just asking questions

Donald Trump’s Gift to Democrats

Joe Biden had reason to smile big on Tuesday. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Voters’ anger at the overturning of Roe v. Wade and their desire to preserve free and fair elections were perhaps the two most important reasons Tuesday night turned into an unusual midterm election. And at every turn, Donald Trump helped make his adversaries’ case that democracy really was on the ballot. I spoke with Amy Walter, publisher and editor-in-chief of the esteemed Cook Political Report, about the ex-president’s drag on Republicans this year, how to think about polling’s excellent night, and the seemingly permanent era of close elections.

We talked in August about Democrats possibly doing well in these midterms, and now they have. What’s the most surprising element of the election to you?
They did one of the hardest things in politics, which is turning a midterm election away from being a referendum on the party and the president, and onto the other side — making the election a choice instead of a referendum. It’s very hard to do, but Democrats did it thanks to three things. One, of course, is the Supreme Court abortion decision. Two, there was Donald Trump and his continued presence throughout the campaign. And three, there were candidates that, thanks in large part to Trump, made it easier for Democrats to make the case that it was a bigger risk to go for change than it was to stick with a status quo they were unhappy with.

I was thinking about the elections last year in Virginia and New Jersey, where the effort to tie Republican candidates to Trump didn’t work so well. This time was different, because many of the candidates were Trump-y themselves. 
And because Trump was in the spotlight during this election in a way, he wasn’t in 2021. Yes, last year he was still talking about the stolen election, but in 2022, he’s been out there stumping for candidates. He’s actually going after Republicans who defied him, who went onto the January 6 committee or who voted to impeach him. And then in the last week of the campaign, he’s teasing that he’s going to run again. He’s one of the best get-out-the-vote operations that Democrats have ever had.

But it cuts both ways — he’s also powerful in getting out the vote for Republicans, just not when he’s on the ballot. 
I do think there’s something to that. Because yes, Republicans unhappy with Biden showed up, but the folks who showed up in 2016 and 2020 — remember, there’s always been that question of why pollsters can’t find them. And part of the reason they’re hard to find is that they’re not traditional voters. Maybe they voted in a midterm; maybe they haven’t voted in ten years. Maybe they just registered in 2020, and now they’ve kind of checked out, and if Trump’s back on the scene in ’24, they might show up again. So that that may be a piece of it too. But in 2021 — if the Dobbs decision had happened then, I don’t know that the Virginia race would’ve gone to Glenn Youngkin. What the Dobbs decision did, in combination with Trump, is turn a theoretical conversation into something that’s not theoretical.

I’m wondering how pissed off Republicans are at the conservatives on the Supreme Court right now. They must be thinking, “Couldn’t the Court have waited until next year?”
Timing in politics is everything, right?

Going back to the polls for a second. There’s always a lot of griping about them, but in fact they were generally very good this year, much better than in 2020. Even in places that had seen big errors in recent years, like Wisconsin, they were accurate. I certainly have a love-hate relationship with polling. How do you think about this inexact science going forward? 
I do think there is something that happens when Trump is on the ballot, as one clue to this question of what’s going on with polls. I don’t think anybody assumes that if Trump isn’t on the ballot, if he doesn’t ever run again, that polling will be fixed forever. There are still significant challenges the polling industry has that have nothing to do with Donald Trump. But it does seem clear that his presence on the ballot is a factor.

The other thing is that this year, those of us who cover politics talked a lot about the imprecision of polling — that in races we know are going to be very close, a two-point margin could go four points to one person or it could go four points to the other person. So I think there was maybe less of an expectation that these polls were going to nail it exactly. What I think people were more concerned about was, “Oh my gosh, once again, they’re painting a picture that doesn’t seem to come true.” We’ll have the final margins in these races at some point. But to me, the most important takeaway from, heck, these last three or four elections is just how narrow the margins are in these races, and that it doesn’t take much to go from, “Oh my gosh, we won 15 seats” to, “Oh my gosh, we only won six.”

One of the people I think has written some of the smartest stuff about where we sit politically at this moment is John Sides of Vanderbilt. He and two other political scientists wrote a great book about 2016, and another one that is coming out or has just come out. The basic premise, which they wrote about in a Washington Post op-ed last month, makes the case that our politics are so polarized — that we are so polarized — that we should continue to expect really close elections where just a small fraction of votes decide who’s the president, who’s in the majority in the Senate, who’s in the majority in the House. It’s not like we’re seeing these huge shifts. When you think about the fact that we’ve seen control of the House and the Senate teeter and control of the White House teeter over these last four years — if you didn’t know anything else and you saw that Democrats are in charge now, you’d think “that was probably a big landslide win. Nope. They won by the tiniest of margins. And now — “oh, Republicans won in the House, they must have had a big night.” Nope. They also won by the tiniest of margins. We now have elections that are more predictable than ever because we know what all of the contested states and the contested districts are.

It’s not like there were surprises on Election Night with districts nobody was paying attention to, with the one exception of the Lauren Boebert race in Colorado. Part of what has made our politics more challenging is that we’re not seeing these races that come out of nowhere, with voters saying, “Forget about my partisan identity. I’m going out there and I’m sending a message. I don’t care that I’m typically a Democrat. I’m tired of this and I’m gonna vote for a Republican,” or vice versa. Instead, regardless of all of the churn and volatility and just remarkable series of events over these last four years, our partisanship is what has kept all of these contests incredibly close. Neither party feels that they have won the fight.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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Donald Trump’s Gift to Democrats