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Why the red wave didn’t come

The midterms were a choice, not a referendum.

A view of a congressional staffer adhering a sign to a lectern that reads “TAKE BACK THE HOUSE.”
Congressional staff prepare a lectern during an election night watch party for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy on November 9,
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Democrats outperformed history and expectations with a surprisingly strong midterm elections performance Tuesday, with the promised red wave nowhere to be found.

The best news for the GOP is that they appear to be the favorites to narrowly retake the House of Representatives, though the outcomes of key races have not yet been called. Apart from that, the results so far are a litany of disappointments for Republicans.

In the Senate, the contests that will determine control — Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona — have not yet been called. But Democrats have a path to hold on, helped by John Fetterman’s victory in a GOP-held open seat contest in Pennsylvania. If Democratic incumbent Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Mark Kelly triumph in Nevada and Arizona, the party would keep its majority (Cortez Masto is currently trailing, but the outstanding mail vote will likely benefit her, while Kelly is ahead in Arizona). And if one of them loses, Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock is now headed to a runoff in December that could determine the majority.

Democratic candidates also performed strongly in contested governor’s races, holding on to governorships in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Maine, New Mexico, and New York.

Though it’s still too early to make definitive conclusions about why the promised red wave didn’t appear, there are a couple of emerging trends that could help explain what happened last night.

One broader story is that incumbents of both parties proved to be quite resilient — making this the first midterm election cycle since 2002 in which there was no “wave” washing out the president’s party. Instead, where there was turnover in House or state legislature contests, it was often because of redistricting, with new maps helping Republicans in US House races in New York and Florida and positioning Democrats for gains in Michigan’s state legislative contests.

Another broader story is that the country remains quite polarized, with statewide results tracking 2020’s outcomes pretty closely rather than swinging in the out-party’s favor (as in typical midterm years).

And there seem to be two likely culprits for Republicans’ relatively weak performance: the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision ending federal abortion rights protections — and former President Donald Trump.

What happened? Dobbs and Trump.

One year ago, when Republicans picked up Virginia’s governorship and came surprisingly close to winning in New Jersey as well, it appeared history was repeating itself — that voters were turning against the incumbent president’s party.

Overwhelmingly, this is the most common outcome in midterms. It’s what happened in the past four midterm cycles — 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018 — all of which were “wave years” featuring the out-party making dramatic gains in Congress, winning key statewide contests, and pulling off surprising upsets. Only very dramatic developments in US politics, such as the impact of the 9/11 attacks on the 2002 midterms, seemed to be able to shake up this pattern.

Why does this so often happen? Midterms may be inherently demobilizing to many of the incumbent president’s supporters precisely because he’s not on the ballot — they feel less threatened because they know he’ll still be in office no matter how the midterms turn out and are therefore less motivated to vote. Political scientists have also put forward the “thermostatic” public opinion model, suggesting that swing voters tend to swing against the incumbent party, thinking that the country has been moved too far to either the left or right.

Through the first half of 2022, polls and special election results indicated Democrats were on track for one of these midterm bruisings. Then the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision happened.

The conservative Supreme Court justices’ elimination of federal abortion rights protections wiped out a legal status quo that had existed for half a century and is a rare example of a dramatic policy shift clearly opposed by the incumbent president. Millions more Americans confronted the possibility that if they or someone in their family should need an abortion, they could be blocked from getting it by the government. A shift in national political sentiment was quickly evident in special election results. The decision — and Democratic messaging and advertising heavily focused on it — appears to have mobilized Democratic base voters who’d otherwise tune out for the midterms and convinced swing voters that Republicans have moved the country too far to the right.

There was another dramatic difference between these midterms and past ones — the role of Donald Trump.

Typically, the midterms are a referendum on the party in power. Turning the page from their previous presidential election defeat, the out-party blames the incumbents for all the nation’s problems, urges the electorate to vote for “not these guys,” and wins a sweeping victory. Republicans tried to follow that playbook this year, with ads overwhelmingly focused on inflation and crime.

But instead, the 2022 midterms appear to have been viewed as a choice between President Joe Biden and Trump, not a referendum on Democrats alone — and voters in many states seem to have made the same choice they did in 2020, with state outcomes closely matching that year’s results.

Trump exerted his influence in getting flawed candidates, like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia, nominated in key contests this year. He also returned to the headlines in the second half of 2022 as he faced legal problems, continued to disparage the legitimacy of Biden’s victory over him, and geared up for a repeat presidential run. The GOP also made unmistakably clear that it remained the party of Trump — in contrast to, say, Virginia’s governor’s contest, where Glenn Youngkin tried to appeal to moderate voters by presenting a new face of the Republican Party.

A polarized nation

Yet while Democrats outperformed expectations and historical norms, the election was not a landslide win for their party.

Republicans still appear favored to win the House, and some swing states still appear to be quite closely divided. Red-leaning states Trump won in 2020 like Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina still went red. And many of Trump’s preferred candidates were not overwhelmingly rejected by voters, instead losing by only a small margin.

In other words, the country remains divided between a large bloc of consistent Democratic voters and a large bloc of consistent Republican voters, with only a relatively small group of swing voters who have uncertain loyalties, as Lee Drutman and Charlotte Hill recently wrote for the New York Times.

What these midterms made clear is that these divisions will likely persist so long as Trump remains a major force in politics. When Trump recedes to the background of the news — as he did in the fall of 2021, when Virginians voted — and Republicans modulate their presentation, they seem to be able to win over wavering Democrats.

But now he’s back. Trump is highly effective at motivating infrequent GOP voters and winning the intense loyalty of his base. Then again, Trump has also alienated an even larger group of voters, including many swing voters, and the GOP suffered for that on Tuesday as the red wave they dreamed of failed to materialize.

Update, 8:30 pm ET: Updated to reflect that the Georgia Senate race is headed to a runoff.