Why the midterm elections defied expectations

By Martin Woodley

Outline of the midterm results

The mainstream media have interpreted the failure of the expected red wave to materialise as being due to Trump looming large in the background, having endorsed many candidates that then won their primaries, and hence confirming him as the dominant figure in the Republican Party. One Washington Post analysis was titled ‘In election 2022, the party of Trump pays for being the party of Trump’. They argue that the anticipated red wave could have materialised if Republicans nominated candidates that focussed on inflation and crime instead of abortion, election fraud and culture wars. Except that the one name that has emerged as a leading alternative to Trump – and won spectacularly running on those Trumpian themes – is Ron DeSantis; a politician that offers only Trumpism without Trump.

It is undoubtedly the case that midterms are usually a giant opinion poll on the incumbent administration. And America expected a very negative verdict on the first two years of the Biden administration, with their failure to deliver on much of their legislative agenda; their foreign policy debacle in Afghanistan; their role in stoking the inflation that is currently afflicting the global as well as the domestic economy. Moreover, the war in Ukraine and the attendant economic sanctions – avowedly pursued with the intention of weakening Russia, is acting so as to weaken the US’s European allies. Biden’s approval ratings plunged below 50% in August last year, and currently stands at 41.5% – the most unpopular President since 1945.

The anticipated Republican rout clearly has not materialised: at the time of writing the composition of the Senate stands at 50:49 in favour of the Democrats, with a run-off election in Georgia outstanding. In fact, the Georgia run-off will be the only opportunity left for the Republicans to flip a Senate seat. If the Republicans fail to flip a Senate seat it would be only the seventh time in 100 years that an opposition party has failed like this in the midterms. The House currently stands at 212:204 in favour of the Republicans, with 218 required for a majority, and with a large number of seats yet to be announced. Similarly, the average gain for an opposition party in House midterm elections is 29, which is now beyond the ability of the Republicans to achieve. Michael Roberts has expounded on the historical reasons to expect a giant red wave in these midterms, given the economic situation and the plunge in the level of real wages between 2021 Q4 and 2022 Q2. Moreover, a recent report revealed that 63% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck; and right before polling day mortgage rates hit a new twenty year high.

However, there are objective, historical and material processes at work which indicate that the popular basis of Republicanism is eroding. The salient features of the midterm results are listed below:

  1. Ballot initiatives, and overwhelmingly the issue of abortion rights, indicate a continuing trend for the population as a whole to support progressive measures when enabled to express views on such matters.
  2. Despite the Republican underperformance, Trumpism is still the ideologically dominant trend in the Party. Ron DeSantis, represents Trumpism without Trump; 291 candidates were on the election ballot who are on record as denying the validity of the 2020 Presidential election result – 173 have so far been elected.
  3. Republicans largely failed to disrupt the Democrat electoral alliance, as was presaged in the Virginia Gubernatorial election in November last year. Then, using mainly culture war themes, the Republican candidate was able to cut into the white suburban vote, with Republican victor Glenn Youngkin gaining increased proportions in comparison with the Trump vote in 2020, especially among white suburban voters. Graphical representation of the 2022 exit polls is given here.
  4. Democrats performed better than expected in state legislature elections, particularly in the midwest. In particular, Democrats won full control of Michigan, and avoided the Republicans attaining a supermajority in both houses in Wisconsin.

The salient features can be discussed as follows.

