Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks in the State Dining Room at the White House on Nov. 9, in Washington, DC.SAMUEL CORUM/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden has long benefited from low expectations.

He struggled during the 2020 Democratic primaries, fighting off charges that he was both too old and too old-school to excite the party’s base. Yet, he bested progressive darlings Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren to become the party’s nominee. And he went on to beat Donald Trump in critical swing states that had put the MAGA Republican in the White House in 2016.

Now, after experiencing the least-bad midterm result for a first-term president in two decades, Mr. Biden has once again defied his naysayers.

How much personal credit he deserves for holding back an expected Republican tide in Tuesday’s midterm elections is up for debate. But Mr. Biden has earned historical bragging rights by achieving what Bill Clinton and Barack Obama could not.

He was helped by the fact that there are far fewer competitive House of Representatives districts now than there were in 1994 and 2010, respectively, when Democrats suffered massive midterm losses. Still, House Republicans underperformed everywhere outside of Florida and New York on Tuesday, and more endangered Democrats held on to their seats than expected.

When all the votes are counted, Republicans are still likely to emerge with a slim House majority. That might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Mr. Biden. The GOP House delegation will be divided almost equally between Trump loyalists and those seeking to move beyond the party’s MAGA nightmare. The man likely to become the new Republican House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, will be lucky to get through the next two years in one piece.

The last two Republican Speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, both threw in the towel after concluding that a career as a cat herder would be simpler than trying to hold together their unruly caucuses. And they both had much bigger majorities than Mr. McCarthy’s to play with. They could allow their most right-wing caucus members to vote against their party without jeopardizing the passage of GOP-sponsored bills; Mr. McCarthy will have a harder needle to thread.

If he bows to the demands of the Trump acolytes – still the dominant faction in the party – Mr. McCarthy could be setting the GOP up for a disastrous result in 2024. By launching partisan investigations into the Biden administration, or the President’s son Hunter, the GOP risks being punished by voters two years from now for overreaching, if not for its sheer nastiness.

Indeed, if American voters sent any discernible message at all to Washington on Tuesday, it is that they want their sanity back. They rejected Trump-backed Senate candidates in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, and incomplete results in the Arizona Senate race continue to favour the Democratic incumbent over his Trump-endorsed rival. Pre-election polls had favoured the GOP in all three races. In the end, independent voters broke solidly for the Democratic candidate.

That was just one of the outcomes that most pollsters did not see coming. After underestimating MAGA support in the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, many established polling firms adjusted their voter samples this year to account for those past errors. But they ended up overcorrecting, leading some to predict a red wave on Tuesday.

In the end, voters threw plenty of curveballs at the political class. While inflation and the economy were by far the dominant issues on the minds of voters – foreshadowing bad news for Democrats – it turns out those issues had less influence than expected in the most critical Senate and House races.

Nationally, according to CNN exit polling, fully 62 per cent of those who described the state of the economy as “not so good” voted Democrat on Tuesday, defying most midterm precedents on the books. Exit polling also showed that independent voters broke 49 per cent to 47 per cent for Democrats, Historically, when voters think the economy is in bad shape, they blame the president’s party. This year, not so much.

Some GOP strategists had dreamed of nominating moderate former or current Republican governors in New Hampshire, Arizona and Maryland to run for the Senate or House. Instead, GOP primary voters in those states followed Mr. Trump’s dictates and chose the most radical election-deniers on the ballot. That was a gift to Democrats.

In districts where the GOP nominated moderate candidates who rejected Mr. Trump’s false claims of a “stolen” 2020 election, such as in the Democratic-leaning New York City suburbs, the party was typically rewarded. Republican Mike Lawler even defeated Democratic incumbent Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the powerful Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in New York’s 17th district.

None of this means that the faction Mr. Biden referred to as the “super mega MAGA Republicans” on Wednesday has been marginalized. But things seem to be moving in the right direction.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe