The exit polls become fascinating the day after an election when one can see how one side won, rather than try to pinpoint the margin of victory. As to the latter, the GOP victory was easier than many anticipated. “I think this was a classic case of a wave coming in late,” says GOP pollster Whit Ayres. “In 1994 Bill Frist was up by only 4 points a week out. By Thursday he was up by 7, by Saturday by 9, and he won by 14. We polled through the weekend and saw it coming, but you would never catch the full wave unless you poll right up to election day.”
For Republicans, the House exit polls show an electorate that went from a 7-point Democratic advantage in 2012 to even this year (36 percent of the electorate for Republicans, 35 percent for Democrats). Republicans won every age category over 40 years, lost women by only 4 points, won married women handily, won the suburbs by 12 percent and the $50,000-100,000 income bracket by 11 points. Health care was the second most important issue after the economy. Republicans won 36 percent of Hispanics, who made up just 8 percent of the electorate. (In 2012, Hispanics were 10 percent of the total.) Republicans across the country ran on a tough foreign policy, opposition to the White House’s treatment of Israel, increasing defense spending and standing up to the world’s bullies. These are not Rand or Ron Paul Republicans; they are Tom Cotton Republicans.
The GOP should be cautious about extrapolating to presidential election years when the unpopular president will not be on the ballot — although his policies might still be. The demographics will not be as favorable in a presidential year in which more young, minority and occasional voters show up. Still, there is much to be learned.
In an exceptionally gracious acceptance speech in which he said his opponent “deserves a lot of support” and declared that she had earned his respect, the likely new Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), spoke not about government’s evils, but about politicians who “forgot it is their duty to serve.” He said it was his party’s job to “restore hope, confidence and optimism” and warned, “It doesn’t mean we have to be in perpetual conflict.” He emphasized that “government can make a difference and we do every day,” but it also has the power to be destructive and impose pain on ordinary voters. It was a grown-up message from a responsible leader. His party should take its cue from him.
Meanwhile, John Kasich in Ohio, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Terry Branstad in Iowa, Rick Snyder in Michigan, and Brian Sandoval in Nevada all won governorships in blue or purple states after expanding Medicaid. In all of these states plus Wisconsin, where Scott Walker won handily, Common Core is alive and well. These are not libertarian governors, not even ones who can be characterized as antagonistic toward government. Each one of these is a reformer. They are elected to do something, and they were rewarded for governing well.
In sum, in the most Republican electorate they could have hoped for, staid conservatives (not a single GOP “establishment” incumbent lost), young reformers, hands-on governors and a lot of women House (Mia Love in Utah, Barbara Comstock in Virginia and Elise Stefanik in New York) and Senate (Joni Ernst, Shelley Moore Capito) candidates prevailed. Voters did not want dysfunction or rebellion; they wanted good governance and responsive officials. But most of all, they wanted to stop the president in his tracks. Republicans should be careful about the lessons they learn from arguably the best election night in a decade.
Sure, liberals are reciting the canard that the election was not about anything. Right-wingers are convinced that this proves the shutdown right (the recovery for the GOP began, of course, as soon as the shutdown ended and McConnell reasserted control over his caucus). In the reality-based community, however, the GOP establishment, the donors, the voters and the party operatives put quality candidates on the ballot, who ran disciplined races, tapped into public’s anger toward a failing president and got their voters out. The GOP will need to do all that and more to win back the White House.