Republicans’ problems run deeper than candidate quality

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Is it Dr. Mehmet Oz’s fault that the “red wave” expected by many Republicans did not materialize on Election Day? Did the Pennsylvania Senate candidate violate the doctor’s Hippocratic oath — “first, do no harm” — by inflicting serious damage to his own party’s electoral fortunes?

One might think so, given the content of many post-election analyses. One of the main storylines of this year’s campaign depicted a dramatic tension between a fundamentally favorable national climate for the Republican Party on the one hand, and on the other, a weak list of individual candidates imposed on GOP leaders by misguided primary voters.

Oz, who was easy to think of as a dabbling celebrity suddenly parachuting into politics — and the state of Pennsylvania — for that matter, has become perhaps the most frequently cited example of Republican candidate recruiting problems. But fellow Senate candidates Herschel Walker of Georgia, Blake Masters of Arizona and Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, as well as gubernatorial candidates like Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and Tudor Dixon in Michigan, struck political analysts as imperfect flag bearers for the Republican Party.

While candidate shortcomings appear to have affected final results in several key races, Republicans’ disappointing performances in both polls cannot be fully explained by the shortcomings of a few specific candidates. Instead, Republicans suffered from a tainted national image that hurt party candidates regardless of their political skill.

By historical standards, the most surprising outcome of the 2022 election was the unusually modest partisan swing in the House of Representatives. Senate and gubernatorial elections have traditionally been less predictable, but the president’s partisan allies almost always lose House seats — sometimes dozens — midterm. Since World War II, the move to the opposition party has averaged 26 seats and 7 points in the national popular vote. When the president’s approval rating is less than 50%, the expected change is even greater.

While the votes are still being counted, it’s clear House Democrats suffered a small fraction of the 40-seat loss suffered by Republicans in 2018, even though President Joe Biden, whose Jobs approval rating hovers around 41%, is slightly less popular today than Donald Trump (42%) was at the same point in his presidency.

Yet this asymmetry cannot be fully explained by pointing to a poor set of Republican House candidates. A few of this year’s nominees were controversial or scandal-ridden, but many others were just typical, unimpeachable politicians who nonetheless struggled to conquer battleground districts.

Republicans also failed to establish a consistent advantage on what’s known as the generic ballot, a standard poll question that simply asks voters whether they plan to vote Democratic or Republican, or which party they prefer to control the Congress, without mentioning the names of the candidates. If there were a significant number of Americans who were generally inclined to support Republicans but who balked at a specific unattractive candidate, we would likely have observed a greater advantage for the GOP on the generic ballot than in the actual voting results.

Instead, final pre-election polls found a Republican advantage nationwide of 1 percentage point on the generic ballot, while the popular vote in the National House is likely to favor Republicans by a slight margin. bigger.

The Republicans’ inability to translate an unpopular Democratic president and an unstable economic climate into a clear electoral advantage suggests the party was burdened with a tarnished national reputation.

Voters who expressed dissatisfaction with the state of the nation under Democratic rule did not necessarily believe that Republicans offered better solutions to their problems. It’s very possible that the GOP’s current emphasis on cultural populism has left it with less credibility to address Americans’ economic concerns. And the unpopular Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade not only energized an angry Democratic base, but also worried moderate voters that Republicans would impose strict abortion bans if sworn in to power at the federal and federal levels. state.

Yes, Dr. Oz and his fellow untested neophytes weren’t much help at their party this year. But it’s easy to blame the unfortunate outcome on individual scapegoats. Instead, they should look at the set of deeper challenges that have prevented the GOP from enjoying the usual mid-term outparty bounce.

Yet no disappointment is permanent in our highly competitive era. The country and the government remain tightly divided – and the next election campaign is about to begin.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Biden must not waste Lame-Duck session: Jonathan Bernstein

• Why Democrats did better than expected: Matthew Yglesias

• Republicans can’t stop another round of spending in 2023: Conor Sen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

David A. Hopkins is associate professor of political science at Boston College and author of “Red Fighting Blue: How Geography and Electoral Rules Polarize American Politics.”

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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