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8 questions the 2022 midterms answered

There are still plenty of uncalled elections, but here are some lessons the midterms delivered.

President Joe Biden waves after speaking at an event hosted by the Democratic National Committee at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC.
President Joe Biden waves after speaking at an event hosted by the Democratic National Committee at the Howard Theatre in Washington, DC.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

The 2022 midterms are not yet settled. Votes are still being tallied in a score of Western contests, including close statewide races in Arizona and Nevada, and a run-off election for Georgia’s Senate seat awaits.

But voters delivered plenty of lessons already, including answers to some of the big questions we considered last week. Among the answers are some unique takeaways from this particular election cycle, like the effects of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on their parties’ candidates, or the drag that high inflation and economic malaise would have on Democrats. We also got some clues about American politics in the longer term, like the role of candidate quality, the accuracy of polls, and changing trends among Latino voters.

Here’s what we can say about the eight questions the midterms were supposed to answer.

1) It was about more than the economy

Inflation, and the state of the economy, were still the top issues cited by most voters this year, according to early exit poll data. That data, from the National Election Pool gathered by Edison Research, is imperfect, but still the best tool we have right now to gauge voter motivations. While 31 percent of respondents cited inflation, abortion came in at a close second, being the top issue for 27 percent of respondents. Voters’ feelings about the economy were mixed: while an overwhelming majority of people said they felt the state of the economy was “not so good” or “poor” (about 76 percent), a slight majority said they felt that the personal state of their finances was better or about the same (19 and 33 percent, respectively).

Even more surprising was how voters described the impact of inflation on their families: 20 percent said inflation was a severe hardship (this group broke 70-20 for Republicans), while nearly 80 percent said it was a moderate hardship, or no hardship at all (Democrats won or broke even with these voters). That suggests that even with near-record high inflation, voters were willing to consider other factors in their voting decisions — and not everyone cared to connect the economy to their vote for a Democrat, or against a Republican.

2) An unpopular president didn’t sink Democrats

One of the more surprising results from this week was how much voters were willing to disentangle their displeasure with President Joe Biden’s job performance from their vote. The obvious absence of a red wave shows this, but just under the surface, more clues emerge. Few incumbents (in general, but more surprisingly for Democrats) lost their congressional races Tuesday night. And though three-quarters of respondents in exit polling said they felt negatively about the country’s direction, only a third were actively “angry.” Nearly 60 percent of those polled said they were either “dissatisfied, but not angry” (41 percent) or “satisfied, but not enthusiastic” (20 percent). Democrats won large majorities of those enthusiastic or satisfied, but managed to pull nearly even with those dissatisfied.

Even more impressive was the breakdown of vote share when looking at those who approve or disapprove of the president’s job performance: Democrats won huge majorities of those who strongly or somewhat approved of Biden, and nearly won a majority of those who “somewhat disapprove.” Republicans’ strength came, logically, from those who strongly disapproved of the president. But given how close so many races are, it seems that those who somewhat disapproved of Biden and national Democrats were still willing to vote for that party. Which leads us to…

3) Donald Trump was a big drag

Many candidates supported by Donald Trump fared poorly this week, and those running far-right campaigns were also punished in battleground states. This dynamic is despite the appearance of an electorate made up of more Republicans and independents than Democrats, according to exit polls. At the same time, Republicans are leading Democrats in their share of the national popular vote — meaning Trumpy candidates who failed to win did so in the context of greater Republican turnout.

Another interesting national result: Trump-endorsed candidates also underperformed more establishment candidates in swing and solid Republican states. In Nevada, for example, GOP Senate candidate Adam Laxalt was running about 7,000 votes behind Joe Lombardo, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, when their races were called. Laxalt lost and Lombardo won; despite both being endorsed by Trump, Laxalt ran a campaign more closely tied to Trump’s legacy than Lombardo.

In Georgia, Republican senatorial candidate Herschel Walker was running 203,000 votes behind Gov. Brian Kemp, one of Trump’s perceived main antagonists in the aftermath of the 2020 election, whom Trump tried to oust in the primary this year. In Ohio, J.D. Vance, the Trump-endorsed venture capitalist who won his Senate race, still underperformed (getting about 380,000 fewer votes) relative to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who cruised to victory by double-digit margins.

