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Democrats Surfed the Red Wave — but local focus could have helped them do better

Democrats Surfed the Red Wave — but local focus could have helped them do better
Photo by visuals / Unsplash

In addition to our work on Ukraine and Russia, which is typically the focus of our newsletter, FilterLabs.AI also tracks public sentiment in American life and works with domestic political campaigns. The surprising outcome of the U.S. 2022 midterms will likely turn out to be pertinent to both spheres. For this reason, we’re devoting this newsletter to some things we’ve observed in the American political landscape this election season.

Before the midterm elections last Tuesday, many pundits and political insiders predicted a Republican red wave. Or, even more dramatically, a “bloodbath.”

It didn’t happen.

Instead, the Democrats defied present expectations and historical precedent (sitting presidents usually lose about four seats in the Senate and twenty-eight in the House of Representatives). As of this writing, the Democrats have a good shot at retaining control of the Senate, and keeping the House isn’t out of the question.

Of course, if the Republicans do ultimately win the House or Senate, American politics could change significantly, even for policies like support for Ukraine that have enjoyed relatively high bi-partisan support. For example, Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy has hinted that he would not be offering a “blank check” to Ukraine. But either way, the Democrats came through the midterms in far better shape than either they or the Republicans had anticipated. Why?

At the national level, the Democrats campaigned on abortion and protecting democracy. Democratic polling over the summer told the party that their core voters cared about these issues deeply. While the Democrats have historically had trouble with message discipline across the party, they had no such trouble this time. They ran on securing our democracy and its institutions, protecting access to abortion—and little else. Anyone getting national Democrats’ fundraising emails heard about the January 6th insurrection and the Dobbs decision several times a day, and even mailings for local offices like state representatives emphasized these issues relentlessly.

The abortion issue was a clear winner. According to a Pew poll taken before the election, 75% of Democratic voters rated abortion as “very important” to their vote. Sure enough, in exit polls Democrats listed abortion as their top concern. Several statewide referenda wrote abortion rights into state constitutions, or declined to ban it.

The insurrection narrative, however, was less influential. For example, in one Wisconsin district where we were tracking public sentiment at the local level, FilterLabs investigated the effects of Democrats’ efforts to link the January 6th insurrection to Republican candidates.

7-day rolling sentiment averages for texts mentioning the insurrection, and the insurrection with references to Republicans ©FilterLabs.AI

Discourse that linked Republicans to the insurrection initially showed a more negative sentiment than the discussion of the insurrection in general, suggesting that emphasizing this talking point was working to the Democrats’ advantage. However, the effect faded in late October. The narrative about Republicans supporting insurrection collapsed into the broader conversation about Jan. 6th, which then itself faded as a topic in the weeks before the election. Contrast the relatively low volume of discourse on the insurrection with local stories about the state of the economy and other key topics:

Count of texts linked to topics of the four categories Oct 1 - Nov 10, 2022. ©FilterLabs.AI

Now, Democrats still played their hands well in Wisconsin, and voters rewarded them. But the discrepancy between the shape of the national narrative and what we were seeing on the ground in local contexts like Wisconsin got us thinking. It seems like things are a little more complicated than the growing consensus that Dems did well with their two talking points would suggest.

The Democrats’ strong showing nationally may have come as a surprise, but they still lost some key districts where they had a real shot. This raises the question: is it possible that they could have done even better?

There is reason to think so. The Democratic Party’s singular focus on abortion and election security left little room for other issues. If many voters, like those in Wisconsin, were much more interested in the economy than in the events of January 6th, then the Democrats might have done better nation-wide had they put more emphasis on addressing those local concerns.

That seems to have been what happened in Minnesota. Pre-election polling found that the number one issue for Minnesotans was inflation, followed by abortion and violent crime. Mailings from the national Democratic party emphasized abortion and the insurrection narrative; however, Democratic Governor Tim Walz put plenty of emphasis on crime and economic issues too. He promised funding for schools, public safety, and jobs programs. And he won handily, with 52.3% of the vote. Even more impressive, the Democrats flipped the state senate. With the Minnesota House and governor’s mansion, they now control the entire government—in a year when they could have easily lost all three.

Looking even closer to the ground, at local news sources, it appears that Walz and Minnesota Democrats were speaking to people’s concerns. For example, a self-described “responsible” Republican and registered nurse wrote a letter to the Republican Eagle, a small paper in Red Wing, MN, to say that her main concerns were “our children’s education, our group homes, our police and our mentally challenged veterans.” She ultimately supported an independent candidate, but she seemed much more receptive to appeals based on education funding and healthcare access—two traditional Democratic strengths—than to the messages the national party was trumpeting this year.

The enduring lesson of the 2022 election might be that while strong national messaging can prevent a catastrophe, careful attention to local issues and sentiment is required for electoral miracles. Now, that’s not easy to do; it requires an exceptionally skilled politician to convey such a nuanced message well. But what we’re seeing in the data suggests that it’s key. Campaigns that marry message discipline with the agility to address local concerns seem to have the greatest chance of success.

At FilterLabs we are interested not only in Russia’s propaganda machines, but also in the local political discourse that moves our nation. Ultimately, both interests are motivated by the same goals: we want to uncover what matters to local people—their local concerns and the local perspectives that drive their everyday decisions.