By Lindsey Kerr, Partner
November 4, 2022 – As candidates make their closing arguments ahead of the midterms, two issues are top-of-mind for voters: the state of our democracy and the economy. Recent polling shows that four in five likely voters say that the overall health of our democracy is a major factor in how they will vote in the midterms. As our CEO discussed last night on Ari Melber, threats to our democracy are real and urgent.
While the majority of likely voters say that a functioning democracy is a top priority, inflation and the economy remain the most discussed issue. Over the last week, an analysis of online conversation highlights how inflation is top-of-mind for candidates and voters, generating the highest volume of posts of any other topic, including abortion, crime, gas prices, and the insurrection.
The events of January 6th are inextricably linked to discussion of our democracy in turmoil. Online, we see that January 6th and the economy are often referenced together as two poles, used as a shorthand for the primary motivating factors for Republican and Democratic voters. There is continual debate about what is more important to Americans — a functioning economy or a functioning democracy.
The majority of likely voters say that a functioning democracy is a top priority, but there is a significant partisan divide when it comes to how important the state of our democracy is relative to the economy: 70% of Republican voters think the economy is a bigger concern than a functioning democracy, and 63% of Democrats put a functioning democracy first over the economy.
An analysis of online discussion one week out from the midterms reinforces the fact that Democrats and Republicans are having different conversations when it comes to the upcoming elections.
The state of our democracy is a major issue for Democrats, who have suggested this week that Obama’s help for various candidates on the campaign trail will “save democracy,” and who urge others to “vote like democracy depends on it.”
In contrast, Republicans are talking about gas prices — and arguing that Biden is deceiving the American people and going against their best interests by “abusing” the U.S. strategic oil reserve and by “begging” the Saudis to delay any announcement about oil supply cuts until after the midterms. Other topics that float to the top, and which are absent from the midterm conversation among Democrats, include the recent ruling by a Pennsylvania court that mail-in ballots with incorrect dates won’t be counted and discussion around Twitter content moderation tools ahead of the election.
While there is a clear difference in the relative importance Democrats and Republicans have placed on the economy vs. democracy, one thing that unites Americans is the feeling that things in the U.S. are out of control.
A staggering $9.3 billion is projected to be spent this election cycle reinforcing the message that each party is to blame for the perceived chaos.
As we analyze campaign messages leading into the elections, the top Republican message has been that Democrats are responsible for inflation and crime, which are major factors affecting conservative voters’ feelings that the country is out of control and help explain the online conversation discussed earlier. For months, inflation and the economy have consistently been the top concerns for Americans.
For Democrats, the message that Republican elected leaders and judges are chipping away at fundamental rights like abortion has motivated voters who feel the country is in turmoil, but as our analysis shows — heading into the final week of the cycle it is clear that abortion is not at the top of voters’ minds.
What is top of mind is concern that our democracy is in decline. The recent brutal attack on Speaker Pelosi’s husband has reminded the country of the dangerous right-wing political violence that fueled the January 6th insurrection. The ensuing conspiracy theories about Pelosi and her husband that proliferated online after the attack only serve to reinforce concerns about the danger of disinformation. Leaders of both political parties have denounced the attack on Pelosi, but rhetoric and sentiment around right-wing political violence differs across ideological lines.
While the recent primaries have made it clear that the Republican Party is still led by former President Trump and is dominated by candidates who share his views — including embracing the Big Lie — a link between Trump, political violence, and the deterioration of democracy is not resonating beyond the Democratic base. A deeper look into the discourse around the January 6 attack and how it has been discussed in midterm campaigns reinforces this argument and is cause for great concern.
JANUARY 6TH INSURRECTION
In the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol, it quickly became clear that January 6th would be a day that lived in infamy for some Americans, but not for others. The country is simply too divided to have what political scientists call a “rally-around-the-flag” effect. More concerning than the absence of a coming-together following the attack on our Capitol is how sentiments about January 6th have evolved over time.
Two years later, polling shows that conservatives’ views on the attack have changed. Today, more Republicans think of January 6th as a legitimate protest than they do a riot or attack. The percentage of Republicans who take this view has increased as the findings of the bipartisan January 6th Committee investigation have been made public.
Anecdotal examples from the campaign trail support the data. Just this week, Ohio Senate candidate and Congressman Tim Ryan appeared on a Fox town hall, and when he began to discuss January 6th, the audience loudly booed him, and some yelled out “Lies!” when he referenced injuries to Capitol Police officers. Ryan didn’t back down and in the final weeks of the election, Democrats have leaned in hard to the argument that Republican candidates are dangerous for our democracy.
On November 2, President Biden gave a national address urging Americans not to take democracy for granted. Whether Democrats’ efforts will sway independents and moderate Republicans remains to be seen. Following Biden’s speech, Fox News host Jesse Watters declared “no one is talking about January 6 except for President Biden and MSNBC.”
We wanted examples of how campaigns in battleground states are discussing the issue (or not), so we analyzed general election Meta ads from Arizona – a state where the Big Lie was a critical issue in the Republican primary. When it comes to ads for the U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Mark Kelly and Republican Blake Masters, January 6th is largely absent from ads. This is true for the state in general where most ads focus on inflation and taxes. Both parties have leaned heavily into ads on the economy and Democrats are also running ads focused on protecting women’s rights. The absence of ads on Jan 6 is the norm in battleground states. As my colleague Grace Turke-Martinez noted in a prior post analyzing campaign ad buys in the most competitive Senate races, in late October there were only seven ads from candidates that referenced January 6th. All of these ads were relatively small buys from Senator Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada or Congresswoman Val Demings in Florida. No Republican candidates had ads on the issue.
The Arizona race for governor is different. Democratic candidate for (and current AZ Secretary of State) Katie Hobbs has made protecting democracy her top issue. She has actively attacked her opponent, Kari Lake, as an “extremist,” “maga” promoter of conspiracy theories and the “Big Lie.” The most recent polls show Hobbs starting to trail Lake. The same is true for Senator Kelly. Looking at the fundamentals, this isn’t surprising.
This is Hobbs’ top ad by spend since Oct. 1 ($100-$199 total):
Another example of Hobbs ads ($0-$99):
Historically in a midterm election, the president’s party loses an average of 28 House seats and 4 Senate seats. A president with an approval rating like Biden’s of 42% would typically translate to a loss of more than 40 seats. Only twice since WWII has a sitting president’s party maintained control of congress: 1998 and 2002 (Clinton and Bush) and in both instances a national conversation (impeachment for Clinton, 9/11 for Bush) drove the results. In a less polarized time, the January 6th insurrection would have been a political earthquake that shifts the ground of elections around the country. But in our time, and in this midterm — the first federal election since the January 6th insurrection — it is unclear whether the circumstances lend themselves to an outcome where the president’s party can maintain control of congress. Instead, it may just be the ultimate example of how divided and out of control the country is, a matter of great concern for one party, a legitimate protest to the other.
Voters at least agree that the health of our democracy is at stake. Who do they want to fix it? We’ll learn that after November 8.