Nobody is shocked when politicians offer inflated predictions of their own or their party’s electoral prospects. But this prediction from Republican senator Lindsey Graham, made on Fox News’ Hannity, is unusually easy to see through:
“I think there’s a tidal wave brewing. I think this is going to be 1994 all over again. When you look at rampant inflation, out-of-control crime and a broken border and just [a] general lack of knowing what you’re doing, lack of competency … the Republican Party’s going to have a great comeback if we recruit the right people.”
Graham is a lot of bad things, but stupid isn’t one of them. He has good reason to understand the 1994 Republican landslide well, moreover, since it brought him to Washington for the first time as a freshman House member. So he probably knows the analogy is very flawed. But let’s go through the respects in which the results in 2022 probably won’t resemble the transformation associated with the first midterm after Bill Clinton’s election as president in 1994, which flipped complete control of Congress to the Republican Party for the first time since 1954, or even the 2010 midterms after Barack Obama’s election in 2008. Here are some key reasons why a landslide probably won’t bring Democrats all the way down in 2022:
Majority party exposure
It’s no accident that Democrats went into 1994 with solid majorities in both houses of Congress, which meant a large number of its incumbents were on dangerous ground. There were 46 Democratic-controlled House districts that had gone for Poppy Bush in 1992, and 79 that had a Republican advantage in PVI (or Partisan Voting Index, the Cook Political Report’s measurement of the partisan lean of a district as compared to national averages). Similarly, in 2010 Democrats held seats in 49 House districts that had been carried in 2008 by John McCain, along with 66 House districts with a Republican advantage in PVI.
While redistricting could increase Democratic exposure, at present only seven Democrats represent House districts carried by Trump in 2020. A larger number of Democrats, 29, are in seats with a Republican advantage in PVI, though that’s a much smaller number than in 1994 and 1992.
The bottom line in terms of Democratic exposure is that it paid a price in 1994 for decades of House dominance even though Republicans were making gains in partisan ID and presidential performance. And in 2010 Democrats were “exposed” because of two consecutive landslide cycles. In a way, their meh performance in 2020 House races help insulate Democrats from big losses in 2022.
The Senate is more complicated because only a third of the chamber is on the ballot in any one two-year cycle. But in 1994 Democrats were defending 22 seats, and the Republicans just 13. In 2010, Democrats were defending 19 seats, compared to the GOP’s 18. In 2022, Republicans will be defending 20 seats and Democrats just 14. It’s not set up for the kind of eight-seat gain Republicans achieved in 1994, or the six-seat gain they won in 2010.
A big wave of retirements in the party facing a bad cycle is often a sign of an approaching “wave” election. That was particularly true in 1994, when 29 House Democrats retired or ran for another office. In 2010, there were 16 open Democratic House seats. So far heading toward 2022, there are just three Democrats in the House retiring and three more running for another office.
Five Democratic senators retired in 1994, and five more in 2010. So far no Democrats senators are hanging it up in 2022, but five Republican senators are. Again, no clear 1994-size advantages for the GOP.
The big underlying factor in 1994 is that the South was definitively unmoored from its ancestral Democratic affiliation, as the ideological polarization of the two parties during the Civil Rights era approached a critical point, with redistricting (characterized by tactical alliances between Republicans and Black Democrats at the expense of white Democratic incumbents) speeding up the process. For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans won a majority of the House popular vote in the region and a majority of House seats. In my own home state of Georgia, the House delegation went from a 9-1 Democratic advantage going into the 1992 elections to an 8-3 advantage after 1994. Meanwhile, Democrats won just one Senate race in any state south of the Mason-Dixon line.
In today’s highly polarized and relatively stable partisan environment, small shifts in partisan voting patterns in battleground states can have big consequences in presidential elections, but there is no entire region on the brink of defection from one coalition to another, and in general the “swing” vote has been steadily dropping in recent years.
