LOS ANGELES — By now, every American who pays attention to politics is aware that Democrats had a much better night on Nov. 8 than anyone expected.
Despite the howling economic headwinds, it’s entirely possible that Joe Biden could become the first Democratic president since John F. Kennedy in 1962 not only to keep control of the Senate but actually expand his majority there. Democrats held onto House seats in Rhode Island, Virginia, Michigan and Ohio that Republicans were sure they could flip. They clawed back control of state legislatures. They ran the table on ballot measures to preserve abortion rights. And they could be on their way to winning the governor’s mansions in four of the five states that swung from former President Donald Trump to Biden in 2020.
All in all, it made for one of the most surprising elections in recent U.S. history. As the dust begins to settle, here are five myths about American politics that 2022’s dizzying midterms totally demolished.
Myth: Candidates don’t matter
With partisan polarization dominating American politics, many experts assumed that the Republicans wouldn’t be appreciably harmed by nominating inexperienced and extremist candidates backed by Trump. However, as it turned out, this was a significant drag on their performance.
One way to think about Republicans’ disappointing performance Tuesday is by comparing it with the counterfactual: How would the GOP have done in a world without Trump?
Heading into Election Day, the White House was worried for a reason. All indicators were flashing red: The highest inflation in 40 years. Skyrocketing interest rates. Concerns about a coming recession. A pandemic-era uptick in violent crime. Add to this Biden’s anemic approval rating — the worst of any modern president at this stage of his first term.
If the election had solely been a referendum on the (Democratic) status quo, Biden’s party would have been on track to suffer the cataclysmic midterm losses of Harry Truman in 1946 (54 seats), Bill Clinton in 1994 (53 seats), Barack Obama in 2010 (64 seats) and Trump in 2018 (42 seats).
Instead, Democrats are predicted to lose only about 10 seats, give or take. If California’s outstanding contests break their way, they might even keep control of the House — a previously unthinkable result.
Why? Because at the end of the day, elections are always a choice. And in far too many cases, the GOP alternative seems to have struck a lot of potential Republican voters as unacceptable.
This dynamic asserted itself throughout the country Tuesday night.
Consider Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who resisted Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, ran five points ahead of the former football star Herschel Walker, Trump’s scandal-and-gaffe-prone Senate endorsee.
Consider Ohio, where “normie” Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who has long held the former president at arm’s length, ran 10 points ahead of controversial MAGA Senate candidate J.D. Vance.
Consider Pennsylvania, where the Republican gubernatorial wannabe Doug Mastriano — a guy who actually gathered outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to “Stop the steal” — lost to Democrat Josh Shapiro by 14 points.
And consider the Democratic sweep in Michigan — a state Trump won in 2016 but where this year’s extremist slate of Republican election deniers lost races for governor, secretary of state, three key House contests and control of both halves of the state Legislature.
To be sure, base-mobilizing issues such as preserving abortion access and defending democracy kept Democrats within striking distance, by boosting turnout at a time when history and the economy were working against them. But preliminary national exit polls for the U.S. House showed that Republicans (36%) actually comprised a larger share of the electorate than Democrats (33%), and that partisans on both sides voted near-unanimously (96% to 3%) for their party’s nominees.
Instead, the group that ultimately tipped the scales was independents. In 2010 (Obama’s first midterm), independents sided with Republicans by a 56% to 37% margin; in 2018 (Trump’s one and only midterm), they sided with Democrats by 54% to 42%. Independents almost always flock to the opposition — and as they go, so goes the election.
But this year, indies shattered the historical pattern and broke for the president’s party, 49% to 47%; the Democratic margin among independents was even larger in the Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania Senate races. All signs suggest that they weren’t rewarding Biden Democrats so much as recoiling from Trump Republicans.
It shouldn’t have been close, but apparently more MAGA was worse than more of the same.
Myth: Trump has the 2024 Republican nomination sewn up
Most pundits have long assumed that Trump will be a lock for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination if he decides to run again. (He recently teased a “big announcement” at Mar-a-Lago next week.)
But Tuesday night was so terrible for the former president, and so good for his top potential 2024 rival, that the conventional wisdom seemed to unravel in an instant.
It is hard to overstate what an anomaly Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was this year. Trump’s handpicked roster of hardcore would-be MAGA governors lost in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, Maryland and possibly Arizona.
