GOP Sees 2018 'Autopsy' as Vital to Trump Re-election

GOP Sees 2018 'Autopsy' as Vital to Trump Re-election
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
GOP Sees 2018 'Autopsy' as Vital to Trump Re-election
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
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Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel this week promised a “deep data dive” to analyze what went wrong for the GOP in the House midterm elections – a postmortem that others in the party say is essential to bolster 2020 prospects. 

“There needs to be an honest post-election autopsy – without spin -- on what went wrong and why the Republicans lost the majority,” said John McLaughlin, a GOP pollster.  He added, “The reality is, a lot of money was wasted on data and ground game, which should have been spent on messaging and candidates.”

For Donald Trump to win re-election, it is widely agreed that he must grow his support from just his base while also retaining his winning coalition from 2016.  The party’s 2018 campaign strategy focused almost exclusively on base rural voters and keeping the Republican majority in the Senate. While the GOP picked up two seats in the upper chamber, it failed to court suburban voters and women, resulting in Democrats picking up 40 seats in the House and seven governorships.

Since the election, there’s been almost no public soul-searching regarding these losses or what needs to change going forward. McDaniel’s comment Tuesday is a step in that direction. The analysis is expected to be completed before the RNC’s winter meeting in mid-January, held to elect RNC officials -- including McDaniel to a second term. 

“People need to remember that the RNC’s only mission in 2020 is to elect Donald Trump,” said Bill Pascoe, a conservative political consultant who has worked on Republican presidential campaigns.  He added that this imperative “is not new to the Trump presidential campaign.”  

Looking back, the prevailing sentiment is that, outside of tax cuts, Republicans in Congress didn’t have a record of getting things done on high-profile issues such as repeal and replacement of Obamacare, immigration reform and infrastructure.  This left them without a winning message or an ability to put the Democrats on defense. “For 2020, with so many Democrats now in districts and states that President Trump won, it is time to broaden our message and base,” said McLaughlin, who also stressed that  “Republicans needed to play offense on more issues against the Democrats [in the midterms]. It was not either the economy or immigration. It was both and more.”

In 2016, Trump defied the experts and the media by putting together a winning coalition of independent voters (with whom he had a four-percentage-point margin), white women (+9), married voters (+8), suburban voters (+4), and non-college-educated voters (+7), according to the exit polling data.  This coalition helped him win key battlegrounds states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

However, by this year the coalition had collapsed, with Democrats winning independents (+12), white college-educated women (+20) and married voters (+4). The usually Republican-leaning suburban vote was evenly split at 49 percent. There were telltale signs of weakness with married women in the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton managed to win them by two percentage points. (This was the first time in exit polling history that a Democrat carried this demographic.) In 2018, Democrats expanded their margins with married women to 10 points.

Another troubling sign for Republicans is that in 2016 married men supported Trump by a whopping 19 points, but they supported Republicans in 2018 by only three points. In 2016, Trump swept the Rust Belt states with the help from voters with incomes between $50,000-$100,000, winning them by three points; however, in 2018 this group flipped to support Democrats by five points.

Clearly, the GOP strategy of communicating only with base rural voters backfired. “In the early weeks of October, the Kavanaugh Effect began to tighten races all across the country, but that momentum came to a screeching halt with the news of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the pipe bombs,” said Pascoe.  He added, “The closing message of birthright citizenship and the [migrant] caravan worked in rural areas but fell flat in suburban areas.”

Going into 2020, Trump needs to get his job approval rating up above the crucial 50 percent threshold to win and to have a coattail effect down-ballot.  According to the RCP average on Election Day 2018, Trump’s approval rating was 44 percent to 53 percent disapprove, which makes winning difficult for Republican candidates in purple districts. “If the president’s job approval had been two points higher, Republicans would have held the House,” said McLaughlin. 

If history is a guide, Republicans should be upbeat about their 2020 prospects, because midterm elections often are not an accurate predictor of the presidential elections that follow.  In 1994, Republicans flipped the majority in the House, which was a stinging defeat for President Clinton; however, two years later he went on to win re-election. It was the same story in 2010 when Republicans won 63 House seats and the majority, only to see President Obama re-elected in 2012.

Adele Malpass is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She was formerly chairwoman of the Manhattan Republican Party and money politics reporter for CNBC.

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