The 2022 Midterms Show Just How Stuck We Are

5 minute read
Sides is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University; Tesler is a professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine; Vavreck is the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA

The 2022 midterm elections delivered something unexpected: very little changed. On a night when the Democratic Party seemed fated for a shellacking, they held their Senate majority and lost far fewer House seats than many expected. Their experience was the opposite of 2020, when Democrats anticipated a more convincing victory and were ultimately disappointed, even with Joe Biden prevailing over Donald Trump.

Despite the different outcomes, both the 2020 and 2022 elections had common features—features that say a lot about contemporary American politics and why it is hard for either party to get the landslide or wave that it wants.

Part of the reason is what we call the “calcification” of electoral politics in the U.S. Just as it does in the body, calcification creates rigidity: most voters stick with the party they tend to support because the two parties increasingly differ not only on public policy but on basic values. They offer contrasting visions of what America should be, and who can be American.

At the same time, the parties are increasingly close to parity in the national electorate as well as key districts and states. This means that even the small changes that occur in a calcified politics can shift control of government. With victory almost always within reach, the parties have less incentive to reinvent themselves, even after losing an election. This only produces more calcification, because voters have no reason to reconsider their partisan loyalties if the parties are not changing.

Calcification was evident in the remarkable similarity between the 2016 and 2020 election results. Although Biden did just enough better than Hillary Clinton to win, relatively few 2016 voters switched sides four years later. At the state and county levels, the 2020 results were only slightly different than in 2016, even with the sharp rise in turnout. Despite dramatic events in the election year—such as a pandemic and punishing recession—the two parties remained close to parity.

A question in 2022 was whether calcification would be as powerful. In midterm elections, at least some voters who supported the president’s party in the previous election may sit out the election altogether. A consequential fraction of voters may even shift their votes, usually to signal their dissatisfaction with the president. Both are reasons why unpopular presidents’ parties typically struggle only two years after the president’s victory.

Read More: How Democrats Defied History in 2022

A “red wave” seemed possible heading into election day. Based on Biden’s approval rating and the state of the economy, Democrats were forecast to lose 40 seats or more. Indeed, Biden’s 44% approval rating in the national exit polls was actually a point lower than both Obama’s and Trump’s ratings when their parties lost over 60 and 40 House seats, respectively, in the 2010 and 2018 midterms.

But in 2022, Democratic candidates excelled at winning over voters who were lukewarm about Biden or even disappointed with his performance. One way to see this is to examine voters who “somewhat disapprove” or “somewhat approve” of the president.

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According to the national exit polls, 67% of people who somewhat disapproved of Obama in 2010 reported voting for the Republican candidate for the U.S. House. In 2018, 63% of people who somewhat disapproved of Trump reported voting for the Democratic House candidate. But in 2022, as The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein has noted, this fraction dropped to 45%. More voters who somewhat disapproved of Biden stuck with the Democrats anyway.

A similar difference was visible among people who somewhat approved of the president. In 2010 and 2018, most of these voters voted for the president’s party for Congress, but about 20-25% still defected to the other party. In 2022, almost none of the president’s lukewarm supporters defected: 91% of those who somewhat approved of Biden voted for the Democratic House candidate in the midterm.

Why did such a large share of voters who weren’t thrilled with Biden’s performance still support Democratic candidates? It was because longer-term partisan polarization combined with election-year dynamics made the election especially consequential to voters who otherwise could have been tempted to switch sides.

One of those election-year dynamics was the Supreme Court majority’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade. Even before this decision, Democrats prioritized opposition to abortion bans over dozens of other political issues. After the decision, the salience of the issue skyrocketed among Democratic voters.

This may have helped Democrats turn out to vote and vote Democratic. The political scientist Dan Cassino conducted a survey experiment that randomized the order in which respondents were asked their view of abortion and whether they were likely to vote in the midterm. He found that merely asking abortion first increased the likelihood that pro-choice respondents said they would vote. Although Democratic turnout likely lagged Republican turnout, the abortion issue may have kept that difference from being even larger.

Another factor that raised the stakes for Democrats was the presence of Trump-backed 2020 election deniers up and down the ballot. A variety of analyses showed that candidates closely aligned with Trump—himself a chronically unpopular and underperforming candidate—may have lost 5 points on average. In an era of partisan parity, even a few percentage points of vote share can be the difference between winning and losing a seat—and perhaps between a congressional majority or minority. This is a defining characteristic of our politics today: big events may have small political effects, but even small effects can have big consequences.

Thus, there is little reason for Democrats to assume that the 2022 elections portend success in 2024. They will have more Senate seats to defend. Inflation, although falling, is still high. Biden remains unpopular.

More fundamentally, calcification and partisan parity portend competitive and narrowly divided elections—not easy victories. Even though it feels good to win, neither party can have much confidence that their hold on power will last that long.

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