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The Sweep: Why Issues Don’t Change Votes
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The Sweep: Why Issues Don’t Change Votes

Plus: Advice from Tony Blair, and checking in on Arizona.

The New York Times asked an intriguing question this week about why gun laws haven’t changed. “Expanded background checks routinely receive more than 80 percent or 90 percent support in polling,” noted Nate Cohn, “yet gun control legislation usually gets stymied in Washington and Republicans never seem to pay a political price for their opposition.” Cohn looked at the results of initiative and referendum results in Maine, California, Washington, and Nevada that were on the ballot in 2016. 

As Cohn pointed out, “Hillary Clinton fared better at the ballot box than expanded background checks in the same states, most on the same day among the same voters.” 

The usual theories for America’s conservative gun politics do not explain the poor showings. The supporters of the initiatives outspent the all-powerful gun lobby. All manner of voters, not just single-issue voters or politicians, got an equal say. The Senate was not to blame; indeed, the results suggested that a national referendum on background checks would have lost. And while the question on every ballot was different and each campaign fought differently as well, the final results were largely indistinguishable from one another. 

The takeaway is that issue polling itself—which often is shown to favor the preferred policy outcomes of Democrats and progressives—does not translate. And regardless of the reason, as Cohn concluded, “if the public’s operational liberalism functions only in an interview with a pollster, not at the ballot box, it may not count for much.”

And, of course, there’s also some interesting data from the Washington Post on how voters experience gun violence differently. The chart below highlights how voters in counties that voted more heavily Democratic in the 2016 election “gun violence is more often committed against another, crimes that probably generate more news coverage and fear” but Trump-voting counties experience gun deaths “more often committed against oneself, suicides that may not attract as much attention.”

And this brings me to another issue polling biggie out there right now: abortion.

“Abortion Poised to Be a Bigger Voting Issue Than in Past,” said the headline from Gallup this week. There’s nothing actually incorrect with their data or even the headline. Or the Gallup headline from last week, “‘Pro-Choice’ Identification Rises to Near Record High in U.S.” The problem is that most people will assume this means that the issue of abortion will actually affect the outcome of the election. But there’s zero data in either of these articles to support that. 

“Pro-choice sentiment is now the highest Gallup has measured since 1995 when it was 56% — the only other time it has been at the current level or higher — while the 39% identifying as ‘pro-life’ is the lowest since 1996,” Gallup reports. In the next article, Gallup reports that “more U.S. voters this year than in any past election year indicate that abortion will be an important factor in their vote for major offices,” adding that “twenty-seven percent of registered voters say that a candidate must share their views on abortion to receive their vote, which is the highest measured in any election year.” But later in both stories, we learn that “the increase in pro-choice identification over the past year is mainly driven by Democrats; 88%, up from 70% last year, consider themselves pro-choice,” and that among registered voters, Democrats and liberals are the most likely to say that they will only vote for a candidate who agrees with their position on the issue. 

Not to beat this drum again, but there are only two ways an issue can change the outcome of an election: It motivates people to vote who would otherwise stay home or it causes someone to change their vote from one party’s candidate to another’s. 

First, we had some of the highest turnout in history in 2018 and 2020, and there is no evidence in either of these data sets to suggest that abortion will be a motiviating issue for those who stayed home or were planning to stay home this time around. And second, this shows that Americans who were already identifying themselves with the party whose candidates are almost all “pro-choice” more likely to identify themselves as “pro-choice.” If anything, this data reinforces the fact that abortion will not affect the 2022 election because the voters who are most attuned to the issue were already aligned with the party that they say they are going to vote for in 2022. 

So let’s end with another poll on this issue from Reuters. The headline was, “Americans prefer Democrats’ position on abortion to Republicans.’” But the actual data showed that “34% said Democrats had better plans for abortion policy, compared to 26% who picked the Republican Party,” and that “just 58% of Republicans said their own party has the better plan on abortion, compared with 71% of Democrats who sided with their party.” The 34 percent who believed Democrats had a better plan were, almost certainly, Democrats. Ditto Republicans, of course. What’s more fascinating to me are the 40 percent who “picked neither party or said they didn’t know which was better.” And then there’s the bare majority of Republicans who picked their own party as having the better “plan on abortion”—but the relevant question is whether any of the remaining 42 percent plan to change their vote because of it. 

My guess is no. Why? Because issue polling rarely captures the nuance or even contradiction in how people view an issue. Here’s a nice chart from Echelon Insights that explains how complicated voters’ preferences are.

