(CNN)Republicans have been hoping to turn the political page from the coronavirus pandemic for over a year now.
We saw then-President Donald Trump try to do it in the lead-up to the 2020 election. It didn’t work. In the California gubernatorial recall, we saw Republican Larry Elder try and argue that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom’s response was too strict. It didn’t work.
A look at the polling in California and nationally reveals that Republicans would be wise to come up with a better message on the coronavirus, or else they could be throwing away a clear pathway to a strong 2022 midterm election.
The number one issue for California voters in last week’s recall was the coronavirus. Nearly a third (32%) of the electorate said it was the top issue in the exit poll, which was the runaway for most important. The “no” side on the recall — against the removal of Newsom — won among these voters by a 81% to 19% margin.
The coronavirus being the number one issue matches what we’ve seen nationally as well. CNN’s last poll conducted by SSRS showed that 36% of Americans said the coronavirus was the most important issue facing the country. The next closest was the economy at a mere 20%.
When we look at the generic congressional ballot, Democrats lead among voters who said the coronavirus was the top issue by a 63% to 27% margin. Among all other voters, they trail by a 52% to 36% margin.
This is a continuation of a pattern we saw in last year’s presidential election. Trump may very well have won the 2020 election had he formulated a better response to the pandemic. Just as in the polling now, Democrats easily won the support of those who said it was the most important factor in their vote.
Restrictions are more popular than unpopular
Today the issue of the coronavirus remains a strength for Democrats for a simple reason: voters like the way Democrats are handling the pandemic for the most part. In California, voters by an over 2 to 1 margin said that Newsom’s measures against the virus were either about right or not strict enough compared to too strict. The “no” side won these voters by about a 70 point margin. The “yes” side — in favor of removing Newsom — did win those who said the governor’s measures were too strict, but they were a mere 30% of the electorate.
One of the measures Newsom took was a mask mandate in schools. Elder, the leading GOP candidate to replace Newsom, said he was against them. Recall voters, though, favored mask mandates in schools by a 72% to 23% margin. “No” easily carried those who favored the mandate by about 60 points.
Republicans face the same problem nationally. The coronavirus is one of the few issues on which President Joe Biden’s approval rating remains above his disapproval rating, even as his overall approval has declined significantly over the last few months.
Republicans have tried to argue that his measures, like Newsom’s, are too strict.
And while the jury is still out on vaccine mandates (though voters seem to be slightly more in favor than against for certain situations), the overall sentiment is that the country has not overreached when it comes to combating the virus.
A Pew Research Center poll taken last month found that 62% of Americans believed the public health benefits because of coronavirus restrictions have been worth the cost. This compares to just 37% who say they haven’t been.
On the issue of mask mandates in schools, 63% of Americans support them in the latest CNN poll.
Republicans have been hoping to turn the page politically by focusing on other issues besides the virus. As the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter noted earlier this week, the coronavirus has upended the way Republicans have wanted to run their campaigns this year. Many have wanted to run on crime.
Crime, though, isn’t anywhere near the top of Americans’ minds. Just 4% of Americans named an issued related to crime or guns as the most important problem facing the nation in the last CNN poll.
California voters, too, didn’t think crime was a top problem. Only 8% of voters did in the recall. These 8% overwhelmingly said “yes” to the recall, but it simply wasn’t an issue that motivated a lot of voters.
Looking ahead to 2022, it’s possible the virus will not be anywhere near the most important problems Americans face. And maybe even if it is, voters will turn against the Democrats.
That, though, seems like a risky bet given that the coronavirus has been a top issue for over a year now and the Republican response has yet to win plaudits from voters.
If Republicans end up underperforming next year for an out-of-power party during a midterm, it could very well be because they didn’t have a satisfactory answer on a problem that has killed many Americans and interrupted the lives of many more.