The race to control Capitol Hill has passed the clubhouse turn and is approaching the finish line. Nobody wishes that the horserace was longer – surely not the Democrats, who have seen their fortunes fade in recent weeks. If American election campaigns seem interminable – Canadian political contests, which customarily consume a matter of weeks, are crisp in comparison – then there can only be relief in the termination of the political struggle.
Until, of course, it resumes in the next few weeks, when attention will turn to the 2024 presidential election. In the United States, Election Day is no holiday but politicking takes no holiday.
Tuesday’s elections – 34 for the Senate, 435 for the House of Representatives, 36 for the various governorships across the country – will determine the balance of power of the Congress and in the nation’s state houses, even as the country’s political narrative is in the balance.
With an electorate sharply divided, an aged warrior presiding in the White House, a former president raging on the rural heaths, mobilized women enraged about restrictions on abortion, and inflation surging through the economy, the political calculus could not be more complicated, the drama could not be more contentious, and the stakes could not be greater.
This is not a normal midterm political contest. Indeed, perhaps not for more than a half century – in 1970, with university campuses in an uproar, the Vietnam War tearing the country apart – has a midterm election been so fevered, the rhetoric so heated, the voters so motivated. But this time, the money involved is so much greater, the divisions so much deeper, democratic ideals so much more under assault.
In this atmosphere of acrimony, there are so many moving parts that the November election has no distinct colouration and instead has the shifting tints and chaotic movement of a kaleidoscope. And like that optical instrument, which operates through repeated reflection, all the elements of this vital contest are reflections of deeper tensions and fissures in American political culture.
Here are the questions that the election raises, and perhaps might answer.
Is this midterm election a judgment on President Biden?
Ordinarily midterm elections are referenda on the sitting president, almost always to his disadvantage. The 1970 election was a referendum on Richard Nixon’s policies in Vietnam (his Republican Party lost 12 seats in the House but picked up two in the Senate) while the 1982 election was a referendum on Ronald Reagan’s tax and budget cuts (his GOP lost 26 seats in the House). The two Democrats who followed did even worse; Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost 54 seats in the House in 1994 and Barack Obama’s Democrats lost 63 House seats in 2010.
Even with the late-summer improvement in Mr. Biden’s approval ratings, his relatively low standing surely will not help the Democrats. The latest Quinnipiac Poll put Mr. Biden’s approval rating at 36 per cent, with 53 percent of those surveyed saying they disapproved of his performance in office. The upshot: amid inflation worries, party strategists are trying to transform the election into an answer to the next question.
Is this election a judgment on former president Trump’s weakened standing?
The Democrats surely hope so. And they are being helped by poorly performing Trump-endorsed candidates for Congress and the nation’s state capitals; these Trump loyalists who have won GOP primaries with Mr. Trump’s endorsement now find themselves in a far-right lane that may be off-putting to some establishment Republicans and many Independents. Indeed, the Independents could hold the key to the election. The Gallup Poll shows that 24 per cent of Americans identify with the GOP, 30 per cent with the Democrats – but 43 per cent consider themselves Independents
So how will those Independents go?
Gallup found that the combination of avowed Republicans and Independents who lean to the GOP produces a total of 39 per cent of the country’s voters. Do the same exercise with Democrats and Independent leaners, and the total is 48 per cent.
Doesn’t that suggest that the Democrats will defy the historical trends?
Not necessarily. The historical trends are compelling; since 1934, the party holding the White House has suffered an average loss of 28 seats in the House and four in the Senate. The Democrats and their leaners are concentrated in states like California and New York and in various urban areas. The Republicans and their leaners are more widely distributed in districts across the country. It’s the phenomenon that gave Mr. Trump an Electoral College victory in 2016 even though Hillary Clinton swept the popular vote.
Haven’t the Republicans’ prospects diminished in the wake of the Jan. 6 hearings?
On the contrary. Through mid-July the GOP lead was pronounced, even robust. It began to fade after the damaging testimony about Mr. Trump’s plate-throwing anger about his election loss and the account of his efforts to commandeer his limousine to join the insurrection on Capitol Hill, and for a brief moment the Democrats actually held a tiny advantage in surveys asking voters whether they intended to vote for a Republican or a Democrat for the House. But beginning in early October the Republicans’ support has grown – and has done so substantially. The latest CBS/YouGov Poll showed that those surveyed preferred a generic Republican candidate over a generic Democratic candidate by 2 percentage points.
What’s the meaning of that?
It doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be 2 percent more Republicans in the House of Representatives in early January; these polls are conducted nationally but voters select their lawmakers locally, and their choices often involve the quality and personality of the candidates in their ridings and the primacy of regional issues – sometimes economic (manufacturing plant closures), sometimes cultural (controversies over school polices involving race or gender).
But those poll results do tell us something more subtle, though it is more a suggestion than an accurate political barometric reading: momentum. It seems to be with the GOP right now.
So what is the “Red Surge” that commentators are talking about, and why is it top of mind in the final days of the campaign?
