The Paradox Of The 2022 Midterms

On Sunday, there were all manner of allusions to Republican “soul-searching” scattered across the front pages of the nation’s top digital newspapers.

Hours earlier, The Associated Press called Nevada’s closely contested Senate race for Catherine Cortez Masto, whose narrow win over Trump-backed former state attorney general Adam Laxalt clinched the upper chamber for Democrats.

If Raphael Warnock tops Herschel Walker in Georgia’s runoff, it’ll be insult to injury for the GOP. If Walker wins, it won’t much matter. Kamala Harris will still have the tie-breaker. In fact, given the nature of the controversy surrounding Walker’s campaign, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest Republicans would be secretly fine with it if he lost. He’s a liability on a key social issue.

When queried by reporters in Cambodia, where he’s attending a regional summit, Joe Biden struggled to say exactly what benefit Democrats would derive from a Warnock victory other than additional bragging rights. “It’s just simply better,” he said. “The bigger the number, the better.” (“Well, it’s one louder, isn’t it?”)

Republicans were still set to secure the House, but by a razor thin margin. There too, the GOP’s midterm performance was extremely underwhelming, and that’s me being very (overly, even) polite. I can promise you this: No top Republican was being any semblance of polite about the situation behind closed doors on Sunday.

The figure (below) assumes a Warnock victory in Georgia and Republican wins in all House races they led as of 8:00 AM in New York on Sunday.

That figure is unambiguous: Republicans underperformed. Midterms are generally good to the opposing party. 2022 should’ve been a walk in the park for the GOP given inflation realities and Biden’s low approval rating. Instead, Biden’s midterms will go down as a success, in an absolute sense vis-à-vis the Senate and in a relative sense vis-à-vis the House and inflation.

Contrary to the “soul-searching” talking point mentioned here at the outset, Republicans are unlikely to engage in somber reflection. Rather, they’ll be keen to point fingers amongst themselves. Some will blame Mitch McConnell, others Donald Trump, and that tells the story. The GOP is still mired in an identity crisis born of the party’s decision to embrace a personality cult in 2016.

Ostensibly, the midterms reflected a rebuke of Trump’s balderdash in all its various manifestations. But it could be that many Trump voters are only interested in voting if Trump himself is on the ballot. Participating in the democratic process entails making an investment. Not necessarily a monetary investment, but at the least, a time investment. Republicans count on in-person voting, but in-person voting by definition entails a non-trivial amount of effort. I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that some key Trump demographics aren’t especially likely to make that effort for the sake of a Trump proxy, let alone for the sake of the democratic process. It seems a stretch that the people who attach large Trump flags to their truck beds are the sort of folks you’d see proudly sporting “I Voted!” buttons.

But there’s more to it than that. The AP on Sunday wrote that, “Republicans focused relentlessly on the economy, a top concern for many voters amid stubborn inflation and high gas and food prices [and] also hit Democrats on crime, a message that sometimes overstated the threat but nonetheless tapped into anxiety, particularly among the suburban voters who turned away from the party in 2018 and 2020.”

I’m sure there are all manner of statistics which show just how hard the GOP hit Democrats on inflation, so I wouldn’t want to make any quantitative claims about messaging shortfalls. I would, however, make a simple qualitative claim in that regard: If CPI is 8%, and if grocery and power bills are rising at a double-digit annual rate (figure below), but you still underperform as the opposition party in government, you didn’t emphasize inflation enough.

That chart (or a simpler version of it, maybe) should’ve been on billboards all over the country. If you were a GOP candidate, you’d have done well, I’d argue, to ask voters (rhetorically) whether their grocery and electricity bills have gone up since Biden took office, instead of asking them ridiculous questions like, “Should Joanna, formerly John, be allowed to compete on the women’s swim team.”

Consider that, as the AP also noted, Nevada is “an economically challenged state that has some of the highest gas prices in the nation.” But Laxalt couldn’t deliver it to Republicans. Why? Well, I’m sure experts on politics in Nevada could regale you for hours, but I’d suggest Laxalt’s failure might be related to his messaging which, as NBC recounted, included the contention that the left should be put “in the ash bin of history,” that Republicans “can’t negotiate with” Democrats, that Anthony Fauci should be “in front of a Senate hearing” and that, if in power, Senate Republicans could determine “What in the world is going on” with Hunter Biden’s “laptop from hell.”

