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29 November 2022

Gridlock: The midterms that leave Washington in paralysis


American politics tends to be characterised by one rigid rule: the party controlling the presidency is punished in the Midterms.


Looking at the past century, the President’s party has on average lost 26 seats in the House of Representatives, and four seats in the Senate. There are three exceptions to this. In 1962, the elections after the Cuban Missile Crisis significantly boosted Kennedy’s popularity. In 1998, voters punished the Republicans for their perceived partisanship during the Lewinsky Affair. Thirdly, Bush made gains in 2002, during the highly unique politics of the 9/11 aftermath.


The 2022 midterms are perhaps a fourth exception. Prior to the election, pundits were generally forecasting a ‘red wave’. The general assumption was that the Republicans would easily take control of the House, and that the Senate would lean Republican, but the result would be extremely close. The polling in many of the closest races would be essentially on a knife-edge.


Democrats managed to hold onto the Senate, winning all of their key races in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Nevada. Georgia will go to a runoff, on December 6th, as it did in 2020. If the Democrats win, they will have made a net gain of one seat and become the first party in one hundred years to defend all of their Senate seats in a midterm election.  


In the House, the Republicans squeaked out a victory by the finest of margins. 218 seats are required for a majority, and the Republicans won 221. This is very much a pyrrhic victory and sets the party, and Washington, up for an utterly chaotic two years. 


Whilst not a ‘blue wave’, the results are impressive in a historical context. 


This is especially the case when we consider the current political climate. Biden has a very low approval rating; inflation is at a 40 year high, and the American economy is heading into a recession. Polling has found that 70% of Americans are unhappy with the direction their country is heading in. By all metrics, the Democrats should have lost heavily, as would be expected in a normal midterm cycle.


So, how do we explain these anomalous results and what do they tell us about the state of American politics? I believe that there are three explanations for the Democrat’s relative overperformance. 


Firstly, candidate quality was a significant issue for the Republicans, especially in the Senate.  The evidence for candidate quality being a factor is the significant amount of ticket splitting which occurred between Senate and Governors races. This is when voters choose candidates from different parties for different races.  


In New Hampshire, Senator Maggie Hassan won her race by 9.6 points, but the Republican candidate for the Governorship won his race by 15.7 points, (a 25-point gap). Hershel Walker, the Republican Senate candidate in Georgia ran eight points behind his Republican counterpart. He (Walker) is a particularly poor candidate, having been accused of multiple counts of domestic abuse, and paying for his girlfriend to have an abortion whilst publicly advocating strict pro-life policies. Even in Ohio, where the Republicans won, Senate candidate JD Vance ran 16 points behind his gubernatorial counterpart. The split ticketing phenomenon was also seen in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin. 


Former President Trump has been heavily blamed for these failures by his party.


His endorsements were decisive in getting these candidates onto the ballot in the key states. This meant that more moderate candidates, who did not align themselves with Trump either chose not to run or lost their primaries against Trump endorsed candidates. Since the election, Trump has shown  no signs of remorse. Instead, he has doubled down on his messages, arguing that the candidates lost because they did not push his divisive rhetoric sufficiently.


Republicans also seem to have been punished for questioning the integrity of the 2020 election, and for the disgraceful sequence of events which led to the riots at the Capitol on January 6th. In general, most of the candidates who directly questioned the 2020 results lost their races last Tuesday. This is especially the case in some of the most important races, such as the Pennsylvania Senate Race, and the Arizona Governorship. 


Election deniers seem to have fared particularly poorly amongst Independents, who tend to be the deciding constituency in American elections. This is an undoubtedly positive development for American democracy. The shocking  riots at the Capitol seemed to signal that the American system was on the precipice of collapse.The fact that voters have rejected these election deniers should serve as a lesson to Republicans. It is also encouraging to see that almost all of these candidates conceded their races as would be expected.

Lastly, it is clear that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade this summer galvanised Democrats and played a key role in ensuring 2022 was not an ordinary set of midterms. Abortion has typically functioned as a low salience issue, if anything favouring Republicans at the ballot. However, exit polling data indicates that abortion was one of the most important issues for voters across the country. Democrats ran heavily on protecting abortion rights and in general have been rewarded for these positions.  


The 2022 results leave American politics in a very interesting position as we head into 2024. Undoubtedly, President Biden’s position is more secure than it was. Prior to the election, Biden’s perceived cognitive decline left many wondering whether it would be wise for him to run for another four years, given he would be 86 by the end of his potential second term. However, these surprising results will leave the party wondering whether sticking to a known quantity leaves them the best place to win.


It is important to note that many of the unique factors of this election will not necessarily be there to bolster the Democrats’s position in two years. 


The Republicans face a far bigger challenge. Despite being blamed for the Republican’s woeful results, Trump has already announced his candidacy for the 2024 election. It remains to be seen whether another candidate would be able to stop Trump from winning the Republican nomination.  


Ron de Santis is the likeliest challenger and was arguably the biggest single winner of the midterms. He was re-elected to the Florida Governorship in a landslide, and Republicans across the state performed very well. Many Conservatives are already suggesting that he is best placed to revive the Republican’s fortunes. However, Trump remains a giant of Republican politics and it is very unclear how his huge base of supporters will react to these disappointing results. There is also the possibility that Trump loses the nomination but runs as an Independent, which would all but assure a Democratic victory. 


By winning the House, the Republicans will be able to block the more progressive parts of Biden's agenda, especially when it comes to issues such as climate change. The minuscule margin of victory means that governing the Republicans in the House will become all but impossible. It seems likely that congressional politics will essentially be a stalemate for the next two years, in many ways mirroring the latter half of the Trump presidency. 


The Democrats will be delighted to have maintained their majority in the Senate.  Whilst it will not allow them to pass any substantive pieces of radical legislation, it will mean they can keep appointing judges. This is incredibly important, as we see the impact of Trump’s conservative judiciary continuing to unfold today.


Despite leaving us in a gridlock, the midterms did confirm one thing. We are in for at least another two years of chaotic American politics, and that unpredictability is set to remain its most defining characteristic.

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