Democracy on the Ballot: Voters’ intentions and actions in battleground states in the midterm elections
As we mark the two-year anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, it is important to remember the chaos and violence that unfolded that day. Two years ago, a mob of supporters of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to disrupt the certification of President Joe Biden’s election win. The attack left five people dead and resulted in widespread condemnation from both sides of the aisle.
The subsequent investigation taken up by the congressional committee demonstrated that these events were not carried out spontaneously by a mob, but were a concerted, highly-orchestrated campaign to overturn the results of the U.S. election by force, corruption, and manipulation of key loci of power in the U.S. government.
Despite the historical significance and political uproar in the wake of the events, January 6th was not central to the messaging of political campaigns in the first nationwide elections held after the attack on the Capitol. The ad-tracking firm AdImpact noted that ads focused on January 6 constituted less than 2 percent of all broadcast TV spending in House races for the midterms cycle.
Many pundits speculated that the midterm elections would result in a “red wave” of Republican candidates sweeping seats across the country, including those who participated in or publicly supported the January 6 insurrection or promoted its foundational idea of the “Big Lie.”
But these expectations were upended by a much more muted turn of events, with Democrats holding on to many more positions than expected. In particular, in several state-level races where a more pro-January 6 Republican candidate shared the ballot with a Republican candidate without direct ties to the attack on the Capitol, the results seemed to suggest that many voters “split their tickets” against January 6-affiliated Republican candidates, instead of voting down the ballot for Republicans. The losses of many high-profile insurrectionist candidates who denied the results of the 2020 elections, such as Kari Lake in Arizona and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, were heralded as a victory for democracy.
So, was democracy “on the ballot” in the 2022 midterms despite the lack of concerted focus by campaigns to put it front and center?
Our research suggests yes, but with some caveats. It depends largely on whether or not the candidate was an incumbent and somewhat less on the specifics of what kind of anti-democracy actions candidates had taken and what level of office they were running for. A slight majority of registered voters in every battleground state we surveyed (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania) rejected core tenets of the Big Lie, and candidates running for state-wide office in these states who promoted the Big Lie performed disproportionately poorly in the elections – 67% of them lost their races.
But district-level candidates who supported the Big Lie fared better in these battleground states, losing only 36% of their races. Looking across the country, candidates running for both state-wide and district-level positions who supported the Big Lie did poorly, losing 56% of their races overall.
In general, candidate losses in relation to January 6th involvement were concentrated around certain types of involvement – voters were especially reluctant to cast their ballots for candidates who had been physically present at the Capitol or who endorsed the Big Lie. We also found that candidates who received endorsements by former President Donald Trump fared worse than those who did not.
Disappointingly, incumbents who engaged in anti-democratic actions were largely immune to these negative effects, with all but three insurrectionist incumbents winning their races. Furthermore, while potential voters expressed varying levels of tolerance toward different types of January 6 involvement, in practice, candidates elected on a state-wide basis were most likely to be punished at the ballot box. Those running in district-level races were largely successful at winning their elections.
In this report, we look at what our polling told us about how voters feel about accountability, what sorts of participation voters said they would not vote for, and how those opinions played out in terms of actual election results.
Read some of our key takeaways below and download our full report here.
- Of 344 Insurrectionist candidates on the ballot, over half (221) were elected.
- 72% (159) of elected insurrectionists are in the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Incumbent insurrectionists were successful in general, but newcomer candidates were mostly unsuccessful in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where we conducted our survey of registered voters.
- 70% (59/84) of all insurrectionist candidates in these states won their elections. In the rest of the country, 62% (162/260) of all insurrectionist candidates won their elections, although this number was much higher in Republican controlled states and much lower in Democratically controlled states.
- While 98% (47/48) of incumbent insurrectionist candidates won in these states, 67% (24/36) of newcomer candidates lost their elections.
- Insurrectionist candidates who ran at the district-level (U.S. House of Representatives and State Legislature) fared better than those subjected to state-wide elections (U.S. Senate, Governor, Lt. Governor, State Attorney General and State Treasurer).
- 69% of district-level insurrectionist candidates were elected compared to 48% of state-wide candidates.
- A majority of registered voters we polled in Public Wise’s priority battleground states said they rejected key tenets of the Big Lie and that they would not vote for a candidate who had preemptively asked for a pardon related to January 6 events, nor who had participated in the January 6 fake electors scheme.
- When voters had the opportunity to vote against state-level candidates in Public Wise’s priority battleground states who engaged in anti-democratic behaviors that were unpopular in our surveys, such as supporting the Big Lie, they did. Candidates who engaged in actions that were unpopular with voters – like supporting the fraudulent elector scheme or asking for a preemptive pardon – and still won in battleground states typically ran in district-level races and were not accountable to voters in their entire state.
- Insurrectionists who supported the Big Lie or were present at the Capitol on January 6th as civilians lost more elections than they won.
- Democracy does seem to have been on the ballot, particularly when it came to state-wide office. However, more insurrectionists won than lost overall. While the state-wide victories for pro-democracy candidates were important, they should not give cover to the large number of insurrectionists who were elected to government positions in the U.S. House and in state legislative bodies. This represents an ongoing threat to democracy that should not be ignored.