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What many predicted would be a midterm shellacking à la 2010 turned out to be the most impressive midterm shocker in decades. The bad omens that typically foreshadow poor midterm performance simply did not affect Democrats this election cycle. President Joe Biden, their party leader, was saddled with historically low approval ratings; inflation and gas prices, which have dominated the news media and voter consciousness, continued to be astronomically high; the stock market has tumbled since the start of the year.

A “red wave” of epic proportions was all but spoken into existence by pundits from the left, right and center. Predictions about the House centered around the Democrats losing 30 seats, possibly even more. Republicans taking the House was treated by some, including Frank Luntz (and me!), as all but a foregone conclusion. Republicans were favored to take the Senate, with some major pollsters projecting 53 seats. Betting markets were all in on a Republican House majority and a more than 50-member Republican Senate Conference. Biden and the Democrats were expected to take a beating of historical proportions. That wasn’t close to what happened. 

Instead of a majority of 30, 40 or maybe even more seats, Republicans are on track for a majority of less than 10 seats in the House. They didn’t gain three, two or even the one seat needed to flip Senate control, and it remained in Democratic hands. Not only that, but there’s a better-than-even chance that Democrats will actually gain a seat. Throw in the dominance of Democrats in state legislative races, and you have results that would have been close to unfathomable just last week.

In attempting to hypothesize why Democrats had such a defiant night, it is important to understand that potential explanations for the surprise are nearly infinite, and no single issue is to blame for the GOP’s failure. Many races were extremely close, with margins that could be explained by a multitude of issues. However, I believe some issues were of special significance. 

GOP candidate quality is one. In statewide battleground races this is no doubt true. In Georgia, Herschel Walker, a decades-long ally of the former president, failed to meet expectations and earned far fewer voters than Donald Trump rival Brian Kemp. In Pennsylvania, Mehmet Oz lost to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in a race that didn’t end up being all that close. Doug Mastriano, the GOP gubernatorial candidate who was in lockstep with Trump, lost by almost 15 points. Examples in other states also exist.

But when you consider House races, the candidate quality explanation falls short of fully explaining what happened. Sure, extreme right-wing candidates like Lauren Boebert and Joe Kent struggled. But so too did many more relatively mainstream House Republican candidates who were not as closely aligned with the former President. It also falls short of explaining another issue — for the first time since 1934, the president’s party did not lose a single state legislative chamber.

A crucial reason that explains this is that, to my surprise, voters nationwide correctly decided that Democrats were not to blame for issues that were not their fault. Going into the election, far and away the biggest concern for voters, according to polling, was the economy, specifically inflation. I do not doubt that the polling was accurate. Near-consensus thinking was that, as the party in unanimous power, Democrats would take the fall for worsening economic conditions. The GOP blamed Democrats for rising prices nonstop.

But in the end, voters did not fall for the Republican charade that unfortunate worldwide economic conditions were Democrats’ fault. Given that the issue was rated as of utmost importance by voters time and time again, the likely explanation is not that the polling was wrong, but rather that prognosticators errantly assumed voters would blame Democrats for the issues.

A big reason for voters’ not linking inflation concerns to Democrats is the fact that the Republican plan to reverse these apparent Democratic wrongs was nonexistent. While Republicans have railed nonstop against Democrats on the issue for months, they failed to present concrete ways that they would fix inflation if they were in power. This makes sense, of course, since there is no sound policy to articulate. Worldwide inflation as a result of external conditions cannot be fixed by one American political party.

Moreover, voters had clear evidence that inflation and gas concerns were not unique to America — indeed, many countries are faring worse than we are. If voters had no evidence of inflation elsewhere, then it would have been a uniquely American problem, and blaming Democrats would have been much easier. 

Other issues that Republicans tried to pin blame on Democrats for, like violent crime, were also ineffective. Exemptions exist — take New York, for example — but in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin where the issue was pushed heavily, Democrats performed better than expected. The biggest problem for Democrats in New York was messaging and a fear of opining on the issue, not policy. The reality is that both of these issues — violent crime and inflation — are not so easily pinned on Democrats. 

Republicans often try to argue that violent crime is more prevalent in areas of Democratic control in an effort to blame Democrat policies for the problem. But lots of evidence exists contrary to this point. Take the fact that Oklahoma’s murder rate is nearly 50% higher than California and New York’s. Or that Republican-led Jacksonville has had more murders than liberal San Francisco. Or that, as of 2020, Donald Trump won eight of the 10 states with the highest murder rates. While it is true that crime has gone up in Democrat-controlled regions, it’s risen in Republican regions as well. Violent crime is an extremely nuanced issue that can’t simply be chalked up to the party ID of mayors or governors. 

The American public also recognizes that Republicans are all talk and no walk, in stark contrast to the Democrats. Democrats and President Biden have been wildly successful at passing substantive legislation. Unlike 2010, when Democrats suffered politically for their push to reform health care, Biden’s policies did not cripple his party. The major pieces of legislation the party got passed were extremely popular. That meant the GOP was left with building campaigns around historically unfavorable external conditions and the faux blame game. They had little to substantively attack Democrats on for things that Democrats actually did. And voters, to their credit, noticed.

In sum, the dominant strategy for one party was to falsely assign blame to the other party on major issues and hope voters fell for the flowery rhetoric and longshot reaches. The other party, meanwhile, had ample, concrete material to stick to Republicans — issues that voters could easily understand. It was conservative efforts that overturned Roe v. Wade and subsequently further limited abortion rights. It was conservative efforts that questioned the legitimacy of our elections and attacked the seat of democracy. It was Republicans who floated sunsetting Medicare and Medicaid. These simply were not issues that voters could reasonably blame on anyone but Republicans. Conversely, issues that Republicans thought could help them were not at all easily attributable to Democrats. And in hindsight, there was evidence to suggest this might be the case.

In elections, issues and campaigns matter. Parties relying on unfavorable external conditions, cyclical environments and media doomerism, parties who produce unsound policy proposals and lackluster candidates, are in no way guaranteed to succeed. And in this midterm, what happened was quite clear. Relative to expectations, Republicans failed, and they failed quite astoundingly. 

Devon Hesano is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at dehesano@umich.edu.