The results of this year’s midterm elections won’t be final for weeks, but there’s more than enough data to say this: They were very different from usual.
Historically, the president’s party is almost always trounced in the midterms. But for the first time in the era of modern polling, the party of a president with an approval rating below 50% seems to have fared well. Democrats are favoured to retain control of the Senate; they could still hold the House.
Consider that Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Bill Clinton and George W Bush’s parties all lost in landslides when their approval ratings were mired in the low-to-mid 40s, as President Joe Biden’s are today.
The results by state only add to the uncommon picture. In our era of increasingly nationalised elections, trends in one part of the country tend to play out in others as well. Instead, this year we saw a split: Republicans fared exceptionally well in some states, including Florida and New York. In others, like Michigan or Pennsylvania, Democrats excelled.
How can we make sense of it? The results seem unusual because of two unusual issues: democracy and abortion.
Unlike in the typical midterm election, these issues were driven by the actions of the party out of power. Indeed, the party out of power achieved the most important policy success of the past two years: the overturning of Roe v Wade. It’s nothing like the typical midterm, which might be dominated by a backlash over a first-term president’s effort to reform the health system, as with Obamacare in 2010 or Clinton’s health care initiative in 1994.
These issues were unusual in another respect: Their importance diverged by state or by candidate. Abortion rights might not be seen as under immediate threat in many blue states. The possibility that a Republican governor might try to overturn long-held rights in New York might not seem especially realistic, either.
But the two matters were directly relevant in other states, whether through referendums on abortion rights or candidates on the ballot who had taken antidemocratic stances. In those places, Democrats tended to defy political gravity. In states where democracy and abortion were less directly at issue, the typical midterm dynamics often took hold and Republicans excelled.
A comparison between New York and Pennsylvania is illustrative. The states share a border — if you drive across the state line, things look about the same. Yet their election results look as if they’re from different universes.
Democrats excelled in Pennsylvania. They ran as well as Biden did in 2020 or even better. They swept every competitive House seat. John Fetterman won the race for US Senate by a wider margin than Biden had won the state. Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, won in a landslide.
On the other side of the line, in New York, Republicans won big. Their candidates for Congress fared better than Trump had in 2020 by 7 to 13 points. Republicans won all but one of the state’s seven competitive congressional districts. The governor’s race in a normally blue state was fairly close, though the Democratic incumbent, Kathy Hochul, held off her Republican challenger, Lee Zeldin.
Before the election, it was hard to imagine that these two outcomes could occur on the same night.
The most obvious differences appeared to be the abortion and democracy issues that were at stake, state by state. In Pennsylvania, Republicans nominated a candidate for governor, Doug Mastriano, who was central to efforts to overturn the states’s 2020 presidential election results. Democrats feared that a Mastriano victory could risk a constitutional crisis and a threat to democratic government. It might have threatened another long-held right as well: Mastriano is a strident opponent of abortion, and Republicans controlled the state Legislature.
The two issues were less critical in New York. There was no danger that the Democratic Legislature would overturn abortion rights. No movement emerged in 2020 to overturn Biden’s victory in New York, and there is little indication that anyone feared Zeldin might do so. As a result, Republicans focused the campaign on crime. And it paid off.
New York and Pennsylvania were part of a pattern that played out across the country.
There are exceptions, of course — like Democratic strength in Colorado or Republican durability in Texas. But most of each party’s most impressive showings fit well.
There’s the Republican landslide in Florida, where the stop-the-steal movement never sought to overturn an election result and where Gov. Ron DeSantis refused to go further than a 15-week abortion ban. There are the Democratic successes in Kansas and Michigan, where abortion referendums were on a ballot at different points this year, and where Democrats swept the most competitive House districts.
The pattern also helps explain some outliers in particular states. In Ohio, Rep. Marcy Kaptur trounced her Republican opponent, J.R. Majewski, who had rallied at the Capitol on Jan. 6. She won by 13 points in a district that Trump won in 2020. Every other Republican in House races in Ohio performed better than Trump had.
The unusually uneven results nationwide also go some way toward explaining why analysts missed the signs that a “red wave” wouldn’t materialise.
The traditional national polls, which showed Republicans ahead in the race for Congress, actually turned out to be fairly accurate. Republicans lead the House popular vote by a substantial margin, and they seem likely to win the most votes when all of the ballots are counted.
Against that backdrop, many of the surprising Democratic successes seemed like outlying results, especially given the nationalisation of American politics and how often the polls have erred in recent years. In reality, Republican strength nationwide just wasn’t translating in specific races where democracy and abortion were at stake. This dynamic was suggested by the final Times/Siena Senate polls, which showed voters preferred Republican control of the Senate but still backed individual Democratic candidates.
There’s no way to know what might have happened in this election if the Supreme Court hadn’t overturned abortion rights or if Trump had quickly conceded the last election. But one example that might offer a clue is Virginia. It held its governor’s and state legislative elections last year. So the unusual state-by-state dynamics were absent; Virginia acted something like a control group.
Republicans there tended to fare well Tuesday. They outperformed Trump in every House race, with Democrats winning the statewide House vote by only 2 percentage points — 8 points worse than Biden’s 10-point victory in the state in 2020. If abortion and democracy hadn’t been major issues elsewhere, perhaps Virginia’s seemingly typical show of out-of-party strength would have been the result nationwide. But not this year.