What to Look for in the Mid-term Elections

Four days to go.  As America heads into the final weekend before the midterms we can begin to speculate about what it means for the country.  Here are a few key questions that the election will (likely/hopefully) provide some answers for.

Was this a referendum or choice election? 

Midterm elections are traditionally referendums on the party in power.  The 1994 election was a referendum on Bill Clinton’s first two years – and his party lost the majority.  2006 was a referendum on George W. Bush’s Iraq war, and his party lost the majority.  2010 was a referendum on Barack Obama’s first two years and his party lost the majority in the House and four seats in the Senate.  2018 was a referendum on Donald Trump’s first two years – and his party lost the majority in the House.  If Republicans win back the majority in the House or Senate or both the 2022 midterms will likely be considered a referendum election.  But the margins will matter.  Republicans only need a net 5 seats in the House and a net 1 seat in the Senate.  Given the President’s current approval rating and the right/track wrong track numbers, a narrow Republican victory might suggest that “choice” played a role as well as referendum. 

Is the electorate continuing to evolve? 

In recent election cycles the country has seen a slow but significant transformation of the 2 parties’ electoral base.  The Republican base has trended more rural, lower income and less educated – as well as more racially diverse as the Republicans have made gains particularly with Hispanic voters.  The Democratic base has shifted up the income scale, with higher educational attainment and more urban.   The midterms will show if these trends are continuing, growing, or reversing.

What issues drove Suburban White Women? 

One mid-October Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed, “More than four in ten (44%) women voters, ages 18-49, say they are more motivated to vote this year compared to previous elections, and most of them (59%) say the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has made them more motivated to vote.”  But a late October Wall Street Journal poll found “White suburban women, a key group of midterm voters, have significantly shifted their support from Democrats to Republicans in the closing days of midterm campaigning because of rising concerns over the economy and inflation … The new survey shows that white women living in suburban areas, who make up 20% of the electorate, now favor Republicans for Congress by 15 percentage points, moving 27 percentage points away from Democrats since the Journal’s August poll.”  This is a key voting demographic in any election – so what issues ultimately determine their vote will have a significant impact on the policy agenda moving forward. 

How did the Election Systems Hold up? 

There are likely going to multiple close elections.  Many of those elections will face challenges – the election lawyers always arrive the day after the election.  But this election is the first one post 2020 and January 6th.  Will states be able to count ballots in a timely manner?  Did voters have access to the ballot?  Will voters on both sides accept the outcomes of close elections?  Did the midterms strengthen or weaken the people’s faith in free and fair elections?

How Did Polling Perform?  

The polling industry has been under scrutiny for a while, but most acutely after 2016 presidential election when the polls missed that Donald Trump could win the presidency.  The general performance in 2020 was also not spectacular.  At a time when the country is narrowly divided and more voters concerned about election integrity – having the polls miss is not ideal.  There will be a great deal of attention on how the polls predicted the midterms – notoriously difficult races for polls to get accurate.  There are 435 House races, 35 Senate races and limits to the resources devoted to getting all the required polls correct. 

Does an agenda emerge from the Electorate? 

To put it gently, in terms of policy this hasn’t been the most substantive campaign in modern history.  Voters are concerned about inflation – there is not an off the shelf list of policy proposals to fight inflation.  The Federal Reserve largely handles that issue.  Crime and education – 2 top tier issues – are more traditionally handled at the local level.  Immigration and border security appears to be favoring Republicans, but the election cycle does not yet appear to be bringing the parties closer to consensus.  Republicans are focused on increasing domestic energy production and Democrats concerned about reducing dependence on fossil fuels and addressing Climate Change.  There is, however, an emerging consensus in both parties to get tougher on China – and that could be a focus of some bipartisan compromise.  But, this appears like an election where the congressional agenda will emerge AFTER the election and less driven by what happens in the election. 

What does this mean for 2024? 

If it hasn’t started already, the 2024 presidential campaign kicks off on Wednesday morning.  But the outcome of the 2022 midterms will shape the early narrative around the presidential election.  A red wave will renew chatter about whether President Biden should run for reelection.  A narrow Republican victory – or Democrats holding majorities in one or both Houses will strengthen the President’s standing among Democrats.  Former President Trump will want to take credit for a strong Republican night – a case that would be strengthened if many of his chosen candidates thought weak or too extreme wind up winning.   

As we head into the final weekend it is important and worth noting – the attention and enthusiasm of voters in both parties and among independents appear to be way up for this year’s midterm elections.  That’s a good thing!  On Monday we will provide a final look at the status of the election. 


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