Meanwhile in Florida, DeSantis won reelection by nearly 20 percentage points, more than quintupling Trump’s 2020 margin (3.3 percentage points). DeSantis won Miami-Dade County — which is 70% Latino and which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 by nearly 30 points — by 11. The last Florida Republican to win Miami-Dade was Jeb Bush. That was two decades ago.
The contrast couldn’t have been starker. After losing the popular vote in the presidential election by 3 million in 2016, then 7 million in 2020, Trump has now weighed the GOP down in the first big (and otherwise very winnable) election of his post-presidency — by boosting weak candidates; by dragging the party into battles over his past misconduct; and by insisting, as the Atlantic’s David Frum put it on Wednesday, that 2022 “be a referendum on his personal grievances and delusions.”
The most lasting consequence of this year’s midterms, then, might be less about seats won and lost and more about making Trump look like a loser and DeSantis look like a winner — which could further embolden DeSantis to challenge Trump in 2024.
“How could you look at these results tonight and conclude Trump has any chance of winning a national election in 2024?” tweeted Scott Jennings, a former deputy of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.
Regardless of what Republican elites say, it remains to be seen whether GOP primary voters will ever ditch Trump.
But at least one very influential voice, the New York Post, owned by the Murdoch family, which also owns Fox News, seems to have chosen a side already.
“Suddenly, 2024 doesn’t feel so far away,” the paper’s Michael Goodwin wrote in a Wednesday cover story headlined “DeFuture.” “Nor does Trump look like the only choice or the inevitable nominee.”
Or, as supporters chanted at DeSantis’s Florida victory party Tuesday night, “Two more years! Two more years!”
Myth: Swing voters don’t care about abortion and democracy
A major media narrative in the run-up to Election Day went something like this: Democrats keep harping on threats to democracy and abortion rights, and those things matter — but voters care more about inflation, especially gas prices, which is why Republicans will come out on top Nov. 8.
Turns out the narrative was only partially correct. In the preliminary national exit polls, nearly two-thirds of voters (65%) said gas prices had been “a financial hardship recently,” and about one-third (32%) did pick inflation as the issue that weighed heaviest on them when deciding how to cast their ballots. That’s precisely the number who said the same in pretty much every Yahoo News/YouGov pre-election poll conducted since the start of 2022.
But nearly as many chose abortion (27%) in the exit poll, and about seven in 10 (68%) said democracy itself was “threatened.”
The twist Tuesday night was that geography largely dictated which issues mattered most. In states where democracy and abortion rights weren’t directly on the ballot, inflation (and to a lesser extent, crime) may have exerted a greater pull. Yet in states where democracy and abortions rights were on the ballot — or in imminent danger — both issues clearly motivated Democrats to turn out and stifle what might have otherwise been a red wave.
Look no further than the neighboring states of New York and Pennsylvania for evidence of this dynamic. Democrats had a surprisingly awful night in the deep-blue Empire State, losing several key Congressional races in the Hudson Valley and New York City suburbs. With no chance of the state backsliding on abortion or democracy, the left didn’t feel much urgency to turn out — and Republicans capitalized with voters concerned about crime and the economy.
Pennsylvania was the opposite. With a Republican Legislature ready to rubber-stamp his most extreme policies, Mastriano, the MAGA candidate for governor, made it clear that he would reverse abortion rights and appoint a fellow election denier as secretary of state. He wound up losing by 14.
In the preliminary Pennsylvania exit polling, 62% of voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases; nearly as many (59%) said they were either angry (39%) or dissatisfied (20%) about Roe v. Wade being overturned; and a whopping 37% named abortion as their most important issue — nearly 10 points more than the share of voters who chose inflation. As for democracy, 57% said they trusted Josh Shapiro (Mastriano's Democratic rival) to handle Pennsylvania’s elections going forward; just 40% said they trusted Mastriano.
With numbers like that, it’s no surprise that antipathy toward Mastriano helped down-ticket Democrats win as well — including John Fetterman for Senate, both Congressional candidates in toss-up races and likely enough state House candidates to flip the entire chamber.
Michigan, meanwhile, was a similar story — another surprise Democratic sweep in another state where abortion and democracy were on the ballot. Not only did voters approve a constitutional amendment to void a 1931 state law criminalizing the procedure that Republicans had been trying to revive, but the momentum from that effort propelled Democrats to victories in both chambers of the Legislature and re-elected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over Republican election denier Tudor Dixon, giving Democrats a trifecta of power in the state for the first time in 40 years.
