What Can We Learn from the Midterm Elections?

by | Nov 17, 2022 | Culture, The Big Question

As the results of the midterm elections continue to roll in, we went to an expert to summarize some of the outcomes and themes. Ben Highton is the chair of the Department of Political Science at UC Davis. He researches American politics, public opinion, elections and research methods.

This election was not a “Red Wave.” Did that surprise you? Why or why not?  

On the one hand, the results were not surprising because they were well within the bounds of what the polling and predictive models were suggesting in the days and weeks leading up to the election. On the other hand, in recent election cycles the polls have underestimated Republican support and historically midterm elections with an unpopular incumbent president have signaled bad outcomes for the president’s party.

The economy and abortion, in that order, were top of voters’ minds according to pollsters. How did those issues have an impact on the outcome of the elections?

We know what voters were saying was on their minds and influential in their decisions. We also know that most voters, most of the time, especially in recent elections, cast ballots consistent with their partisan identification. Figuring out how economic factors like inflation and policy issues like abortion is one of the primary tasks ahead. To be honest, at this point, we have lots of ideas and hypotheses, and much less systematic evidence. Over time that will change.

Ben Highton headshot

Ben Highton is chair of the Department of Political Science at UC Davis. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Some election deniers won, some lost, and some we still don’t know about. With the outcome in Arizona, for example, do you think election deniers and demands for recounts are here to stay? 

The No. 1 2020 election outcome denier is now running for president again. At least until he loses his party’s nomination, it is hard to imagine the issue going away. 

A lot of people (including those in the media) are asking why it’s taking so long, in 2022, to count the votes? Is this a factor of polarization and to-close-to call races or something else? And does this feed the election deniers’ theories?

My sense is that the time it is taking to count the ballots is unrelated to polarization. Instead it has to do with the proliferation of early voting, absentee voting and other reforms in the voting processes. It can provide fodder for conspiracy theories, especially when early counts favor one candidate or party and over time there are shifts toward the other. And close races take more time to call because smaller numbers of votes can swing the outcome. If a candidate has received 55% of the counted ballots and there are less then 5% left to count, then the race can be called for the candidate who is ahead. If, instead, the leading candidate only has 51% of the vote in a very close race, calling the outcome requires that all the votes get counted first.

Did this election come out, along party lines, about the same as the 2022 presidential election? How unusual is that for a midterm election?

It is very unusual for the president’s party to pick up congressional seats in midterms elections, and the Democrats currently have a net pickup of one in the Senate, which they could lose if Herschel Walker wins the Georgia runoff. In light of the historical pattern of midterm election losses for the president’s party and Biden’s job approval numbers with “disapprovers” outnumbering “approvers” one would have expected a much worse showing for Democrats. 

Before election day, Trump indicated he would probably make “an announcement” after the election. Do you think this might have mobilized voters to get out and vote against those he endorsed? In other words, did that strategy backfire?

Probably more influential was Trump’s recruitment and endorsement of candidates who were weak and/or extremist. And his desire to be the center of the media’s attention may very well have had voters thinking more about him rather than Biden, perhaps helping to nullify what otherwise would have been more a problem for Democrats because of Biden’s high disapproval numbers.

Do you think Republicans will field an alternative candidate (or many) for the presidential election? How about Democrats?

Certainly, there are many Republicans who would like to compete for the party’s presidential nomination. And we can be confident that privately many will be trying to figure out if they have plausible chances. The danger for Republicans who prefer someone other than Trump is that if too many candidates enter the field, they may splinter the anti-Trump vote leaving him an easier path to renomination. How all this plays out should be fascinating. On the Democratic side things appear much simpler. Unless Biden decides not to run, he will be the heavy favorite because it is unlikely that a serious candidate would challenge him for the nomination, and if they did, he would have tremendous advantages over them. If Biden decides not to run, then things get much interesting and uncertain. It is hard to imagine that Kamala Harris would not enter the race along with at least some other high-profile Democrats. Which ones and what would be the outcome are mostly just guesses at this point.

Part two on that: Trump’s endorsement was not the death knell for all candidates, so why or why not? What endorsements stick out in your mind? And on the Democratic side, did Obama, Biden or others significantly alter voting behavior?

Figuring out the effects of endorsements on outcomes is very hard because there are so many factors at play. For instance, if Trump endorses a candidate in a very Republican state or district, then that candidate will likely win even if the endorsement has no effect or a negative effect. Similarly, did Biden’s strong endorsement of Tim Ryan in the Ohio Senate race cause him to lose to J.D. Vance? Probably not. Ohio has increasingly been voting Republican in statewide elections, and that is what the outcome was.

What else would you like to address? What else is important in this latest election? 

By retaining control of the Senate, the Democrats can continue confirming Biden’s appointments to the federal bench and other federal agencies. This is very significant. By losing control of the House, the Democrats no longer have unified party control of the federal government, which is also very significant because it means that policy adoptions like those in Biden’s first two years are no longer possible. 

Did anything surprise you?  

Because I was expecting the polls to be wrong, I was surprised at how well the Democrats did.