On Thursday, incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler conceded to Democrat Raphael Warnock in one of Georgia’s two runoff elections. In the second contest, multiple media outlets declared Democrat Jon Ossoff the winner against incumbent Republican David Perdue. These victories will give Democrats a slim majority in the Senate.
Already, recriminations are flying about what Loeffler and Perdue might have done wrong. Our research suggests they made one crucial error: aligning themselves with Donald Trump.
What Loeffler and Perdue did
In an effort to turn out their base, Loeffler and Perdue ran to the right and highlighted their allegiance with President Trump. Loeffler, for example, frequently touted her 100 percent Trump-voting record. As Trump demanded, she declared she would object to the 2020 presidential election results, then reversed herself after Wednesday’s violent events at the U.S. Capitol.
Perdue called Trump a “person of destiny” and backed a Georgia lawsuit that would invalidate Biden’s win. He joined Loeffler in publicly calling for Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign. If there was daylight between Trump and the two Georgia Republicans, it certainly did not come out in the campaign.
How we did our research
Our research suggests aligning themselves with Trump was the least effective strategy Loeffler and Perdue could have used. In this research, we examined the effect of three different strategies candidates could take in terms of their statements about Trump: loyalty, disloyalty and an ambiguous middle position.
The research involved showing participants the following prompt:
“A nonpartisan group surveyed candidates running for Congress. We would like your views on the candidates, whose names will remain confidential. As you know, Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s 2016 nominee for president. Thus far in the campaign he has proposed a number of policies that have yielded mixed responses from the media, the public, and elected officials. Each candidate was asked about his/her feelings towards Donald Trump. They were given five options: Very opposed, somewhat opposed, neutral, somewhat supportive, or very supportive.”
“Loyalty” meant the Republican in the race was described as answering “very supportive.” “Disloyalty” meant the Republican in the race answered “somewhat opposed.” For the ambiguous position, the Republican “talked about agreements and disagreements with Trump, but did not give a clear answer.” The Democratic candidate always answered “very opposed.”
We assessed each tactic’s effectiveness in an experiment conducted in the summer of 2016 that involved 1,373 participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. We randomly assigned participants to see a Republican candidate carrying out one of these strategies. Although these participants were not nationally representative, we recruited enough Democrats, Republicans and independents to analyze how each strategy affected each group.
Trump was a drag on the ticket
Among Democrats, the strategy of the Republican candidate didn’t matter much. Almost no Democrats said they would vote for the Republican candidate.
Similarly, most Republicans said they would support the Republican candidate, no matter their position on Trump. Note that this suggests no real advantage for the candidate who professed strongly loyalty to Trump.
Among independents, however, there was a difference. The Republican candidate increased their vote share by about 5 percentage points when they took the ambiguous position, compared with when they took either the loyal or disloyal position. Thus, the smartest position for a Republican candidate appeared to be distancing themselves from Trump without disavowing him completely.
Loyalty to Trump appeared to hurt the Republican candidate in other ways. Compared to the disloyal Republican, the loyal Republican was viewed less favorably by about 5 points on a 0-100 scale, driven mainly by an 8-point drop among Democrats. Meanwhile, the loyal Republican was viewed no more favorably by Republican participants.
Similarly, participants reported being more excited to vote for the disloyal Republican than the loyal Republican — an effect that was again driven mainly by Democrats. Contrary to the notion that loyalty to Trump drives up turnout among Republicans, the Republican participants in the experiment did not report any more enthusiasm when the candidate was a Trump loyalist than when they were not.
These results suggest Republicans risk little in terms of their base support by distancing themselves from Trump and may even gain support among independents. Indeed, Republicans did not clearly “punish” their candidate regardless of how far they distanced themselves from Trump.
Of course, this type of experiment has its inherent limitations. It cannot fully simulate the effects of a real-life campaign, and specifically the backlash Republican candidates who distance themselves from Trump might experience from Trump himself. The experiment was also conducted in 2016, not 2020. It’s possible political dynamics changed in the intervening four years — though people’s views of Trump have been remarkably stable over these years.
Our findings perhaps serve as a cautionary note to the Republican Party, which must decide how much it wants to be the “Party of Trump.” By embracing Trump and Trumpism, with or without him on the ballot, the Republican Party might find itself losing more votes than it wins.
Neilan “Neil” Chaturvedi is an associate professor of political science at Cal Poly Pomona. Follow him on Twitter @ChaturvediNeil.
Chris Haynes in an associate professor of legal studies and political science at the University of New Haven. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisHaynes18.