As the results of the 2022 US midterm elections come in, it is becoming increasingly clear that it will not be a “red wave election”, a massive shift to the Republicans.
There are several factors in the result. The novelty of Trump has worn off. Generation Z voters (born between 1997 and 2012) have bucked the trend of youth voting dying down and women have been energized by the removal of roe vs. wade by the Supreme Court. President Joe Biden’s concerns about the threat to democracy, exemplified by the Jan. 6 insurrection and denial of the election, also struck, despite his own low approval ratings.
What is the evidence that Trumpism has peaked, aside from losing the 2020 presidential election? In midterm elections in which a president’s Gallup approval rating is below 50%, the average number of House seats lost by the president’s party is 37. On Election Day, the Biden’s approval rating was around 40%. Therefore, he would expect the Republicans to do very well in the House of Representatives, although the Senate is not as consistent in this regard. The US Senate is different in that only about a third of the members are up for election at a time because they serve six-year terms, while the entire House is re-elected every two years.
Although the counts are not final, a result in the region of 213 Democrats against 222 Republicans in the House seems likely, a loss of nine seats by Democrats.
The Trump effect best explains why Democrats are doing better than usual in the midterms under an unpopular president. Wars can create a rally-to-the-flag effect, but the US is only involved in Ukraine supplying equipment and intelligence, so it’s unlikely to be a major factor. It is instructive to look at the results of the candidates endorsed by Trump.
One of the most dramatic was changing the Senate seat in Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman defeated Trump favorite Mehmet Oz. That result tilted the discussion from whether Democrats would lose their slim majority (both parties control 50 Senate seats, but the vice president has the casting vote) to whether they would retain control of the Senate by a larger margin. Several close races remain pending, but Democrats are likely ahead with 51 senators, with a possible 52.
Democrats have also held several state governorships (some tentatively as the count goes on) against Trump’s favorites, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Kansas.
In the House, Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a far-right gun fanatic, is behind in the count, though there are enough votes left uncounted for her to still win. In a Michigan congressional district, Trump-backed candidate John Gibbs, who unseated one of the few Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, Peter Meijer, lost to Democrat Hillary Scholten, the first time Democrats have held this seat in 30 years.
That’s not to say that no Trump-endorsed candidate won: In Ohio, Republican candidate JD Vance is ahead, though this isn’t a party win. In Georgia, although Democratic Senator Ralph Warnock is ahead of his Trump-backed opponent Herschel Walker (accused of opposing abortion unless it is responsible for an unwanted pregnancy), in Georgia a candidate must exceed 50% to win. , so he will head for a second electoral round in December.
At time of writing, it appears both sides have 48 Senate seats in the bag; furthermore, Arizona is likely to go Democratic. Democrats are ahead in Nevada and Georgia and Republicans in Wisconsin. Alaska has a preferential voting system (instant runoff), so if no one gets more than 50%, the candidate with the lowest score drops out and the second choices on their ballots are counted. Two Republicans are in the race and since neither will get more than 50%, an instant runoff will ensue with the Democrat at 10% dropout. This will likely result in the incumbent, Lisa Murkowski, one of the least crackpot Republicans, winning over Trump-backed Kelly Tshibaka.
Generally speaking, it has not been a great election for Trump supporters and election deniers. On the other hand, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis won by a margin of nearly 20%. Trump has already warned him not to run for president, shaping the 2024 campaign season for a fight for control of the GOP between those who care about getting elected and those who care about Trump’s ego.
There is also evidence that women’s voting was a factor. The measures (essentially referendums) were on the ballot in California, Michigan, Vermont, Kentucky and Montana. They either defended or attacked abortion rights—more correctly, reproductive rights—and it all resulted in votes for reproductive rights. Votes on these measures range from 52.5% in Kentucky (against abortion rights) to 77.4% in Vermont (in favor of the constitutional right to personal reproductive autonomy). However, exit polling shows that no one issue dominated: abortion, for example, had roughly the same level of concern as inflation. Another big factor was concern about democracy, a big negative for Republicans.
The Republican campaign to pack the Supreme Court with religious fundamentalists and misogynists is out of step with American views. In general, the polls show large majorities in favor of reproductive autonomy. The Republican drive to overthrow roe vs. wade it is like a dog chasing a car. He’s not supposed to catch one. In this election, reproductive rights may have been somewhat overshadowed by other issues like jitters about the economy, but the outcome of these ballot measures suggests that similar votes will come in other states and may well drive greater female turnout. women in those states.
Finally, what about Gen-Z? A common refrain in elections is how fickle the youth vote is. The youth vote is a different group of people in every election, perhaps less so in the US, where there are elections every two years. This time, forgiving student debt may have played a role, and exit polls show this demographic strongly supported the Democrats. But successful campaigns must engage with young people on an ongoing basis, not assume that what worked last time will work again.
Where does this leave Trump? Before the election, he said he should get all the credit if Republicans do well and not be blamed if they do poorly. So it will be interesting to see how this turns out. This election has shown that he can dominate the nomination process but not win the election. Which is not good for Republicans; Unless the Democrats are in an extremely weak position in 2024, the Republicans are in for a beating.
Finally, what does this mean for the rest of the world? With Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro narrowly defeated by an old-school leftist, does this mean that vacuous populism with its toxic tendencies like xenophobia, racism, homophobia, ethnic nationalism and racism has run its course? Unfortunately, this is a trend that keeps coming back when business as usual doesn’t work. The effect is often short-term: empty promises are superficially easy to keep but do not equate to effective delivery. In a police state, it’s possible to get away with it, but in a society with relatively free flows of information, non-delivery ultimately destroys this type of movement.
South Africa has a host of political movements that are little more than personality cults with little to offer other than xenophobia and other forms of destructive otherness. We should know better since apartheid was based on similar ideas.
I’m not a fan of “long-story scope” analyses, as that allows us to do nothing while damaging trends do their worst, in the expectation that they will burn out.
Trumpism and related far-right populist personality cults must be firmly opposed wherever they emerge. Even if mainstream US politics is quite reactionary and supports harmful international interventions, it is not on the level of a fascist state. At least the worst excesses can be opposed without the opposition being imprisoned or forcibly suppressed.
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University. These are his own opinions.