Midterm elections do little to predict the outcome of the presidential elections that follow them.
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all suffered significant midterm losses but went on to win re-election—by 18 points in Mr. Reagan’s case.
But midterm elections do uncover changes in the electorate that reshape the terrain of political competition. As I pointed out last week, the 2022 midterms strongly suggest that for the foreseeable future, Democrats will have to build Electoral College majorities without Florida, Ohio or Texas. There are also signs that Democrats must raise their game to retain the supermajorities of Hispanic, African-American, and Asian voters on which they have relied to counterbalance the Republicans’ large edge among white voters without college degrees.
The erosion of Democratic support among younger Hispanics and African-Americans suggests that past Democratic accomplishments for these groups are producing declining electoral results, which means that appeals to these groups must be more oriented toward the future. While it is too early to pinpoint the cause of declining Asian support for Democrats, anecdotal evidence suggests that perceptions of Democratic weakness on crime and ambivalence about achievement-based admissions to selective high schools and universities are eroding the party’s standing in this rapidly growing group.
There are warning signs as well for Republicans, who underperformed stunningly. Mainstream conservatives did well, but most of the swing-state senatorial and gubernatorial candidates backed by
went down. The voters who made the difference regarded these candidates’ positions on key issues as extreme and were more concerned about addressing current problems than about relitigating the 2020 presidential election.
The results of this year’s election challenged several long-held assumptions. Midterms are said to be referendums on the incumbent president. But 2022 turned out to be not one referendum but three—on
Donald Trump, and the Supreme Court. While all three lost, public disapproval of Trump Republicans and of the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade, muted the effects of public discontent with Mr. Biden’s performance on inflation, crime and immigration.
Since 1992, when
“It’s the economy, stupid” became the Clinton campaign’s mantra and a staple of political commentary, pundits have assumed that economic discontent spells doom for the incumbent party. If the 2022 midterms had gone badly for Democrats, a faction of Democrats were poised to argue that the party’s campaign focus on abortion and threats to democracy was a strategic mistake. Instead, we have been reminded of a saying much older than Mr. Carville’s: Man does not live by bread alone. When voters care about a range of issues, it can be sound political practice to go on offense where you are strong while playing defense in areas of weakness.
Although about a third of the electorate now identifies as independent, political scientists have found that most of these voters lean toward one of the major parties and that the behavior of these “leaners” is much the same as that of voters who identify as Democrat or Republican. But this year, independents broke ranks to oppose Trump-backed Republicans, while nearly all Republican identifiers backed them. In Georgia, for example, Republican Gov.
received 49% of the independent vote in his successful re-election campaign, while
received only 42% in the first round of his challenge to incumbent Democratic Sen.
In Ohio, Republican senatorial candidate J.D. Vance split independent voters with
while Republican Gov.
carried them by 25 points.
Nationwide, the preferences of independents go a long way toward explaining Republicans’ mediocre performance in 2022. In 2006, when Democrats retook the House after 12 years in the minority, they won independents by 18 points. In 2010 Republicans took it back, carrying independents by 19 points. In 2014 Republicans expanded their House majority while winning 54% of independent votes. In 2018 Democrats returned the favor, winning 54% of this vote to regain control of the House. In all these cases, independents turned strongly against the incumbent president’s party.
But this year, Democrats prevailed among independents by 2 points in the exit polls and 3 points in the AP VoteCast survey, even though independents disapproved of Mr. Biden’s performance as president. Their opposition to Trump Republican candidates and the abortion decision was strong enough to neutralize their traditional preference for the out-party in midterm elections, giving Republicans only a tiny House majority and leaving them with a Senate minority.
The results of the 2022 midterm election offer a lesson for both political parties: Despite the intensifying partisan polarization of the past two decades, swing voters still exist, and they pay attention to parties’ selection of candidates and issues. Mobilization of the party faithful is necessary but not sufficient; persuasion of voters who see the strengths and weaknesses of each side is essential. Our politics would improve if both parties made their appeals to a wider range of voters.
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