Split decision: Both parties can claim winning messages after midterm vote

Red states got redder and blue states got bluer -- by design -- in Tuesday's election.

Photo credit: Getty images
Photo credit: Getty images

President Donald Trump and his allies rallied working-class white men to the midterm election polls with anti-migrant rhetoric. Democrats galvanized women, young people, and minorities in urban and suburban centers around healthcare and protecting Americans with pre-existing medical conditions.

Both strategies worked to turn out their respective targets, conclude political PR pros.

The Republican Party gained, not lost, seats in the Senate. The Democrats decisively wrestled control of the House of Representatives from the GOP for the first time since 2010, with female, Muslim, and LGBT candidates winning historic seats in Congress.

"What was unique in this midterm election was that there was very little overlap in who each party was trying to talk to and get out to vote," says Eric Sedler, managing partner and founder of Kivvit. "Both parties accomplished what they expected to, and so the red states got redder, the blue states got bluer, and the purple states -– the swing districts especially in the suburbs –- voted strongly Democrat."

"Both parties had a strategy and were successful," he concludes.  

"My observation from talking to friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle was that everyone felt that they won something, which is completely different from the 2016 election," says KayAnn Schoeneman, who leads Ketchum’s D.C. marketplace and public affairs team. "The historic nature of last night in terms of diversity and inclusion on both sides should also not be overlooked."

Form former President Barack Obama, who was very visible for an ex-president at Democratic rallies, to billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, many public personalities were positioning the election as a referendum on the character of the country. However, there’s little more clarity today about that question than before the polls closed.

"Leading into this, we all wanted to come away with a good adjective to describe the state of the country and the kind of country we are and want to be," says Jarad Geldner, director of Hill+Knowlton Strategies in Washington, D.C. "Unfortunately, we still don’t really know the answer to that."

Trump’s effectiveness with his base
While many within the GOP wanted Trump to focus on the strength of the U.S. economy at Republican rallies, the commander-in-chief pivoted to a message about protecting the borders from migrants trying to "invade" the U.S. Broadcasters from CNN to NBC and Fox News, as well as Facebook, pulled a Trump-endorsed ad tying immigrants to a violent criminal, but not before it was seen by millions of Americans and tweeted by Trump to his 55.6 million followers.

"The overriding message that the president used so effectively, and with a bullhorn and not a dog whistle, was his ode to a fear of immigrants," says Ken Makovsky, president and CEO of his eponymous firm. "You expect people will vote to their pocketbook, but not to their worst instinct."

Yet that’s what happened, he says.

"You hear many people saying, ‘I don’t like Donald Trump as a person, but gee, the economy is good, so I am going to vote to keep things the same way.’ In other words, our fear of the Democrats somehow harming the economy is more significant than the fear of destroying our nation’s heritage as a melting pot," he explains.

Makovsky notes that while winning the House of Representatives was a clear victory for the Democrats, it also gives Trump the opportunity to use the Legislative Branch as a foil. "We have to be careful about all this public anger of his constituents, because Trump will very effectively use the House against itself," says Makovsky. "He can blame it for his inability to pass anything rather than his own party."

Republican-leaning PR pros also credit the so-called "Kavanaugh effect" for galvanizing GOP voters and getting them to the polls. All the Republican wins in the Senate came against Democrats who voted against confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, citing allegations of sexual misconduct against the judge. That includes outgoing Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

"Donnelly was one of the biggest surprises of the night for me," says Schoeneman, who considers herself an independent with Republican learnings. "The ‘Kavanaugh effect’ played a larger role than the Democrats probably anticipated. There is some debate just as to how much a role, but one could argue the messaging the president pushed forward on Justice Kavanaugh worked for Republicans in the Senate."  

In the president’s final speeches before the midterms, Trump attacked Kavanaugh’s accusers and those that wanted to prevent his confirmation. However, the GOP was less effective in trying to cast House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi as "unhinged." Trump has attacked her more than 50 times on Twitter since taking office.

"That old ad adage about her being the boogey monster just doesn’t stick," says Schoeneman, who worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2002 midterms. "We used the same talking points on Nancy Pelosi then, but they again came out in her support. They wanted a divided government with checks and balances."

What next for the Democrats?
By gaining control of the House, the Democrats have new investigative power, and pros expect them to use committees to investigate Trump and his administration, and possibly even move towards impeachment.

"You never know what could turn up and become political," says Geldner.

He also suspects the party will focus on voters’ rights and access, given new restrictions on voting that critics say discriminate against minorities.

"Given how close some of the midterm election races ended up being, I think the Democrats will focus on trying to make sure people are able to vote, while calling out Republicans as obstructionists," says Geldner. "But the messaging will be tough, because the subject matter is a bit procedural."

Larry Weber, chairman and CEO of Racepoint Global, says the results also point to a fierce fight for both Congress and the presidency in 2020.

"The Democrats have to come up with someone who can fight this guy, because the camps are getting even more divided between Trump’s rural base and the more diverse left-leaning suburban and urban population," says Weber.

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