Watching the Weathervane – A Midterm Election Primer

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Election 2022 lacks the drama of 2020, but it serves as a bellwether for which way the country is heading.

As of late October, 5.8 million ballots had already been cast across 39 states, according to Edison Research and Catalist. At the same time in 2018, 5 million had voted, suggesting this year’s turnout may exceed the last midterms. And despite the fact that there are no super hot issues on the table for voters to weigh in on, a general sense on both sides that the other party is toxic to the country seems to be driving turnout. Some 80% of Democrats and Republicans believe that the other political party “will destroy America as we know it,” as per an NBC News poll.

Yet despite that catastrophizing, the rhetoric surrounding this election hasn’t been overtly Armageddon-esque, so perhaps it will be an all-is-normal sort of November.
Here are some themes to watch out for and candidates to keep tabs on as Americans head to the polls on the 8th.

Races to Watch
With a number of heated contests picking up steam around the country, which are the deciding ones to home in on, and which are microcosms of larger, national dynamics?

With 34 senate seats up for grabs, only five or six of them are serious nailbiters.
“The critical races are the Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Nevada Senate races, because they are incredibly close and control of the Senate will come down to those outcomes,” says David Barker, Professor of Government, Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, and co-founder of the Program on Legislative Negotiation at American University.

Charles Bullock, Professor of Public and International Affairs, Richard B. Russell, Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia, adds Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin to the list as well.
A set of interesting candidates has captured Professor Barker’s attention in the aforementioned states because of some unexpected features. “In Pennsylvania, you have candidates representing each of the two parties who are not really representative of their contemporary voter coalitions.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate, is a practicing Muslim of Turkish descent and a long-term media personality, while Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee who received very little establishment support at the start, is what one local publication described as a “bald, goateed, tattooed, progressive, work-clothes-wearing populist.” His apparent misery at White House events seems to have buoyed his appeal as well, although some worry his lack of polish will make it difficult for him to earn a state-wide election. “I know that John Fetterman does own a suit,” an acquaintance of his reassured the press. “I have seen him in it.”

Fetterman’s recent stroke has become a point of concern as he struggles to recover his somewhat impacted communication skills. He has been open with his supporters about his medical struggles these few months, and doctors have reassured the public that Fetterman’s aphasia is a language difficulty and does not reflect a reduced cognitive ability. Despite that, some opponents have taken advantage of his current difficulty, questioning his fitness for office. Dr. Oz’s aide said that if Fetterman “had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly,” a comment the candidate later condemned. Others in the media offer up sly, suggestive comments about his abilities, in what feels like a throwback to Biden’s troubles campaigning as a septuagenarian with occasional language stumbles. Although Fetterman is not elderly, his experience now tests the electorate’s tolerance for medical and/or age-related challenges.
Ohio’s senate race is a dead heat, with Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Tim Ryan neck-and-neck in the polls. It’s another race that has piqued Professor Barker’s curiosity.

“In Ohio, you have a new GOP prototype against a Dem who would have fit in better 50 years ago than he does now,” he says, adding, “but who is perfect for Ohio.”

Tim Ryan’s old-school, moderate Dem vibes have captured national attention, with The New York Times writing, “In Tim Ryan’s Ohio Senate Race, the D Is Often Silent,” a reference to the candidate’s avoidance of the word Democrat. Running in a Republican state that Trump carried twice by eight points, Ryan is trying to engage white, working-class voters with lots of I’m-one-of-you blue-collar appeal, painting his opponent, a venture capitalist, as “uncomfortable in flannel.” Using his football skills in one ad, he threw a perfect spiral at a “Defund the Police” sign in an effort to completely distance himself from the movement, and has repeatedly echoed Trumpian lines about “us versus China” in the great manufacturing battle.

Georgia is another hotspot, where you have “a rising star within the new Dem Party, who could be a presidential candidate if he wins, against a former football star who is dogged by multiple scandals,” says Professor Barker, referencing the race between incumbent Reverend Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. A traditionally conservative state, the 2021 senate runoffs took the country by surprise with Democrats picking up both seats. Now Republicans hope to flip one of those; however, stories about domestic abuse accusations and violent episodes aren’t helping the cause.

Finally, the Silver State senate race is another one to watch. “In Nevada you have an incumbent Latina Dem who is struggling with Latinos/Latinas — a trend with Dem candidates these days — which will have broader ramifications for the future,” says Professor Barker.

Nevada, something of a swing state in recent elections, is not the only state with a strong Hispanic community to see this traditional Democratic demographic reconsider its allegiances. Comprising 30% of the state’s population (19% of the national), Latinos are a formidable and growing constituency, one which analysts are eager to watch since Trump succeeded in earning a larger portion of their vote than previous Republicans. A Pew survey found that just 20% of the Latino community describes itself as liberal, while 45% is moderate and 35% conservative, contradicting the low-resolution depiction of this population as homogeneous.

Professor Bullock stresses that the outcomes in these Senate contests will determine which party controls the chamber, and that some of these races “will also shed light on Trump’s appeal and the degree to which election denial is a disqualifier.”

Alexander Bateman, associate professor, director of undergraduate studies, co-director of the PRICE Initiative at the Department of Government and the Brooks School of Public Policy, Cornell University, says he doesn’t pay too much attention to individual races. “While important — a national election is more than just the sum of individual races, these races go a long way to defining what the national election looks like — I worry about cherry-picking interesting races that might not be relevant to the broader patterns.”

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The Trumpian Factor
Boon or bane, it’s hard to say.
“Democrats know how to beat Donald Trump, which is why they privately hope he never exits the political stage,” a Wall Street Journal op-ed reads. “It’s Republicans who can’t figure out how to deal with the former President.”

That seems to be true as this year’s GOP hopefuls have danced around the former president’s endorsements, not quite sure if they wanted them.

