On Wednesday afternoon, I spoke with a leading Republican political consultant about the Senate campaign in Georgia. That race is strategically significant for both parties, but it has a special symbolic importance for Democrats. The incumbent, Raphael Warnock, who for many years has occupied Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, is seen as a potential national leader of the Democratic Party—and he may still lose to a scandal-ridden ex-football star, the Republican Herschel Walker. The Republican consultant told me that Warnock’s prospects were even bleaker than many recent public polls suggest. “There isn’t a single private poll in America that has Herschel Walker anything but ahead,” the Republican consultant told me. “Not one.”
The consensus among a number of G.O.P. pollsters and operatives I spoke to this week is that in the Senate races that are thought to be competitive, Republican candidates are heading for a clean sweep: Mehmet Oz will beat John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, and not just by a point or two; Adam Laxalt looks pretty certain to defeat the incumbent Democratic senator Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada; even less regarded candidates such as Blake Masters in Arizona will be carried into office by a predicted wave. “He won’t deserve it, but I think at this point he falls into a Senate seat,” one Republican strategist told me. To these Republican insiders, certain high-profile races in which G.O.P. candidates were already favored now look like potential blowouts—Kari Lake’s campaign for governor in Arizona, J. D. Vance’s for Senate in Ohio. And some races that seemed out of reach, such as the Senate campaign, in New Hampshire, of the election denier Don Bolduc, now look like possible wins. The word that kept coming up in these conversations was “bloodbath.”
My interest in talking with Republican consultants and pollsters, those with their hands in many races around the country, was not only to collect predictions but to hear the G.O.P.’s story of the election. (I let them speak anonymously, and spoke with some of their Democratic peers, too, in order to provide a check on their accounts.) I wanted to know what they thought earlier polls had missed, and how a race that had seemed like a tossup for much of the year could turn into a Republican rout.
One thing was obvious in these conversations: many of these professionals had spent much of the summer working to manage the abortion issue, which became the election’s chaotic element after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned Roe v. Wade, in June. It supplied a burst of Democratic support and fury, but also changed polling in interesting ways. “What happened post-Dobbs was that progressives started picking up the phone at nineteen-nineties rates,” the Republican strategist told me. “Answering a political poll itself became a kind of expression of political identity.”
This Republican said that he and a colleague had examined polls in which they had access to individual voter data and concluded that as much as sixty per cent of Democratic poll respondents this summer were so-called super voters, those who vote in every single election, even though such voters normally compose about a third of the general electorate in each party. (He found no such effect among Republicans.) “This created an informational doom loop, where Democratic candidates get told, You should talk about January 6th, democracy being on the ballot, trans rights,’ ” he said, “because their primary super voters are picking up the phone and telling them this is what they care about.”
Still, crafting a winning response to the abortion issue was a fixation among Republicans. A pollster working in many races across the country said, “I had candidates who wanted to know the same thing, week after week, ‘How do we answer this abortion thing? They’re beating me up on it.’ ” The pollster went on, “And what they figured out is, we don’t have a good answer. It is what it is.”
In the end, Republicans didn’t find a way through the political fact that many of the voters they wanted to win were against them on abortion so much as wait it out. As a Democratic strategist pointed out to me, a flood of funding after the Supreme Court decision allowed Democratic campaigns to put ads on television “much, much earlier” in swing states. This created a unique situation, he went on, in which Democrats were disproportionately tuned in to politics, the Democratic base was overrepresented in polls, and swing voters were overwhelmingly seeing Democratic ads. “I think that’s what creates that blue mirage during the summer,” he said.
At the same time, the polls were likely underrepresenting certain segments of the electorate. In recent years, more educated voters, especially white women, have moved to the Democrats, and less educated ones, of all races and especially men, toward the Republicans. When it comes to polling, these shifts have created an imbalance, in which one of the most visible groups in politics, and one especially energized by the Dobbs decision, had shifted toward Democrats, and one of the least visible had shifted toward Republicans. “The fastest-moving portion of the electorate is Hispanic men, and the second-fastest-moving portion of the electorate is Black men,” the Republican consultant told me. You want to get them on the phone? “Good fucking luck.”
A Democratic pollster told me, “Arizona is, I think, like ground zero for that trend. I think you’re seeing a lot of Hispanic drift toward Laxalt.” This Democrat also noted that Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia, is underperforming among Black men, and thought that Abrams’s opponent, Republican Governor Brian Kemp, “is going to do a decent job winning Black voters compared to his 2018 performance.”
If Republicans couldn’t wait to get away from the major social issues, the Democrats continued to focus on them. Speaking about the defection of Hispanics to the G.O.P. in Nevada, the Republican strategist told me, “The reason that Democrats have fucked this up is that they won’t stop talking about abortion. And the reason that they screwed it up with Blacks is they won’t stop talking about abortion. . . . It’s like they’re a two-issue party. It’s this and Trump. They can’t stop. I don’t think they have anything else.”
The evolving Democratic coalition has made the party at once more prosperous and more progressive, a trick that long seemed difficult to pull off. But it has also exposed the party to certain vulnerabilities, especially among working-class voters. Across the country, Republicans have tended to emphasize a simple story about inflation—that the White House had been inattentive to its rise and its impact on ordinary Americans. As the Republican strategist put it to me, “Inflation is the big federal story, and a lot of blame belongs on the White House, because the White House just wished this would go away instead of saying, ‘We know it’s real, we know it’s a problem, it’s happening everywhere, we’re going to do everything to fix it but we can’t fix it immediately.’ ”
In certain politically competitive parts of the country, especially the booming Sun Belt states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, and Texas, Republican governors could also make some policy gestures to back up the way they spoke about inflation. In July, Kemp, the governor of Georgia, extended a statewide gas-tax holiday. In August, he committed to spend two billion dollars in state-budget surplus on property-tax and income-tax rebates if reëlected. The next week, he said that $1.2 billion in federal COVID aid would be converted to three-hundred-and-fifty-dollar checks for low-income Georgians. In the closing statement of his final debate against Abrams, Kemp celebrated what he called the lowest unemployment rate and the most people ever working in the history of Georgia.