On November 8, Americans will be called to vote for a variety of federal, State, and local offices. Like every two years, the entire House of Representatives and 1/3 of the Senate (34 senators + 1 special vote in Oklahoma) will be up for election. At the State level, 88 of 99 legislative chambers – Nebraska having the only unicameral system – will hold elections, and 36 gubernatorial seats will also be on the ballot (there were only 11 in 2020). But the importance of these elections extends also to hitherto lesser offices, such as those of the 27 Secretaries of State who are on the ballot this year; while their functions vary from State to State, they are often responsible for the oversight and certification of elections, and the Republicans have launched an aggressive effort, particularly in some potential key swing states in 2024, such as Arizona and Wisconsin. Finally, there will be the usual large number of statewide referenda (132 in total), on general issues dominating the national conversation – such as taxes or reproductive rights – as well as on specific and very local topics (as in Tennessee’s constitutional amendment to remove slavery and involuntary servitude as criminal punishments).
Forecasts indicate that the GOP will almost certainly regain control of the House, initiating a new phase of divided government. The situation is more uncertain in the Senate. The electoral map favors the democrats, who must defend only 14 of the 35 seats up for elections. But in the upper chamber the party of the President has currently the thinnest possible majority, must rely on the vote of the Vice-President Kamala Harris to break the tie, and republicans need to flip just one seat. As is often the case, all will be decided in a limited number of battleground states where the two parties have progressively directed most of their campaign spending. According to forecasts, such toss up-states are equally divided between seats held by democrats (Georgia, Nevada and Arizona) and republicans (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio). In the past few weeks, GOP candidates appear to have gained momentum – particularly in Nevada and Pennsylvania – but almost certainly it will be a very close call. For what concerns governorships, polls indicated that several of them could change hands, particularly in traditional blue (Maryland or Massachusetts) or red (Kansas) states, currently governed by the minority party, although there are other competitive races, and the GOP’s poor selection of candidates in several primaries (beginning with Pennsylvania) could have costed it the possibility to be more competitive in several close races.
Nationally, a republican victory would be consistent with historical data. As Gary Jacobson points out in his contribution to this dossier, the party of the President – particularly when newly elected – almost invariably loses seats in the first midterm vote. In the 22 elections of the period 1934 – 2018, this loss has averaged 28 seats in the House and 4 in the Senate. In the same period, among newly elected Presidents, only Roosevelt in 1934 and Bush Jr. in 2002 managed to gain seats in the House, and in both cases the result was affected by very special circumstances – the great recession in the case of FDR; 9/11 and the war on terror for Bush. The trend has become even more acute in the last two decades, with Obama and Trump both suffering heavy losses in 2010 and 2018.
Historians and political scientists have long debated the apparently inescapable rule of the President Party’s loss in the midterm. Simplifying a lot, we can offer two general explanations. The first is that there is a propensity to punish the party that controls the White House, either to restore some equilibrium among the different branches of government or because of the dissatisfaction caused by the inevitable gap between the administration’s promises and its effective achievements (something very visible in today’s dysfunctional and highly polarized political system).
The second is that in the midterm elections, where voter turnout is on average significantly lower than in a Presidential year, what really matters is the parties’ ability to mobilize their own electorates. Something that is much easier for the opposition party, which can fully exploit this enthusiasm gap. Be that as it may, the trend has been clear. Since 1980, there have been 11 presidential elections and 10 congressional midterms. Majorities in the House and the Senate have been equally divided between Democrats and Republicans (the former have won a majority of the House 11 times and a majority of the Senate 10; the latter has controlled the House 10 times and the Senate 11). 15 elections have produced a divided government, including all the midterms following the elections of a new President, with the abovementioned exception of 2002.
It seems that 2022 will confirm the rule. Even because, in addition to polls, some basic indicators used to predict electoral outcomes – consumers’ confidence and the President’s popularity – point also in the direction of a GOP victory. Biden’s approval ratings have slightly recovered from the abysmal lows of a year ago, but they haven’t managed to break the very meager 40-42% ceiling. The state of the economy is opaquer than the black and white assessment of Biden’s critics: unemployment is down to 3.5%; consumption continues to grow at a healthy pace; after two negative quarters, the economy has grown 2.6% in the third quarter of 2022; the strong dollar has shielded the country from many global turbulences; the external deficit has shrunk. Overall, the recovery from the pandemic-induced recession has been swift and strong. And yet, the very high inflation – and the measures the FED has adopted in response to it – have eroded many of these progresses and their benefits for part of the population, who have witnessed a significant contraction of its purchasing power. This is particularly visible in an indirect, but crucial, marker of voters’ satisfaction or discontent: consumer sentiment, which – despite a slight recovery since June, when it plunged to its all-time low – is still at levels comparable to those of the 2008-9 global recession.
For a few weeks during the Summer, it seemed that the democrats could offset these disadvantages. The hearings of the January 6 commission exposed the responsibility of former President Trump and offered new information on the attempt to overturn the result of the 2020 elections, putting under the spotlight the theme of democracy and how to defend it. Extreme pro-Trump candidates, on paper more vulnerable, prevailed in numerous republican primaries. More importantly, in June the decision of the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade seemed to radically alter the electoral conversation. Abortion and reproductive rights took center stage, galvanizing the democratic electorate and apparently filling the enthusiasm gap. A few special elections during the Summer and a referendum in Kansas won by the pro-choice front led many to believe that the Democrats had found a way to break the mid-term rule. Polls indicate now that the Roe effect has progressively vanished; that the Supreme Court decision has come perhaps a bit too early for Biden’s party. The top issues shaping the electoral debate are mainly economic – particularly prices of energy, housing and consumer goods – with immigration and crime, themselves quintessential “republican issues”, now matching abortion in terms of their overall importance for voters.