Now a power struggle has taken hold at the heart of the Republican Party, with Trump facing blame from conservative activists, media figures, members of Congress, and failed candidates. That debate has, for now, elevated the 2024 presidential prospects of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

4) Abortion was a big motivator

Abortion rights did turn out to be a powerful political motivator, just as some Democrats had hoped it would be for their base, and for independent voters in states where abortion rights were on the ballot.

Ballot measures on abortion rights ended up breaking in favor of abortion rights advocates in California, Kentucky, Montana, Michigan, and Vermont, while Democratic candidates won governors’ offices in a score of states where they can block anti-abortion legislation. Pro-abortion rights Democrats also won seats in state legislatures where Republicans have tried to pass restrictions, and though Republicans held a majority in Nebraska’s legislature, state Republicans look unlikely to win a supermajority they could use to pass extreme abortion restrictions, giving moderates and liberals a way to obstruct those efforts.

The power of abortion rights messaging might offer a road map for future Democratic campaigns seeking to motivate their base and persuade moderates and independents — and Tuesday’s results showed that even if pro-abortion rights Democratic candidates don’t win elections, abortion rights on the ballot definitely can.

5) The polls were pretty accurate

The shocking lack of a red wave led some commentators to suggest that the polls this cycle were wildly off. Ask a pollster or forecaster, and they’ll likely reject that characterization.

Statewide and national polls were generally accurate — not perfect, but still clear enough to communicate just how uncertain the results might end up being. In fact, places like FiveThirtyEight, the Economist, and Cook Political Report all had a wide range of possibilities, from a red wave in the House and Senate, to a tiny majority in the House for either party and a toss-up in the Senate. Over at the Economist, G. Elliott Morris cast doubts on a red wave before the election night: “The Democratic Party … is likely to beat those expectations [of even an average midterm penalty],” he wrote. “Even a good performance by historical standards may leave the Democrats out of power in Congress.”

At the moment, it seems more likely than not that Democrats will lose control of at least one house of Congress. But traditional polling seems to have captured that uncertainty, and Morris dives into some of the reasons for that in a post here. In general, it seems like larger university and media-sponsored polls did better than partisan polls and polls conducted by smaller firms, especially in states that Democrats ended up winning.

6) Candidates mattered big time

One of the biggest lessons from 2022 is that candidate quality still matters, and as I’d written could be very possible this year, split-ticket voting had a grand return. Most Trump-endorsed candidates and MAGA true believers severely underperformed other Republicans on the ballot because of political inexperience, personal scandal, and lack of charisma, like Blake Masters in Arizona, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire.

Evidence of candidate quality’s importance is plentiful in both states that elected governors and senators from different parties, in states that still elected two Republicans to statewide office, and in states that have yet to be fully called. Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Ohio are great examples of where more conventional or charismatic Republican candidates for governor ran way ahead of flawed Senate candidates. That split was biggest in Ohio and New Hampshire, where incumbent Republican governors ran more than 20 points ahead of the Republican Senate candidates.

The phenomenon was driven by big ticket-splitting from Republican voters, and Democrats performing surprisingly well with independent voters across the country in state exit polls.

7) Latino voters might have shifted right — some places

Luckily, I do a whole deep dive on this topic here. In general, with the not totally reliable exit poll data we have, it seems like Latino voters did shift slightly to the right, though not everywhere. Florida is the large outlier, but Democrats managed to hold the bulk of their support during one of the most toxic economic environments possible — and that’s with Latino voters saying that they had strongly negative views of the economy and were dissatisfied with the country’s direction.

8) Voters did care about the threats to democracy

Trump-aligned election deniers failed across the country, especially in secretary of state races, where America First Secretary of State Coalition-aligned candidates failed in all but one race (Indiana), while another, gubernatorial candidate, Kari Lake, is still locked in a tight vote count.

In the contentious elections in Arizona and Nevada, two crucial swing states that will be at the center of the presidency and Senate control in 2024, Democratic candidates beat their election-denying Republican opponents by large margins — in some cases running ahead of other Democratic candidates in marquee statewide races. That includes the two candidates I flagged ahead of Election Day as potentially surprising the country by winning by bigger margins against right-wing opponents than Democrats in other statewide races: Cisco Aguilar in Nevada and Adrian Fontes in Arizona.