Predictions of a sweeping victory for the Republicans in the US mid-term elections were unfounded. This was largely a result of the party nominating some extreme candidates, high voter turnout, particularly among younger people, and divisive issues such as abortion rights and gun control.
In November 2022 – two years into President Joe Biden’s term of office – voters in the United States cast their ballots in the mid-term elections. These give voters across the country the chance to elect federal, state and local officeholders.
In the 2022 mid-term elections, all 435 members of the US House of Representatives faced re-election, as did just over one-third of the Senate, where six-year terms are staggered across three ‘classes’ of senators. At the state level, there were 36 gubernatorial elections and approximately 85% of state legislative seats up for grabs.
Figure 1: Interactive map of election results (1998-2022)
The drama and media attention that accompany presidential races were not present, but political stakes in mid-term election years are always high. This was especially true in the polarised, divided United States of 2022.
For the first two years of his term, President Biden governed with a razor-thin Democratic majority in the House, which consisted of 220 Democrats (just two more than a majority) and 212 Republicans. In the Senate, the Democrats relied on Vice President Kamala Harris to fulfil her constitutional role in casting tiebreaking votes as that chamber was made up of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.
Although the slim size of Biden’s Democratic coalition prevented the passage of progressive priorities in the areas of voting rights, immigration reform and gun control, in the first two years of his term, the president had success in passing further economic relief in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. His government also delivered a major infrastructure bill with the support of a small but significant number of Republican members of Congress.
On the judicial front, the Senate confirmed more than 80 judges nominated by President Biden, including African-American Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Despite these successes, in the months preceding the election, Biden’s approval rating was in the low 40s, or roughly where Donald Trump’s was four years before, when the Republicans suffered heavy losses during the previous mid-term elections.
Expected results – the ‘red wave’
For much but not all of 2022, many people believed that the Republicans would see decisive gains at both the state and federal levels in the November elections. This assertion was backed by over 60 years of analyses of the determinants of mid-term election outcomes.
Research points to a ‘surge and decline’ theory, which suggests that the president’s party suffers losses (declines) in mid-term elections. This is because it lacks the pull (surge) that successful, high-profile presidential campaigns provide by bringing their partisans to the polls and also persuading independents to support them (A. Campbell, 1960 and 1966; J. Campbell, 1987).
In the absence of a popular president to vote for or, as was the case with Donald Trump, an incumbent president many wanted to vote against, many Democrats who were mobilised and contributed to President Biden’s victory in 2020 were expected to sit on the side-lines in 2022. Independents were also anticipated not to vote or to switch to supporting the Republicans.
The surge and decline theory forms a basis for understanding why a president’s party has only gained seats in the US House mid-term elections twice in the modern era. This was in 1998 when the Republicans pursued unpopular impeachment charges against President Clinton and the ‘wartime’ mid-term of 2002, which took place about a year after the terrorist attacks of September 2001.
Despite the pattern of the president’s party losing Congressional seats in off-year elections, there is variation in the extent of these losses. In some years, the president’s party receives minor scrapes – for example the Democrats under Jack Kennedy in 1962 or the Republicans under George HW Bush in 1990 – or in some years, the president’s party suffers ‘a shellacking,’ in the words of President Obama. This happened to the Democrats under him in 2010, the Republicans under George W Bush in 2006 and, to some extent, Trump in 2018.
Explaining variation beyond surge and decline often rests on two crucial pieces of information. These are often referred to as the ‘fundamentals’ of election forecasting: evaluations of the president’s performance; and the state of the economy.
President Biden’s approval ratings fell steadily over the course of 2022. One study has attributed the decline to disenchantment among progressive voters – that is, the very group the Democrats had to turn out to stem the projected Republican gains (Pechenkina and Norpoth, 2022).
Mid-term elections can be seen as a ‘referendum’ on the incumbent’s performance. It has been argued that this was the case in the 2018 mid-term elections (Jacobson, 2019). If the same was to be true of the 2022 mid-term elections, the public’s unfavourable views of Biden’s performance did not bode well for the Democrats. Indeed, polls on the eve of the 8 November vote indicated that 60% of voters disapproved of the current president.
Economic conditions can be important in predicting mid-term performance by the president’s party (Tufte, 1975). Again, these did not work in the Democrat’s favour in November 2022.