I realize a lot of those talking points play well with some voters. But I’m confident in asserting they translate into more votes when Trump himself is running versus when he isn’t. By contrast, Cortez Masto bragged to voters about GOP endorsements she won, and her work with the likes of Chuck Grassley.

Meanwhile, Trump is on the rampage, and his target is Ron DeSantis, the only high-profile Republican who outperformed expectations this month. I won’t quote from, let alone republish, Trump’s anti-DeSantis diatribe, posted to Truth Social a few evenings ago, but suffice to say it was irritable. That’s a problem for Republicans given that, again, Trump’s candidates underperformed in the midterms, while DeSantis rolled to reelection in Florida by a huge margin.

For the GOP, DeSantis ostensibly represents the “best” (note the scare quotes) of both worlds. He’s highly educated, boasts a picture perfect household that could’ve walked out of an advertisement for professional family photography and is very enthusiastic about leveraging the Trumpian culture wars but without any of the (increasingly heavy) baggage that goes along with Trump.

If DeSantis’s biggest advantage is that he isn’t Trump, that may also be his biggest disadvantage. People are keen to paint a mental picture of the GOP 2024 primaries as a Godzilla versus King Kong battle between the two that’ll leave both so worn down that neither will perform well in the general election. That’s probably not the best way to conceptualize of a prospective Trump versus DeSantis primary. I, for one, don’t believe DeSantis can prevail.

Some would argue that if Rupert Murdoch abandons Trump (which he apparently has, something Trump addressed in the same anti-DeSantis screed mentioned above), that’s that. I can assure you it’s not that simple. Consider the (mostly self-evident) notion that no one who’s still enthusiastic about Trump being president would ever defect to DeSantis. If you’re still on the Trump train, you’re not getting off at the stop labeled “Ron,” or any other stop for that matter. I don’t know how many people are still on that train, but whatever that number is, that’s the number of votes DeSantis won’t be getting.

Still, betting odds shifted dramatically in favor of DeSantis last week. The figure (below) gives you a sense of the sea change that accompanied the midterm results.

I wouldn’t bet on that, pun fully intended. Effectively, you’d be betting that the same establishment which Trump famously vanquished in 2016 is capable of toppling him. That wasn’t a good bet then, and it’s unlikely to be now.

The AP recapped Murdoch’s efforts. “The New York Post’s front cover on Thursday put Trump’s face over the drawing of a boy from a well-known nursery rhyme. The headline: ‘Trumpty Dumpty,'” David Bauder recounted. “The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section ran a sharp editorial headlined, ‘Trump is the Republican Party’s Biggest Loser.'”

Again, Murdoch won’t be enough. The Atlantic spelled it out. “Rupert Murdoch, Rich Lowry, Mike Pompeo and company: Welcome to the resistance!” David Graham joked. And then: “The traditional conservative establishment didn’t make Trump, and it can’t break him. If his political career is over, it will be because the voters who brought him to power decide to end it.”

And therein lies the problem. As I wrote on election night in 2020, the fact that Trump won as many votes as he did after Americans had four years to observe what a Trump presidency actually entails, spoke volumes. The lightly edited excerpts (below) are from my election night 2020 coverage. They’re every bit as relevant today as they were then.

Those of an optimistic persuasion have steadfastly insisted that Trump or, more precisely, Trumpism, doesn’t represent American values.

I draw a distinction between the man and the ideology because citizen Trump embodied (or pretended to embody) many of the attributes Americans typically identify with success. He was rich, or at least appeared to be. He was brash. He made himself synonymous with capitalism. And by his own (in some cases dubious) account, was wildly successful at just about everything he decided to try his hand at.

