If there is any single driver of American politics today, it’s division. Both sides are guilty of fanning the flames of our divisive politics, and some say Donald Trump took it to a new level. Instead of settling old scores, conservative candidates should focus more on pragmatic policy-focused campaigning.
There is little doubt that 2020 revealed that the Trump model of campaigning more on personal insults than policy is not winning swing voters. Still, voters across the country support many policies championed by the previous administration. Trump gets credit for that. These include cutting taxes and deregulation, energy independence, and criminal justice reform. These policies can win elections when the primary campaign focus is marketing such policies. A model that the GOP should strive to emulate in future elections is the strategy of Glenn Youngkin’scampaign.
Youngkin secured one of Virginia’s greatest modern political upsets, becoming just the second Republican governor elected since 2002.
Gov. Youngkin’s campaign was policy-driven, primarily focusing on cost-of-living issues, increased crime, and education. By zeroing in on a specific list of policies, voters have the greatest understanding of seeing how Youngkin’s administration will operate. He articulated how his policies would solve issues facing the Commonwealth. Youngkin campaigned on cutting consumer costs by eliminating the grocery tax, reducing the state income tax, and establishing a small business tax holiday.
Solutions to education policy included the necessary transparency between school administrators and parents, school choice, and removing political agendas from public classrooms. Denouncing any “defund the police” measures, investing in mental health solutions, and keeping criminals off the streets spoke to those concerned about rising crime.
When prospective voters look at what he stood for, they would not have to sit through long sequences of ideological rhetoric that does not propose any specific policy solutions to their most pressing concerns.
Youngkin was especially effective at ignoring mainstream rhetoric. He did not resort to statements like “MAGA Patriot” and “RINO” that frequently turn away moderates and swing voters that want conservative policies, but not a re-incarnation of Trump’s combative rhetoric. In a blue state like Virginia, that was crucial to victory. Youngkin’s team knew that they would carry the dense red counties, but where they were victorious in closing the margins in blue areas and outright winning others.
Focusing on solutions instead of forging division among party tribes expanded the tent of GOP voters in Virginia.
His Democratic opponent, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, resorted to this new trend of ideological gaslighting instead of focusing on solutions. McAuliffe and his fellow Virginia Democrats would refer to Youngkin as a “pro-Trump extremist” instead of refuting his proposals. McAuliffe made his campaign more “Anti-Youngkin” than a “Pro-McAuliffe” one. Every second McAuliffe spent talking about Trump was a moment that he wasn’t talking about his policies. This made Youngkin’s policy-driven campaign much more appealing to those who wanted change.
The pragmatic policy-focused campaign produced impressive results compared to how Trump fared in the Commonwealth just a year before. Youngkin flipped eight cities and counties that went blue in 2020, the most notable being the cities of Lynchburg, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, and Stafford and Chesterfield County.
In the D.C. suburb of Arlington, where Biden won by more than 80% in 2020, Youngkin improved Republican votes cast by over five percentage points. Among the two other most Democratic counties in the entire state, Youngkin improved by 7.7 points in Loudon County and 4.4 points in Hampton County.
Youngkin even garnered a larger percentage of the vote in the most Republican counties. In Lee County, where Trump received 84.2% of the vote, Youngkin received 87.6%.
The overwhelming increase of support for Youngkin in all types of districts shows that more moderate Republicans can reach out to voters in the middle and even on the other side of the aisle without sacrificing their base. This unification of voters around “kitchen table policies” is not limited to Republican or Democratic problems but all those affected by them.
The roadmap for a GOP victory is clear. Center the campaign around policy solutions, not rhetoric that spurs an increase in political tribalism. It’s time for the GOP to return to common sense and pledge the party back to the core principles and policies. Brash rhetoric tickles the ears of some, but it’s not a winning formula.
Tanner Nau is an intern at the John Locke Foundation and a student at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.