Midterm elections are the temper tantrums of US politics. Halfway through every Presidential term, the party of POTUS takes a reliable kicking from an electorate that wails and stamps their collective feet about everything that's gone wrong over the previous two years. Justified or not, as Harry Truman acknowledged, the buck stops in the Oval Office.
Since the Civil War, Presidents have lost seats in the House of Representatives in 36 of 39 midterms and 24 times in the Senate. Reversals range from the marginal – like JFK losing four House seats in 1962 – to Obama's famous 'shellacking' in 2010, when 63 House seats flipped. Going further back, the financial crash of 1873 allowed Democrats to capture a whopping 94 seats in the House in the middle of President Grant's second term, a mere decade after being the party of secession. On the rare occasions that the President's party doesn't lose, there's usually an obvious explanation, such as the post-9/11 'rally around the flag' election in 2002.
Because the entire House is elected every two years, it's ultra-sensitive to tantrums. But despite the House always being in play, for most of the 20th century midterm rebukes were just meaningless protest votes. For over 60 years, between 1932 and 1994, Democrats had a perma-majority in the House, with Republicans having control for only four years. But those were also six decades in which the differences within the two main US political parties were often far more pronounced than the differences between them.
For Democrats, the big tent spanned everything from 'Yellow Dog' segregationists in the South clinging to the 19th-century political allegiances to hippies in San Francisco. On the Republican side, the equivalent of 'One Nation Tories' like New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller often found themselves at loggerheads with insurgent libertarians like Barry Goldwater. The upshot was that Congressional business was dominated by backroom deal making that often cut across party lines to create temporary legislative coalitions.
Representative Newt Gingrich changed all that and ushered in our current era of tribal polarisation. As a junior Republican Congressman, Gingrich was frustrated that Republicans had won landslide victories in four out of the five Presidential elections in the 1970s and 1980s, yet voters persisted in sending Democrats to Congress. So, Gingrich toiled for over a decade to disprove House Speaker Tip O'Neill's dictum 'that all politics is local' and worked to turn congressional elections into national referenda. Adroitly using the emergence of 24-hour cable news to make his case, that campaign culminated in the 1994 midterms, when he masterminded a 52-seat House swing that gave first-term President Bill Clinton a black eye and handed Republicans their first House majority in 40 years.
Since 1994 midterms have mattered, not just as protest votes, but as elections that have frequently determined congressional control. In the last eight midterms, control of the House has changed hands either four or five times (depending on the final 2022 result), while it's only been twice in the Senate. Midterms have become a true political thermostat, and the result has often been divided government for the last two years of a Presidential term. Consequently, the typical second half of a Presidency is now legislative gridlock, occasional cross-party compromise, stacks of Executive Orders, and a sharp uptick in Presidential overseas trips to get away from the unpleasantness in DC.
With Biden's approval rating stuck in the low 40s, the table was set last week for a Democratic rout. Instead, it looks like the Republican House majority will be at most one or two seats, while Democrats have retained the Senate. So why did 2022 buck the midterm orthodoxy?
Like oppositions of every stripe around the world, Republicans ran against inflation, turning a global economic phenomenon into a local gloat and blame game. They also carpet-bombed political ads highlighting US-specific problems like rising crime and record illegal immigration, teeing up what should have been a noisy and consequential electoral tantrum.
But what made this midterm different was that rather than Democrats being supine victims, they matched Republican anger, enthusiasm, and ultimately turnout. When all the votes are counted, the turnout will likely fall just short of the high-water mark of the 2018 midterms at just over 50%, but it's still historically high. Also, unlike 2010 when Obama's healthcare reforms were deeply unpopular, Democratic candidates weren't running away from Biden's domestic policy agenda because many of the specifics, such as increased infrastructure spending, have been increasingly admired by voters.
If midterms are usually a reprimand for the sitting President, what's made 2022 truly unique is the high-profile role played by the former guy. One manifestation was reaction to the overturning of Roe vs Wade at the hands of the Trump-appointed Supreme Court. In all five states where abortion was on the ballot (either explicitly protecting the procedure or trying to ban it), voters told the government to stay out of their healthcare, even in Republican bastions like Kentucky and Montana. Rather than atrophy as an issue, exit polls consistently reported abortion rights as the second most important thing on voters' minds after inflation. We therefore had the novel spectacle of Republicans taking an electoral hit for something that happened when they were out of power.