By now, virtually everyone understands that the myth of Donald Trump, “legendary businessman,” is mostly a fabrication. But that’s not the point. Rather, the point is simply that prior to becoming president, Trump did, in fact, live a life that was wholly consistent with modern American “values,” as they manifest in aspirations to success in a capitalist society. America is a tacky, arrogant place where “winning” is almost always couched exclusively in terms of wealth. Seen in that light, Trump has always represented American “values.”

Trumpism, on the other hand, overtly embraced what I’ve consistently argued were but secondary inclinations for a man whose first concern is himself. Xenophobia, notions of racial superiority and pandering to impulses far more pernicious than simple greed, are some of Trumpism’s defining features. But for Trump himself, the choice between, say, going to an expensive dinner with a wealthy African American executive, and going to lunch with a lowly blue-collar worker who wants to have a substantive discussion about the plight of the disappearing middle-class in a globalized world, is no choice at all. He wouldn’t be caught dead at a sandwich shop with somebody making $40,000/year before it mattered politically.

I’d guess many Trump voters know that. They know their former president thinks of them as lesser human beings because they’re not affluent. But they embrace him anyway. Why? Well, because for tens of millions of disaffected Americans, Trumpism has two highly attractive characteristics. First, it purports to offer easy solutions to complex problems, like the deleterious effect of globalization on the American middle-class. Second, it implicitly promises to delay inevitable demographic changes and uncomfortable societal shifts that threaten white, male privilege, which is, regrettably, just as identifiable with American “values” as the worship of unbridled capitalism.

When you combine Trump’s tediously cultivated mythos as the embodiment of the American capitalist dream with Trumpism‘s menu of quick fixes and implicit promise to safeguard what many believe is their inherent “right” to occupy a higher social stratum than, for example, women and minorities, you end up with a platform that’s, unfortunately, wholly consistent with American “values.”

In my estimation, none of that has changed since election eve 2020.

You could argue the 2022 midterms suggested otherwise. “The American people rejected — soundly rejected — the anti-democratic, authoritarian and divisive direction the MAGA Republicans wanted to take our country,” Chuck Schumer declared on Saturday evening, when Nevada was called for Cortez Masto.

Maybe. But the paradox for Democrats and Republicans is that the “defeat” of MAGA in the 2022 midterms might’ve been due mostly to the fact that its founder wasn’t actually on the ballot.


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24 thoughts on “The Paradox Of The 2022 Midterms

  1. The number of people who are still on the Trump train has fallen every year since 2016; there’s no reason to suggest that trend is about to reverse itself. That’s a problem for the GOP.

    1. Yeah, but the problem with disavowing him if you’re a Republican (or, frankly, if you’re anybody), is that if he wins and, for example, purges the civil service and packs the Pentagon, the last place you want to be is on the record voting (or speaking) against him.

  2. I agree with you. If the Republican base didn’t break with Trump after 2020, they won’t abandon him now. Trump candidates still won convincingly in deep red areas. Murdoch won’t like watching his ratings go down if Trump tells his base not to watch.

    If Trump goes to war against Desantis, I don’t think Desantis stands a chance. The presidential primary spotlight is a lot brighter than the occasional positive press in conservative media from his culture war antics. As I said previously, his best bet is waiting out Trump. He’s 44 – he doesn’t need to sabotage his chances with the Trump cult now since frankly Trump is not likely to be running 10 years from now.

    Looking ahead to 2024, Democrats have a very unfavorable senate map so the Georgia senate race is still a very important race. If the economy is on the up and up by 2024, Dems might have a chance. They also have 2 more years of demographic change that will benefit them at the margins. The big question will be who will be at the top of the ticket? I wouldn’t be horribly disappointed if it was Biden. Maybe it was luck or skill, but in my opinion, Biden has far surpassed what would’ve been expected as far as legislation passed and electoral success.

    1. I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that Roe v. Wade also made a difference. Elections are won at the margins and that put Dems over the top, especially in battleground states. While that’s been mentioned quite a bit, most media coverage that I’ve seen has been more focused on Trump as the problem, but Roe v Wade is a huge liability for Republicans now.

  3. People in the tri-state area have more of a historical familiarity with Trump, his ventures and failures. For decades we’ve seen the bluster and busts. There’s a suspension of disbelief that Trump courts that his home town crowd is largely inoculated against having seen the broken facade.