  1. In Kentucky, an anti-abortion amendment was defeated, potentially enabling services to be resumed; in Michigan a ballot initiative to enshrine the right to abortion in the state’s constitution was successful. These successes altered the existing access and follow the earlier defeat of an anti-abortion amendment in Kansas. California and Vermont also passed abortion rights amendments, which while they do not alter the currently existing access, nevertheless strengthen the legal protection to abortion rights. The pro-rights campaign was also successful in electing pro-rights Democrat Governors in Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These would have the power to sign or veto abortion related legislation that could alter access provided that there are not super majorities in the state legislature that would override the veto of the Governor. Additionally, in South Dakota voters supported an initiative to expand Medicaid, while in Illinois voters backed an amendment to make it a right to join a union. Also, voters in four states approved ballot measured that would change their state’s constitution to prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude as punishment for crime. On the downside, a supermajority was achieved in both houses in Florida, as well as the election of Ron DeSantis as Governor – he is on record as wanting to extend anti-abortion restrictions. Similarly, in Ohio, where a six week abortion ban is blocked in the courts, a conservative majority has been secured on the state Supreme Court, and a Republican Governor was elected. Iowa passed a gun rights amendment, and Tennessee backed an amendment to enshrine the state’s anti-union ‘right to work’ bill into the state’s constitution. These overall positive results simply confirm the position arising from the 2020 general elections: Arizona passed a proposition to impose a wealth tax to fund education; Colorado passed a proposition in favour of paid medical and family leave; Florida passed a $15 per hour minimum wage initiative. These results indicate that there is popular support – in many cases majority support – for progressive initiatives. Increasingly, these are only being expressed by ballot initiatives, since the stranglehold of big money in party politics is becoming ever more tight.
  2. Of the 291 election deniers, 173 have been elected, with another 6 currently leading their counts. So, despite the predictions of a collapse of Trumpism in the mainstream media, Republicans will continue in their quest to move the political window to the right. US Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) have described how the US could be at the beginning of a new era “where the basic concept of ‘one person, one vote’ is in danger of being completely done away with” and the underlying failures of the Democratic Party to counter this danger. Essentially, the US working class supports progressive policies in substantial majorities. Yet the Republican Party comfortably moves politics – including the Democratic Party itself – to the right. Indeed, for anti-Trump Republicans, it is increasingly necessary to either capitulate, or to support Democrat candidates against pro-Trump Republicans.
  3.  According to exit polls, the turnout among women far surpassed that for men, and favoured Democrats, whereas men favoured Republicans. Urban voters strongly favoured Democrats; rural voters strongly favoured Republicans, while suburban voters were more evenly distributed among the parties. Blacks, Latinxs and Asians favoured Democrats by 86%, 60% and 58%, whereas whites favoured Republicans by 58%. The impact of the youth vote was particularly apparent in Pennsylvania where Democrat John Fetterman defeated Mehmet Oz, the only Senate seat to change hands so far. Fetterman received 72% of the 18-24 year old vote. Similarly, Democrat Maggie Hassan received 76% of the 18-24 year old vote to retain her Senate seat. Both of these results saw significant increases in the proportion of the youth vote in comparison to the election of Biden in 2020.
  4. State legislature elections are liable to become the principal battlefield of US politics in the immediate future. It is widely accepted that the Senate is an extremely undemocratic institution with small and large states receiving the same representation, and with the retention of the Senate filibuster. Seats in the House however are similarly frequently drawn up in a partisan way in order to favour one party over the other. The control of congressional districts is under the control of state authorities either through specially appointed commissions, or increasingly under committees appointed by state legislatures. Since 2010 there has been a concerted effort to bolster and lock in Republican political power by consolidating a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, and by aiming for locked-in conservative supermajorities in state legislatures. This will be explored in the next section.

What lies behind the midterm results

The immediate question is why is US politics so right wing, when there is substantial popular backing for progressive policies among the population, as evidenced by ballot initiatives in the 2020 general election and the 2022 midterms. To understand this it is necessary to take a historical view of US politics.

Post war US politics can be divided into three periods: 1945-1968; 1968-1992; and 1992-present. The period 1945-1968 is the latter part of the New Deal coalition, which delivered Democratic dominance by allying northern liberals with southern conservatives. This was smashed by the civil rights struggle which saw the Democratic establishment under Kennedy and Johnson clash with southern conservative whites. This era of US politics ended with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s which overturned Jim Crow and led indirectly to gains by the women’s movement and the LGBTQ movement.

