What Can We Learn From The 2022 Midterms?
An evolving political map
What did we learn from the 2022 midterm elections? In part, that what are often treated as certainties in politics — or at least conventional wisdoms — can be challenged by the vote counts themselves. Election results can contain surprises, and as such, this fall's should provide some humility around predictions of what the next cycle might bring.
We often talk about how we are divided as a nation. Indeed, many of the elections were very close. In three states, the difference in vote tallies for Senate candidates came down to about a single percentage point. In Nevada and Wisconsin, incumbents Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Ron Johnson (R), respectively, held off their challengers. And in Georgia, the race between Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker is headed for a runoff. Close elections were also the hallmark of some state and local races; after a recount, a New Hampshire state house race came down to a single vote.
The red state-blue state dichotomy provides a useful lens regarding the nature of political power in America. In presidential races, the largely winner-take-all approach of the Electoral College means that national campaigns really aren’t national — they focus on only a few battleground states. Similarly, Senate representation also falls along the red-blue divide. Depending on what happens in Georgia, only five or six states will have one senator from each party.
All this can give the impression that our political contests are like the trench warfare of World War I, with two sides of roughly equal strength fighting over a very limited geography. But the 2022 midterm results prove that our political environment is more volatile and more nuanced than that.
In parts of New York and California, both of which have become solid blue states, Democrats lost many congressional races in districts that Biden had carried. And it wasn’t that long ago that Florida was considered a battleground: Governor Ron DeSantis won election to office in 2018 by less than half a percentage point. This time around, he crushed the Democrat by nearly 20 points, and Republican Senator Marco Rubio won reelection by more than 16 points. Democrats had faint hopes for an upset in Ohio, a state that was once up for grabs. But despite a strong candidate in Tim Ryan and a weak Republican in J.D. Vance, Vance ended up winning handily. Missouri was once considered the ultimate bellwether state — the definition of purple even before we talked about red, blue, and purple states. This election confirmed, however, that the Show-Me State is now solidly red.
In other parts of the country, Democrats performed better than would have been imaginable only a few years ago. Longtime conservative stronghold Arizona saw Democrats win most state elected offices, while incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Kelly was reelected (and it wasn’t that close). Donald Trump won Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in 2016; all three states elected Democratic governors in 2022. In Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro won by almost 15 points, and John Fetterman also prevailed. The story in Michigan is particularly encouraging for Democrats, as they swept into total control of state government behind Governor Gretchen Whitmer's double-digit win. Meanwhile, the Democrats secured the single House representative for Alaska, with incumbent Mary Peltola (who had only recently won a special election) defeating former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
What these election results indicate is that the political map is more fluid than we think. We tend to see trends emerging from a cycle or two and assume they are locked in. But in truth, there are so many factors involved. The Supreme Court ruling on abortion played a major role in helping Democrats this year, as did the legacy of Donald Trump. It is also clear that Republicans have made progress with some Latino voters and that the party has solidified its grip on rural America.
But as we look for lessons from 2022 for 2024 and beyond, a major one should be humility. We hold elections because our politics are up to voters — not pundits or prognosticators. Voters surprised us in many regions in ways that should comfort and worry both Republicans and Democrats. We are divided, and the balance of power does teeter on slim majorities in the House and Senate. But that does not mean that our politics are calcified. There can be — and frequently are — shifts and surprises. State political identities can evolve. And nothing should be taken as a given.
How do you see the political map and the lessons from this election?
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