The highly touted red wave in last month’s midterm election failed to develop largely because it hit a wall of resistance among independent voters, especially across the key battleground states. And that presents difficult questions for Republicans looking forward to 2024.
The GOP’s disappointing showing among independents this year marked the third consecutive election in which the party has underperformed with those critical swing voters. Although Donald Trump ran competitively among independents in his first presidential race in 2016, since he took office, the GOP has consistently faced broad opposition among them, especially those who are women or hold four-year college degrees.
The GOP’s 2022 struggles with independents were especially striking because they came even as most of those voters expressed negative views of both President Joe Biden’s job performance and the state of the economy – sentiments that typically cause most swing voters to break for the party out of the White House. To many analysts in both parties, the reluctance of so many independents to support Republican candidates despite such discontent underscores how powerfully the Trump-era GOP has alienated these voters.
“There’s a huge lesson here, which is if you talk like Trump or remind voters of Trump, particularly at a personality level, it’s pure poison to independent voters,” John Thomas, a GOP consultant, said flatly. “It might have been effective in 2016 because voters were looking for something new and a change, but it hasn’t been useful since then.”
For Republicans, the results underscore the electoral risks of the party’s continuing refusal to repudiate Trump, even as he has openly associated with two antisemites who praised Adolf Hitler, praised the January 6, 2021, US Capitol rioters and publicly called for the “termination” of the US Constitution to restore himself to power.
In the election, fully 66% of independent voters said they had an unfavorable view of the former president while just 30% viewed him favorably, according to the results of the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations including CNN. Among female independents, Trump’s ratings were even worse: just 23% favorable and 72% unfavorable, according to previously unpublished exit poll results provided by the CNN polling unit. Trump’s unfavorable rating hit a comparable 69% among independents with at least a four-year college degree. “I have a hard time seeing the Republican Party escaping the grasp of Trump with or without him on the ballot anytime soon,” says Tom Bonier, chief executive officer of TargetSmart, a Democratic data and voter targeting firm.
The results among independents also contained plenty of warnings for Democrats. The exit poll found that Biden’s image among them was only slightly more favorable than Trump’s (with 37% viewing the president favorably and 60% unfavorably) and that nearly three-fourths of independent voters (including virtually identical numbers of men and women) said they did not want him to run again in 2024. In a post-election survey conducted by Way to Win, a liberal group that works primarily with candidates and organizations focused on voters of color, roughly four-fifths of independents across the battleground states said they couldn’t identify anything the Biden administration has done that has directly improved their lives.
Most importantly, the exit poll showed Democrats winning independents in the national vote for the House of Representatives only by a narrow 49% to 47% margin. That was a significantly smaller advantage than the double-digit lead among independents Democrats enjoyed in both the 2020 presidential race and the 2018 contest for the House.
“These results weren’t necessarily an endorsement of Democrats,” says Democratic pollster Matt Hogan. “But they disliked Republicans and viewed them as even more extreme.”
Still, the magnitude of the Democratic advantage among independents was probably less revealing than the fact that the party carried them at all, especially in a period of such economic unease. The party controlling the White House has not won independents in the national vote for the House in any midterm election since at least 1982, according to exit polls.
While Republicans held the presidency, Democrats won independent voters by double-digits in House elections in the midterms of 2018, 2006 and 1986, according to exit polls. While Democrats held the presidency, Republicans won independents by double-digits in House elections in the midterms of 2014, 2010 and 1994. In each of the past two midterms, the party out of the White House (Democrats in 2018 and Republicans in 2014) won independents by a resounding 12 percentage points, the exit polls found. The GOP’s severe underperformance of that standard allowed Democrats to finish unexpectedly well last month even though Republican voters, extending the usual midterm pattern for the party out of the White House, participated in larger numbers than Democrats.
In the key statewide races this year, the Democratic advantage among independents was often much more pronounced than their slim lead in the national House vote.
Democratic candidates, the exit polls found, won independents by double-digit margins in the Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, narrowly ran ahead with them in North Carolina and essentially split them evenly in Nevada, Ohio and Wisconsin. (The latest CNN poll conducted by SSRS ahead of Tuesday’s Georgia Senate run-off again showed Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock holding a commanding lead among independents over Republican Herschel Walker. Warnock will beat Walker in that race, CNN projected Tuesday night.)
Winning Democratic candidates also posted gaping double-digit advantages among independents in the Michigan and Pennsylvania governor races and solid leads of 6-7 percentage points in Arizona and Wisconsin. Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Mike DeWine in Ohio, two increasingly solid red states, were the only statewide GOP candidates to win independents by a comfortable margin, according to the exit polls.
Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, vice president and chief strategy officer for Way to Win, says concerns about the Trump era GOP’s commitment to basic rights, including abortion rights, and to democracy itself offset the usual tendency among independents to check the party holding the White House. “I think that the combination of the threats to democracy, the threats to freedom was a powerful antidote to that usual pattern,” she said.
Hogan was part of a bipartisan team (along with Tony Fabrizio, Trump’s lead pollster in 2020) that polled during the election for the AARP, the giant senior’s lobby. In a post-election survey of the 63 most competitive House districts, that pollster team also found that Democrats narrowly carried independent voters.
Like Ancona, Hogan says the key to that result was that as many independents in these districts said abortion rights and threats to democracy were the most important issues in their vote as cited inflation and the economy – a result that surprised him. Though many independents were negative on Biden’s job performance and pessimistic about the economy, he notes, they remained unwilling to entrust power to a Republican Party reshaped in Trump’s image.
