Culture Wars/Current Controversies

America’s November Surprise: What do the U.S. midterm elections say about the country’s changing political life?

The Signal

What do the U.S. midterm elections say about the country’s changing political life? Bill Scher on the end of one election cycle and how it’s shaping the next.
David Vives
David Vives
Defying almost universal expectations and well established historical patterns, the Democratic Party retained its control of the U.S. Senate in last week’s midterm elections. The opposing Republicans wrested back power in the U.S. House of Representatives, but will have won only a very narrow majority after several outstanding races are called—and when all is said and done, will likely have an advantage in the House of fewer than 10 seats. This result is so pervasively surprising, given that parties out of power usually rebound in U.S. midterm contests, that it’s prompted an unusual emerging consensus across the American ideological spectrum—that Republicans’ current brand of politics, particularly its association with Donald Trump and his effort to deny and overturn President Joe Biden’s electoral victory in 2020, is becoming toxic to voters. Yet meanwhile, on Tuesday, Trump declared his own intentions for the 2024 presidential campaign from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida: “In order to make America great and glorious again, I am tonight announcing my candidacy for president of the United States.” What’s happening here?
Bill Scher is a U.S. journalist and a contributor to The Washington Monthly and Politico Magazine. As Scher sees it, the Democrats over-performed against the expectations in American media coverage for a number of reasons—not least a growing concern among voters about the threat to democracy represented by extremist conspiratorial rhetoric among Republican candidates. As Scher notes, many of the Republican candidates running for governor or secretary of state—offices that specifically oversee election administration—lost pivotal races in competitive states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. To Scher, this election is far from a broad validation of the Democratic Party’s priorities and performance; but it does demonstrate the resilience of a left-of-center political coalition in the United States against Trump’s coalition over the last three election cycles. The Democrats face uncertainties and intra-party disputes that will continue to affect them for the foreseeable future, Scher says, but at the moment, they’re more unified and sure-footed than the Republicans—who may be on the verge of a brutal internal battle over the question of whether Trump continues to lead them.
Graham Vyse: What do you see as the most important implications of the U.S. midterm elections?
Bill Scher: The single most important implication is that most Americans are losing interest in Trumpism generally and election denialism specifically. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily supportive of the Democratic Party’s platform—in fact, exit polls showed that many U.S. voters have misgivings about where Democrats stand—but if the choice is between Democrats and Republicans specifically associated with a threat democracy, those voters will tend to favor the Democrats. We’ve now had three election cycles in a row—2018, 2020, and 2022—in which Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party has been limiting its voter appeal. This latest cycle has shown that most definitively.
Vyse: What were the most important issues at stake in this election, and how would you say they affected the outcome?
Scher: The entire campaign was a clash of narratives: Republicans said the U.S. was facing big crises with inflation and crime. Democrats said America was facing big crises with threats to democracy and abortion access—following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which ended a national right to abortion earlier this year.
To be clear, both parties made arguments that resonated. It’s not as if voters said, We don’t care about inflation or crime. But understanding that exit-poll data is imperfect, it showed abortion was nearly as important to voters as inflation, so Democrats benefited from making that issue central to their argument. It doesn’t completely explain how well they did, but it certainly kept the Democratic base engaged and probably helped attract some college-educated moderates. The closing argument that Joe Biden and Barack Obama made emphasized that “democracy is on the ballot.” That evidently resonated.
Vyse: This emphasis was controversial. Critics argued that Democrats were wasting their time—and maybe even hurting their cause—by talking about threats to democracy, which could have been seen as less pressing concerns than inflation, crime, and the like. In retrospect, it appears Democrats made the right decision.
Scher: Democratic politicians and political groups also made a last-minute effort to warn voters that Republicans would try to cut Medicare and Social Security, so that was in the mix too. But they absolutely made the right decision to talk about democracy. All the election deniers running for secretary of state in swing states lost their races. It seems like it’s not just Democrats but also independents and some Republicans who thought election denial was a bridge too far.
The most heartwarming aspect of this midterm was that democracy was on the ballot in America and democracy won. Both of the country’s political parties have embraced flawed narratives about the state of U.S. democracy in recent years, and these narratives keep being disproven by election results. On the left, the flawed narrative has been that Democrats couldn’t win elections unless they pass a bunch of expansive voting-rights measures. On the right, the narrative—led by Trump—has been that Republicans couldn’t win elections unless they denied that Joe Biden was rightfully elected president in 2020. What we’ve learned is that American voters care about democracy—and are willing to vote to protect it.
This isn’t to say that new voting-rights measures are unnecessary; but these measures will be much easier to pass, and gain much broader public legitimacy, if both parties do it together, realizing—and publicly communicating—that it won’t give one side or the other an advantage, as the evidence shows it doesn’t.
Marilyn Murry
Marilyn Murry
More from Bill Scher at The Signal:
There was much more party unity among Democrats in these midterm elections than usual. This time, they weren’t forming a “circular firing squad,” as they say. If anything, there was a circular firing squad among Republicans, who struggled to maintain their focus on Democrats’ weaknesses. The Republicans got there toward the end, on the issues of inflation and crime—but a lot of their candidates were unsure about what to say on the issue of abortion rights, for instance. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina endorsed a 15-week federal ban, and Republicans didn’t have a unified position on whether to support that—or even take a position on it.”
To see how significant all of this is, it’s helpful to look at an academic analysis of U.S. midterm elections from 2010—by the political-science professors Joseph Bafumi of Dartmouth, Robert S. Erikson of Columbia, and Christopher Wlezien of Temple. They noted that an American president’s job-approval rating doesn’t necessarily correlate with how well his party does in midterms. And they concluded that these elections tend not to be referendums on the president and his party but rather about “balancing” governance in Washington—moving it back toward the political center. The most obvious and typical way to “balance” governance is to give the opposition party more power. But if the opposition party seems like a source of further imbalance, you get a different dynamic.”
[Trump’s] speech was focused on making the case that he’s great and Biden is terrible—that everything Trump did as president was awesome, and America should go back to being awesome again. There’ve been plenty of times recently when he’s criticized other Republicans, but that wasn’t how he wanted to start a new campaign. He wanted to be seen as the party leader. Based on the speech he just gave, his inner circle seems to think that he shouldn’t make this race about the 2020 election. And you could see him trying to stick to a script along those lines and appear more traditionally presidential. But if historical patterns hold here, Trump’s going to be Trump; he doesn’t stick to a script for very long.”


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