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The midterms loom
That is all that remains between today and Election Day. Voting has already begun in many parts of the country.
For months, polls have shown race after race as tight, differences of a few percentage points here and there, within margins of error. But recently, those polls seem to suggest Republican momentum. How much? How far will it go? How real is it? We’ve been burned by polling errors in the past. Are they off again now? If so, in which direction? The spectrum of possible outcomes is almost as broad as the country itself.
Three weeks. And America’s future is on the ballot.
All elections are about the future of the country: Who will be granted the keys to power by the public? But not all elections are about the survival of American democracy itself. This one is. During the Republican primary season, candidates echoing the dangerous lies of the party’s leader, Donald Trump, about “stolen elections” and “voter fraud” won many races.
An anti-democratic current now subsumes the Republican Party. At the state level in particular, election-denying governors and secretaries of state could easily wreak havoc and undermine the fairness of future elections. Will they emerge victorious?
For many Democrats, independents, and even Republicans, an existential dread looms over these elections that drowns out any horse race analysis and the idea that this should be a “normal” election driven by issues like the economy. There is a deep and abiding fear, one that is warranted, that America’s system of governance is at a perilous crossroads. But how much has this apprehension affected the electorate at large?
The Republicans enter this election with several structural advantages. Perhaps the biggest one is that they are the party out of power in the House, Senate, and White House (it’s a different story for governors and state legislatures). Parties out of power in Washington tend to win in midterm elections, often big. Over the decades, it hasn’t mattered whether it was Republicans or Democrats in this position — both parties have won. And it has happened so frequently that it’s now almost taken as a given starting point for election analysis. But it doesn’t always happen. Will this be one of those years?
Then there’s the matter of the economy. And here again, the polling suggests it is the biggest concern among voters. The United States might be faring better than other countries in a global inflationary environment, but that is small comfort for those who are struggling with spiking bills for groceries, goods and services, and particularly gas. It’s not clear what Republicans’ proposed solutions would be (or even that they have any), but in election after election, voters have shown that they tend to be guided by their pocketbooks and punish or reward the party in power. In the current environment, sticker shock is hurting working families and people on fixed incomes.
Another Republican advantage is rooted in the way political power is distributed in the American system. Gerrymandering districts is a bipartisan affair, but those who analyze the drawing of electoral district maps tend to give Republicans the edge after the last census. It wasn’t as extreme as Democrats had feared, but a couple of bad breaks from the courts and state legislatures mean the Democrats start at a disadvantage, especially in their bid to keep the House.
Finally, there is the specter of Trump. We have seen the former president take over the Republican Party and infuse a fervor into millions of voters who enthusiastically bask in his cult of personality. They swelled voting ranks when he was on the ballot in 2016 and 2020. Those who understand Trump to be a dangerous autocrat don’t like it, but Trump still has a wide following fueled by a media and an online ecosystem where American problems are blamed exclusively on Democrats. Will these voters show up again in 2022?
Despite Republican momentum, this fall’s races still show some signs of being closer than a normal midterm with a struggling economy would indicate. For starters, while Trump is popular with his base, he is also despised by tens of millions of voters. After all, he lost reelection, which is a bit unusual for modern American presidents.
Trump has injected himself into the 2022 election, to the dismay of many Republican Party leaders. He refuses to cede the spotlight, especially as he worries about his pending legal woes. So while most former presidents tend to play a muted role — especially those who lost after a single term — Trump is everywhere. Will his presence remind voters who don’t like him — or even hate him — that there’s an election in which they should be voting?
Trump has also played kingmaker in anointing Republican candidates, especially in Senate races. This involvement has led to nominees who are underperforming in the polls considering GOP advantages, including in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The party can still win these races, and might even be favored, but the Democrats have a chance.
Another hope that Democrats have is anger, and anger can be a powerful motivator in getting your supporters to vote.
Perhaps the event that has done the most to shape these elections and give Democrats hope is the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe. By casting aside decades of precedent and wiping away fundamental rights that Americans had come to take for granted, the Republican-appointed justices on the court gave strong evidence of what many had warned but too few had heeded — that they are politicians in black robes using legal decisions to rewrite American society in ways they never could accomplish through legislative means.
They are acting without restraint and will continue to do so unless reined in by the other branches of government. The unpopularity of many Republican core positions is now out there for everyone to see, with a visceral impact that can be measured in the fraught experiences of real people. The fury generated by this ruling could turn the tide for Democrats in several key races.
For all who hoped Trump’s 2020 defeat would put the country on a more sane and less precarious course, the last two years have proven deeply disappointing. The January 6 committee has highlighted how close America came to a full-blown constitutional crisis that could have shattered our democratic institutions. That danger, as noted above regarding election-denying Republicans running for office, has spread like a pandemic of autocracy. Those who care about our democracy and the rule of law — and that includes many independents and traditional Republicans — are rightly livid and very worried. Will enough vote accordingly?
There are many other factors at play in addition to the ones listed above. They swirl around one another, but ultimately we are required to vote for a person, not a list of issues. And votes count only if they are cast. So it is every qualified citizen’s duty to vote, and to encourage others to do so.
Who will turn out? Who is persuadable? Who will win?
We will know a lot more in three weeks, although with the races this close, we should prepare ourselves that final results could take longer.
What we know right now is that the future of American democracy is on the ballot. Our core principles, our institutions, and our traditions are all at stake. Make no mistake: This country will look very different depending on who wins this election.
The reason why we hold elections is that voting matters. We do not decide our leaders by polls. Right now, there does seem to be a shift in the winds favoring Republicans. But mobilizing voters, getting people to the polls, making sure your side votes, are the actions that will determine the outcome. And that outcome, no matter what you are reading about or feeling today, has yet to be written.
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