Date November 10, 2022
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Six takeaways from the 2022 midterm elections, according to Brown political experts

At a panel discussion following Election Day, political scientists from Brown discussed what the midterms revealed about Americans’ views, traditional polling practices and the two major parties.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In some years, particularly in generations past, midterm elections haven proven less than memorable. But 2022 was far from a snooze, said Katherine Tate, a professor of political science at Brown University.

Across many states, Democrats came to the polls in droves to reject measures that would have curbed abortion rights. Several far-right Republican candidates won seats in the House of Representatives by stoking fear of voting fraud in the hearts of their constituents. And in Georgia and Pennsylvania, where some races are still too close to call, voters appear to have shattered midterm turnout records.

“Now we have these super consequential elections we’re all motivated to vote [in], because parties are so different today than they used to be,” Tate said.

Tate was one of four Brown faculty members who weighed in on the results of the midterm elections at a Wednesday, Nov. 9, panel discussion hosted by the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy. The event, held at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, drew dozens of students and community members from the Providence area. Wendy Schiller, director of the Taubman Center, moderated.

Despite the fact that a number of key races remained undecided, there was plenty for the experts to unpack — including how the polls held up, why Republicans didn’t see the “red wave” they predicted and what the results could portend for the 2024 presidential election. Below are six key takeaways from the conversation.

‘It’s the economy, stupid’ — not this time.

In 1992, Bill Clinton used the mantra “it’s the economy, stupid” to wrest control of the country from George H. W. Bush amid a recession. The phrase has been considered a universal truth since: When unemployment numbers are low and the gross domestic product is up, it’s tougher for challengers to unseat the party in power. If, on the other hand, unemployment is high and the GDP is struggling, voters are more apt to favor changes.

“The main driver of elections? The economy,” said Assistant Professor of Political Science, Public Policy and Education Jonathan Collins. “That’s a classic line.”

Yet, Collins noted, that logic didn’t appear to hold in the 2022 midterms. The GDP is on a steady incline. Unemployment hovers below 4%. And the U.S. added 250,000 jobs in the last quarter. 

“By traditional indicators, [the economy] is relatively strong,” Collins said. “But… does it feel as the indicator suggests? You have what people are experiencing: Higher costs for everything. Sky-high interest rates that form a wall for anyone who needs a loan. Almost everyone has a job, but no one can afford to buy anything.”

The Latinx vote in 2022 [was] overall decidedly Democratic, but a growing minority are voting Republican. Democrats are getting a wakeup call.

Katherine Tate Professor of Political Science
headshot of Katherine Tate

Collins cited a CNN exit poll showing that only 23% of Americans believe the economy is in good shape, and a vast majority don’t feel that they’re better off now than they were in 2020. He noted that such widespread economic dissatisfaction should have spelled widespread victory for the Republican Party — yet the Republican “red wave” didn’t materialize on the scale many had predicted.

Why, Collins mused, did Republicans fail to unseat Democrats en masse? Because Americans didn’t vote with their wallets — they voted, nearly unfailingly, with their party affiliation. Those 23% of Americans who said they believed the economy was doing well were almost all registered Democrats. And an overwhelming majority of those who said they weren’t better off today were registered Republicans.

“‘It’s the economy, stupid’ — [but] only for the party you root for,” Collins said. “[We found] pretty clear partisan splits on every salient political issue on voters’ minds heading to the ballot box.”

The 118th Congress is on track to be the most racially diverse in history.

The 2020 elections created the most racially diverse Senate and House of Representatives the U.S. has ever seen. According to Tate, Congress is on track to diversify even more next year — and that could transform the politics of the Republican Party.

“What’s striking about 2022 [is that] a record number of Blacks ran as Republicans, even if only a few have won,” Tate said. “The new diversity could move us away from Trumpism.”

Tate pointed out that after the 2020 elections, there were 19 Republican people of color in the House — and five of them were among the 11 Republicans who voted for Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s removal from committee assignments following revelations that she had spread incendiary conspiracy theories. Growing racial diversity in the party’s representation, she said, could bring growing diversity of political opinion.

It’s certainly done so for the Democratic Party, Tate said: The so-called “squad,” a group of six young representatives of color, has sometimes successfully applied pressure on fellow Democrats to lean further to the left. And Tate noted that the squad’s ranks could grow following successful bids of young Democrats such as Delia Ramirez and Summer Lee, who champion legislation such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.

For now, Democrats are still capturing the majority of voters of color — but they can’t necessarily rely on those votes forever, Tate said. 

“The Latinx vote in 2022 [was] overall decidedly Democratic, but a growing minority are voting Republican,” Tate said. “Democrats are getting a wakeup call.”

“ It’s pretty clear that if you were an election denier, you probably got beat last night. ”

Richard Arenberg Visiting Professor of the Practice of Political Science

Traditional polling isn’t dead yet.

With the advent of “Potential Spam” flags on calls to smartphones, it’s become all too easy for Americans to dodge pollsters come election season. Yet the 2022 midterms showed that against all odds, traditional polling remains relatively accurate, said Assistant Professor of Political Science Paul Testa.

