In his final speech before the Nov. 8 midterms — the first general election since the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol — President Joe Biden warned that “American democracy is under attack” from “extreme MAGA Republicans” who would seek to “suppress the right of voters and subvert the electoral system itself.”
“This is no ordinary year,” Biden said. “So I ask you to think long and hard about the moment we’re in. In a typical year, we’re often not faced with questions of whether the vote we cast will preserve democracy or put us at risk. But this year, we are.”
The press and some Democratic Party allies panned the president’s remarks. His speech was “head-scratching,” according to CNN’s Chris Cillizza. It was “important” but “puzzling,” said Politico’s Playbook newsletter. “[As] a matter of practical politics, I doubt many Ds in marginal races are eager for him to be on TV tonight,” tweeted David Axelrod, former President Barack Obama’s top political aide.
The results of the election, however, speak for themselves. The predicted Republican “red wave” disappeared before it reached shore, with the GOP only picking up 8 seats to narrowly take control of the House. It could still lose one seat in the Senate. Democrats flipped control of more governorships and state legislature chambers than Republicans. And, most importantly, nearly all high-profile election deniers lost their races, including competitive secretary of state competitions in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota and Nevada and gubernatorial contests in swing states like Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Now, one poll of the 71 most competitive House districts backs up the importance of the democracy issue in Democrats’ midterm success. Concerns about threats to democracy motivated Democrats and independents to turn out while also helping independents decide to vote for Democrats, according to a voter survey from Nov. 11-16 by Impact Research, a Democratic polling firm.
“The biggest takeaway here is just how important protecting democracy was for voters in this House battlefield immediately coming out of the election,” said Molly Murphy, the president of Impact Research, which conducted the survey for Democratic Party-aligned political action committees End Citizens United and Let America Vote.
Six in 10 voters cited protecting democracy as an extremely important reason that they decided to vote in November. This put the issue ahead of inflation (53%), abortion (47%) and crime (45%). When asked to choose the top two issues that motivated them to vote, 50% chose protecting democracy, second only to inflation at 55%.
These findings are largely in line with pre-election surveys from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CBS News, NBC News, Quinnipiac University Poll and the Grinnell College National Poll, as well as exit polling from The Associated Press, NBC News and CNN.
The issue of democracy “was really one of the most dominant factors” for Democrats and independents in determining whether they would turn out and “decisive in decision-making in terms of whether independent voters were going to vote for the Democratic candidate or the Republican candidate,” Murphy said.
Among Democrats, 73% cited protecting democracy as an extremely important reason that they decided to vote. Fifty-one percent of independents similarly cited it as extremely important, on par with the 53% who cited inflation.
Forty-one percent of voters who cast ballots for Democrats said protecting democracy was one of the top two reasons for voting as they did. It was the top reason among voters surveyed, listed only slightly above abortion (39%) and not liking the Republican candidate (38%).
The issue also likely moved some Republican voters to cross over and cast ballots for Democratic candidates. Sixty-four percent of Republicans who voted this way said their biggest concern was Republican candidates supporting former President Donald Trump and (incorrectly) believing that the 2020 election was stolen from him.
“I think it was the difference-maker,” Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.) said.
Ryan, the only Democrat to win a competitive House race in New York this year, made protecting democracy central to both the special election campaign he won in August and the general election in November, saying he ran for office “because the very foundations of our democracy are under attack.”
He argued that Democrats won when they “helped people to understand the stakes” — that “one party really, increasingly, overtly was for blowing up our democracy, eroding trust in free and fair elections, denying election outcomes” while the other party was saying, “No, we’re going to stand and fight.”
And “quite clearly, we saw the results,” Ryan said. “We saw a rejection across the country of the extremist antidemocratic direction that extreme Republicans wanted to go.”
Ryan also saw the issue of protecting democracy overlapping with another top concern for Democrats: the Supreme Court deciding earlier this year to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion for decades.
“What people missed in polls — which I heard over and over again in conversations, if you actually listen — is people link these issues together,” Ryan said. “People intuitively, of course, understood that if you’re taking away a fundamental right from more than half of the American people, then all these other rights and freedoms are on the table. And that becomes an existential democracy — small-d democracy — issue.”
Just as some voters saw an overlap between abortion and democracy, many interpreted the concept of protecting democracy beyond the sole issue of Republicans embracing Trump’s election fraud lies and efforts to overturn election results.
In the House battleground districts surveyed by Impact Research, the two top threats to democracy selected by voters were “government corruption and the influence of money on our politics” (53%) and “politicians refusing to accept the results of elections they disagree with” (41%).
“The threats to democracy don’t stop with election denials. Voters want the system to work for everyone, and they recognize that the deck is stacked against them because of all of the money in politics,” said Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United. “They want candidates who will take on special interests and level the playing field.”
It was clear that Democratic candidates understood the connection between voters’ perceptions of government corruption and other issues of democracy erosion, as many ran ads focused on their rejection of corporate PAC donations and support for banning lawmakers from trading stocks.
A record 72 Democratic candidates, including Ryan, won their elections while refusing to accept corporate PAC donations, with one more race still to be decided in a Georgia Senate runoff this month. That’s up from 59 at the beginning of the previous Congress. Meanwhile, two high-profile lawmakers who reneged on their 2018 promise to reject corporate PAC money — Reps. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) and Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) — lost.
But the biggest penalty was paid by Republican candidates who sided with Trump’s lies, the kind that Biden pointed out in his Nov. 2 speech.
“These core norms and values can really outpace things that are temporal economic issues if they [voters] feel that those things are being threatened,” Murphy said. “And they did.”