How Republicans Could Still Win
A forthcoming poll suggests ways they can persuade voters in swing districts.
By Kimberley A. Strassel
Sept. 13, 2018 6:58 p.m. ET
This was a week of gloomy midterm polls for the Republican Party, with a wave of results projecting a Democratic takeover of the House and maybe even the Senate. But not all polls are created equal. If Republicans bother to read just one, it should be a yet-unreleased survey that tells a more nuanced story.
The data come courtesy of the Club for Growth, a conservative outfit that plays to win. The club’s donors expect it to place smart bets in elections, which it can’t do if it relies on feel-good data. It uses WPAi, the data firm that in 2016 found Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson really did have a shot at re-election, then crafted the messages that got him the money and votes for victory.
WPAi just handed the club in-depth polling of the people who matter most this midterm—1,000 likely voters in 41 competitive House districts. The results are quietly making their way to Republican leaders, and the club agreed to give me an advance look. Bottom line: Many of these races are winnable—if Republicans have the courage of their convictions and get smarter in tailoring their messages to voters.
On the surface, the results mirror other recent polls. President Trump has a net-negative approval rating across these districts, with his unfavorable ratings notably high among women (57%), independents (58%) and suburban voters (52%). Those who answered prefer a Democratic Congress that will check Mr. Trump (48%) to electing Republicans who will pass his agenda more quickly (42%). The biggest alarm bell is the 12-point enthusiasm gap—with 72% of Democrats “very interested” in this election, compared with 60% of Republicans. In suburbia, the 12-point gap widens to 24.
Yet this thundercloud has silver linings. One is that Republicans still hold a 3-point lead on the generic ballot in these districts, meaning they have a real chance if they get their likely voters out. An even bigger opening: Approximately 25% of those polled remain “persuadable” to vote Republican—if they hear the right things.
The difficulty is that different voters want to hear different things. Republicans have been touting their tax cuts and the economy, and they should. But the club’s data make clear that uncommitted voters want more than past achievements, or a scary picture of Nancy Pelosi, or excuses for Mr. Trump. They want promises for the future. And yes, they remain wary that Democrats will reverse particular economic reforms.
Which is why the message that resonates most strongly by far with persuadable voters is a Republican promise that they will make permanent last year’s middle-class tax cuts. Rep. Kevin Brady, the Ways and Means Committee chairman, has introduced legislation to do just that—and it’s mind-boggling that Republicans haven’t already scheduled votes. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell doesn’t have 60 Senate supporters, but Republican candidates could use Democratic “no” positions to huge effect in their races.
Likewise, Republicans have an opportunity in highlighting the left’s more doolally ideas. Uncommitted voters reacted strongly against Democrats’ calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and strongly in favor of GOP promises to defund “sanctuary” cities and states, which refuse to follow immigration law. These were top messages for those crucial suburban voters, who have watched in alarm as urban violence creeps into their neighborhoods. (Interestingly, the other top suburban message was repealing ObamaCare.)
As for the Republican base, the poll finds they are driven most by Democrats’ threats to the presidency, the economy and constitutional rights. They will be inspired by Republicans who promise to protect the Second Amendment. They are likewise stirred by promises to defend Mr. Trump from the partisan impeachment effort that would inevitably accompany Democratic House control. And they want to hear Republicans vow to guard against intrusive and specific Democratic job-killing proposals—a $15-an-hour minimum wage, regulations on autos and drinking straws, government health care, etc.
What muddies all this clear direction is Mr. Trump’s nationalization of the race—his insistence on making it a referendum on his presidency. Polling suggests the Trump rallies and election talk are a double-edged sword. They turn off voters in the suburbs, where Republicans are already behind in enthusiasm. But they drive votes in rural areas, which react most strongly to impeachment threats.
So the trick for Republicans is to target different microcosms of their districts, tailoring their messages via digital marketing, calls, mailings and events. Some issues, like taxes, resonate everywhere, but for the most part the emphasis and message needs to be entirely different depending on block-by-block geography.
That’s doable, though it breaks with the usual mentality that elections are one thing or another—a positive or a negative campaign, a referendum or a choice. Elections during the Trump presidency, like the presidency itself, will be messy. Republicans who are willing to embrace that mess still have a shot.
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