The period 1968-1992 is the period of the Republican ‘southern strategy’, which adopted a new conservative ideology formulated by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, and attempted to attract the southern white vote from the Democrats to the Republicans. This led to a period of Republican dominance from Nixon (1969-1973) to George H W Bush (1989-1992). Only the four years of the Carter presidency interrupted this period of Republican dominance.

Since 1992 there have been two terms of the Clinton presidency; two terms of the George W Bush presidency; two terms of the Obama presidency, one term of the Trump presidency; and so far we are in the first term of the Biden presidency. So far since 1992 there have been five Democrat presidential terms and three Republican presidential terms. Moreover, the two Republican Presidents, George W Bush (first term) and Donald Trump, were both elected by a minority of the popular vote.

Since 1992 there has been a period of conflict as the southern strategy ran its course. Moreover, there is a new differentiation of the voting blocs – the Democrats are elected substantially by the urban metropolitan areas; the Republicans are elected substantially by the rural areas and small towns; and the suburbs are keenly contested.

This new contested period is marked by an increase in the frequency with which the House and Senate majorities are flipped. For instance, Democrats controlled the House from 1955 to 1995, whereas now the chamber may change hands for the fourth time in 15 years. The difference in the number of congressional seats held by the majority and minority parties has collapsed too. Between 1959 and 1995, the House majority was never less than 50 seats and repeatedly hit the triple digits. Currently the outgoing House majority is 8.

Furthermore, metropolitan areas in the former deep southern states are actually growing faster than cities in the northern states, and the US population as a whole is becoming more urban and metropolitan and less rural.

This was recognised to pose a future existential crisis for conservatism which required immediate measures to counter it. The full impact was shown by the Obama victory in 2008. By 2010 the initial outlines were already clear. The Tea Party embodied a popular right wing backlash against big federal government; the role of big money in politics was consolidated in the Supreme Court decision of Citizens United v. Federal Electoral Commission. Furthermore, there was a push to lock in Republican control of as many state legislatures as possible by gerrymandering and voter suppression. Important in the push for voter suppression was the erosion of the Voting Rights Act (1965) in the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder; and voter purges such as the Interstate Crosscheck program. The smashing of Jim Crow and the waning of the Southern Strategy, alongside increasing urbanisation has meant a renewed imperative to prevent urban sensibilities being expressed. Hence the need to ensure the elimination of the left, to elevate the culture wars and to suppress urban – especially black – votes. Failure to do these things will condemn the Republicans to habitually receive a minority of the popular vote and enable the working class to have a greater influence on politics.

It is no accident therefore that in a case Merrill v Milligan the Supreme Court has in the run up to the midterms ruled against plaintiffs protesting against redistricting in Alabama which they say violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the 14th Amendment. Moreover, the case Moore v Harper relating to gerrymandered Congressional districts in North Carolina is but the latest attempt to force a ruling based on the ‘Independent State Legislature’ theory interpretation of the Constitution. This would give state legislatures absolute power over the running of elections, and would address the urbanisation problem faced by Republicans, regardless of the outcome of statewide elections such as Governor, Secretary of State, etc. Incidentally, the Independent State Legislature interpretation is what underlay the Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling which overturned Roe v. Wade.

Of course, gerrymandering is not confined to southern states. Wisconsin has been called the most gerrymandered state legislature in the country. In an interview on Wisconsin politics, political journalist at the New York Times, Reid Epstein said,

“Republicans have such control of the levers of power in Wisconsin that voters are almost immaterial. It is the most gerrymandered state legislature in the country — a 50-50 state where Republicans hold 61 out of 99 seats in the Assembly and 21 out of 33 seats in the Senate.”

In April, the state Supreme Court reversed an earlier decision to approve legislative maps drawn up by its Democrat Governor, and which included an additional district with a black majority, in favour of maps drawn up by the Republican controlled legislature. This decision followed a ruling by the US Supreme Court overturning the state Supreme Court’s original ruling, and consummating a twelve year long project to lock-in Republican political power through control of the state legislature. This is eminently possible in Wisconsin because despite being a 50-50 state in statewide elections, Democratic voters are highly concentrated in urban areas. The Republican justification is that the reason Democrats cannot even compete in rural areas is because their policies do not appeal to rural voters. This creates an electoral logic which pressures Democrats to adopt Republican policies.