And also we’ve got some actual voting data that backs me up as well. 

Last week, Texas held a primary runoff election for U.S. House District 28 between Democratic incumbent Henry Cuellar and progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. The race has been too close to call for a week, but Cuellar—who was ahead on Election Night—has only gained ground in the days following. Cuellar also defeated Cisneros in 2020 but the district was redrawn, adding more Democrats. 

So why is this race relevant? Because Cuellar is the only pro-life Democrat in the House up for reelection this year. And the runoff was held in the very wake of the leaked draft opinion from the Supreme Court. If this issue can’t even motivate Democratic voters within their own primary to vote out someone who disagrees with them on the issue (again either by unexpectedly turning out to vote in the primary or by changing their vote from one Democrat to another), then I don’t think it’s going to do much in a general election 5 months away.

Perception vs. Reality

So it may be the case that single issues don’t generally move the needle on elections, except in certain cases. But as we inch toward November, it’s worth watching how candidates think divisive issues like gun control and abortion help—and perhaps more interestingly, hurt them—on the campaign trail. 

Take Democrat Beto O’Rourke, the failed 2018 U.S. Senate candidate and 2020 presidential candidate who was widely ridiculed by Republicans for saying on the debate stage in 2019: “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” 

Fast forward to 2022: He’s now challenging Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in November, and is making the gamble that gun control is a winning issue for Democrats—even in the Lone Star State. One day after a gunman killed 19 in Uvalde, O’Rourke rushed to the stage during an Abbott-led press conference to all but blame the Republican governor for the shooting: “You are doing nothing. …This was totally predictable when you choose not to do anything.” (The interruption sparked outrage from the Republicans onstage, including GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, who told O’Rourke to “sit down and don’t play this stunt” and Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin, who called him a “sick son of a bitch.”)

Then there’s New York Rep. Chris Jacobs, the Republican congressman who stunned his district late last month by coming out in favor of an assault weapons ban. The Republican backlash was swift and unforgiving. From the New York Times: “Local gun rights groups posted his cellphone number on the internet, and local and state party leaders began pulling their support, one by one.” He announced his retirement one week later, quickly realizing how fraught his August primary would’ve been had he been forced to defend an assault weapons ban in a newly drawn R+23 district.

O’Rourke, on the other hand, is likely operating under the unreliable assumption that running on gun control will pull voters into his camp now that nationwide tensions on gun control are so high. (Per RealClearPolitics’ polling average, Abbott is in a steady 6.7 point lead. So it was still a risky move on O’Rourke’s part, but clearly one the Democrat thought was worth taking.)

But back to Nate Cohn: “Democrats have a more expansive legislative agenda than Republicans, and public polling has often given them confidence in the political wisdom of their agenda. If the public’s operational liberalism functions only in an interview with a pollster, not at the ballot box, it may not count for much.”

Advice From Tony Blair

There’s no shortage of voices on the political left begging the Democrat Party to stop shooting itself in the foot with messages like “defund the police,” “abolish ICE,” forgive all student debt, promoting an anti-racism curriculum for primary schools, trying to ban fracking and private health insurance and instead to pursue what has lovingly been dubbed as “popularism”—i.e. pursuing a political agenda that is popular with voters. 

But Bill Clinton had former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair on his podcast recently and they decided to give it another go together. The two proponents of the third way politics of the 1990s and the radical center are, needless to say, dismayed by the political left’s abandonment of the center:

For much of the left, Blair said on Clinton’s program, it’s not clear that their main goal is really to win power or wield it: “Its primary purpose is to make itself feel good about itself, right? To convince itself that it’s principled, right? But that is in the end, something that leads you to self-indulgence.” Unless progressives commit to reclaiming the center in “culture wars,” Blair added, they’ll remain vulnerable to “some loose remark from someone” being exploited by the right and will be “hammered day in, day out. That’s just not competent politics.” 

Trump Endorses in Arizona

I mentioned the Arizona Senate primary last week as one of my top three left to watch this season. And not surprisingly, Donald Trump just endorsed Blake Masters—the Peter Thiel-backed candidate in the mold of a J.D. Vance/Josh Hawley new Republican—calling him a “great modern-day thinker” and attacking Attorney General Mark Brnovich as a “disappointment” for not doing more to reverse the former president’s clear defeat in the state in 2020. 

