David Brooks: Why the Republicans are surging in the polls

(Rebecca Noble | The New York Times) Supporters at Donald Trump’s rally in Mesa, Ariz. on Sunday, Oct. 9, 2022. Midterms are usually hard for the president’s party, and this one was bound to be doubly hard because of global inflation, writes David Brooks.

Democrats had a golden summer. The Dobbs decision led to a surge of voter registrations. Voters handed Democrats a string of sweet victories in unlikely places — Alaska and Kansas, and good news in upstate New York.

The momentum didn’t survive the fall.

Over the past month or so, there has been a rumbling across the land, and the news is not good for Team Blue. In the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, 49% of likely voters said they planned to vote for a Republican for Congress, and 45% said they planned to vote for a Democrat. Democrats held a 1-point lead last month.

The poll contained some eye-popping numbers. Democrats were counting on abortion rights to be a big issue, gaining them broad support among female voters. It doesn’t seem to be working. Over the past month, the gender gap, which used to favor Democrats, has evaporated. In September, women who identified as independent voters favored Democrats by 14 percentage points. Now, they favor Republicans by 18 points.

Republicans lead among independents overall by 10 points.

To understand how the parties think the campaign is going, look at where they are spending their money. As Henry Olsen noted in The Washington Post last week, Democrats are pouring money into House districts that should be safe — places that Joe Biden won by double digits in 2020. Politico’s election forecast, for example, now rates the races in California’s 13th Congressional District and Oregon’s 6th Congressional District as toss-ups. Two years ago, according to Politico, he won those areas by 11 and 14 points.

If Republicans are competitive in places like that, we’re probably looking at a red-wave election that will enable them to easily take back the House and maybe the Senate.

So, how should Democrats interpret these trends? There’s a minimalist interpretation: Midterms are usually hard for the president’s party, and this one was bound to be doubly hard because of global inflation.

I take a more medium to maximalist view. I’d say recent events have exposed some serious weaknesses in the party’s political approach:

It’s hard to win consistently if voters don’t trust you on the top issue. In a recent AP-NORC poll, voters trust Republicans to do a better job handling the economy, by 39% to 29%. Over the past two years, Democrats have tried to build a compelling economic platform by making massive federal investments in technology, infrastructure and child welfare. But those policies do not seem to be moving voters. As the Times’ Jim Tankersley has reported, Democratic candidates in competitive Senate races are barely talking about the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which included direct payments to citizens.

I thought the child tax credit expansion would be massively popular and could help create a Democratic governing majority. It turned out to be less popular than many anticipated, and there was little hue and cry when it expired. Maybe voters have a built-in uneasiness about income redistribution and federal spending.

Democrats have a crime problem. More than three-fourths of voters say that violent crime is a major problem in the United States, according to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll. Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton and Joe Biden worked hard to give the Democrats credibility on this issue. Many Democrats have walked away from policies the party embraced then, often for good reasons. But they need to find another set of policies that will make the streets safer.

Democrats have not won back Hispanics. In 2016, Donald Trump won 28% of the Hispanic vote. In 2020, it was up to 38%. This year, as William A. Galston noted in The Wall Street Journal, recent surveys suggest that Republicans will once again win about 34% to 38% of the Hispanic vote. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis is leading Democrat Charlie Crist by 16 points among Hispanics likely to vote.

The Jan. 6 committee and the warnings about MAGA fascism didn’t change minds. That committee’s work has been morally and legally important. But Trump’s favorability rating is pretty much where it was at the committee’s first public hearing. In the Times poll, Trump is roughly tied with Biden in a theoretical 2024 rematch. According to Politico, less than 2% of broadcast TV spending in House races has been devoted to Jan. 6 ads.

It could be that voters are overwhelmed by immediate concerns, such as food prices. It could be that voters have become so cynical and polarized that scandal and corruption just don’t move people much anymore. This year, Herschel Walker set some kind of record for the most scandals in one political season. He is still in a competitive race with Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia.

The Republicans may just have a clearer narrative. The Trumpified GOP deserves to be a marginalized and disgraced force in American life. But I’ve been watching the campaign speeches by people such as Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona. GOP candidates are telling a very clear class/culture/status war narrative in which common-sense Americans are being assaulted by elite progressives who let the homeless take over the streets, teach sex ed to 5-year-olds, manufacture fake news, run woke corporations, open the border, and refuse to do anything about fentanyl deaths and the sorts of things that affect regular people.

In other words, candidates such as Lake wrap a dozen different issues into one coherent class war story. And it seems to be working. In late July, she was trailing her opponent by 7 points. Now she’s up by about half a point.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) New York Times columnist David Brooks at the University of Chicago, Jan. 19, 2012.

David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.