One 1994-2010 asset Republicans can at least hope to replicate in 2022 involves relative turnout levels. According to longtime election-data wizard Curtis Gans, in 1994: “Republican turnout was up in every region of the country, while Democratic turnout was down in every region of the country except the Middle Atlantic States and the Far West, where the party recorded exceedingly modest gains.” Analysis based on Census data showed a similar Republican tilt in turnout by demographic groups: “Voter turnout for whites 18 years and over was 47 percent, compared with 37 percent for Blacks and only 20 percent for persons of Hispanic origin. Asians voted at levels similar to Hispanics, recording a turnout rate of only 22 percent.”
Similarly, in 2010, Republican turnout was up, mostly because the older white voters always most likely to vote in midterm elections were beginning to tilt seriously Republican. Most notably, after narrowly losing the over-65 vote in the previous midterms in 2006, Republicans won it by a 59-38 margin in 2010. That was big, because 58.9 percent of eligible seniors turned out in 2010, as compared to 19.6 percent of eligible 18-24 year-olds and 32.2 percent of 25-44 year-olds.
The close correlation of older voters and GOP voters in 2010 has steadily faded since 2010; Republicans only won seniors by two percent in the last midterms in 2018, and by four percent in 2020. So the age skew isn’t likely to help them all that much in 2022. Traditionally, the party that does not control the White House gets an enthusiasm bump that helps explain presidential midterm House losses in all but a very few (1998 and 2002 being the exceptions) post-World-War II midterms. That could be the case in 2022, though the heavy involvement of Donald Trump that seems likely may help keep Democratic turnout nearer to the strong 2018 and 2020 levels than would otherwise be the case.
A wild card is whether voter-suppression measures being enacted by Republican legislatures will have a significant impact on 2022 turnout. It’s possible, though Democrats will use the malice involved in these laws to counter-mobilize the young and minority voters that are the GOP’s intended victims. Meanwhile, voting rules are actually being liberalized in most Democratic-controlled states.
Presidential approval ratings
Whatever else is going on, midterm elections most notably operate as referenda on the president of the United States. If the chief magistrate is unpopular, the party controlling the White House always loses ground, sometimes dramatically. In final pre-election polls in 1994, Bill Clinton’s average job-approval rating was 47 percent (according to FiveThirtyEight). In 2010 Obama was at 45 percent; and in 2018 Trump was at 42 percent. Meanwhile, in the two outlier midterms, Clinton’s average job-approval rating was 65 percent in 1998, while George W. Bush’s was 62 percent in 2002.
While no one knows now what Biden’s numbers will be like in November of 2022, his average job-approval ratings have been uniquely steady over the first six months of his presidency, oscillating only four points in either direction since he took office (from 51 percent to 55 percent). Since Trump’s approval ratings were nearly as stable (though at a lower level), we may have entered an era in which polarization and the decline of swing voters means closer and more predictable elections. That, too, would reduce the odds of 2022 Republican tsunami.
The unknown and the unknowable
Despite polarization and fixed opinions of the two parties and their leaders, objective reality has at least a marginal impact on election results, and we don’t know what the next 15 months hold for us, particularly in terms of the closely related topics of COVID-19 and economic trends. There is a tendency among pundits to overestimate campaigns and discrete events, and underestimate fundamentals, in understanding how voters voted. Without question, far too much credit was assigned to Newt Gingrich and his largely mythical Contract with America for what happened in 1994, as opposed to the regional realignment underway that year and the Democratic retirements it inspired. Similarly, the 2010 Republican wins were too often credited to the Tea Party movement instead of Democratic over-exposure after two consecutive winning — and exciting — Democratic election years.
Republicans like Lindsey Graham should beware of too much hype over the 2022 midterms. It won’t take much for Republicans to retake the House, and retaking the Senate is definitely within the realm of possibility. But if Trump plays as big a role in the midterms as he apparently wants to, and his party inflates any gains into world-historical significance, getting rid of the 45th president and his brood may be impossible. And that could be a pyrrhic victory indeed.