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The Democrats’ social agenda is losing independent swing voters

Voting booths during a primary election
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Voting booths at Hermosa Beach City Hall during California Primary

Democrats are losing the midterm messaging war with the most electorally significant bloc of voters in the country: independents in competitive congressional districts, a new poll by Schoen Cooperman Research finds.  

This is not to say that Republicans are necessarily making positive gains with this group. Rather, these voters feel that Democrats are unable to address the main challenges America faces, and worse, are unattuned to the country’s biggest problems — inflation, crime and illegal immigration — which is driving them to vote Republican, despite their otherwise negative sentiments toward the GOP.

Our poll among likely midterm election voters in 85 swing districts found that, to an even greater degree than voters overall, independents are highly receptive to Republican attacks on Democrats for rising prices, the surge in migrants at the southern border, and increasing crime rates — criticisms that Democrats have largely neglected to counter in their advertising and communications.

Indeed, there is an 8-point swing to the GOP in the generic vote among independents after these voters see a message describing each of the parties’ midterm platforms: Democrats hold a 5-point lead initially, but Republicans come away with a 3-point advantage after messaging. 

This suggests that races in competitive districts could trend more Republican in the final weeks of the campaign as the GOP makes an aggressive closing pitch to voters and continues to spend big on attack ads in these areas.

Based on the Democrats’ initial generic ballot lead of 5-points, it is clear that independent voters in the swing districts we surveyed tend to prefer the Democratic Party. Their partisan identification leans Democratic by an 11-point margin (45 percent to 34 percent), and by 13-points, the majority voted for Joe Biden (55 percent) over Donald Trump (42 percent) in 2020. Just as notably, they disapprove of Republicans in Congress by a 58-point margin, yet only disapprove of congressional Democrats by a 7-point margin.

Yet, this group still feels that Republicans (41 percent) rather than Democrats (39 percent) would do a better job addressing the main challenges facing the nation over the next few years, a finding that underscores the weakness of the Democratic Party’s midterm message. 

To that end, Republicans have a clear lead in terms of who these voters trust most to handle the top issues facing the country: The GOP has a 25-point advantage on controlling inflation, a 20-point edge on lowering the crime rate and a 14-point lead on handling illegal immigration as well as on managing the economy.

That being said, Democrats do lead on the issues they are campaigning on. The party enjoys a sizable 36-point advantage on abortion, and outpaces the GOP by double-digits on election integrity (+18) as well as upholding and safeguarding democratic norms (+13).

Further, these independent voters in competitive districts broadly agree with the core pillars of the Democratic agenda: 71 percent support abortion being legal at all times or with only limited restrictions, 57 percent believe America’s gun laws should be stricter, and 61 percent say Donald Trump should face charges for his involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

However, the Democratic Party’s cultural issues-oriented agenda is far less salient than Republican messaging on the economy, as these voters are nearly twice as likely to support a candidate who prioritizes economic issues such as jobs, taxes and the cost of living (59 percent) over one who is focused on societal concerns like abortion, gun safety and democracy (32 percent). 

Moreover, Democrats have clearly been so focused on promoting their social issues-focused agenda that the party is inadvertently allowing Republican attacks on their handling of the economy, crime, and illegal immigration — which are among this group’s top issue priorities — to go uncontested.

As a result, a strong majority of the independent voters in competitive districts we surveyed feel that President Biden and Democrats are not paying enough attention to the country’s most important problems (65 percent), while just 28 percent say Democrats have had the right priorities.

This group’s attitudes on immigration are further evidence of this: Democrats lead by 14-points in terms of which party is more trusted to address legal immigration, while Republicans have the same advantage (+14) on managing illegal immigration. Seventy percent also disapprove of President Biden’s handling of immigration generally, and two-thirds (66 percent) believe he is at least partially responsible for the migrant surge.

Put another way, even though these voters agree with Democrats’ positions on immigration reform in the abstract, the party’s choice to essentially ignore the issue entirely during the campaign — despite substantial evidence that voters prioritize securing the southern border and are concerned about the migrant surge — has allowed Republicans to control this narrative. 

Democrats have also effectively ceded the most salient midterm issue, inflation and rising prices — which is by far the country’s top priority, and is an issue that independents in competitive districts are overwhelmingly (95 percent) concerned about — to Republicans.

Rather than trying to change the national conversation on the economy and running ads highlighting what the party has done and will continue to do to bring down prices, Democratic advertising has been almost solely focused on abortion, while Republicans are slamming Democrats on the airwaves with economy-focused hits. 

As a result, 73 percent of these voters say President Biden and Democrats should be doing more to address inflation, and two-thirds blame him at least partially for the surging cost of living. Further, the majority (52 percent) believe Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act will either make inflation worse (39 percent) or will have no impact on it (13 percent), highlighting the party’s failure to promote and effectively message their own agenda. 

By neglecting some of the most important midterm issues, the Democratic Party has left itself highly vulnerable to GOP attacks, which — if Republicans continue to hone in on them during the final weeks of the campaign — could very well translate into a substantial and unanticipated number of GOP House seat pick-ups. 

Carly Cooperman is a pollster and partner with the public opinion company Schoen Cooperman Research based in New York. She is the coauthor of the book, “America: Unite or Die.” Follow her on Twitter @carlycooperman. Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Crime in the United States Donald Trump Illegal immigration Independent voters Inflation Joe Biden Politics of the United States swing voters

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