The second shadow of the Trump Presidency hanging over these midterms was the lingering stench of the 6 January Capitol riot. The 'Big Lie' was brought back centre stage not only by the many Republican candidates trying to relitigate 2020, but also by the stage-managed congressional hearings over the summer that forensically picked apart the conspiracy theories and coup planning of the 'we wuz robbed' brigade. The result was that Republican candidates who embraced the idea that any Democratic victory must be fraudulent experienced a renaissance in ticket splitting and paid a punitive 'Trump Tax', running anywhere from 5% to 15% behind mainstream Republicans.
For example, in both Georgia and New Hampshire, mainstream Republican Governors won easy re-election, while weak Trump-backed Senate candidates struggled. Even where Trump-endorsed candidates like JD Vance in Ohio won, their margin of victory was clearly eroded by their Trumpiness. In Wisconsin, where the state legislature has been gerrymandered to guarantee a Republican majority, an election-denying gubernatorial candidate was easily beaten by a Democrat incumbent. Across the lake in 'battleground Michigan', it was a historic clean sweep for Democrats at the state level against a slate of MAGA extremists. As Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell presciently predicted some months ago, 'candidate quality' rather than just party affiliation clearly mattered in these elections.
It's clear that in this midterm, not only was Joe Biden's performance on the ballot, so was Donald Trump's. One simple explanation for what happened last week was that against Biden's 54% disapproval rating Trump's is at 60%, and that gap alone leeched energy from what might otherwise have been a more normal Republican groundswell. American voters also showed that, while they're undoubtedly angry about inflation and rising crime, they're capable of holding more than one thought in their head as they enter a voting booth and casting their ballots accordingly.
With the prospect of a teeny-weeny majority in the House, presumptive Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy will soon envy the iron discipline Nancy Pelosi imposed on her slim Democratic majority these past two years. Commanding far larger majorities, the last two Republican-controlled Houses committed regicide, ousting Speakers John Boehner and Paul Ryan for a lack of ideological purity. Even if McCarthy manages to get himself elected Speaker, he's likely to be held hostage by the vicious bag of ferrets that is his own Freedom Caucus. The result could easily be a two-year impeach-orama, a debt ceiling debacle, dithering on continued support for Ukraine, and endless hearings on Hunter Biden's laptop and the mirage of Critical Race Theory being taught in public schools; none of which will lower inflation or play well with independent voters. However, Republican control of the House will be fragile and possibly short-lived given that in the current Congress there were 16 special House elections arising from deaths and resignations.
This is not the first time that US politics has been this polarised. In the pre-Civil War era, the emergence of slavery as the defining political issue destroyed the Whig Party, created the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, and started a war that killed 600,000 Americans. The positive from last week was that this political temper tantrum was two-sided and grounded in a clash of ideas on issues like abortion rather than a clash of arms. Instead of the anticipated Republican tsunami, this election turned out to be like the diffraction experiment in high school physics, where converging waves cancelled each other out to create an almost evenly split Congress.
It became a Democratic cliché during the campaign to warn that 'democracy was on the ballot', but by and large democracy won last week, even when Republicans were elected. There was no election day violence, many losing Republicans had the grace to concede, and despite months of apocalyptic warnings, the process felt surprisingly normal. It's genuinely refreshing that many Republicans have immediately started blaming each other for their poor showing rather than pointing the finger at fake Chinese ballots.
America will undoubtedly stay polarised, but it's encouraging that the political arena in which the fight happens isn't getting burned down in the process. While there will be continued gerrymandering of congressional districts, attempts to disenfranchise minority voters, and isolated incidents of political violence, that just feels like politics as usual rather than fascism – at least not yet.
Having genuflected at the temple of small mercies, it's way too early to be optimistic about the next two years of divided government in America. But at least if you're a Democrat, you now have the tantalising prospect of grabbing some popcorn and settling down to watch the cage fight in which massive midterm winner Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida takes on Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican Presidential nomination!
Alan McIntyre is a Trustee and Patron of the Institute of Contemporary Scotland