Political Pivoting: Will Hard-right Candidates Shift to the Center?

September 20, 2022

Political Pivoting Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

With less than 50 days left before the November 8 midterm election, the primary season is officially over. Historically, candidates who leaned far to the left or right in order to turn out the base during the Democratic or Republican party’s primary election spend this time moving their campaign closer to the center in order to attract a broader constituency, including independents.

And there are scattered instances across the country of Republican candidates now trying to gain or regain moderate and independent voting blocks that, pre-primary, they expected would be a lock.

But faced with a number of challenges, Robert Y. Shapiro, Professor of Political Science and International & Public Affairs at Columbia University and award-winning member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, tells Political IQ, the pivot is not likely to happen as often this year as in years past.

“A Little Bit of Pivoting”

“You have a little bit of pivoting in this election toward the middle,” Shapiro says. “But in recent elections, candidates really have been playing to their bases.” He notes that Republican candidates are really playing to the right of center and “especially the Trump base.”

“In addition to appealing to voters,” he adds, “it’s also about making sure people come out to vote and mobilizing voters.”

Flip-Flopping on Abortion

When the Supreme Court ruled in June to overturn Roe v Wade, going against majority public opinion while simultaneously signaling that this would likely be how the Justices conduct business in the future, it created what Washington Post analyst Aaron Blake referred to as “at least a momentary political problem for Republicans.”

Blake went on to identify nearly a half-dozen GOP candidates who have, since the primaries, undertaken what he calls “some of the biggest reversals” on the issue of abortion. They include Gubernatorial candidates Scott Jensen (MN) and Mark Ronchetti (NM), Senate candidates Mehmet Oz (PA) and Blake Masters (AZ), and Congressional candidate Zach Nunn (IA).

Masters in Arizona, for instance, scrubbed his campaign website in August of a policy page listing tough abortion restrictions. He also deleted language that said, “I’m 100% pro-life” and that he supported “a federal personhood law (ideally a Constitutional amendment) that recognizes that unborn babies are human beings that may not be killed.”

Masters’ erasure comes as a new abortion law, signed by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) is going through numerous legal battles. It would ban abortions after 15 weeks in a state President Biden carried by 11,000 votes in 2020.

“It’s not so much people going to the website, but it’s the reports of [candidates] downplaying those kinds of issues,” says Shapiro. “They are obviously doing it so as not to alienate certain kinds of voters. But they’re not doing it in a very visible or flagrant way because they don’t want to upset their base.”

He adds, “They’re really trying to hedge their bets here, and it’s a little bit delicate for them.”

Of the candidates the Post lists, currently only Iowa’s Nunn is “slightly favored to win” over his Democratic opponent. That’s according to Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an online election handicapper at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. In every other race, Sabato lists the Democrat as “favored to win.”

Backtracking on 2020 Election Denialism

New Hampshire’s GOP Senate candidate, Don Bolduc, raised eyebrows last week when he went back on a vow he made in August. During last month’s debate the retired Army General said, “I signed a letter with 120 other generals and admirals saying that Donald Trump won the election and, damn it, I stand by [it].”

Thursday on Fox News he said that after doing a lot of research, “I have come to the conclusion—and I want to be definitive on this—the election was not stolen.” Although he added that he still had a lot of questions about voter fraud.

He’s not the only one backtracking. Shortly after his primary victory, Maryland’s GOP Gubernatorial candidate, Dan Cox—whom the current Governor, Republican Larry Hogan has called “a QAnon whack job“—deleted more than 1,000 posts from the hate-speech social media site Gab.com, and scrubbed his own website of far-right positions, including an audit of the 2020 Presidential election.

That said, in a report this week, the New York Times warns of a “growing movement” inside the Republican Party to “refuse to accept defeat” in any future election.

Trump Remains an Unshakeable Presence

Former President Trump recently posted on his social media site, Truth Social, that most Republicans “would lose” their races without his endorsement. He also said, “Both J.D. Vance and Dr. Oz asked me to do big Rallies for them in Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively, and I did.”

But that’s not true. Neither Senate candidate “asked” him. According to the New York Times, “[A]ides to the former president simply informed the Senate campaigns that he was coming.”

Oz, in fact, has been holding rallies alongside other Republicans, like Senators Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania (who broke with Trump after January 6) and John Kennedy of Louisiana, as well as former U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley.

Shapiro notes that the former President has given candidates in purple states an added challenge, because moderates and independents may not necessarily like Trump, but they may not be big fans of the Democrats, either. A candidate like Oz in Pennsylvania, he says, “by separating himself from Trump, he can appeal to these swing voters who are anti-Trump and are also anti-Democrat—but they may be more anti-Trump than anti-Democrat.”

Along with Ohio and Pennsylvania, the former President has upcoming plans to hold rallies in North Carolina (where the Times reports GOP House candidate Bo Hines has been scrubbing his campaign website of Trump’s name and image) and Michigan.

And Trump’s rallies may be growing more problematic for mainstream GOP candidates. In Ohio on Saturday, he appeared to more fully embrace QAnon’s trappings, playing a song virtually identical to one of the conspiracy theory-laden group’s. The crowd raised their hands in a mass QAnon gesture, and ahead of the rally the former President posted a picture of himself with a “Q” symbol on his lapel and the slogan “The Storm is Coming”—a QAnon phrase referring to the belief that Trump will retake power and vanquish his enemies.

Did Democrats Who Backed Far-right Candidates Miscalculate?

Some extreme-right GOP candidates are on their party’s ticket this year in part thanks to Democrats. It’s been reported that Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars to back far-right Republicans in primaries because they believed those candidates would be easy to beat in the general election.

Did they miscalculate—especially if those candidates are now pivoting toward the center?

“We are not going to know until Election Day if that strategy worked,” says Shapiro.

Calling it a “risky strategy” with “obvious ethical issues,” he does surmise that it probably would have worked better in 2018 for Democrats than in 2022.

“2018 was a good election for the Democrats, but they did that in the context of running against the Trump Administration. Now they are the ones in power, and they basically have Republicans running against their Administration. The dynamic here is a little bit different, and it’s riskier.”

The bottom line, he reiterates, is going to be which party gets better turnout on Election Day—geographically and strategically.

“We’re not talking about national turnout, we’re talking about places where they need to turn out the voters,” he says.

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