Although unemployment was near record lows, one survey of American consumers found that close to 60% reported that they were spending less due to unaffordable prices caused by inflation (Hsu, 2022). Further, those surveyed were found to have heard an ever-increasing trickle of news about rising prices.
Election results – reasons for Democratic hope
In 2010, the Republicans made the elections about the widespread unhappiness over President Obama’s healthcare reforms. Similarly, Democrats emphasised President Trump’s behaviour in the 2018 elections. In those years, the Republicans and Democrats were rewarded with gains in the House of 63 and 41 seats, respectively, and flipped control of the House of Representatives.
Theories of mid-term loss for the president’s party assume that a straight up or down approval of the incumbent president is a motivating factor for getting core supporters to turn out or political independents to vote for one party over the other. Much to the chagrin of Republican strategists, other issues crept into the political narrative in 2022.
Post-war political norms in the United States generally have presidents – successful and unsuccessful ones – disappearing from the public eye when they leave the White House. For norm-destroying President Trump, this did not happen.
Aggrieved and angry that he lost the 2020 election, he has spent much of the past two years spouting conspiracy theories and being in the public eye for possible criminal activity that he undertook during and after his time in office. In addition, Trump played an active part in the 2022 Republican mid-terms and general election, bolstering candidates who declared themselves supportive of his ‘MAGA’ (Make America Great Again) movement.
Yet Trump frequently made the conversation about himself – even during rallies for candidates he endorsed and supported. In the end, his self-aggrandisement was a distinct liability for the Republicans. A CNN exit polling highlighted that fewer than four in ten (39%) voters had a favourable view of the ex-president when they cast their ballots.
The mid-term campaign became as much a reminder of the chaos and divisiveness of the Trump presidency as it did the unpopularity of the current president. Rather than the usual referendum on the incumbent president (Jacobson 2019), there was a feeling, among at least some voters, that this was a rerun of the 2020 presidential election.
This reminded Democrats of the costs of staying at home and made some independent-minded voters ‘think again’ when considering voting against the Democrats.
In addition, the Republicans potentially scored several ‘own goals’, in the form of nominating several exceptionally poor candidates. This was in part promoted by Democratic-aligned interest groups who spent heavily in favour of far-right, MAGA candidates during the primary elections, in the hope that more moderate general election voters would find these Republicans too extreme.
This strategy, seen as risky by many, seemed to pay off. Notably, the Republican primaries saw moderate House members defeated, such as pro-impeachment Representative Peter Meier, who lost to former Trump administration official and MAGA proponent John Gibbs. (Gibbs would end up losing to Democrat Hillary Scholten, limiting Republican gains in the House.)
At the state level, the Republicans saw their chances of maintaining the governorships in Maryland and Massachusetts and for gubernatorial pickups in Illinois and Pennsylvania dashed by the primary nominating process, which yielded candidates who were closer to Trump’s MAGA base than the electorate’s more pragmatic centre.
Crucially, in the Senate contest for Pennsylvania, the Republicans eschewed nominating an experienced candidate with legislative or executive experience for the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, who had few connections to the state and, indeed, was reported to reside largely in New Jersey. In this race, Pennsylvanians opted for the sitting Democratic Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman for the Senate, despite his poor health and slow recovery from a serious stroke suffered earlier in the year.
Fetterman’s populist hometown appeal as a former mayor of a western Pennsylvania town that had been economically decimated by the decline of the steel industry cemented his image as a candidate who understood ordinary, working-class Pennsylvanians.
Across the United States, Democratic candidates also were aided by two positional issues that came into focus during the year. In June 2022, the Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health overturned constitutional protections for abortion rights that had been in place since the 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion.
On the verdict, CNN exit polling showed that 60% of voters declared themselves to be either angry or dissatisfied with this ruling. Notably, among the angriest were young, single women voters, adding to the Democrats’ ability to mobilise voters in the mid-terms.
The year 2022 was also marked by numerous instances of mass shootings and calls to regulate firearms more strictly. Although staunchly opposed by many – particularly those in the Republican base – 56% of the sample in the CNN exit poll supported tighter gun controls. The ball was in the Democrats’ court when it came to these contentious positional issues.
Finally, there was the question of voter turnout. In mid-term elections prior to the ascendance of Donald Trump, turnout in the mid-terms of the 2000s eked along at approximately 40% of all eligible voters. This plummeted to a modern low of 36% in 2014.
