Home > News > What did we learn from the 2022 U.S. midterm elections?
386 views 9 min 0 Comment

What did we learn from the 2022 U.S. midterm elections?

The TMC 2022 roundups: U.S. elections

- December 26, 2022

When Georgia voters returned Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D) to the Senate earlier this month, they closed a remarkable election year — one that upended not just pundits’ predictions but also some fundamental political science expectations. Decades of research suggests that when voters are anxious about the economy, unhappy about the country’s direction, and disapprove of the president, they throw out members of the party in power — which, in 2022, was the Democrats. This year, inflation was high and voters were largely pessimistic about the country’s future. And President Biden’s approval rating was as low as former president Donald Trump’s was in 2018 — a midterm election in which, unsurprisingly, Democrats gained 41 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Given all that, many expected a “red wave,” with Republicans overwhelmingly winning the House, retaking the Senate, and winning more governors’ seats. Voters didn’t go along.

Why couldn’t Republicans capitalize on their advantages? What can we learn from this year’s elections to better understand U.S. politics in the future? Here’s what TMC authors taught us this year.

1. Primary voters like ideologically extreme candidates. General election voters do not.

This year, Republicans and Democrats nominated very different types of candidates — and that made a difference to general election voters.

Republican primary voters were much more likely to choose ideologically extreme candidates. Mia Costa and her colleagues examined the 2022 Ohio Republican Senate primary that put J.D. Vance up for election, finding that fully 68 percent of the vote went for MAGA candidates who supported Trump. She and her colleagues found that the people who were most likely to vote in the Republican primary disproportionately opposed ideological compromise and disliked “established politicians,” which is consistent with other research showing that primary voters tend to prefer more ideologically extreme candidates. To be sure, J.D. Vance won in Ohio but performed significantly worse than all of the other Republican candidates on the statewide ballot including moderate Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine.

Republican donors also backed the more ideologically extreme primary candidates. While Democratic candidates brought in much of their funding from small donors, Republicans were much more likely to get their funds from a few megadonors — who tended to hold more ideologically extreme positions, as TMC contributor Jordan Kujala found. What’s more, Kujala found that Republicans’ policies reflected their donors’ positions more than those of their constituents.

Democrats have not been immune from nominating ideologically extreme candidates. But political scientist Amelia Malpas showed us that in 2022, fewer Democrats tied to progressive organizations won their primaries than had in the previous two elections — although their candidacies did move mainstream politicians to support more progressive causes when in office. Democratic primary voters may have been reluctant to choose more extreme candidates because they worried about the much-discussed question of who would be “electable” in the 2022 general election. Political science research has found that voters play it safe when political conditions are uncertain. That caution may have helped Democrats prevail in tight races.

2. Party loyalty has its limits.

Over the past 30 years, voters have shifted from voting based on the candidate’s personality and platform to voting based on the candidate’s party, political scientists have found. This is in part driven by growing political polarization, which leads Americans to feel more animosity toward the opposing party and the increasing salience of partisanship as a social identity, which leads individuals to feel a stronger allegiance to their own party. While most voters are still casting ballots based on each candidate’s party identification, in 2022, Republicans pushed up against the limits of partisanship. In the general election, ideologically extreme candidates generally fared worse than their more moderate counterparts did.

Here at TMC, political scientists David Brady and Bruce Cain showed that moderates and independents largely reject candidates they perceive as too ideologically extreme. Even more, Brady and Cain found that extreme candidates can alter voters’ views of the party overall and can hurt anyone in the party, even its moderates.

While Brady and Cain focus on Democrats, Republicans were hurt by this effect in 2022, as general voters often associated all its candidates with the MAGA movement.

3. Republicans ran inexperienced candidates.

In addition to nominating ideologically extreme candidates, Republican primary voters also nominated an unusual number of candidates who had not previously held political office — especially for the U.S. Senate. In fact, as Carlos Algora and Byengseon Bae explained here at TMC, in 2022 more “amateur” candidates ran than in any midterm election for the past 100 years. That’s why, they suggested, Republican candidates like Herschel Walker in Georgia, Blake Masters in Arizona, and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire performed far below the more seasoned Republicans running on the same ballot.

Democrats played it safe in part by sticking with past winners, as in the Pennsylvania Senate election. Thomas Gift showed here at TMC that Democratic nominee (and now Senator-elect) John Fetterman’s relatable image increased voters’ belief in him as an authentic champion for their concerns, potentially broadening his appeal — especially in contrast to Trump-backed Republican nominee Mehmet Oz, a political neophyte who moved to Pennsylvania to run for office. That gave Democrats a slight advantage in a tight election, despite Fetterman’s medical travails.

4. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision changed the game.

Candidates matter, but so do political events like major legislation or court decisions. For example, after Democrats passed and enacted Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act in 2010, Republicans mobilized and took 63 House seats in that year’s midterm elections.

Biden and the congressional Democrats did pass numerous key pieces of legislation, including the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. But once the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion became a dominant issue for many people. At TMC, sociologist Kelsy Kretschmer and colleagues argued that while for decades abortion had not been a motivating issue for liberals, the immediate threat of losing that option would mobilize many pro-choice voters, getting them to the polls.

All indications suggests that they were right. After the election, political scientists Kumar Ramanathan and Matthew Nelsen showed us at TMC that abortion was one of the key issues that pushed younger voters to cast ballots. Since that group’s absence often limits Democrats’ opportunities, they were among the reasons the Democratic Party did comparatively well.

Overall, 2022 showed that American voters care not just about whether their team — or rather, party — wins. They also care about particular candidates and issues. The much-touted tendency toward tribalism has its limits.