As political observers know, the party not in control of the White House usually does well in midterm U.S. House and state elections. (The Senate is a bit iffier because the landscape can vary enormously based on which “class” of one-third of the chamber is up for reelection in any one year.) There have, however, been two aberrations in the recent past, in 1998 and 2002, wherein the White House party gained House seats. As I discussed in a recent post, Democrats hope 2022 could be an aberration as well, thanks to positive feelings about the subsiding pandemic and a strong economy, and perhaps the continued presence in the public eye of Donald J. Trump — the man nearly all Democratic and many swing voters love to hate.
But there’s another midterm variable that should be considered: a traditional “midterm falloff” in voting by demographic groups that have recently become Democratic bastions. This was exhibited most forcefully in the very bad (for Democrats) midterm elections of 2010 and 2014.
In case you have forgotten or were too young to follow the politics of the Obama era, an enormous wave of Democratic optimism accompanied the 44th president’s comfortable 2008 victory. There was much talk of an “Obama Coalition” built on high vote shares and high turnout among young and minority voters, who would presumably become the dominant part of a more diverse electorate in the years just ahead. Instead, Republicans won a big wave election in 2010 and had a solid win in 2014 (even after Obama’s narrow reelection victory). And many analysts (myself included) noted that the Obama Coalition largely coincided with a portion of the electorate that had never voted strongly in midterms, while the GOP was now solidly established among older and whiter voters more prone to midterm participation.
Even after Trump’s election in 2016 gave Democratic-leaning demographic groups plenty of reasons to turn out disproportionately, there were fears the falloff would reduce or even wipe out Democratic gains in 2018. That didn’t happen, of course, as Ron Brownstein recalls:
In 2018, more than 118 million Americans voted, exactly half of the eligible population, according to [Michael] McDonald’s calculations. That was the highest midterm turnout, as a share of eligible voters, since 1914, before women won the right to vote.
And while the 2018 electorate was still somewhat older than in 2016, the gray shift wasn’t nearly as powerful as in the past, because young adults turned out at twice the level they did in the last midterm, of 2014. Turnout among Blacks and Hispanics also declined much less than in previous midterms, with the result that the White share of the vote actually fell from 2016 to 2018, according to McDonald’s calculations, an unprecedented pattern in recent years … The turnout wave continued into 2020, with nearly 160 million people voting and turnout among young people and people of color again rising dramatically.
One key question for 2022 is whether the falloff will resemble what we saw in 2010 or 2014 or instead the smaller version that appeared in 2018. The experts Brownstein consulted expect something in between, which, if combined with the kind of gains Democrats made in 2018 and 2020 among college-educated white suburbanites and older voters, could make a midterm upset possible under the right circumstances.
But Democrats aren’t the only ones trying to get new or marginal voters to turn out again in 2022: Trump managed to turn out a surprising number of them in 2020 himself. Keeping them energized is job one for the GOP in 2022, and Republicans may have the advantage of the kind of enraged opposition to a “socialist” president that was so visible in the tea-party movement of 2010 — though thus far, Biden is not inspiring the same levels of hostility.
That leads to the 2022 variable that no one can entirely foresee: How visible will Donald Trump be in the midterm campaigns? The threat or promise of a Trump comeback is the easiest way for Democrats to mobilize their new 2018 and 2020 voters and for Republicans to mobilize their own. Trump could help Democrats turn the midterm from a referendum on the incumbent president (a referendum incumbent presidents typically lose) to at least partially a referendum on the once and possibly future President Trump.
All of this seems far in the future to those who are focused on Democratic efforts to deliver popular legislation in a closely divided Congress. But if we know anything about the current political environment, it’s that partisan polarization will make big swings in public opinion difficult or even impossible barring equally big changes in the quality of real life. So it may well be the small underlying currents in electoral politics, including the demographics of midterm turnout, that will determine whether Biden has at least four years or just two to implement his agenda.
With or without some help from Trump, though, Democrats really need to find ways to keep young and minority voters engaged.