It will take a while to unpack what happened and why in last Tuesday’s midterm elections. It may take a month to count all the votes, and many months before voter files from each state will be available and carefully studied. But first, a bit of a quibble over semantics: Since Tuesday, the nearly universal characterization has been of a “red wave” that wasn’t. I certainly have no problem with use of the wave metaphor to describe elections and have used it plenty times in the past (in fact in 1994, having returned earlier in the year from a trip to Hawaii and to a restaurant by the name, I think I coined the political use of “tsunami” to describe that Republican wave election). Two years ago, there was what appeared to be a blue wave that dissipated at the end.
But I do not recall much use of the term "wave" going into this election. I know I didn’t use it. President Biden’s low approval numbers, a very pessimistic electorate suffering from 40-year high inflation, and a majority believing the country was already in a recession would surely make for a challenging year for Democrats. The question was, how bad would the election be for Democrats, and to what effect? My view was that Democrats would be lucky to keep House losses under 20 seats and suffer a net loss of no more than a single Senate seat.
A party losing a majority in either chamber could be seen as a bad night, and as of this writing, Democrats are almost certain to lose their House majority, if only barely. But keeping their losses to only a handful of House seats while holding the Senate under these circumstances is truly extraordinary.
Under the hood, things get even more paradoxical. Reflecting on the high turnout, David Shor, one of the smartest number-crunchers in the Democratic Party, told New York magazine that “it looks like the electorate was about 2 percent more Republican than it was in 2020. Republicans literally outnumbered Democrats, according to the AP’s VoteCast. And yet Democrats still won.” In fact, Republicans so far have beaten Democrats by about 4.9 percentage points in the national popular vote for the House, 51.7 to 46.8 percent, a result that would normally translate into GOP gains of 20-30 seats.
Simply put, Republicans picked up the votes they needed, just not where they needed them most. Clearly something or someone intervened, affecting the outcome of the election in the places that mattered.
This time, candidate quality and the toxicity of former President Trump and the MAGA movement hurt certain Republicans where it mattered most. Some of these “non-traditional” candidates managed to win over the support of GOP primary voters but were unable to appeal to that narrow slice of voters in the middle of the broader November electorate. Republicans in the more conventional, legacy wing of the party did pretty well, but in case after case, Trump waded into the recruiting process and primaries on behalf of non-traditional candidates who went on to lose races that a placebo running as a Republican might have won.
Among independents in the places it mattered, it turned out to be a real dealbreaker. Despite the fact that independents disapproved of Biden’s performance by a wide margin and were pessimistic about both the country and economy, they voted Democratic by a margin of 42 to 38 percent, according to the Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll, and by a count of 49 to 47 percent in the AP VoteCast survey.
In The Wall Street Journal last week, Karl Rove, architect to George W. Bush’s electoral successes, wrote: “Many of these remarkably weak candidates came courtesy of Donald Trump, who didn’t vet his endorsements. … Mr. Trump turned what should have been a referendum on Mr. Biden’s terrible record into a choice between himself and the current president. As in 2020, lots of voters chose Mr. Biden.”
Americans are not a radical people. They resist change if it seems too much or too quick. Political scientists, pollsters, and analysts call it a thermostatic reaction. When your house gets too cold, you turn the thermostat up. If it gets too hot, you turn it down. When a candidate or political party is seen as going too far, there is a knee-jerk reaction to go in the opposite direction. While I expected that reaction, I thought it was more likely to be a reaction to the surprisingly aggressive and progressive policy and regulatory agenda pursued by Biden and Democrats. In fact, it turned out that voters found Trump and the MAGA movement an even graver concern. America has always had a spirited public debate, but much of what we have seen over the last half-dozen years crossed the line into radical in the minds of many.
One thing we don’t have to unpack is the realization that abnormal has become the new normal.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on November 14, 2022.
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