Why Extremism Trumped Inflation in '22
The shocking 2022 results show that we need to rethink our political models post-Trump
Unlike in 2016 and 2020, the polls were largely correct. Sure the Right Wing shills at Trafalgar, Rassmussen, and something called Patriot Polling were off, but the polls from real outfits that use sound methodologies were correct. The FiveThirtyEight generic ballot showed a nearly two-point advantage for Republicans heading into Election Day. The electorate ended up being aboR+4, according to the Cook Report’s Dave Wasserman. The results in nearly all of the Senate races were well within the margins predicted by the polls.
So if the polls were correct, why is the political world (myself included) stunned by the Democrats’ shockingly good performance? The polling made it clear that a good outcome for the Democrats was within the range of possibilities, but almost no one expected it to actually happen.
Part of this pessimism stems from the fact that Democrats tend to assume the world. We have political PTSD scars from a shocking loss in 2016 and an almost as shocking near loss in 2020. Despite losing often, Republicans pound their chests and prance around. Despite winning the popular vote in every election but one since 1988, Democrats mope around doing an Eeyore impression. The political media — against all evidence in recent elections — tends to treat Democrats as the party that can’t shoot straight. But the sense that the Red Wave is imminent and inevitable was about more attitudinal differences and media biases.
It was our (mis)understanding of modern politics that felled us. Maybe the old rules no longer apply. The traditional models do not account for just how much American politics has changed since Donald Trump rode down the escalator in 2015. The polls were right. Our analysis of them was incorrect because we have yet to fully grasp the political shift since 2016.
The dominant force in American politics now — and in the foreseeable future — is the threat of MAGA extremism embodied by Donald Trump — the former and perhaps future President.
Why Wasn’t It a Referendum?
Under the traditional rules of politics, Democrats should’ve lost a boatload of House seats. Presidents almost always lose a bunch of seats in their first term. And they always lose them when people are unhappy with the economy and the President is unpopular. This is why Bill Clinton lost 52 seats in 1994, Barack Obama lost 63 seats in 2010 and Donald Trump lost 40 seats in 2018. George W. Bush gained seats in 2002 because he was still riding high in approval after 9/11. The idea that midterm election results are tied directly to the economy and the President’s popularity was the oldest and most predictable truism in American politics.
This year, the electorate was extremely unhappy with the economy and President Biden had the lowest midterm approval of any President in history. Yet, the Democrats will either keep the House (possible, but perhaps not likely as of now) or lose a fraction of the seats that the political environment predicted.
This election — unlike every other midterm in history — was not simply a referendum on the incumbent President and the state of the economy. The former President was as much a factor as the current one. According to exit polling, 28 percent of voters said that they were voting in the House elections to oppose Donald Trump — a number nearly identical to the 32 percent who said they were voting to oppose Joe Biden. We have never had a situation where a former President played any role in an election after they left office. But then again, we have never had a former President like Donald Trump, who managed to make these elections as much about him as about Joe Biden.
The results were stunning based on the results of previous elections. Democrats actually won the voters who told exit pollsters that they somewhat disapproved of the President by a margin of 49 percent to 45 percent. Four years ago, Trump lost those voters by 40 points.
It Wasn’t Just the Economy, Stupid
The tritest — and truest — statement in American politics is James Carville’s slogan from the 1992 Presidential campaign — “It’s the economy, stupid.” If you want to foresee an election, look at the economy. Obama and Clinton were elected in tough economies managed by Republican Presidents and reelected in improved economies under their watch. There is even a school of thought stating that Trump’s 2016 victory was due to a regional recession in manufacturing which affected the parts of the country that flipped to Trump.
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