How relevant is Mr. Trump this cycle and is his advocacy helping or harming?
“His endorsements help the candidates he endorses get their nominations,” says Professor Barker, referencing Vance in Ohio, Oz in Pennsylvania, and Walker in Georgia.

That having been said, and with the former President’s clout established, it’s not certain he’s got a great eye for talent. “The candidates he has endorsed tend to be so bad that they are really hurting the GOP overall. Better candidates in those three races and the GOP would be looking at relatively easy wins.”
“Looking across many races, it does seem like Trump’s endorsements have not been helping the Republican Party’s odds of winning the Senate,” says Professor Bateman, mentioning Oz and Walker as cases in point. “His endorsement of Walker has made what should have been a good pick-up chance in Georgia — a competitive state, but the environment for Democrats is pretty bad this year — a closer contest than it ought to have been. Still, no candidate is concerned just with the party ticket — Trump wants to get allies in power, and he will almost certainly increase his share of allies in the House, where the GOP will likely be the majority and possibly in the Senate as well, though at the risk of not winning a majority.”

“Trump proved very relevant in GOP primaries in most states with Georgia being the chief exception,” says Professor Bullock, referencing the Gubernatorial race where incumbent Brian Kemp (currently up against challenger Stacy Abrams) shrugged off Trump and still succeeded in snagging the nomination.
Mr. Kemp irritated Donald Trump in 2020 when he resisted pressure to overturn the Georgia election results after Mr. Biden narrowly won in the state. Since then it’s been open season on Mr. Kemp’s political career.

Mr. Trump drew in David Perdue to challenge Kemp earlier this year, putting funds and energy into propping up his choice, however, Kemp won the primary with nearly 75% of the vote, revealing just how far the Trumpian brand of grievance politics can actually travel. While Mr. Trump has gone as far as saying Stacy Abrams “might be better than existing governor” after his favorite was thwarted earlier in the season, Mr. Kemp has responded with… nothing. Ignoring the former President has been his preferred approach, one which has earned him 95% of Republican support in his state.

“What works in Georgia won’t work everywhere, but some variation of Mr. Kemp’s strategy is worth pursuing if Republicans hope to reach a post-Trump era anytime soon,” writes Jason Riley in the WSJ. “Exercising more self-control than Mr. Trump can go a long way toward marginalizing him without alienating his supporters.”

While the GOP may still be flummoxed by Mr. Trump and his political ambitions and uncertain as to its relationship with the former President, most have chosen to carefully avoid upsetting him.
“Excepting Georgia, Trump’s endorsements almost always helped the recipient. November will show whether the endorsements helped or handicapped recipients in general elections,” Professor Bullock concludes.

Polls, Pray Tell

While the past few years haven’t been great for the pollster profession, polls are making a comeback, with campaigns and commentators touting their outcomes with old familiarity.

Occasional modesty in analyst circles allows for possible November surprises, but most are predicting a clean sweep of the House for Republicans and a tight, possibly split, Senate.

Although polling strongly in July, the Democratic edge has receded, or, as the Economist put it, “a midsummer ‘tick’ in the Democrats’ favor has duly been answered by a Republican ‘tock.’”
“Our polling averages currently show Democrats trailing Republicans by around one point each in Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. In Ohio, they are leading by almost one point. Democrats lead by four points in Georgia and by seven in both Pennsylvania and Arizona,” the article reads. “That gives the Democrats a net gain of one Senate seat if the polls are 100% accurate.”
And then, with a bow to polling’s limitations: “Spoiler alert: they will not be.”
So perhaps all is not back to the familiar in analyst circles.


Election Clinchers
There are a lot of them. Precedent is one. The party in power’s nearly consistent loss of Congress in the midterms is perhaps the most potent, and despite Americans seeing themselves as non-traditionalists, they fall into predictable habits with ease. Turning on their elected officials is the way it’s usually done.
“The key factors shaping the race are all pretty predictable,” says Professor Bateman, pointing out that midterm elections are unfavorable for the President’s party.

Since the 1940s, the President’s party has lost seats during midterm elections (except in two cases), and with Mr. Biden’s low approval ratings in the upper 30s and low 40s, another harbinger of rocky roads ahead, it would be very unusual for Democrats to keep the House. The past five decades of midterms have offered up an average of 39 seats to the oppositional party, according to Gallup (excluding Watergate — 1974), so the GOP is looking good for that chamber.

Another crucial variable at play, or make that three.
“Inflation is first, second, and third,” says Professor Barker. “Without it, Biden’s approval would be five points higher and the Dems would be looking at picking up seats in the Senate and possibly even holding the House.”

“The economy is positive in terms of employment and wage gains, but bad in terms of inflation,” Professor Bateman qualifies, noting that there is also a general worry about a possible recession. “And that combined with inflation make perceptions of the economy relatively negative given the job gains.”
An ABC poll claiming that 36% of Americans said they trust the GOP to tackle inflation, compared to 21% of Democrats, highlights how Republicans are more trusted to handle the economic downturn.
Despite the economic gloom in the electorate, which generally causes a backlash against the sitting party, what many perceive as “GOP radicalism” and a “far-right Supreme Court” may have given the Democrats a bit of a reprieve.

“Voters are concerned about the state of democracy,” says Professor Bateman. “And while that doesn’t uniquely favor Democrats — nor is it likely to be at the forefront of most voters’ minds when actually voting — it does likely help the President’s party.”

Professor Bullock notes that, aside from economic concerns, Republicans have an angle when it comes to crime and immigration, which may further help their bid.

Enjoy the “return to normal” and slice through that indifference by casting your ballot this November 8. Because every election matters, even if it’s not the one of our lives. After all, the “other party” might just “destroy America as we know it.”

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