2022 midterms

How the House Was Won (and Lost)

For Kevin McCarthy, it was a bit too close for comfort. Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

While Republican control of the U.S. House next year was confirmed on November 16 when the 218th GOP win was confirmed, the exact balance of power will depend on the outcome of four uncalled House races (three of them in California, where another race between two Democrats is also uncalled). The best guess right now is that Republicans will wind up with 220 House seats, exactly how many Democrats had before the midterms. And that’s not the only mirror image fact at present: According to the Cook Political Report, Republicans are leading in the House national popular vote by 3.7 percent, a number that is likely to decline modestly once all the votes are counted in heavily Democratic California. Democrats won the House national popular vote by 3.1 percent in 2020. This equivalency is notable in part because an earlier and larger GOP lead imprinted itself on the minds of some observers on or soon after Election Night, leading to some unwarranted handwringing about the alleged gap between popular vote margin and seats won. That seems at least substantially to be an illusion based on a partial count.

Similarly, the idea that the House results represented a shocking under-performance by Republicans is undercut by late polls that were quite accurate. The final RealClearPolitics polling averages for the generic congressional ballot (an estimation of the House national popular vote) showed Republicans leading by 2.5 percent. The GOP actually over-performed that number.

One reason some people did expect a larger Republican majority than the one that transpired was the belief that GOP redistricting gains all but flipped the House before voters voted. The Washington Post’s David Byler has examined that notion and at least partially batted it down:

Courts softened pro-Republican maps in Ohio and North Carolina. Democratic legislators drew slanted maps in Illinois and Nevada. Republicans will likely remain underrepresented in California, where an independent commission drew the lines. And when all the maps — the genuinely fair ones, along with GOP and Democratic gerrymanders — are added up, the national landscape looks more or less fair, even if redistricting has made things unfair in certain places.

So what did happen to explain the results, beyond the general sense that Republicans got the votes of swing voters focused on inflation or crime and Democrats got the votes of swing voters worried about abortion rights?

First of all, according to exit polls, the shape of the 2022 electorate was quite similar to that of the electorate that gave Democrats a big win (235 seats) in 2018 (I’m looking at that as an apples-to-apples comparison of midterm elections). That was itself a bit of a surprise given Democratic fears that minority and especially young voters would not show up proportionately, as they often haven’t in midterms prior to 2018.

But second of all, there was a virtually universal shift in voting preferences from Democrats to Republicans between 2018 and 2022. Republican percentages went up from 54 percent to 58 percent among white voters and from 22 percent to 30 percent among non-white voters; from 51 to 56 percent among men, and from 40 to 45 percent among women. There were particular sharp GOP gains among Latinos (29 percent to 39 percent), though a lot of that shift probably occurred in 2020 and simply stabilized.

Some eyebrows were raised when Democrats carried independents in 2022 (unusual for the White House party in the midterms), but even there, Republicans boosted their vote share from 42 to 47 percent.

This modest and reasonably uniform shift from D to R voting preferences is entirely consistent with what you would expect from a midterm election with a relatively unpopular Republican president to a midterm election with a relatively unpopular Democratic president. Factoring in the economic problems that dominated a lot of pre-election news, the House Democratic vote share (47.4 percent and slowly climbing at the moment) in 2022 is significantly better than what it might have been without the abortion factor.

On the margins, House Democrats benefited from doing quite a bit better in close swing districts than did Republicans, which they needed to do because the Democratic vote isn’t as efficiently distributed, and the Democratic Party had more retirements.

It’s very clear that the House Republican margin in 2022 guarantees nothing for 2024. After all, the GOP made net gains of 14 seats in 2020 despite losing the presidential contest. Democratic gains of anything like that magnitude in 2024 would flip the House right back. So Kevin McCarthy should not get too comfortable wielding the Speaker’s gavel.

How the House Was Won (and Lost)