So what is driving President Biden’s sagging approval rating? Inflation, supply chain problems and shortages, Covid-19 confusion, border mayhem and the Afghanistan fiasco no doubt are contributing to the president’s woes. What’s more, tying the bipartisan infrastructure bill to the Build Back Better social services spending bill to appease the far left was an unforced error.
Virginia Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger said it best: “Nobody elected him [Biden] to be FDR. They elected him to be normal and stop the chaos.” And veteran Democratic strategist James Carville cited and blamed “wokeness” on issues like defunding the police and taking down Abraham Lincoln’s name from buildings — which San Francisco’s Unified School District did earlier this year — as a direct cause of the Democrats’ predicament.
To Spanberger’s point, Biden presented himself successfully to Democratic primary voters in 2020 as a moderate alternative to Sen. Bernie Sanders, who advocated for expansive and transformative government. Sanders and his message lost. And since Biden wasn’t elected by his party to go big, why is he pandering to Sanders and the left wing, which has resulted in a bloated Build Back Better bill?
Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have been excoriated by the left for prudently pumping the brakes on the Build Back Better agenda and restraining the size and scope of it. The far-left treats both Senators like pariahs or outcasts who simply don’t get it or fail to reflect the values of the Democratic Party. Yet as Mark Penn, who advised and conducted polling for former President Bill Clinton, wrote in the New York Times alongside former New York City Council President Andrew Stein, “Sen. Joe Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema are not outliers in the Democratic Party” and are “in fact the very heart of the Democratic Party, given that 53% of Democrats classify themselves as moderate or conservative.” Both Manchin and Sinema know how to appeal to swing voters and are routinely lectured by those who don’t.
The bottom line is swing voters broke decisively for Biden over Trump in the 2020 election, before showing support for Republicans in Virginia, New Jersey and other regions in 2021. Many of these swing voters who live in suburban communities lie somewhere between center-left to center-right on the political spectrum, and they fled from the Democrats in this year’s election.
As one of the few members of Congress who represented a bellwether district, I know a thing or two about appealing to swing voters and the issues that get their attention. These voters like balance and are repulsed by extreme positions advocated by both parties — a reality Biden and the Democrats must keep in mind if they hope to survive the 2022 midterms.
When some very vocal Democrats advocate to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) while the border is overwhelmed by tens of thousands of people unlawfully crossing the Rio Grande and camping under a bridge in Del Rio, centrist Americans take note. Most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, believe immigration must be lawful, orderly, effectively managed and humane. Images of border chaos combined with calls to abolish ICE lend credibility to the narrative of those who say progressive Democrats support open borders.
Defunding the police is also a losing political issue and further drives swing voters from Democrats to Republicans. While it’s true many Democrats do not support defunding the police, a very vocal contingent does. Loud, obnoxious and extreme elements within the Democratic Party’s base are in opposition to the sensibilities of a broad spectrum of people who prioritize and demand public safety. Voters in the Democratic strongholds of Minneapolis, Seattle, Buffalo and New York City have had enough of this mindless hostility to American law enforcement. They delivered an unambiguous message on November 2, and Democrats would be wise not to ignore it.
Lawlessness is not a winning political message. In my hometown of Allentown, PA, voters nominated the moderate Democrat in the Mayor’s race over other Democrats in last Spring’s primary election, including one City Councilwoman who participated in a protest where chants of “defund the police” rang out alongside rants of “f**k the police.” Swing voters remember things like that.
Republicans and Democrats alike know how to overstep on women’s reproductive rights. Texas Republicans recently enacted a law banning abortions after as early as six weeks, denying exceptions for rape and incest, and permitting $10,000 bounty payments to nosy people who snitch on women exercising their constitutional rights. This law could be aptly titled, “Swing Voters Don’t Matter Act.”
During the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, then candidate Biden abandoned and flip-flopped on his decades-long support of the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion except for cases of rape, incest and to protect the life of the mother. Biden should have tested this issue with focus groups in his hometown of Scranton before reversing his position.
While most Americans support a woman’s right to choose, they also still support some restrictions. The Hyde amendment was the price of peace between pro-life and pro-choice members of Congress in order to enact federal spending bills. Why blow that up to accommodate activist members of the base?
Winning swing voters requires candidates to show some restraint; exercising considered judgment that at times is nuanced and measured will yield electoral benefits. These qualities or characteristics won’t necessarily please the shrillest voices of a party’s base, but they will appeal to voters who prefer the center lane.
In my old Pennsylvania Congressional district, I (or any Republican candidate) needed to build a coalition that could garner 85% – 90% of the Republican vote, over half of the independent vote and nearly one third of the Democratic vote. Running a hard-edged, base consolidation campaign would have yielded an anemic 43%-45% of the vote. That’s called losing.
Recent history reminds us 11 of the last 15 presidential and midterm elections held in even years since 1992 resulted in at least one body of Congress or the presidency flipping and changing hands. Next year’s race appears similar to other first term presidential midterm elections like 1994, 2010 and 2018. The challenge for Republicans is further capitalizing on 2021 suburban swing voters who can be wooed but remain repulsed by Donald Trump’s offensive conduct. With Joe Biden misreading his mandate by caving to the progressive wing of the party on too many policies, his sagging approval rating has opened the door wide enough for the GOP to run through it and make a case to persuadable swing voters.
Time will tell if the GOP can capture the flag. With all these Democratic stumbles, however, the Republican path, at least for the moment, looks clear.