No one would dispute that the United States is a deeply and divided country. Beyond that, however, it’s difficult to reduce into one sentence what the electorate was saying on Nov. 3. My best try was that it was a defeat, albeit a close one, for President Trump—but not for the Republican Party, which fared remarkably well.

The GOP has held onto, at least so far, all 166 of their incumbent House members seeking reelection. The party is now on track for a net gain of at least eight seats, probably a bit higher given that eight more seats are still uncalled. Democrats have nailed down just 222 seats, the narrowest majority they have had since the 78th Congress in 1943-1945.

In the Senate, Republicans kept incumbent losses down to just two seats, with two more from Georgia left to be determined in the Jan. 5 runoffs.

A Republican House member who shall go unnamed for obvious reasons, put it much more succinctly to me. “Don’t be an a**hole and don’t be a socialist,” was his takeaway from Election Day.

To be sure, the splits were narrow. Just 52.8 percent of voters cast their ballots against Trump (51 percent for Biden, just under 2 percent for others), while in the House, 49.6 percent cast their ballots either for Republicans for Congress, or for someone other than the Democrat.

It has long been the case that hate is a stronger motivator in politics than love. If I were a candidate for office, I’d much rather have voters hating my opponent than loving me (although both would be even better). But we are in a period of negative partisanship, an idea popularized by Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz that many partisans are driven more by hatred of the other party than affinity toward their own.

Much of the smartest nonpartisan public-opinion research around comes from two think tanks, the Pew Research Center and the Public Religion Research Institute. The latter issued a report last month demonstrating just how far things have plummeted in what passes for political discourse in this country. According to the PRRI:

  • “Eight in ten Republicans (81 percent) say the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, compared to 17 percent who say the Democratic Party is trying to make capitalism work for average Americans.”
  • “Eight in ten Democrats (78 percent) say the Republican Party has been taken over by racists, compared to 20 percent who say the Republican Party is trying to protect the country against outside threats.”

similarly disconcerting finding by Pew shows that “55 percent of Republicans say Democrats are ‘more immoral’ when compared with other Americans; 47 percent of Democrats say the same about Republicans. Three years ago, 47 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Democrats said members of the other party were less moral than other people.”

Of course, at a time when there is so little ticket-splitting, what people in the opposite party think of you is less important, but it provides clues regarding stereotypes and potential problems among swing voters. After all, independents, late-deciders, and a few defectors from one party to the other can be the difference between victory and defeat.

Those House and Senate members in competitive states and districts are at the mercy of the rhetoric of the most extreme members of their party. While “defund the police” may seem to be a perfectly innocent suggestion among members of the “Squad” or others in the progressive community, it can be (and indeed was) toxic for some Democrats in tough districts. Similarly, some rhetoric on the right that sounds racist and intolerant to many voters can translate into defeat for Republicans in swing states and districts who have to answer for the more extreme members of their conferences—guilt by association.

The funny thing about undecided voters is they don’t often split down the middle. Indeed, when undecideds do decide, it can lead to unexpected results. This year, while late-breaking voters shaved a few points off of Biden’s total, they tanked Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. The question is whether Democratic leadership can do something about it. It is a lesson that Republicans should learn as well. Words and messages have consequences. Even if it’s not in your state or district, they can change outcomes.

They just did.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on November 24, 2020.

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