I thought I was imagining things on the set of CNN’s “Election Night in America” show on Nov. 8, leafing through the pages of exit polls just before the returns started rolling in.
Nearly half the country said they are “worse off” than they were two years ago. Three-quarters said they believed the nation’s economy was “not good” or “poor.” Inflation was the top issue, and 79% of Americans said they faced hardship from it. Almost 75% said they were “dissatisfied” or “angry” about the way things are going in the U.S.
Democratic President Joe Biden? Unpopular, at just a 41% approval rating. His policies? Also unpopular: Forty-seven percent thought they were “hurting” the country, versus 33% who said they were helping.
A sour, angry electorate showed up at the midterm election polls, according to the data. They should have punished the party in power, especially the independent swing voters among them, who made up about a third of all voters. That would have matched similar trends in the 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018 midterms.
And yet, the swing voters didn’t swing that way at all.
Independents broke slightly for the Democrats nationally — 49% to 47% — and they sided with Biden’s party even more decisively in key Senate contests.
In Georgia: Independents went for Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock by 11 points over Herschel Walker.
In Arizona: Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly won them by 16 points over Republican challenger Blake Masters.
In Pennsylvania: Democrat John Fetterman won them by 20 points over Republican Mehmet Oz.
As election night wore on, it became clear to me that although independents in 2022 may not love Biden, they absolutely abhor former President Donald Trump. And in each of those three states, the Republican Senate candidates shared the characteristic of being, to varying degrees, a subsidiary of Trump.
If Biden’s approval rating is low, Trump’s favorability is worse, sitting nationally at 39%. He is hugely unpopular, and his brand continues to taint Republicans who haven’t built their own identities.
In Georgia, the incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp won independents over Democrat Stacey Abrams, even as Walker was losing them. Kemp is known for having stood up to Trump after the 2020 election and withstanding a Trump-backed primary challenger.
Kemp is his own man, and he was rewarded for it.
Several Republican governors have figured this out. In 2021, it was Glenn Youngkin who won election in Virginia, a state Biden had won by 10 points just a year earlier. This year, Govs. Mike DeWine in Ohio and Ron DeSantis in Florida developed their own identities and were rewarded with big wins.
Republicans need to finally learn the lesson: Trump is not a majority maker for himself, his adopted party or for most of the candidates he picks. He backed into the presidency in 2016, winning fewer votes than the most unpopular Democratic candidate of my lifetime. He cost his party the House in 2018 and the Senate in 2020. He lost the White House in 2020 and has virtually no path back to it in 2024, based on the 2022 midterm results. Trump will never, ever command a majority of the national popular vote.
He is a loser, according to the empirical evidence.
Trump has never been weaker politically than he is now, or at least since the disgrace of Jan. 6, 2021. Republicans should have moved against him then, but they hesitated, allowing him to recover and dominate the GOP for another two years. When voids exist, they must be filled.
Two years ago, there wasn’t a clear alternative to Trump. But now? Republicans can see the next lily pad.
DeSantis, coming off his victory last week, might be that Trump alternative, with Trump seriously weakened by the midterm results. Now is the time for the younger of the two Floridians and the party that adores him to take advantage of it.
Will Trump go down without a fight? No, of course not. He has many advantages — tons of money, a team that fully depends on him for their livelihoods and a committed group of supporters for whom politics is more a religious experience than a path to achieving governing authority.
Discerning Republican voters shouldn’t cower or give in. After all, a majority of Republicans tell pollsters they are more loyal to the party than the former president. If they mean it, they should think hard about what it takes to appeal to independents. If they want their party to return to power, they should find a new nominee in 2024.