The term relates to the enhanced prospects the Republicans have of sweeping to a large majority in the House and even to retaking power in the Senate. This is one of those mysterious phenomena that takes flight in the political class, based in part by instinct and in part by poll results. One indicator that is especially intriguing shows that, according to the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, about one in nine voters remain undecided about whom to support Tuesday – and 83 per cent of them believe the country is on the wrong track.
The reasons for this “Red Surge” are manifold, but increased worry about inflation, the rise of interest rates on home purchases to 7 per cent, and fresh worries about crime have contributed to Democratic barriers to retaining control of Capitol Hill.
Two other incidents have added fuel to the Republican firestorm. The first was the halting debate performance of John Fetterman, the once-promising Democratic nominee for the Senate in Pennsylvania who suffered a stroke in May. Although his courage in pressing on in the campaign against celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz has won him admiration, and though Democrats are arguing that physical disability does not diminish political ability, the late October debate swept away Democrats’ confidence that they could pick up the seat now occupied by GOP Senator Pat Toomey.
The latest Emerson College/The Hill survey showed that fully half of Pennsylvania’s likely voters said the debate worsened their opinion of Mr. Fetterman. The poll showed Dr. Oz inching ahead, but his lead is within the survey’s three-point margin of error.
Then, last week, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California was attacked by a hammer-wielding intruder at his home. The incident was an example of the threat of violence in American political life—but it also is possible that it subtly served to buttress Republican claims that crime is rampant in the United States, particularly in areas, such as California, that are governed by Democrats. In truth, crime in the country is not appreciably more evident. While criminal homicide increased by about 4 per cent between 2020 and 2021, according to figures assembled in the Conversation website by Justin Nix of the University of Nebraska’s department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, robberies decreased by 9 per cent and the rate of aggravated assaults was stable.
What does it mean for the Republican Party if the Trump-endorsed candidates lose?
It could mean a lot, if it looks like a solid repudiation of Mr. Trump in Senate races in states like Georgia and Ohio. That’s possible. Trump-backed senatorial and gubernatorial candidates in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Illinois, Maryland, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Michigan are being vastly outspent; Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, for example, is being outspent by Democrat Josh Shapiro by a staggering ratio of 27-to-1 in Pennsylvania. Moreover, in many if not most cases, these candidates are poor campaigners way out of the political mainstream.
Then again, it could mean very little if his favoured candidates flood into the House, take over the Republican caucus and propel Rep. Kevin McCarthy into the Speaker’s office. That new House majority would have a profile far different from any in the past, comprising election-deniers and far-right champions who will give the body an activist tone.
What would be the implications of a GOP-controlled House?
It could create immense problems for the President. A Republican House would mean its committees would have subpoena power, which is bad news for the administration (it will find itself under constant pressure from Capitol Hill). It will also be bad Mr. Biden himself (who will face calls for investigations into the activities of his son Hunter Biden and who may have to fend off calls for his impeachment).
It also would mean that even if the Democrats retain control of the Senate, which they very well may do, no Biden initiative will have a chance of being passed. The peculiar, cynical obverse of this is that Mr. Biden could possibly profit from the resulting paralysis; he could then argue that Republican intransigence in the House proves that the party isn’t suited for governing in 2024.
Did the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling change the dynamic?
Yes, but the extent of that change is unknown right now. The overturning of Roe v Wade surely mobilized women, though it is often forgotten that some of the women who were mobilized were pleased with the decision. Early indications suggest that women are racing to register to vote; more than half the new registrants in the month after the decision were women. In Kansas, where a referendum to tighten abortion restrictions was defeated this summer, nearly three-quarters of the new registrants in the week after the decision were women.
In Virginia, according to a recent poll by the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, the abortion ruling is a major factor for nearly half the voters in the midterms. And in Arizona, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs is hoping that the state’s new abortion restrictions, prompted by the Supreme Court’s actions, might propel women to the polls and help elect her to replace a GOP governor.
But these are Democratic hopes, not polling realities. A group of Harvard, Northeastern and Northwestern University scholars examined the so-called “abortion bump” and concluded that it was a momentary phenomenon that has vanished in recent weeks. The most dramatic example of this is in New Hampshire, where Democratic incumbent Senator Maggie Hassan calculated that her support of abortion rights would help her glide to re-election against Don Bolduc. Mr. Bolduc edged over Ms. Hassan in a poll for the first time last week, though his 1 percentage point advantage is within the margin of error of the Saint Anselm College Poll.
Will inflation (which hurts the Democrats) trump abortion (which hurts the Republicans)?
Every poll suggests that the economy is the bigger issue. When Gallup polled Americans this summer about the biggest problem the country faced, five times as many people chose economic issues over abortion. The slice of Americans who believed inflation was the biggest issue facing the country jumped from 36 percent in July to 44 percent, according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll. And the Quinnipiac Poll, released last week, showed that 41 percent of Independents rate inflation the most important issue. Here’s how that translates into 2022 midterm implications: Those who believe that economic issues are the preeminent issue support Republicans by more than a two-to-one margin.
