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.
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