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In elections, a win is a win. And Republicans won

House Democrats need to start facing up to that fact

Democrats and the media should stop focusing on the slimness of Kevin McCarthy’s margin and start understanding why they lost, Winston writes.
Democrats and the media should stop focusing on the slimness of Kevin McCarthy’s margin and start understanding why they lost, Winston writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

I remember the day Republicans took back the House in 1994 — after 40 long years in the wilderness of the minority. The force of that victory changed the trajectory of Congress, but for Republicans who had labored under Democratic majority rule for so long, it was more than an exhilarating election win. It was our first taste of what control of the House really means, from having committee chairs to the setting of legislative priorities. For most Republicans, it was an educational experience as much as a partisan success.

In the 28 years since, House control has flipped three times. In 2006, Democrats won back the House with 31 seats, but their tenure lasted only four years. In 2010, Republicans swept the House, winning more than 60 seats, and then governed for eight years. Then, in 2018, Nancy Pelosi reclaimed the gavel. But by 2020, her margin had slipped to five seats, a narrow victory by any measure. Still, Democrats argued successfully back then that when it comes to control of the House, a win is a win, whatever the margin. I actually agree.

But listening to the president and the media, that definition, apparently, doesn’t extend to Kevin McCarthy and his five-vote Republican margin in the House. For the past couple of months, the Biden White House and Hill Democrats have tried to characterize their loss of the House as some kind of Democratic victory, clearly misunderstanding both the election outcome and the mood of the electorate. Much of the media served up a similar narrative.

Here’s just one example. In the days after the 2022 election, a Washington Post article outlined the history of recent changes in the control of the House and the causes behind the party switches. Writing that Republicans in 2022 “limped to what’s looking like the thinnest of majorities in the lower chamber,” the Post’s analysis claimed that voters “appear to have been more motivated by threats to abortion rights following the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, and the challenge to democracy presented by former president Donald Trump and many Republican candidates who denied the 2020 election results.”

This isn’t analysis. It’s speculation and conjecture.

Based on my analysis of the election results, here’s what I think the Post should have written.

Republicans won the House, after just four years, but with a thin margin. Voters, especially independents, were motivated by economic issues, their unhappiness with the direction of the country and President Joe Biden’s leadership, and they wanted solutions. But a poor Republican economic campaign message, focused on attacking Pelosi and Biden without offering solutions, was problematic, as was candidate quality, especially in the Senate races, and they did not want a return of Trump dominance in Washington.

This conclusion is based on The Winston Group’s “Post-election Analysis: It’s the Year of the Independent,” released this week, in which we spent two months dissecting the Edison Research exit poll data and analyzing our Winning the Issues post-election research, along with other data. Unlike what most partisan pundits and politicos and media commentators would have you believe, the “root causes” of the Republicans’ disappointing outcome weren’t mail-in ballots, abortion or voter concern about threats to democracy, though those issues were important to some.

There is a difference between important issues and determinative factors in elections. Here are some of the key takeaways that help explain the Republicans’ win in the House — albeit not a “red wave” — and loss in the Senate.

In the exit polls, Republicans ended up with their best party ID advantage (+3 over Democrats) from 1984 forward. Democrats, however, made up only 33 percent of the electorate, their lowest level from 1984 forward. Part of that shift was the fact that independents increased to 31 percent of the electorate in 2022, the highest portion they have represented from 1984 forward and the closest independents have come to overtaking one of the major political parties, in this case the Democrats.

But independents didn’t follow tradition in this election. In 17 out of the last 18 elections prior to 2022, independents voted at the congressional level for the party not holding the White House, typically as a vote for change reflecting some dissatisfaction with the president. But in 2022, many independents saw voting for change as a potential return to the prior administration, which they had voted against twice over the past four years. As a result, independents split their vote between both parties, and Republicans lost them by 2 points (47 percent to 49 percent).

Ineffective economic messaging, especially with independents, cost House Republicans a bigger majority. Only 15 percent of voters said they had heard about the Republicans’ policy agenda, the “Commitment to America.” But those who were aware of it voted for Republicans 64 percent to 35 percent. It was a winning message.

But instead of promoting the Commitment, Republican campaigns focused on blaming Biden and Pelosi, losing the inflation/economic issue even though independents trusted them to handle inflation more than Democrats by a margin of 52 percent to 41 percent. Among independents who thought the economy was not so good, Democrats won by 29 points (62 percent to 33 percent).

Trump’s presence as a player in the primaries, and then in the fall, also hurt Republicans among independents. Their memory of Trump from the previous two elections was significant, as seen in his brand image, which among independents was 30 percent favorable to 66 percent unfavorable.

There is no question that candidate quality cost Republicans the Senate again. If Republican senatorial candidates in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada had simply gotten the same number of votes as House Republicans got in their states, Republicans would now have a 52-48 majority.

But given their lame-duck legislation and New Year’s progressive narrative, neither Biden nor Hill Democrats understand why voters failed to give Republicans a large majority in the House. It wasn’t because they supported Democratic economic policies or the president’s leadership. In fact, the exit polls showed just 33 percent of voters thought Biden’s policies helped the country, and 47 percent thought they hurt the country.

In elections, a win is a win, regardless of the margin. Biden ought to accept the outcome of this election and rethink his progressive agenda.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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