Don’t count your hens before your eggs hatch. This adage seems to be the best description of the November 8 midterm elections. In the spring, a red tsunami seemed to be gathering to sweep across Capitol Hill, giving Republicans control of the House and Senate. Now, just seven weeks from Election Day, Democrats are favored to retain control of the Senate and appear to have reduced Republicans’ presumed lead in House races.
Trends looked good for Republicans in March, and even better in July. The opposition party almost always wins House seats midterm, and Republicans needed just five seats to reclaim the president’s gavel. Over the past seventy-five years, the president’s party has lost, on average, twenty-nine House seats in every president’s first midterm election. The president’s party hurts especially when the president is struggling in the polls. Joe Biden’s average job approval rating in March was just 42% and by July it had risen to 37%. Add to that the fact that inflation was at a forty-year high, Republican voters were far more enthusiastic about the midterm elections than Democrats by any measure, and far more Democratic incumbents than Republicans were giving up their seats, and it’s easy to see why Republicans couldn’t wait until November.
Elections and Voting
The main consolation for Democrats in the spring and summer was that the midterm reviews were still months away. It can be a lifetime in politics. And so it was. Biden’s average overall approval rating rebounded from where it was in March, again standing at 42%. Other trends have moved even more decisively in favor of the Democrats. To take just one, Democrats now hold a three-point advantage on the so-called generic ballot – a polling device that asks people to say whether they would vote for an unnamed Democratic candidate or a unnamed Republican candidate. In March, the Republicans had a five-point lead.
The change is also visible in the actual votes. In five recent special elections to fill seats in the Open House, the Democratic nominee has fared better than expected based on the 2020 election. Democrats even snagged a seat. These and other developments explain why FiveThirtyEight.com gives Democrats a seven-in-ten chance of retaining control of the Senate and nearly a three-in-ten chance of retaining control of the Senate. And that’s why the Cook report says that GOP control of the House is no longer a “fatality.”
What explains the change in dynamics from red to blue? Political scientists will debate this question for years. They have a long list of conflicting explanations. Gas prices have fallen steadily since early spring, blunting an important Republican talking point. Democrats passed the Cut Inflation Act, silencing criticism that they were a “doing nothing” majority in Congress. The House hearings on the Jan. 6 insurrection raised troubling questions about how then-President Donald Trump and some sitting Republican members of Congress might have encouraged the assault on the Capitol. Extreme candidates have won Republican primaries in several states, confirming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fear that Republicans will prove their worst enemy by seeking to retake the Senate.
But any account of the changing dynamics of the 2022 midterm elections will have to take into account the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs vs. Jackson. The Court’s rejection of Roe vs. Wade sent shockwaves through American politics. A few simple numbers give an idea of the impact. The number of independent women voters has changed by twenty percentage points in favor of the Democrats between March and August. In ten states where voter registration data is available, the percentage of women registered to vote increased by about 35% after Dobbs, compared to the month before the leak of a draft opinion on the decision. So-called persuasive voters, that is, voters who do not vote reliably for either party, appear to be breaking disproportionately for Democrats compared to previous elections. Data like this prompted a Democratic strategist to write that “now is the time to throw old political assumptions out the window and consider that Democrats could reverse the historic trends of this cycle.”
But, but, but. Current trends are hardly set in stone. Seven weeks can be a lifetime in politics. Events could prevent the Democratic push. Red state efforts to limit early voting and mail-in ballots could lower Democratic turnout. Polls could, as has happened in the past, overestimate the strength of Democratic candidates and underestimate the strength of Republican candidates.
Elections and Voting
There is a danger lurking behind all these numbers and projections. We assume the country will know on election night which party will control each house of Congress, because we almost always know. But if Election Day is a washout rather than a tidal wave, clarity could give way to confusion and controversy. Close elections make every individual race critical, and each midterm election produces a handful of races that take days or weeks to call.
Add to the fact that some Republican candidates are already hesitant to say whether they will accept the results of their races even if the result is decisive – a position the Democrats could easily emulate – then we could potentially see a country in disarray. As is clear from the fact that a majority of Republicans believe against the evidence that Trump won in 2020, facts and unbiased analysis won’t necessarily change their minds.
So, rather than setting the country on a new, more stable path, the 2022 midterm elections could further fuel political dysfunction and division in the United States.
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Margaret Gach and Michelle Kurilla contributed to the preparation of this post.