Like most reporters in Washington, I know it is easy to get into a bubble if I stay in the Beltway. Hence, I have tried to get away from DC as much as possible to get a read about what’s going on in the midterms and see what voters are saying. At the same time, I also know that going out and talking to people is not the same as reading hard data.
But on the eve of the 2022 midterms, having made three trips — two to Pennsylvania and one to North Carolina — and having pored over tons of polls, viewed tons of debates and watched too many rallies where Donald Trump was in attendance, I can honestly say I have no idea how this election will go.
This is a first for me when it comes to a midterm. Typically, these elections have a certain rhythm: Voters are unhappy with the president and so, with no chance to vote for the person in the White House, they treat elections as a referendum. That means the president’s party typically loses seats. Political nerds love to debate whether candidates matter or whether elections are more structurally decided.
The first election I properly reported on as a professional was the 2014 midterms, when Republicans clobbered Democrats in the second year of Barack Obama’s second term. Fears about the rise of Isis, the botched rollout of Obamacare and Ebola were said to be to blame. Then, in 2018, I was slightly too conservative in my predictions about how well Democrats would do when they flipped the House of Representatives — but Republicans beat four Democratic incumbent Senators while Democrats only flipped two seats in Nevada and Arizona. Suburban women’s anger after Trump’s election drove the former change in the House, while conservative rage at allegations against Brett Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court confirmation propelled the latter in the Senate.
This should ostensibly make 2022 a no-brainer: President Joe Biden’s approval rating is dismally low; people are upset about inflation, the economy and the price of gas. Additionally, plenty of House Democrats are retiring, which is typically a sign that they expect to lose and they either don’t want to face defeat or don’t want to lose their seats. Republicans also won the governorship in Virginia, which historically precedes the minority party picking up seats.
But then the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade with its Dobbs v Jackson decision. I was initially a major skeptic that the decision that did away with a federal right to abortion would actually make much of a difference. I thought that Democrats’ failure to codify women’s reproductive rights before the overturn would actually hurt them, and that inflation and employment would matter more.
Then Democrats started overperforming in special elections in Nebraska and Minnesota, before holding a seat in New York and flipping Alaska’s sole congressional seat. All of this convinced me that I was wrong in being so sure about Dobbs having a minimal impact.
But most polls show that the economy remains the top issue for voters. That makes the lay of the land very confusing to decipher indeed.
A perfect example of how confusing everything looks is encapsulated in NBC News’s final election poll, which shows that both 73 per cent of Republicans and 73 per cent of Democrats are enthusiastic about voting this cycle. Meanwhile, 48 per cent of voters say they’d prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress — which gives Democrats a one-point lead. But that same survey showed that 23 per cent of voters said that “threats to democracy” were their top priority while at the ballot box, with 20 per cent saying “jobs and the economy” and 17 per cent saying “the cost of living”. All of this should, if we’re analyzing it correctly, give Republicans an advantage.
On top of that — and despite the questions of whether elections are more structurally decided — Republicans nominated a slate of candidates who seemed otherwise unelectable. From Herschel Walker for Georgia’s Senate seat to Dr Oz for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat to Kari Lake for Arizona governor to JD Vance in Ohio, too many of these candidates seemed radioactive. A few weeks ago, as the scandals mounted up, we were sure they were going nowhere fast.
But now, it looks like Oz, Lake and Vance have a good shot at winning, while Walker could easily go into a runoff in Georgia. What a difference a couple weeks makes.
Conversely, Republican nominee for governor Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania will likely be defeated by Democrat Josh Shapiro and Sarah Palin repelled enough Alaskans that the state voted Democrat for the first time in nearly 50 years when it picked Mary Peltola. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Peltola keep her seat, despite the fact that Palin blamed Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system for her own failure last time round.
Elsewhere, Democrats probably blew their chance to flip Wisconsin’s Senate seat by picking Mandela Barnes, who voters perceive as too far left on policing.
All of this is to say that this midterm did for me what the presidential election of Donald Trump in 2016 did for many: It has forced me to question everything I thought I knew about politics and democracy. If Republicans wind up winning, some may say the overturn of Roe v Wade had zero effect. But — callous as it sounds — the fact that Democrats even have a prayer of holding the House or Senate would not be possible without that Dobbs decision.
All of this means that 2022 will force me to reevaluate the fundamentals of election reporting. This midterm has humbled me and will require me to examine the results — and my reactions to them — under particularly aggressive scrutiny.