But turnout for the polarised 2018 election shot up to nearly 50%, a level not seen since the early 20th century. While turnout was up across many groups, in 2018 it was particularly marked by a surge of younger millennial voters and newly enfranchised members of ‘Generation Z’ (those born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s).
This pattern continued in 2022. Although dropping slightly from 30% in 2018 to an estimated 27% of the 18-29-year-old cohort in 2022, younger voters remained far more engaged than they were for most of the 21st century.
Not only was there a turnout surge in 2018 and 2022 among younger voters, but a comparison of CNN exit polling suggested that House voting among 18-29 year olds went from a 54%-43% Democratic advantage in 2018, to a substantial 67%-32% Democratic lead in 2022.
It should also be noted that owing to the mid-terms having campaigns largely categorised as low information/low energy, the electorate is slightly more likely to be college-educated than that in presidential election years.
For much of the 20th century, this was not seen as highly consequential, and perhaps even served to benefit Republicans in off-year elections. But the college degree is now a key fault-line of partisan polarisation, and college-educated voters are, as a cohort, far more averse to the MAGA agenda than their non-college-educated peers.
In the 2018 mid-term elections, CNN exit polling demonstrated that the 41% of the sample composed of college-educated voters broke 59-39% for the Democrats. In 2022, CNN polling showed that this fell slightly to 54-43%, with Republicans leading the non-college-educated cohort 56%-44%.
Peeling the data back a bit more, the ability of the Democrats to remain competitive with Republicans stems from their 68-30% dominance among voters of colour and 56%-42% lead among white women with a college degree.
In contrast, white men without a college degree broke 72%-26% for the Republicans in House races. Notably, although Republicans increased their advantage among white non-college-educated men from the 2018 mid-terms, the size of this cohort declined from an estimated 20% of the electorate to 17%. At the margins, the changing shape of the mid-term electorate mattered.
The results in context
Elections in America really are two things – a poll of the national mood and a series of localised contests. Nationally, the picture was mixed in 2022. Aspects of mid-term elections that 20th century political scientists deemed as crucial for predicting outcomes – presidential approval and economic performance – were seen as a major drag on the Democratic party’s prospects for keeping control of Congress and maintaining governorships and state legislatures.
But in a polarised America, the positional issues of abortion and gun control affected the outcome. The propensity of Republicans to nominate candidates that appealed more to the MAGA wing of the party and less to centrist independents also ended up hurting them. The candidates who cleared the primary elections processes for specific races and local party organisation also mattered. This led to variation in Republican and Democratic party fortunes across the different states and localities.
John Fetterman’s victory in the crucial Pennsylvania Senate race highlighted the importance of state connections and appeal in that ‘purple’ state. In contrast, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis combined both an older state population with a record of performance on issues relating to the hurricane and Covid-19 to dash the longstanding Democratic hopes of turning Florida ‘blue’.
In New York, the Republicans took advantage of a complacent state Democratic Party, court ordered redrawing of Congressional district boundaries and citizens’ concerns about crime to pick up several House seats.
Turnout, while improved from the lows of 2014, did vary quite substantially. In states such as West Virginia, where there was neither a Senate nor gubernatorial race, turnout didn’t reach 35%. Comparably, in states with competitive Senate and gubernatorial races – such as Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – it was comfortably over 50%.
Several states with higher turnout, such as Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, saw control of one (Pennsylvania and Minnesota) or both (Michigan) of their state legislative chambers switch over to Democratic hands.
At the end of the day and with several nail-biting races won, the Republicans took control of the US House of Representatives and have a 222-213 majority in the chamber. Even with the decision of Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema to leave the Democrats, the party will have majority control of the Senate because the Constitution gives Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris the right to cast a tiebreaking vote.
Buoyed by gains in Massachusetts and Maryland following the departure of moderate Republican governors, the Democrats shaved the Republicans’ edge in the states’ executives from 28-22 to 26-24.
Where can I find out more?
- 2022 elections: results and implications: Video of an event run by the Brookings Institution.
- Public has modest expectations for Washington’s return to divided government: Pew Research Centre.
Who are experts on this question?
- Gary C. Jacobson, University of California, San Diego
- James E. Campbell, University of Buffalo, SUNY
- Thomas Scotto, University of Glasgow
- Christopher Carman, University of Glasgow