Inflation tops the list of critical economic issues, so Democrats likely will strengthen their efforts to emphasize low unemployment.
But when new jobs-creation numbers were released last week showing a robust 261,000 new hires, nonetheless Republicans criticized what they called the “worst jobs report of the year.”
Even so, voters received their quarterly retirement investment reports in early October, just a month before the election, and the results were stunning; when the markets dropped into bear territory (a decline of 20 per cent), so did the Democrats’ prospects for November. These figures tell a woesome tale for Democrats: the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down nearly 25 percent this year, and the S&P 500 is down nearly 24 per cent. And as a result the rate of the public that viewed the economy going in the right direction has dropped 11 percentage points since the Wall Street Journal’s survey in August—an ominous signal for Democrats, because 48 percent of the public views congressional Republicans well suited on economic issues, as against 27 percent who regard the Democrats that way.
What will the midterms tell us about the 2024 presidential election?
Again: A lot, and a little.
First, the little: The public’s views on 2024 are clearly discernible weeks before the midterm results are in. The Republicans are not convinced Mr. Trump should be their next standard-bearer; the mid-September Washington Post/ABC News Poll shows that 47 per cent of Republicans want him to get the presidential nomination and 46 per cent prefer someone else – a substantial drop from the same poll three years ago, when Mr. Trump was in the White House and two-thirds of Republicans and Republican leaners wanted him to be renominated. Democrats generally prefer someone other than Mr. Biden to be nominated; more than half of party members and Democratic leaners in the Post/ABC Poll said they didn’t want the President on the ticket two years from now.
Now, the lot: A 2022 debacle for Trump-endorsed candidates would wipe away a lot of the 45th president’s lustre. A 2022 debacle for the Democrats, regardless of how close the defeated candidates portrayed themselves to Mr. Biden and his agenda, would wipe away what remains of the 46th President’s lustre. An Obama-style loss of five dozen seats could doom Mr. Biden’s chances of being renominated, or even seeking the nomination – not that he would admit that; no president likes being a lame-duck leader with two years remaining in his term.
And now, some perspective: History cautions us not to over-interpret midterm elections. Ronald Reagan won a landslide re-election in 1984, two years after his Republicans lost 27 seats in the House. Bill Clinton surged to a second term in 1996 two years after his Bill Clinton’s Democrats lost 52 House seats. Barack Obama won a second term two years after the Democrats lost 63 seats in 2010.
So with all this, what will set the tide for the midterms?
Just as real estate is a matter of location, location, location, this election is a question of turnout, turnout, turnout.
With two-thirds of voters telling the Post/ABC Poll that they believe these midterms are more important than past midterms – about the same rate that said that four years ago, when the turnout was the highest since 1914 as the First World War was two months old in Europe – then voters will clog U.S. polling stations and flood the mails with absentee ballots.
The question then redounds to the character rather than the number of voters. Mr. Trump will be a more important factor than Mr. Biden in that surge, which also will be powered by abortion opponents. If Trump backers turn out in great numbers, Democrats are in great jeopardy. If Trump opponents do so, the Republican effort to replicate midterm history and pick up substantial numbers of seats and governorships is in grave danger. And if the surge of voters is heavily female, then all bets are off and all precedents meaningless.
Isn’t there a surge of early voting right now, and what does that mean?
Some 40 million Americans have voted already, a figure higher than the total in the 2018 midterm elections. A Gallup Poll this month found that 41% of registered voters plan to vote early, by far the highest rate ever recorded for a non-presidential American election and 7 percentage points higher than the rate in the 2018 midterms. That could indicate unusually high interest in the election, which is probably what is powering the surge in Georgia, where 2.5 million already have voted; that state experienced the greatest number of early midterm voters in its history the day after the polls were opened, a flood even greater than in the last presidential election. It also could have political significance in some races. More than a million Pennsylvanians already have voted, many of them before Mr. Fetterman’s halting performance in the Pennsylvania Senate race, minimizing the damage the Democrat might suffer in that critical contest.
The folklore has it that the early voting favours Democrats, which is why Republicans are skeptical of the practice and in many states have sharply reduced it; their views are shaped by their bitter memories of how the vote tallies for Mr. Biden swelled after the polls closed and absentee ballots – which are different from early ballots – were counted. That may be why only 63 percent of Republicans favour early voting for at least two weeks prior to Election Day, as opposed to 91 percent of Democrats, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center poll.
But like many elements of folklore, the truth is far more nuanced. A study by three British political scientists that examined three presidential elections found that those who cast early ballots are the voters who have determined that they will participate in the election, and they tend to be Republicans. But every election is different, and there are strong suggestions that Democrats are outpacing Republicans in early voting this fall by as much as 3.5 percent in 11 battleground states. Once again, local factors – perhaps the sense of motivation felt by Black voters who support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Adams in Georgia, for example, or perhaps Republicans angered over the state’s surprising support of Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump two years ago – may be at play.