Testa said that in the wake of the 2016 election — when both traditional and newfangled polls inaccurately called the presidential election in Hillary Clinton’s favor — many began to question the efficacy of polling.

“The polling averages missed strong support of [Donald] Trump among white, non-college-educated voters,” Testa said. “There was a concern that polls were failing to capture some core group among Republicans, [along with] maybe a general decline in trust in institutions.” 

Polls in the 2018 midterms, Testa said, largely held up, causing experts to believe that 2016 may have been an anomaly. 

“Then 2020 happens, and we have the worst polling miss since [Ronald] Reagan crushed [Jimmy] Carter,” Testa said — both national and state polls overestimated Joe Biden’s lead over Trump by an average of four percentage points.

But this year, polls were back on point, he said: They predicted a “red ripple,” not a wave, and close races in states such as Georgia.

“Polling is absolutely much harder [today],” Testa said. “But the poll error is relatively small.”

I am almost certain [Ron DeSantis] will run [in 2024]. I am almost certain Trump will run. That primary will be vicious.

Paul Testa Assistant Professor of Political Science
headshot of Paul Testa

As speaker of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy could struggle.

If Rep. Kevin McCarthy becomes House Majority Leader — as seems likely, pending final outcomes in a number of yet-to-be-called races — he’ll likely pursue impeachment of Biden as soon as possible, said Richard Arenberg, a visiting professor of the practice of political science.

“[Republicans have] already said they want to impeach Joe Biden,” Arenberg said. “What they’re going to impeach him for is to be announced — even they don’t know yet.”

Arenberg predicted they’ll also wage battle over the national budget. In the recent past, Republicans have balked at raising the national debt ceiling; their opposition in 2023 could force a government shutdown.

“In the next year,” he said, “they’ll have a big shutdown scare, and if it’s [over] the debt ceiling, it’ll frighten leaders of economies all over the world. It’s going to be a game of chicken that [will] be hard to look away from.”

With a likely narrow majority in the House, Arenberg said, Republicans will have large enough ranks to obstruct Democratic legislation. But their majority may not be large enough to enact much change, especially as the Republican Party seems increasingly fractured between non-aligned moderates and the Freedom Caucus, a far-right bloc that mostly supports Trump.  

“With his narrow margin, [McCarthy is] going to be whipsawing constantly between the Freedom Caucus and the moderates,” Arenberg said. “We saw it with the previous two Republican speakers. [John] Boehner, remember, was basically run out of the House.”

In order to be successful, McCarthy will have to keep Greene in his corner, Arenberg predicted. Greene is one of a small handful of House representatives who has become a household name in the last few years: “She gets a lot of money,” Arenberg said. “For McCarthy to have any leverage at all with his caucus in the House, he will have to keep her very close. She may be squeezed into leadership somewhere; she may be given a committee from which she can do investigations. She’s going to be a big player.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ star is on the rise.

Arenberg said the midterms show that Miami-Dade County — once a Democrat stronghold in largely Republican Florida — is no longer reliably blue. That’s a major victory for Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“We can no longer consider Florida a worthwhile battleground state in the 2024 election,” Arenberg said. “[In Miami-Dade County,] Democrats used to run up the vote and try to hold out [Republican control]. It went Republican last night, and it didn’t do Biden any favors two years ago.”

With growing support for DeSantis both in Florida and beyond, Testa said it’s all but inevitable that he’ll seek a presidential run in 2024. Donald Trump, another likely presidential hopeful, knows that: Trump has already fired verbal warning shots at DeSantis, threatening to reveal the governor’s damning secrets.

“Last night was a good night for Ron DeSantis, [and] I am almost certain he will run,” Testa said. “I am almost certain Trump will run. That primary will be vicious.”

Americans are divided on a Trump presidential bid — and on a second term for Biden.

Trump is rumored to be announcing his presidential bid this month — but does the populace want him in a leadership role anymore? Tate said Americans appear more split on that question than ever. According to the CNN exit poll, 57% said Trump shouldn’t mount another presidential campaign. Among those 57%, one third cited his erratic behavior; one third cited his tendency to sow deep division; and one third were concerned by his role in inciting the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

The poll showed that many Americans don’t want Biden, either. Half said they consider Biden a “bad president,” and 60% said he shouldn’t seek a second presidential term. Among those 60%, one third cited his advanced age.

“Most voters don’t want a rematch of 2020 in 2024,” Tate said. “Sixty percent wanted a moderate candidate in 2024.”

The midterm results have some questioning whether Republican support for Trump is waning. Many high-profile candidates who won the primaries thanks to an endorsement from the former president, including Dr. Mehmet Oz and Douglas Mastriano in Pennsylvania, lost against their Democratic Party challengers.

“The candidates that appeal to a Republican primary base are different than those that appeal in a general election,” Testa said. “In exit polls, we do see… dissatisfaction with a Trump-style Make America Great Again politics.”

Whether that growing dissatisfaction translates to a loss for Trump in 2024, it’s hard to say, experts agreed. But for now, the 45th president’s social currency is flagging.

“It’s pretty clear that if you were an election denier, you probably got beat last night,” Arenberg said. “I think that’s a victory for democracy, [and] I think it’s a loss for Donald Trump.”