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November 8: A Good Day for Democracy, a Good Day for the Democrats

Analysis - 22 November 2022

The United States held its midterm election on November 8th, with surprising wins for the Democratic party. Our conversation with Robert Shapiro, Professor of Government at Columbia, and Dominique Moïsi, Special Advisor for Geopolitics, examine factors contributing to the Democrats' better-than-expected political performance, closing our Transatlantic Insights series. This article feeds off of exchanges from Institut Montaigne and Columbia’s last three webinars and is part of our partnership with Columbia Global Centers (Paris) and Columbia’s Alliance Program.

This paper was written with the help of Amy Greene.

The lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections was punctuated with what-ifs. Would this election look like the 2010 midterms when Obama's Democratic party took a "shellacking" and lost upwards of 60 seats in Congress; or rather more like those of 2018 when massive voter turnout led to a heavy rebuke of Donald Trump (delivering both Senate and House control to Democrats)? This year’s midterms did not look like either strictly speaking - Joe Biden's Democrats held the Senate and lost the House by the narrowest of margins. Biden presided over the best Democratic midterm election performance in over a generation. If the 2022 midterms demonstrated anything, it was possibly voter rejection of an underwhelming Republican proposition.

And perhaps more importantly, the main interrogation was how American democracy would weather what was shaping up to be yet another stress test. Would voters embrace the scores of Republican candidates up and down the ballot who pledged allegiance to The Big Lie? Ultimately, widespread fears of Election Day voter suppression, fraud, or intimidation did not seem to materialize, nor did Republican refusals concede in the face of defeat. The elections were free and fair, which was not a foregone conclusion. The first, perhaps most important takeaway from the midterm elections was that November 8, 2022, was a good day for the integrity of American democracy

Anatomy of a vote

The so-called "red wave" never came. Though Democrats did lose some ground among typically loyal voting blocs, such as Latinos, Asians and - in some elections - Black men, they were carried by voters aged 18-28, or GenZ, which broke for Democrats by 28-percentage points (and by 18 points for white members of GenZ). The gender gap also leaned in the Democrats' favor with women - particularly women of color - voting Democrat by about an 8-point spread. Still, a majority of white women voted Republican in keeping with recent trends. Republicans also continued to make inroads with white working-class voters and voters without a college degree. White males without a college education continued to vote heavily for Republicans.

In the months prior to the election, Republican voter registration soared - until the Supreme Court released the Dobbs decision in June 2022 overturning Roe vs. Wade and sending the decision to allow abortion back to the states. At that point, Democratic voter mobilization increased as did that of young people. Up until Election Day and despite some criticism of focusing too little on so-called "kitchen table issues", Biden implored his camp to turn out massively by doubling down on both the existential threat posed to democracy by hundreds of election deniers on the ballot and the betrayal of America’s women through the conservative-led Supreme Court’s draconian abortion rollback. Perhaps Biden’s calculation was the right one.

New constraints for both sides

Democrats maintain control of the Senate, which provides an important safeguard allowing Biden to make political and judicial appointments while also giving a critical point of leverage when it comes to carrying out the president's legislative agenda and policy decisions. One area that could benefit is US support for Ukraine. The election results may not lead to an increase in American contributions to the war effort (all signs point to maintaining pressure on Europeans to carry more of the burden), but they may help to stabilize Washington's support at a time when Republicans have openly called into question current spending levels.

Biden's policy opportunities are now limited because Republicans have gained the narrowest of margins in the House. To get anything done, the president will have to garner bipartisan support. Beyond that, Biden may face intransigent opposition.

Biden's policy opportunities are now limited because Republicans have gained the narrowest of margins in the House.

Republicans like Jim Jordan, likely to be the next head of the House Judiciary Committee, have promised to end ongoing investigations like the one into the January 6 Capitol insurrection and to replace them with others targeting the Bidens (including the president's son Hunter), the FBI, the White House response to Covid and Center for Disease Control (CDC) Head Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Afghanistan withdrawal, and Attorney General (and failed Supreme Court nominee) Merrick Garland.

Fringe radical elements of the Trumpian wing of the GOP, embodied by Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and the election of other 2020 deniers, have been emboldened by a new electoral mandate.

On the other hand, the slim majority may also constrain Republicans to adopt a more cooperative approach than that which has characterized their party in recent years. Instead of systematic opposition, they may face pressure to change tactics and to show an ability to govern in a positive and constructive way. Kevin McCarthy, the next Speaker of the House, will indeed face the challenge of having to negotiate among the different factions of his party while also demonstrating that Republicans can act like grownups in the room. This is important when considering that the midterms seem to be, in some ways, an expression of Trump fatigue by American voters.

The curse of Trump?

