The US Midterm Elections: What to Watch For

Progressive Politics Elections

The US Midterm Elections: What to Watch For

Commentary
Posted on: 4th November 2022
By Multiple Authors
Brianna Miller
Researcher
Harry Summers
Political Researcher

 

Key Points

  • According to most polling, the Democrats will most likely lose the House of Representatives. The future of the Senate is less certain, but polling is predicting that the Democrats will lose this too.
  • Key factors that will impact the outcome of the midterm election include abortion rights, the state of the economy, Biden’s approval rating and how successful Trump-backed candidates will be.
  • The Democrats used far more of their advertising budget on abortion-rights advertising than they did on advertisements for other key issues like the economy and crime; however, this does not align with the level of importance voters placed on those issues.
  • If the Democrats lose out in the House or Senate, the issues at stake are Joe Biden’s legislative agenda in the second half of his presidency and the impact it may have on Donald Trump’s decision on whether or not to run in the 2024 presidential election.

 

Overview

The president’s party almost always loses ground in US midterm elections. And in the rare cases when they don’t, “good” results are never actually that good. This historical trend is about as close to a guarantee as you can get in US politics. So, the question is: how much ground will the incumbent party lose in November?

Although most polls still show the Democrats losing the House and potentially the Senate, how much ground they will lose is less certain. While abortion was a hot button issue over the summer, as the midterms get closer it has become clear that Democrats may have overestimated how much it would be a defining factor for swing voters. Instead, the issue that polls the highest in terms of what matters the most to voters is the economy.

The shadow of former President Donald Trump also looms large in the minds of Americans as they head to the polls for the midterm election. The primaries, where he racked up an endorsed-candidate winning percentage of 88 per cent, showed that Trump’s influence on the GOP is still very strong. While he endorsed many unchallenged incumbents, even taking these races into consideration he still came out with a positive record.

This blog sets out four key factors that will play a crucial part in determining how the midterm elections unfold.

 

What We’re Watching

Reproductive Rights Are on the Ballot, But How Much Influence They’ll Have Isn’t Clear

The landmark Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade should have been an outcome that the Republican party championed going into this year’s midterm elections. After all, pro-life policies have been a cornerstone of the Republican party’s policy platform since the 1970s.

However, the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the wave of state-level abortion bans that swept the country afterwards galvanised pro-choice voters around the US and led to an increase in women registering to vote for the first time.

The public backlash, compounded by the rejection of a ballot measure to remove the right to an abortion in Kansas, a deep-red state, served as a warning sign to some Republicans that their position on abortion could be a decisive factor in their midterm success. Many Republican candidates have since weakened their anti-abortion rhetoric online and in their campaigns.

A key demographic for this year’s midterms, women who identify as independent voters, initially punished Republicans for their stance on abortion. A New York Times/Siena poll found that this group favoured Democrats by 14 points in September. However, as of mid-October, that same group swung right and now favours Republicans by 18 points. The same poll found that the economy ranked as a bigger issue than abortion, with high inflation and the rising cost of living at the forefront of voters’ minds.

The importance voters placed on other key issues like the economy and crime was not reflected, however, in Democratic strategy: in particular in campaign advertisements.

For example, CNN analysis of AdImpact data found that in October alone, the spend for broadcast TV advertisements for Democrats was:

  • $214 million (45 per cent of total advertising money spent by the party at the time) on abortion advertisements.
  • $79 million on crime advertisements (less than 17 per cent of its overall advertising spending that month).
  • Less than $68 million on advertisements mentioning taxation.
  • Less than $18 million on advertisements on inflation.

On the other hand, the same analysis found that over October Republicans spent nearly $144 million on advertisements referencing taxation, which was the party’s top issue, and almost $77 million on advertisements mentioning inflation.

“It’s the Economy, Stupid”: The Cost-of-Living Crisis Remains the Top Issue for All Voters

The cost-of-living crisis remains a major issue in the US. While inflation is showing signs of slowing, to bring it down to more sustainable levels the Federal Reserve has signalled the US economy may end up going into recession due to the measures it is taking. While higher levels of unemployment are usually a huge political hurdle for presidents and other incumbent politicians to overcome, we are seeing that record levels of inflation are having equal, if not greater, effects on the electorate.

