November 16, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Democrats didn’t perform well in spite of inflation. They performed well because of it

Turn the conventional wisdom on its head.

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The criminal former president said last night that he’d run for a third time for the White House. It came a week after he “dragged down the [GOP] in three consecutive elections,” Chris Christie reportedly said

Donald Trump’s announcement is an occasion to ask if the twin themes of “American carnage” – crime and immigration – will resonate this time around, and if inflation will be a potent addition to his arsenal? 

2024 is a million years from now, but it’s important to ask after last week’s midterms. Trump wasn’t on the ballot, but congressional Republicans (and gubernatorial candidates) decided to tie Joe Biden and his party to the “crime wave” (there wasn’t one), the “open border” (there isn’t one) and rising prices, especially energy.

News people prefer putting issues in discrete boxes. They prefer writing the name of one but not the other party on each box. So if the GOP didn’t win on inflation, that means the Democrats won on abortion rights. But humans don’t work like that.

So the question, it seems to me, is this. Do these issues work (or not) because of (or in spite of) Trump? Will his challengers from within the Republican Party adopt them? Moreover, are these issues the Republicans’ alone? Do voters trust Biden and the Democrats to fight crime? Do they trust them on immigration and the cost of living?

The midterms suggest their potency is waning for the Republicans but rising for the Democrats. Conventional wisdom is turned on its head.

There’s another reason I’m asking these questions. It’s the annoying habit of the press and pundit corps of latching on to any theory claiming to explain the midterms’ outcome. The Republicans failed to meet expectations. Ergo, that must mean that abortion rights – and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe – is the reason.

It’s as good as any other explanation, I guess, but as I said last week, there’s probably no one big thing that explains the midterms’ outcome. If there is one big thing, it’s everything. Yet news people prefer putting issues in discrete boxes. They prefer writing the name of one but not the other party on each box. So if the GOP didn’t win on inflation, that means the Democrats won on abortion rights. 

Humans don’t work like that.

We’re complicated. We muddle through complications. We care about more than one thing at the same time. We often believe a true thing and false thing are right or wrong at the same time. Lumping people into categories is convenient in the high-pressure job of journalism. 

But labels are not human. 

Humans are human. 

The conventional wisdom – yes, it’s only been a week – tells us that the Democrats performed better than expected in spite of inflation (or the economy) being the biggest worry. “The National Election Pool exit poll found that [abortion] was second only to inflation as the top concern driving people to vote, and in some places, such as Pennsylvania, it was the No. 1 motivating factor,” said Businessweek.

I don’t see why one comes at the expense of the other. 

The press corps encourages us, by way of putting issues in discrete boxes, to think of inflation and abortion as mutually exclusive. So if a voter cites abortion, they don’t vote for a Republican. If a voter cites inflation, they don’t vote for a Democrat. This is make-believe. 

“Inflation” as a campaign issue is about the rising cost of goods and services. That can include pretty much all things economic. (To some people, it’s a “kitchen table issue.”) Since women in states that ban abortion have to go to states that don’t, abortion is about the economy.

To be sure, the backlash against a renegade Supreme Court mobilized midterm voters against state referendums. Voters in California, Michigan and Vermont voted broadly to “enshrine reproductive freedom” in their constitutions. A referendum to put “no right to an abortion” in the Kentucky constitution failed, too.

Voters can care about both, however, in spite of the Republicans. 

Michigan Republican John Gibbs, who ran for Congress, told Bloomberg News in October that he’s “100 percent pro-life in all cases” and that Michiganders are focused “more on kitchen-table issues,” he said. “Can I afford to buy groceries?” That he lost to a Democrat has been interpreted as abortion besting inflation.  

But humans are human, remember?

The same individual voter can conclude that abortion and inflation are equally critical, then chose a Democrat over a Republican.

And if abortion can bleed into inflation, inflation can bleed into other campaign issues typically identified as the Republicans’ alone. 

Turn the conventional wisdom on its head. Instead of the Democrats performing better than expected in spite of the cost of goods and services, maybe they performed better than expected because of it.

Independent voters determined the midterms. They broke for the Democrats by two points. Here’s what pollster David Winston found:

Of the 41 percent of independents who called the economy “not so good,” 33 percent voted for Republicans to 62 percent for Democrats, which seems a contradiction in terms. Voters overall who said the economy was “not so good” voted similarly, at 35 percent Republican to 62 percent Democrat.  

It does look contradictory — if the GOP better handles the economy.

But if independent voters believe the Democrats can better handle the economy, these numbers are not contradictory. Of voters who said the economy was “not so good,” a vast majority picked a Democrat.

Turn the conventional wisdom on its head.

When asked what happened, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, told CNN that though midterm voters were worried about Biden, they were more worried about other things.

“Fix policy later, fix crazy now,” he said.

But the Republicans, crazy as they are, did offer policies. 

Senator Rick Scott said his party, if given the chance, would reform Medicare in a way that jeopardizes it. Senator Lindsey Graham said his party, if given the chance, would enact a national abortion ban. 

Fix the crazy, sure, but these were crazy policies.

Did voters separate crazy and policy? I doubt it. If they thought, as Sununu said, that the GOP was crazy, they thought its policies were, too. If they thought that its policies were crazy, the GOP was, too.

Will independent voters – those respectable white people who determine electoral outcomes – believe the Republicans are competent, not crazy? Or have the Republicans ruined their reputation among respectable white people, some of whom surely recall when Republican leadership cared about sane policies. That used to be a given.

Not anymore.

“After covid, Trump, recession, supply-chain disruptions, inflation, war and insurrection, voters wanted a return to normalcy, not more chaos,” said Simon Rosenberg of the New Policy Institute on Twitter. 

Will voters trust Biden and the Democrats to fight crime? Will they trust his party on issues like immigration and the cost of living?

Well, compared to what? The crazy? Crazy policies?

“Voters wanted a return to normalcy, not more chaos.”

The midterms say yes.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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