Of course, Donald Trump was on no ballot this cycle, but his presence loomed largely. By all intents, Republicans should have done well in the 2022 midterms. Biden's favorability ratings have been consistently low since shortly after taking office in 2021, and support for the administration has been lackluster outside of Democratic circles. Lukewarm voter sentiment towards the incumbent combined with high-quality candidates from the opposing party should have favored a Republican outcome. That did not happen. Instead, the GOP got Trump-backed candidates whose quality was below par. In the end, Trump weakened Republican performance and had dire consequences in Senate and gubernatorial races, and in some House districts.

Donald Trump's stature within the party remains to be seen. Early indicators suggest that Republicans are looking to move past their embattled leader. With Trump having remade the party according to very conservative ideas and values, the question is no longer how far right to place the ideological cursor but whether Republicans want Trump to be their future. In this respect, the midterm elections may have represented a so-called "democratic revenge" - a call to decency and common sense on the part of the American electorate.

The midterm elections may have represented a so-called "democratic revenge" - a call to decency and common sense on the part of the American electorate.

Following the November 15 announcement of his 2024 presidential candidacy, party leaders have been in no hurry to embrace or lend their support. Even a solid majority of voters (general and registered Republicans) express negative views of the former president. Will Trump's fall from grace within the Republican establishment be stopped, confirmed, or accelerated? Over the coming weeks and months, the GOP will likely enter an internal transition phase between the Trump era and a post-Trump picture. And the occasion of the midterms, a rebuke to the 45th president, was an unmitigated and resounding success for another Republican. A young governor who overperformed and outshined expectations: Ron DeSantis. 

DeSantis' growing buzz

In addition to winning reelection by 20-percentage points, Ron DeSantis has helped move Florida from swing state status firmly into the Republican camp. The GOP did well, too, in Congressional elections and held on to a Senate seat. DeSantis has proven to be a sort of "Trump without the baggage" and minus election denial claims. He has worked to embody a steadfast opposition to Biden's policies and programs. He was singularly visible in thwarting the administration's Covid protocols and gave high priority to keeping the Florida economy open as well as its schools while also limiting vaccination requirements.

Overall, Florida did better than many other states. By defying Joe Biden and the Center for Disease Control, he distinguished himself and the state of Florida in several ways.

DeSantis has proven to be a sort of "Trump without the baggage" and minus election denial claims.

He has also been very vocal against critical race theory, same-sex marriage, and gender/transgender identity issues. He holds staunchly pro-life positions. DeSantis is a staunch conservative by any measure and reflects the pulse of today's Republican party values. Polls place him as a - perhaps the - leading 2024 Primary candidate against Trump, and at 44 years-old, he will represent the emergence of a new generation of conservatives and a contrast to the 76-year-old Trump.

What about Biden?

If Biden came out a relatively unexpected - and relative - winner of the midterm elections, Democrats too may be looking for someone new to carry their mantle in the 2024 elections. A majority of Democrats are unfavorable to another Biden candidacy, which would make him the oldest person ever to seek the highest office in the land. The president's posture as the inevitable candidate has been based largely on the assumption that Trump will run once again. If Trump is not the Republican party's presidential nominee, Biden will probably understand the need to step aside for somebody else. Currently, the big question is who that somebody might be and whether Democrats will have enough time to organize the party machinery to propel that person into the status of national frontrunner. 

Heading into 2024

With the presidential election now the next major moment on the political calendar, one major question for Democrats will be whether economic factors will have improved enough to create a climate favorable to their party in 2024. Still, two other structural factors will come into play. Beyond the particularly egregious role of money and campaign spending which has come to characterize American elections is the subject of voter suppression combined with the rise of disinformation. Redistricting - otherwise known as gerrymandering - is another problem for Democrats. By neglecting state-wide races, Democrats ceded power to the GOP which opened the door for them to redraw districts later. In this respect, state legislative and gubernatorial elections have been overlooked, but remain so critical to the health of democracy. An outstanding question for 2024 is whether some state legislators would seize power from voters and select the Grand Electors themselves. What bodes well for Democrats is that they have increased support in state houses and have won important gubernatorial races in 2022 (Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin) meaning that those states will indeed certify the presidential candidate elected by voters and not an alternate option chosen by the state house itself.

The Democrats fended off a red wave and held the line during the 2022 midterms. America does not find itself less divided than just a few weeks ago, and the election results are certainly reassuring for the health of American democracy. But persistent structural challenges - voter suppression, misinformation, the possibility for manipulation of voter outcomes, and the negative impact of money - all remain challenges that the United States will have to face in a presidential campaign that has already begun in earnest.

 

Copyright : Mandel NGAN / AFP

 

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