One of the most widespread misconceptions in the world of politics is the belief that voters make their decisions based on the personalities of the candidates rather than their positions on the issues. Republicans rationalized in this fashion after Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won their elections. Democrats did the same thing after Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s victories. But Donald Trump occupies a heightened place in this lineage, given both his outsized personality and his hyper-polarized approach to politics. But it has also been easy to overlook the tangible policy proposals that excite his supporters as much as his attitude and aggrandizement.

In the 2016 election, Trump ran roughshod over then-Republican orthodoxy on trade, immigration and entitlement issues to excite the white working class voters who keyed his victory that year. As he now heads into his third consecutive campaign, Trump is talking less about the concerns of the voters and more about his frustrations with his previous defeat. But except for his most committed loyalists, most voters are still focused on the policy matters that reflect the daily challenges they face in their own lives.

The odd mix of low unemployment and high inflation has neutralized any advantage that either Democrats or Republicans might enjoy on the economy. And the internal splits within both parties over America’s place in the world has prevented either side from gaining an edge with swing voters on foreign policy matters.

Which leads us to the two domestic policy issues that now appear likely to define the 2024 election – abortion and crime. In recent years, a rough bipartisan consensus has emerged on both of these highly-charged issues. Strong majorities of Americans want abortion to be legal but with some restrictions, and they want strong measures taken to keep their communities safe but with reforms on police misconduct. Both tend to separate the parties’ ideological bases from their more centrist elements, so it’s often instructive to watch to what extent the two sides are to push back against their most fervent followers in order to reach out the contested political middle.

Last week, the Democrats performed this task with great efficiency, earning victories in off-year elections in Wisconsin and Chicago in the process. Republicans demonstrated considerably less flexibility and finished a week with a series of discouraging setbacks. While there was no GOP candidate in the runoff for Chicago mayor this week, Paul Vallas ran on the type of tough-on-crime message that often prevails even in left-leaning urban areas. It’s precisely the same strategy that Eric Adams used to win the New York City mayoral campaign a few years back and that Chicago centrist Democrats from Richard Daley to Rahm Emmanuel have employed with great effectiveness over the years.

But Vallas came up short for two reasons. His opponent, teachers’ union organizer Brandon Johnson, branded him as a Republican sympathizer from the very beginning, which hurt Vallas’ with black and Latino voters who frequently prioritize public safety issues. But more importantly, Johnson inoculated himself against Vallas’ crime-related attacks, even walking away from the “defund the police” rhetoric that he had employed in recent years.

Whether that type of rhetorical reinvention is adroit repositioning or abject flip-flopping is often in the eye of the beholder. But like Karen Bass in her successful candidacy for Los Angeles’ mayor late last year – and Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in 2020 -- Johnson resisted the pull of the Democrats’ most ardent progressive voices.

Contrast this with the campaign run by Wisconsin judge Daniel Kelly for a seat on that state’s Supreme Court. Voters there had been closely divided in most top-of-the-ticket statewide races in recent years, with Democratic and Republican victors alike eking out narrow wins. But Kelly was pulverized by liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz, who ran on an unabashed abortion rights platform. Unlike Johnson, who carefully distanced himself from his party’s extremists (and his own record) on crime-related policy, Kelly embraced a conservative no-compromise position on abortion that state and national GOP leaders have been pushing ever since last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Three days after Kelley’s defeat, U.S. federal district judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ruled that the Food and Drug Administration had illegally approved the abortion prescription drug mifepristone, all but guaranteeing that reproductive rights will be a top-tier issue in next year’s elections. Republican candidates now must decide whether to link arms with their party’s most conservative voters or edge away from them. Their chosen path will determine the outcome of the 2024 campaign cycle.

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