Data scientist explains why Dems won on persuasion — not mobilization
Democratic U.S. Senate nominee John Fetterman (L) and Republican U.S. Senate nominee Mehmet Oz (R) Campaign file photos

The red wave never manifested the way Republicans thought that it would, but the failures of the GOP are also paired with successes from Democrats, according to one data scientist who spoke to New York Magazine.

As the midterm season began, Democrats faced one strong headwind with inflation and poor job approval for the sitting Democratic president. Center for American Progress data scientist and analyst David Shor explained that the real success comes not from ushering voters to the polls through "get out the vote" efforts, but from persuading independents to trust them over Republicans.

Shor has long been an advocate of “popularism,” a theory of "electoral politics that emphasizes the importance of adopting poll-tested issue positions and exercising message discipline, among other things," the report explained.

While Shor acknowledges that it's very early in the post-mortem to do a complete analysis, he said that turnout among Republicans was actually "very strong" compared to Democrats to the tune of about 2 percent more. So, how did Democrats still win?

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"First, Democrats won independent voters, which may be the first time that a party that controlled the presidency has won independents in a midterm since 2002," Shor explained. "Second, they got a lot of self-identified Republicans to vote for them. And third, they did those things especially well in close races. The party’s overall share of the national vote is actually going to look fairly bad. It looks like we got roughly 48 percent of the vote. But that’s because Democratic incumbents in safe seats did much worse than those in close races."

"In districts that the Cook Political Report rated as 'likely' or 'solid' or 'safe' for the Democratic incumbent, Democrats’ share of the vote declined by 2.5 percent relative to 2020," he also explained. "In districts that were rated as 'toss ups' or 'lean Democratic,' however, our party’s vote share went down by only 0.4 percent, compared to 2020."

He also highlighted message discipline where Dems in competitive districts were careful about what they amplified and which issues they discussed.

At the same time, the idea of splitting tickets by voting for both Republicans and Democrats has been declining over the past several decades, but comparing it to 2018, it looks as if there was an increase in ticket-splitting.

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Reporter Eric Levitz noted that the idea that higher GOP turnout over Democrats meant that they could not have won without persuading some Republicans to change. That doesn't mean, however, the idea of getting out the vote wasn't helpful.

"It’s definitely true that the drop-off from 2012 to 2014 was a lot larger than what we saw from 2020 to 2022," said Shor. That drop-off happened more among Black Democrats than among white ones he's seeing.

He went on to compare it to the 2021 Virginia election where Democrats lost. The difference in 2022 is that Dems won independent voters by a much larger margin.

Even with inflation and Biden's falling popularity, the biggest factor was the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision. There are some issues that voters trust one party over another and voters do not trust Republicans when it comes to abortion and healthcare. He said that before the Dobbs leak, abortion was about 30th on a list of 33 top issues. After the leak, it jumped to 12th. By Election Day it was charted as the first or second issue in some states. What happened there and how it impacted the election will likely not happen again, he forecasted.

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He explained that typically midterms see party shifts because voters see the radical swing from one side to another in the first two years after a presidential election. In this case, it was Republicans who created a radical policy change that was unpopular with the American public by restricting abortion access and going after women.

"And that allowed Democrats to plausibly run as the party that was going to make less change than the opposition, which is a super unusual situation," Shor explained.

Biden, instead, came into office with a trifecta government and passed not divisive legislation but things that reasonable people could agree with. Americans were generally struggling at the end of COVID and even Donald Trump wanted another relief package that would deliver hefty checks to Americans. At the same time, Biden delivered on the infrastructure package that Donald Trump had been promising for four years. It wasn't until gas prices began to increase in Oct. 2021 that Democrats began losing support in the generic ballot.

"All told, the policy backlash to the things that Joe Biden did was much smaller than under previous presidents," said Shor. "I think that reflects the fact that Biden really picked a policy agenda that was very economically focused, and that didn’t necessarily play into people’s fears of big government."

He compared it to the Affordable Care Act which changed how 20 percent of the American economy worked. It's popular now, but it's not something that Americans were comfortable with then. Roads and bridges, and better internet in rural areas are all things people think of the government is responsible for.

Interestingly, there was opposition to the Child Tax Credit, which was something that both parties supported. Ironically, what people didn't like about it was that the government was sending money to people who didn't deserve it. Shor said when they tested arguments for and against it, what became clear is that people didn't like that the government was sending money to upper-middle-class Americans who didn't need it. It had nothing to do with the tired conservative talking point about government handouts.

When it came to Latino voters, he said that in 2020 Democrats lost nine points nationwide and about 14 points in Florida and 30 points in the Rio Grande Valley. He called it "unheard of." Gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke managed to get back some of that, about 10 percent, but Shor thinks it's more because Beto is from the area. By 2022, he said it's possible that the numbers were down compared to 2020 but more data needs to come in. It was 2020 that was the real destruction of Latino support for Democrats.

Read the full interview with David Shor at New York Magazine here.

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