According to a recent Pew Research poll, 79 per cent of registered voters say the economy is very important to them, with Republicans leading Democrats as those who cite the economy as their most important issue (47 per cent to 34 per cent).

Biden has utilised the Strategic Petroleum Reserve – a vast amount of stored ex situ oil meant to secure America’s supply, should there be disruptions in the market – to bring down the cost of gas at the pump. This strategy has worked over the past couple of months. However, gas prices have begun to creep up again at exactly the wrong time for the Democrats. While there’s no direct correlation linking the price of gas to the outcome of elections, the classic example of Jimmy Carter’s defeat to Ronald Reagan shows that macro-level dissatisfaction with the price at the pump can have an effect.

Inflation also remains a painful thorn in the Democrats’ side. While it seems the rise of inflation may be slowing, the cost-of-living crisis remains at the forefront of many voters’ minds. As the most dominant issues voters will cast their ballots on, the state of the economy, price of gas and level of inflation running up to the election will most likely decide who controls the House and the Senate.

Trump’s Influence on the GOP Is Strong, but Not All-Consuming

Despite not being in office, Trump has dominated much of the news cycle around the election, both concerning his possible candidacy for president in 2024, as well as the continuation of his claims that the last election was ‘stolen’. Democrats have sought to put Trump front and centre for voters as a way to turn out their base and convince swing voters that a GOP victory in the midterms means a return of Trump in the next election.

While Trump is not on the ballot this cycle, his influence reaches across GOP candidates. One of the best ways to gauge how much sway a former president has over their party is by tracking how successful their endorsed candidates were throughout the primaries. While Trump endorsed many candidates who were either in safe, deep-red seats or were unopposed, when controlling for these factors he still saw a sizeable win percentage throughout the primary season.

There were a few races where a concerted effort was made to support a candidate Trump didn’t endorse; however, these were far from the norm and should be looked at as outliers, rather than an overall trend.

Biden’s Approval Rating Signals Strong Headwinds for Democrats  

The approval rating of a sitting president is a closely watched statistic during a midterm election. Midterms typically serve as a referendum of the president’s job performance, so higher approval ratings tend to lead to better outcomes for their respective party.

President Biden achieved a slew of major policy victories this summer, including passing the one of the largest infrastructure packages in US history, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. He also was able to pass the Inflation Reduction Act which energy experts believe will have a direct impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, among other climate goals. President Biden also signed into law the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, an investment of $280 billion to bolster US semiconductor capacity and boost US competitiveness and innovation.  As a result, President Biden has seen his overall approval rating increase from below 40 per cent to around 42 per cent according to FiveThirtyEight, a leading statistical-analysis company.

Biden goes into the midterms with historically low approval ratings, further feeding into the narrative of a “red wave” this cycle: one in which the GOP flips at least the House and possibly gains control of the Senate. FiveThirtyEight currently predicts Democrats losing the Senate majority 47 in 100 times, while Republicans win 53 in 100, though it remains too close to truly call. The House races are much more securely in the GOP’s favour, with Democrats winning the majority 19 in 100 versus Republicans 81 in 100.

 

What’s at Stake in This Election?

If Republicans win the House, we will see a slew of investigations opened into the current administration and Trump’s political rivals, while the current Select Committee investigation into the attack on the Capitol on 6 January will almost surely be shut down.

Biden will find it nearly impossible to get any of his legislative agenda passed through Congress, which will force him to resort to using executive orders to enact change on a large scale. These orders, however, are much more vulnerable to legal challenge and can be reversed if a Republican president takes over in 2024.

The Democrats would also lose control of judicial appointments and their ability to confirm their judicial nominees. According to Politico, there are about 80 federal vacancies and more spots are likely to open up in the coming months.

If Republicans perform well in the midterms across the board, Trump has indicated he’d be much more likely to enter the race for president in 2024. While he isn’t on the ballot this election, he surely could find himself there in two years should the GOP secure a “red wave” as many Democratic strategists fear.

The results of the election should serve as lessons to be learned for progressive parties globally if they hope to regain control of the larger political narrative. These lessons must provide answers to the issues impacting the daily lives of voters while being progressive as rights are stripped back.

It is important progressives remain true to their values on broader rights-based issues, as those rights are stripped back around the world, while offering clear and compelling answers to the issues most affecting voters' daily lives.

 

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