Another measure of that hesitation came in the national exit poll. Overall the survey found that a virtually identical share of voters nationwide, just over half, said they viewed the GOP and the Democratic Party each as “too extreme.” But independents were much more likely to stamp that label on the GOP. While the share of independents who considered Democrats extreme exceeded the share who did not by a narrow four percentage points, the gap for Republicans was 18 points. Nearly two-thirds of independents with college degrees, and exactly three-fifths of female independents, said they viewed the GOP as too extreme, considerably more than in either group that identified Democrats in that way, according to detailed results from the CNN polling unit.
Paul Bentz, an Arizona-based Republican pollster and the 2010 campaign manager for former GOP Gov. Jan Brewer, believes that label severely hurt the GOP in that critical swing state. Bentz says the GOP’s 2022 slate of Trump-aligned candidates – led by gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake and Senate choice Blake Masters – systematically alienated not only independents but also a critical slice of moderate Republicans through their rigid opposition to legal abortion and embrace of Trump’s discredited claims of fraud in the 2020 election. “They did not appear to have any interest in targeting, identifying and communicating with independent voters,” Bentz says.
In Arizona and elsewhere, the GOP especially struggled among college-educated and female independents. The exit poll found that Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, while beating Masters, drew 55% of female independents and 61% of independents (of both genders) with college degrees; Democratic governor-elect Katie Hobbs, in her win over Kari Lake, won almost exactly as many of each group.
They were hardly alone in dominating among both college-educated and female independents. In the national exit poll, Democrats carried exactly 54% of each group. In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won 59% of the independents with degrees and 56% of women independents. Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers virtually matched those numbers. In the Pennsylvania Senate race, Democrat John Fetterman carried over three-fifths of both groups in his comfortable victory; Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan roughly equaled his performance while winning reelection by an even wider margin in New Hampshire. Democratic Senators Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada and Warnock in Georgia both carried 53-55% of each group. Josh Shapiro, the Democratic-governor elect in Pennsylvania, set the pace by carrying over two-thirds of both female and college-educated independents in his landslide against far-right GOP nominee Doug Mastriano.
Results provided by Edison Research showed that Democrats also dominated among women and college-educated independents in the 2018 House races and 2020 presidential contest, races also heavily shaped by attitudes toward Trump.
In both parties, many analysts see little chance for the GOP to reverse these trends if they nominate Trump for the presidency again in 2024. The bigger question may be whether another nominee would allow the GOP to climb out of the hole that Trump has opened beneath the party with independents.
Bentz, the Arizona-based GOP pollster, thinks the answer is yes. Bentz says the key to the state’s recent tilt away from decades of Republican dominance is the recoiling from the Trump definition of the party among well-educated, higher-income swing voters in the Phoenix suburbs. But he notes that outgoing GOP Gov. Doug Ducey, with more of a business-oriented and problem-solving image, twice ran well with those voters; that precedent, Bentz says, suggests that if Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis can fit that mold, he could recapture many of them in 2024.
“Trump would very much struggle in this state again,” Bentz says. “DeSantis, especially depending on who he chooses as his running mate, I think he could be competitive here.”
Less clear is whether DeSantis can present himself in that way. While he’s less personally bombastic and does not carry the association with election denial and violence that has stained the former president, the Florida governor has embraced a wide array of right-wing culture war causes, from limiting how teachers talk about race, gender and sexual orientation to targeting undocumented immigrants and restricting access to abortion.
With that resume, Fernandez Ancona says DeSantis is vulnerable to the same stamp of extremism and intolerance that has hurt Trump with independents-if Democrats do the work to define him. “I don’t think you can separate Trump from Trumpism,” she says. “And DeSantis is absolutely an acolyte of Trumpism … that’s a story we would have to tell.”
Thomas, the GOP consultant, is the founder and chief strategist of Ron to the Rescue PAC, a Super PAC promoting a 2024 presidential bid for DeSantis (who has not yet announced whether he’ll run). Like Bentz, Thomas believes DeSantis could improve on the GOP’s Trump-era performance among independents. For all DeSantis’ fervor as a culture warrior, Thomas argues, the Florida governor has also shown he can execute the nuts-and-bolts aspects of governing “that matter to independents.”
But Thomas doesn’t discount the risk Democrats could define DeSantis exactly in the manner Fernandez Ancona suggests – especially if the Florida Governor leans too far into what Thomas calls culture war “stunts” like his recent move to fly undocumented immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. Thomas says he’s confident that if DeSantis runs, he can manage “the tightrope” of appealing to both independent general election voters repelled by Trump and base primary voters attracted to his belligerence toward liberals. But Thomas agrees if DeSantis’ “argument for voters is the stunts, I think that becomes too Trump-like at the end of the day.”
Republicans performed better among independents last month in states that already lean in their direction. Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas ran virtually even among those voters, and DeSantis carried them – as did Ohio GOP Gov. Mike DeWine and, even more decisively. J.D. Vance, the GOP’s Ohio senator-elect, also ran about even with them, the exit polls found.
But despite all the unhappiness with Biden and the economy, Republicans continued to struggle with independents in almost all gubernatorial and Senate races across the five states that decided the last presidential race by switching from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020 – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia. (The only exceptions were the governor’s race in Georgia and Senate contest in Wisconsin where Republican incumbents Brian Kemp and Ron Johnson each ran about even among independents.)
That pattern suggests Republicans are unlikely to regain an Electoral College majority and recapture the White House in 2024 unless they can pry away more independents from the coalition that has now staunchly rejected Trump’s vision for America over three consecutive elections. And Democrats, watching the GOP again almost completely avoid direct criticism of Trump amid his latest provocations, see few signs Republicans are willing to do what that would likely require.
“I don’t think these fundamentals are going to drastically change,” says Fernandez Ancona. “The pieces are in place right now for us to be able to continue to grow this anti-MAGA majority.”
This story has been updated with additional developments.