The essence of this approach is clear – regardless of the outcome of statewide elections for Governor, Attorney general, or US Senate, or of the composition of state Supreme Courts, as long as supermajorities in state legislatures is maintained by gerrymandering, and the constitution is interpreted by the US Supreme Court according to ‘Independent State Legislature’ doctrine, effective conservative one party rule can be maintained.

Therefore, while the Senate race in Wisconsin returned Ron Johnson with 50.5% against Mandela Barnes with 49.5% of the vote; the voting in Wisconsin’s counties is as depicted in Figure 1. – i.e. there are very many more Republican voting counties than there are Democrat voting counties, and hence the state legislature is dominated by the Republicans despite there being just as many Democrat voters.

Figure 1. Senate vote by county.

As a consequence, the congressional districts in Wisconsin are heavily weighted towards Republicans, and hence, in the midterms, the Democrats have returned two House Representatives to Congress, whereas the Republicans have returned six. This is depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2. The result of House elections from Wisconsin.

This state of affairs in Wisconsin is not peculiar.

“North Carolina Republicans, who also drew a gerrymandered legislative map, need to flip just three seats in the State House and two in the State Senate to be able to override vetoes by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Gov. Laura Kelly of Kansas, a Democrat in a tight contest for re-election, already faces veto-proof Republican majorities, as do the Democratic governors of deep-red Kentucky and Louisiana.”

Even where maps have been challenged and a decision is pending, those gerrymandered maps were allowed to be used in the midterms. The conclusion is that a conservative alliance between the US Supreme Court and state legislatures can overturn popular sentiment. This explains how popular sentiment is thwarted.


The current project has a history which dates back at least to 2010 and has been designed to lock in Republican dominance at the state legislature level, and in alliance with the Supreme Court, to move the political window to the right, including within the Democratic Party. It seeks to cut into the Democratic electoral coalition by winning suburban votes around issues of crime, ‘traditional family values’ and culture wars, and divide urban votes on racial issues.

It has been stress tested in both general and midterm elections. In 2016, Trump won, attracting a minority of the popular vote nationwide, but winning the electoral college. Since the number of a state’s electors is equal to its congressional delegation – senators and representatives, the electoral college is at once biassed towards small states (because the senate gives equal representation to states regardless of population) and heavily gerrymandered states (where the number of representatives of each party is biassed to one party regardless of the popular support of that party).

It was stress tested again in 2018 and the House flipped to a Democratic majority. In 2020 Biden extended the Democratic lead in the popular vote, and was aided by a massive turnout among Georgia’s black electorate. Midterms 2022 has again subjected the Republican project to a stress test, which has again failed to protect the party against the objective material fact of increasing urbanisation. In Georgia, where Raphael Warnock was the elected the first black senator from the deep south since the end of reconstruction in 2021, despite standing a black ex-football star against him have so far failed to recover the seat. This is in spite of the fact that Republican Brian Kemp convincingly won the gubernatorial election.

The conclusion is that despite the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, despite the voter suppression legislation, despite the gerrymandered electoral maps, the Republicans are failing to sufficiently break the Democratic electoral coalition to produce a breakthrough. In fact there is an argument that congressional districts as a whole are becoming more Democratic.

Also, the resistance to the Republicans does not imply support for the Democrats – in order to progress any domestic policy legislation Biden has accommodated himself to the Republicans despite having majorities in both houses of congress. The truth is that labour militancy is on the rise, and progressive positions on a range of social questions have broad popular support, as illustrated by the results of the ballot initiatives on abortion. For the Republicans it is back to the drawing board. Expect more voter suppression, and more ‘Independent State Legislature’ inclined Supreme Court decisions.

Image used in graphic: Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Photo by Gareth Milner, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 2.0) license. Photo cropped & included in a graphic.