This is now a unique race for testing a Trump endorsement. In Georgia, for example, both candidates had statewide name ID and the Trump candidate had already lost the Senate seat the previous cycle. In Pennsylvania, Trump endorsed the far better-known candidate, going against most conservative pundits, and it was a nail biter. In Ohio, J.D. Vance got a notable bump in polling after Trump endorsed him. Here, we have a three way race with a relatively well-known state attorney general endorsed by plenty of right-wing credentialers like Sean Hannity running against two unknowns in the state, one of whom now has Trump’s endorsement. Polling—notoriously difficult in a primary like this—has shown a tight race but with Masters clearly in third place before the endorsement. Like GOP Senate nominee J.D. Vance in Ohio, I expect to see Masters get a bump from the endorsement and the race to consolidate in the coming weeks. 

Wisconsin’s Governor Race 

Don’t miss Harvest’s piece previewing Wisconsin’s Senate contest, where incumbent GOP Sen. Ron Johnson faces no primary challenge but is vulnerable in the general. The other high-profile race on the ballot in Wisconsin this year is the governor’s race, which features the opposite dynamic from the Senate contest, with a crowded Republican primary vying to take on a Democratic incumbent: Tony Evers.

His main challenge is the tough political environment for Democrats. He scraped out a victory against then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, in 2018 by fewer than 30,000 votes. At the time, Evers ran a campaign that focused on problem-solving around education and infrastructure, in an attempt to win hearts and minds in a purple state. Since then, he’s garnered a reputation as something of a centrist, but with Republican control of the State Assembly, has a sparse list of accomplishments.

“Evers is actually in better standing than you would imagine, given the political environment,” Zepecki said. “He’s got a uniquely nonpartisan approach, in contrast with partisan super warriors, that I think is resonating with people.”

Evers’ approval rating, according to Marquette, stood at 49 percent in April, down a point from February.

“When you think about Tony Evers—he just looks like a pretty bland guy,” Eric Loepp, an associate professor of politics at ​​University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, told The Dispatch. “To the extent he’s a polarizing figure it’s more about the letter after his name than the name before the letter.”

Republicans are optimistic about knocking Evers off, especially the four GOP candidates vying to do so. The state GOP party has taken a backseat when it comes to the bid for governor: At the state convention the party made no endorsement after all the candidates failed to garner 60 percent of the votes needed to score the endorsement, which comes with funding.

One of the top contenders is former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, who served for eight years in former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration. Kleefisch got 54.6 percent of the votes from Republican delegates at the state convention.

The other contenders are Kevin Nicholson, a management consultant and veteran of the U.S. Marines, state Rep. Tim Ramthun of Campbellsport, and construction business owner Tim Michels. In 2004 he lost a bid challenging incumbent Sen. Russ Feingold.

Bad News for David French

Echelon Insights conducted a poll that matched partisan leanings with voters’ favorite super heroes. The biggest takeaway for me? “Voters who did not have a favorite superhero out of the ones tested are on average the highest turnout voters.” 

Today’s Primaries

Voters in New Mexico, California, Mississippi, Iowa, New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana head to the polls today.

One we’re watching closely today is Los Angeles’ 12-candidate mayoral race, which is expected to proceed to a general election matchup between Democratic Rep. Karen Bass and billionaire Rick Caruso. Crime and homelessness are in many ways driving the race. From Politico: “Despite jumping into a crowded field at the last minute, Caruso is now neck-and-neck with progressive Democratic Rep. Karen Bass. He’s swept up a deep bench of celebrity endorsements—including rapper Snoop Dogg and Kim Kardashian—and spent more than $37.5 million of his personal fortune funding his campaign. He has flooded the Los Angeles airwaves with ads, promising to ‘clean up’ homelessness, add more officers to the police force, and ‘stop corruption at city hall.’”

Keystone State’s General Election Heats Up

GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania Dave McCormick conceded to Dr. Mehmet Oz Friday amid the state’s recount. (No surprise there. As we wrote to you last month: “The best predictor of who will win a recount is who starts ahead in the recount.”) This doesn’t necessarily portend the end of McCormick’s political career though, especially considering Pennsylvania Sen. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, is up for reelection in 2024.

Sarah Isgur is a senior editor at The Dispatch and is based in northern Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she had worked in every branch of the federal government and on three presidential campaigns. When Sarah is not hosting podcasts or writing newsletters, she’s probably sending uplifting stories about spiders to Jonah, who only pretends to love all animals.

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.