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Republican introspection continues after Democrats' midterm performance

FILE - Voters wait in line at a polling place at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas, on election night Nov. 8, 2022. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)
FILE - Voters wait in line at a polling place at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas, on election night Nov. 8, 2022. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, File)
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Democratic success in the midterm elections despite historical and economic headwinds suggesting a Republican advantage is forcing the party and its voters to reevaluate its future moving forward.

Despite being underwater in approval through most of his time in office, President Joe Biden became the first president since 1934 to lose zero Senate seats or governorships in a midterm election. Republicans narrowly won a House majority but a sweeping “red wave” some high-profile figures in the party expected never materialized.

Former President Donald Trump, who has launched a third consecutive White House bid, has seen his standing in the party diminish in polling and statements from other potential standard-bearers. Many of his hand-picked candidates lost in key Senate and gubernatorial races, which some observers have credited as part of why Democrats were able to overperform historical trends in midterm years.

A USA Today/Suffolk University poll released Tuesday was the latest example of Trump’s seemingly diminishing standing within the party he has been a dominant figure in since first securing the nomination in the 2016 election.

Only 31% of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said they want Trump to run for office again. They also widely favor Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in a hypothetical one-on-one primary matchup, 56% to 33%.

DeSantis has long been Republican voters’ No. 2 choice in hypothetical presidential primaries but has picked up momentum as Trump has seen his support fall since leaving office and the midterm elections. The governor secured a second term by a wide margin in the midterms in a state that has moved to be more Republican leaning under his leadership after being a crucial swing state for years.

The poll also found conservative-leaning independents favored DeSantis over Trump, which would expand his coalition of support beyond the party’s base to have more appeal in a general election.

Voters who took part in the survey said they would elect Biden in a rematch against Trump by a 7% margin, but DeSantis would win in a hypothetical matchup with the president 47% to 43%. The Florida Republican’s national strength has grown in polling after the midterms in appealing to Republican voters in a primary and independents come Election Day in 2024.

“In DeSantis, we're seeing two things. We're seeing strength in both categories and if he were to be a candidate, that would be a significant development,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center.

Republicans and independents have a candidate in DeSantis who embraces many similar policies to Trump without the scandals and baggage from his last six-plus years as a presidential figure.

“He's not a name-caller and insulting to people in any way, at least relatively speaking comparing him to Trump,” Paleologos said. “There's a wider appeal. In many cases, he talks about issues as a parent and that appeals to people in those age demographics as well who are independents.”

Interpretations of Trump’s weakness has potential to work out in his favor once it gets to primary season. If a large group of presidential hopefuls try to challenge him and secure the nomination themselves, they could risk splitting the vote up too much and having him win delegates using his still-significant base of support.

Political experts have said a crowded primary is the best-case scenario for Trump to win given his possible legal troubles and rising dissatisfaction from Republican voters.

Trump isn’t the only party standard-bearer facing blowback from voters. Multiple surveys have found a majority Democratic voters don’t want Biden to seek another term despite delivering votes for him in 2020 and helping his party stave off traditional midterm losses.

The advanced ages of Biden and Trump, along with congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle, has led to more calls for fresh voices and younger leadership from voters.

“People are trying to — with their own individual voices — they're trying to inform the political leadership in both parties about what they would like to see,” Paleologos said.

Younger voters are another voting bloc Republicans have struggled to court in recent elections that could be up for grabs moving forward. In 2022, 53% of voters under 30 supported Democratic House candidates compared to 41% for Republicans, according to The Associated Press’ VoteCast national survey.

Young voters were more likely to prioritize issues like abortion heading into the voting booth in 2022, which was an advantage to Democratic candidates.

Analysis of exit survey data by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement found voters aged 18-29 were the only group to rank abortion as their top priority.

“The reality is that there’s a big gap right now between most young people’s views on issues they care about, like abortion, guns, and climate, and where many Republican candidates and elected officials stand on those issues,” said Alberto Medina, communications team lead at Tuft’s CIRCLE, adding there are also gaps between views of younger and older voters within the GOP.

But Democrats’ recent success with young Americans doesn’t mean it will be permanent. Young voters are least attached to political parties and can swing more with the national political mood.

“They're not firmly attached to Democrats,” said Ray La Raja, professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and associate director of the UMass Poll. “They might be progressive in their in their preferences, but they're not really attached to the party, per se.”

Young millennials and Gen Z voters are also growing up in different economic, cultural and social circumstances than prior generations that could influence their political attitudes moving forward.

“There are a lot of unaffiliated people that may behave like partisans, but they just don't like either party that much, even if they tend to vote with them,” La Raja said. “That suggests that there's a group, including young people, that are up for grabs over the next decade or so.”

The Republican National Committee is going through its first post-election review in a decade after the midterm results. The final report, which is likely still months from completion, will touch on a variety of concerns about what went wrong for Republicans in 2022.

Part of that equation could be expanding outreach to younger voters. CIRCLE research has found more people are hearing from the Biden campaign or Democratic Party than Republican counterparts. In 2020, 48% of young voters had heard from Biden or Democrats, compared to just 31% who had been contacted by Trump’s campaign or the Republican Party.

“The GOP may be missing critical chances to make their case to young people, especially those who may already identify with the party,” Medina said. “By not talking to youth they’re also not hearing from them and getting valuable input from young people on what they want to see from the Party.”

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