ANALYSIS — Angry parents of school-aged children were supposed to rock the gates of the establishment and send a message in the 2022 elections, at least according to the conservative narrative. “Woke” school curricula, extended COVID-19 restrictions in schools and policies around transgender athletes were supposed to drive voters to the polls and make parents a key voting bloc to watch in the midterms.
“Parents of school-age children will be a big part of the ‘red wave’ that I and many others see building in the midterms. Make no mistake: Education is on the ballot in 2022,” wrote conservative columnist and radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt in The Washington Post, three weeks before the election. “That’s going to be painful for the party in power in Washington, but there is no injustice in that Democrats have more than earned their coming comeuppance.”
But the election results were more nuanced. Not only did Democrats overperform expectations in 2022, particularly in the House, but exit polling data shows that parents didn’t vote all that much differently than voters without children.
In 2022, dads voted for GOP candidates by 12 points (54-42 percent) while men without children voted for Republicans by 16 points (57-41 percent). So not only was there a modest 4-point difference, but dads voted more Democratic than men without kids.
There was a slightly larger 7-point difference between how moms voted (51-47 percent for Democratic candidates) compared with women without children (55-44 percent for Democratic candidates).
Having a child is not a clear, determinative predictor of which party someone is going to vote for in the way that gender is. In fact, the gap between voters with and without kids was more narrow in 2020 and 2022 than in 2018.
But did parents punish Democratic candidates more this year than in previous cycles? There was an identifiable shift among women with children in comparison to men with children.
Movement among parents toward Republicans from 2020 to 2022 paralleled movement among voters with no children. For example, dads went from a 1-point advantage for Trump in 2020 to a 12-point advantage for GOP candidates in 2022. But men without children shifted from a 4-point edge for Trump to a 16-point advantage for GOP candidates in 2022. That’s similar movement from cycle to cycle, even though parents were supposed to be more enraged than their childless peers.
Once again, there was more movement among moms, who shifted away from Democrats from 2020 to 2022 by 9 points while women without children shifted away by a single point. But the narrative, boosted by viral videos from school board meetings around the country, outpaced the electoral reality. If the original narrative was limited to angry moms, then the data would have come closer to supporting it.
Parents were always going to be a critical voting bloc, considering they made up 34 percent of the electorate in 2020. But parents made up only 28 percent of the electorate in 2022, lower than two years ago and even lower than the 30 percent in 2018, when no one had even heard of COVID-19 and before the term “woke” was co-opted by the political right.
But what about Virginia?
The parent narrative built up steam in 2021, when Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor of Virginia just 12 months after Joe Biden won the commonwealth by 10 points in the presidential election.
Parental involvement in schools was a key part of the conversation, particularly after former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s statement in the final debate. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” said McAuliffe, in a comment that was used extensively by Republicans in the final chapter of that campaign.
“Education is the iceberg issue of 2022 — most of its force lies hidden below the surface, but there will be no getting around it for Democrats. Youngkin’s victory was widely attributed to parents voting for his proposed agenda for the commonwealth’s public schools,” according to Hewitt. “Republicans, already the party of change in American education, watched and learned.”
Kevin McCarthy immediately saw the ingredients for success in Youngkin’s victory. The day after Youngkin declared victory, the House Republican leader promoted a “parents’ bill of rights,” which was released a couple of weeks later.
“Parents are certainly the swing vote that delivered Virginia to the Republicans,” said Lanae Erickson of the think tank Third Way.
And yet the exit polling from the Virginia race wasn’t as conclusive. Yes, dads split their 2020 votes between Biden and Donald Trump (49 percent each) and then swung toward Youngkin, 59-41 percent. But that 18-point swing was actually less than the 22-point improvement Youngkin saw among men with no children. Biden won those men 53-43 percent, but Youngkin won them 56-44 percent.
It’s a similar story among women. Moms voted for Biden by 17 points, 58-41 percent, in 2020 and for McAuliffe by 6 points in 2021, 53-47 percent. But that 11-point swing was less than the 13-point improvement Youngkin saw among women with no children. Biden won those women 60-38 percent, but McAuliffe won them 54-45 percent.
Unfortunately, since Virginia didn’t have any competitive statewide races, there’s not a 2022 exit poll to compare.
It’s possible that the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the media consortium had a flawed sample and didn’t accurately reflect the electorate. But the Associated Press VoteCast study, conducted independently from Edison’s exit poll, didn’t bolster the parent uprising narrative either.
That study, also known as the Fox News Voter Analysis survey, asked the question a little bit differently. It asked whether the voter was a parent or guardian of children under the age of 18. So this sample, presumably, doesn’t include voters with adult children, which could impact analysis comparing it with the other exit poll data. But the results are similarly murky when looking for parental anger directed at Democrats.
According to the AP VoteCast data, the difference between parents and adults without kids was minimal, and the parents voted slightly more Democratic. In the 2022 midterm elections, parents voted for GOP candidates by 2 points (49-47 percent) and nonparents voted for GOP candidates by 5 points (51-46 percent). Unfortunately, the public VoteCast data does not break out the nonparents by gender.
The starkest difference was between gender — not between parents and the population at-large. Moms split their votes evenly, with 48 percent to each party while all women (including moms) voted narrowly for Democrats 49-48 percent. Dads voted for GOP candidates by 5 points (51-46 points), while all men (including dads) voted for GOP candidates by 11 points (54-43 percent).
Additionally, conservative groups focused on winning school board races didn’t gain as much traction as expected.
Voters with school-aged children are important because they routinely make up at least one quarter of the electorate. But election results and exit polling are good ways to test pre-election narratives.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.