According to exit polls there, a full 45% of voters chose abortion as the most important issue influencing their vote. Just 28% chose inflation. Likewise, Whitmer was supported by women voters by a massive, 36-point margin (62% to 36%). Nationally, the Democratic margin among women was much, much smaller (53% to 45%).
Myth: Latinos are all becoming more Republican
It will take some time to pinpoint precisely how Latino-Americans voted Tuesday. Early signs suggest there might be good news and bad news for both parties.
One of the biggest political stories of the last few years has been the rightward drift among Latino voters, who previously voted Democratic by overwhelming margins, and whom Democrats have long taken for granted as part of their “emerging coalition.”
In 2012, Barack Obama beat the Republican Mitt Romney by 40 percentage points among Latino voters nationally, according to Catalist, a political research firm. In 2016, Hillary Clinton did even better, winning the Latino vote by 42 points. But in 2020, Biden’s margin among Latinos shrank to 26 points — a shift driven at least in part by working-class Latinos and because more Latino men voted Republican than in the past.
That trend didn’t reverse itself in 2022, but it may be slowing down. Preliminary House exit polls show Democrats beating Republicans 60% to 39% nationally among Latinos. The 2020 House exit polls showed a 63% to 36% margin.
But the reality here might be that Latino voters — who have always been more diverse than politicians and pundits have assumed — are increasingly asserting themselves politically in different ways and different places.
In Florida, for instance, Cuban Americans, perhaps the most conservative group of Latino voters, broke hard for the GOP, delivering Miami-Dade County to DeSantis (who won nearly 6 out of 10 Latino voters statewide, according to the early exit polls).
But in Texas’s heavily Latino Rio Grande Valley, Democrats still won two out of three contested Congressional seats — despite the fact that Trump performed better there in 2020 than his GOP predecessors. In fact, that year, Biden (52%) nearly lost Starr County on the Texas-Mexico border to Trump (47%); while this year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke trounced Republican Gov. Greg Abbott there by 18 points, even as he lost statewide. One of the Texas House Republicans who lost a border district was Mayra Flores, who was previously touted as the face of the GOP’s Latino future, after winning a special election there in June.
Perhaps the most revealing results about Latinos will (eventually) emerge from Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Senate, is locked in a close battle with Republican Adam Laxalt as officials work to count every last mail ballot. In 2020, Biden outperformed Hillary Clinton’s vote share in every state in the country — except Nevada and Florida. As the Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira noted in April, as Democrats gained ground all over the country, “the Democratic margin in Nevada went from 2.4 points ... to 2.4 points.” Why? According to Teixeira, it’s because Democrats underperformed among Latinos there.
If Cortez Masto ekes out a win in the Silver State, that could be one reason why.
Myth: Polling is broken
Much ado has been made in recent weeks about the sorry state of political polling in the U.S. — or at least the fact that no one (pollsters included) was sure whether public opinion surveys could truly capture current voter sentiment, after a couple of destabilizing election cycles in which certain types of Republicans tended to respond at lower rates, skewing the pre-election poll numbers in key states toward Democrats.
Well, the polls this year were pretty accurate.
According to FiveThirtyEight, which aggregates and averages reputable surveys, the Republicans had a 1-point advantage on the nationwide House ballot prior to Election Day. Strip partisan pollsters out of the picture, and that average probably would have shown a tied race, or even a Democratic advantage; plenty of nonpartisan outlets had Democrats narrowly ahead (including Yahoo News/YouGov, who gave Biden’s party a 46% to 44% lead in its final poll).
Meanwhile, the FiveThirtyEight averages in battleground Senate races showed roughly a single percentage point separating Republicans and Democrats in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and Pennsylvania, with increasingly larger margins in New Hampshire, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Washington, Ohio, Colorado and Florida. Nearly all of these pre-election averages were close to the final results.
According to G. Elliott Morris, a data journalist for the Economist, “The average absolute error of polling averages in competitive senate elections now looks likely to come in around 2.5% — about half the expected error since 1998. Polls look to have underestimated Democrats marginally by about 0.5-1 point.”
In other words, if you were following the polls — instead of the vibes — you would have known that a so-called “red wave” was far from inevitable.