen as extreme.
Defending the status quo is incredibly powerful:
A key claim of popularism, generally speaking, is that voters tend to oppose major changes to the status quo – and punish the politicians who try to enact them. In midterms, that’s almost always the president’s party. The standard formula is what we saw in 1994, 2010, and 2018: the president comes in with a governing majority, tries to enact unpopular policy changes, and then is punished for his efforts at the ballot box.
One open question about this is whether the punishment by voters has been about the actual policy changes the in-party tries to, or succeeds at, enacting, or whether it’s just a general punishment of the incumbent president. In a 2010 paper, the scholars Joseph Bafumi, Robert Erikson, and Christopher Wlezien say it’s more the former. They find that:
Polls early in the midterm year project a normal vote result in November. But as the campaign progresses, vote preferences almost always move toward the out party. This shift is not a negative referendum on the president, as midterms do not show a pattern of declining presidential popularity or increasing salience of presidential performance. The shift accords with “balance” theory, where the midterm campaign motivates some to vote against the party of the president in order to achieve policy moderation.
The past few months seem to have been powerful evidence for this view – and seem to show that it can happen in the other direction. The Dobbs decision, and subsequent extremist efforts to ban abortion by Republican state legislators across the country, mean that the biggest policy change of the Biden era has been a shift to the right. This has put Democrats – the party that controls the presidency and both houses of Congress – in the odd position of defending the status quo. And as the recent Kansas referendum and special elections around the country show, that offers a powerful tailwind.
Republicans still might win:
Because this is a midterm election, and the economy is doing poorly, Republicans still may win the Senate, and remain favored to take the House. In the latter chamber, this is in no small part due to gerrymandering, which has made the median House seat about 2.5% more Republican than the nation as a whole (a potent reminder that the Democratic party, as usual, is playing on an electoral battlefield that is tilted against it).
But if Republicans take back the House and Senate, they’ll do it in spite of the Dobbs decision and the religious right’s legislative efforts, not because of it. Obviously many Republicans view this as worth it, just as many Democrats view losing seats in order to pass Obamacare to have been worth it. But the trade off for Republicans here is real.
Delivering on a key promise isn’t radically energizing their base, and it’s not going to sweep them to victory. It’s having the opposite effect: the right’s wins on abortion policy are asymmetrically increasing turnout among liberals, turning off swing voters, and lowering Republican vote share relative to the counterfactual where Roe remained the law of the land.
Any progressive, I think, would agree with that characterization of the situation. And this situation perfectly maps on to the popularist conception of how taking an unpopular, extreme stance on a highly salient issue will go: namely, poorly for the party that does it.
The post Dobbs backlash, rather than being a problem for the popularist theory of politics, is evidence for it.
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