With about six weeks to go until the 2022 U.S. midterm congressional elections, the political landscape is complex and unsettled. Expectations of a “red wave,” in which Republicans would capitalize on President Biden’s unpopularity to win comfortable majorities in both chambers, have receded; the two parties are now running about even on the “generic ballot” (a survey question asking respondents whether they are more inclined to support a Republican or a Democrat in their congressional district), and several Democratic Senators once thought to be vulnerable are showing considerable resilience in the polls. As a result, outcomes ranging from a Democratic retention of House control and gains in the Senate to a Republican capture of both chambers remain not only theoretically possible, but genuinely plausible. While all sorts of individuals, groups, and causes have much riding on the results, four in particular face unusually high stakes: Joe Biden, Donald Trump, the pro-life movement, and the polling industry.
Biden: everything to lose… or to win
The most obvious person with much to gain or lose from the election outcome is President Biden. To a significant degree, midterm congressional elections are always a referendum on the incumbent president, and his party typically does not fare very well. In the 19 midterm election cycles since the end of World War II, the president’s party has lost House seats in 17 and Senate seats in 13. With the Democrats’ extremely narrow current margins in both chambers, essentially any losses would flip control to the GOP. If the Democrats do lose their House majority, and especially if they surrender control of the Senate (where the particular mix of seats up this cycle gives them relatively favorable electoral terrain), the idea of Biden as an electoral liability for his party will be reinforced. Concerns about Biden’s age, loss of mental acuity, and inability to reassure voters about the nation’s economic trajectory will increase, and calls for him to step aside in 2024 will grow louder. A Republican House will almost certainly launch a series of investigations that will be uncomfortable for Biden and his administration, including inquiries touching on his son, Hunter.
Moreover, a Democratic loss of Senate control could mean rough sledding for Biden’s judicial appointments over the rest of his term; a Republican-controlled Senate would likely demand more centrist judges, and look with skepticism on leftist nominees. If, by contrast, Democrats manage to buck historical trends and retain their majorities in both chambers, Biden and others will see it as a vindication of his priorities and leadership style. His case for re-nomination in 2024 will become much more plausible (even though he will turn 82 that year), and the prospects of those within his own party who might challenge him will be substantially diminished. Finally, if the Democrats realize their best-case scenario in which they actually gain two or more Senate seats, they will likely end the filibuster in the chamber and advance a whole host of Biden’s legislative priorities on issues ranging from abortion to climate change to voting rights. Clearly, the president could in six weeks’ time face a political landscape much more favorable—or much less so—than the current one.
Trump’s chance to get back on the stage
If President Biden faces high stakes in the upcoming elections, so too does his predecessor. Donald Trump has been actively involved in this cycle’s congressional campaigns, and has widely signaled his own interest in seeking a return to the presidency in 2024. His involvement in Republican primaries this cycle, however, has been rather controversial. In a number of House, Senate, and gubernatorial contests, Trump-backed candidates—often eccentric celebrities, conspiracy theorists, and/or ideological outliers—secured the GOP nomination over more mainstream Republicans, and are now underperforming in the polls. In addition, media coverage of investigations into Trump’s conduct during the Capitol riots of January 6th, 2021, the Justice Department raid on his home to secure improperly-held classified documents, and charges of fraud leveled against him by the Attorney General of New York has, many Republicans fear, distracted from their core campaign message indicting Biden’s performance on the economy, crime, and immigration.
If Republicans fall short of their electoral goals this fall—and especially if Trumpist candidates lose winnable Senate races in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona—it will deepen the sense that the former president has become an albatross for the party, and that the GOP needs to move on from the circus that surrounds all things Trump. If, on the other hand, Republicans have a good election and Trump-backed candidates out-perform their polling (as Trump himself did in both 2016 and 2020), then Trump’s status as top dog and kingmaker in the GOP will be reinforced. He will then be able to claim, with some justification, that he and his movement have an enduring electoral appeal that escapes establishment pundits and pollsters. Finally, the outcome of the midterms will largely determine whether congressional investigations into the events of January 6th forge ahead or essentially grind to a halt. Clearly, Trump has almost as much to gain or lose in these elections as does Biden.
The importance of the pro-life movement
Of course, electoral outcomes matter not just for individual politicians, but also for social movements and causes. In this cycle, perhaps none has more on the line than the pro-life movement. Over the last several decades, the anti-abortion movement has become more and more closely identified with the Republican Party, as the GOP has long had a pro-life plank in its national platform, and Republicans have worked to restrict abortion (to varying degrees) at the state level. In the past, this has been at worst an electoral wash for the GOP; while the pro-life stance has cost them some support among cultural liberals and suburban women, its has drawn many evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics into the party fold.
In June, however, the U.S. Supreme Court in its Dobbs decision upended the cultural and political landscape surrounding abortion, overturing the Roe v. Wade decision that had guaranteed a national abortion right and allowing states to legislate in the area as they see fit. This decision galvanized many in the Democratic base, especially younger women. For the first time, those in surveys who identified abortion as a primary voting issue were more likely to be pro-choice than pro-life, and Democrats have over-performed in several special elections held since the Dobbs decision. Democratic candidates around the country have seized on the opportunity to steer the electoral conversation away from the economy, crime, and border issues, focusing instead overwhelmingly on abortion access.
If a Democratic electorate energized by the abortion issue thwarts Republicans’ plans for a congressional takeover this fall, a significant softening of Republican candidates’ pro-life commitments could be in the offing going forward. If, conversely, Republicans perform well and capture Congress despite the Dobbs backlash, the pro-life movement will be empowered to push around the country for the more significant state-level limits on abortion now permissible under Dobbs.
It's hard to be a pollster
The reason that so much remains uncertain and appears to still hang in the balance is that the polling right now is so close. But are those polls reliable? The question highlights the final group that has much at stake in the 2022 elections—the pollsters themselves. With declining response rates, reluctance to express support for right-wing populist causes and candidates, and waning trust in the polls’ sponsoring organizations (often media and universities) among conservative respondents, pollsters often find it difficult to secure representative samples of the electorate. This resulted in a significant understatement of Trump and Republicans’ support in both 2016 and 2020.
Some Democrats are thus wary of yet another “mirage,” in which strongly-polling candidates significantly underperform on Election Day. Should that happen once again, and polling averages predicting a close-run contest miss a wave for either party, polling firms will have a very hard time re-establishing their credibility with both potential clients and the public more generally.
The risks of an undecisive outcome
It is very possible that the outcome of the midterm elections will not be decisive for any of these people and groups. Indeed, the most likely outcome at this point is one in which Republicans narrowly take the House and Democrats narrowly hold the Senate. In that case, Biden, Trump, and the pro-life movement will have been handed neither a resounding victory nor a clear rebuke (though the pollsters will emerge looking pretty good, as they have been predicting this outcome for months now). Such a result would simply perpetuate the deadlocked, acrimonious status quo of American politics, deferring a more conclusive resolution to the presidential campaign of 2024.