    Trump, the loser, is making its way to the national consciousness, and it’s hard to square with the image he projects. The more that narrative takes hold the harder it will be for those newer to his orbit to suspend their disbelief.

  4. “Republicans count on in-person voting,” while Democrats have mastered the mail-in machinery and process. As long as that continues, Republicans are going to remain in check nationally.

    “Trump voters” are reassessing their support after President Trump’s demeaning insults of JD Vance. For example, Virginia Lt. Governor Winsome Sears says that she will not support Trump in 2024.

    American values and the values of Trump voters are in line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” etc. Those voters are from the classes of people that fought a bloody war to put America in line with its ideals, which have nothing to do with “white, male priviledge.”

  5. A year is a long time in politics. Trump still has a strong hold on a large chunk of the gop primary voting base. He can be beaten but as our host points out it is no slam dunk.

  6. I think you’re underestimating status dynamics.

    Sure, Trump wouldn’t be caught dead with a loser but he certainly eats sandwiches/burgers. All of his tastes reveal him to be vulgar and crass. In direct contrast to elites’ tastes and behaviours.

    His people know elites look down on them for aesthetical reasons. And so they are addicted to the idea of someone powerful enough to bully and humiliate precious high class wank%rs. As long as he keeps promising to hurt socio-status elites, he’ll echo something very dark but absolutely genuine from the lower classes.

  7. And it is still disturbing that although the Democrats did much better than they themselves believed they would, most of the Republican candidates that lost seemed to still garner 40+% of the votes. That’s millions of American voters who haven’t figured out that they aren’t making wise choices.

  8. Nice summary. It made me realize that The Donald is not Humpty Dumpty as much as he is The Wizard of Oz. Just like in the story, the curtain has been tugged and even though he is still scary, I think that image will fade as the GOP selects new leadership figures for the new Congress.

  9. Replying to Day Job-
    Completely agree. Dems will ride abortion thru 2024, forcing GOP House and Senate members to vote against codifying abortion access. That’s a wedge issue in anything other than a deep red state. And in a battleground state it may be a winning strategy as well as being the just course of action.

  10. Many many trump fans have invested a ton of money and effort in trumpism even with all of the losses, and De Santis does not have the same capacitance toward their Culture war. The rural small businessman promoting “Biden Coffee” and a (FUD) explanation for the name and price for the captives a in private “big city” waiting room will not choose De Sancti over trump, and neither will the multi millionaire (denier) donor who loses his shit the day of the appointment of a black woman to the supreme court “just because she is black”. The republicans need these type of people, and unfortunately for Ron, so would Ron in my opinion.

  11. In 2016, a vote for Trump was a vote against Hillary Clinton. In 2020, a vote for Biden was a vote against Trump. Sure, some voters might have been “true believers” in each of those men, but many voters simply thought “I am not voting for Hilarie” or “I am not voting for Trump”.

    I personally would have a very difficult time voting for Biden in 2024, but will not vote for Trump. Many smart, moderate Republicans (Paul Ryan) are saying that it is time to jettison anything related to Trump from the Republican Party. I believe that this sentiment will take hold over the ensuing months.

    1. Paul Ryan is not a moderate. He’s an ardent believer in Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” and supply side economics. He wanted/wants to privatize social security and Medicare and ban all abortion including cases of rape and incest. If that’s what’s considered moderate, let alone smart, I don’t know what you’d call extreme. His views on balanced budgets and regressive taxation are woefully out of touch with reality.

  12. 1) We’re two years past 2020, and that means we’re two years deeper into a demographic change, with baby boomers (and older) dying and Gen Z voters coming of age. I have not seen this turnover quantified, but you can bet that strategists at both parties are doing that analysis.
    2) Of course it matters if Democrats have 51 senators vs 50. Two of their senators are not reliable votes. Since both of those two (Manchin and Sinema) are hopelessly self-infatuated, it will be difficult for them to cooperate to hijack important votes. So the Warnock seat matters immensely.
    3) When you’re 76 (and overweight with unhealthy habits) or 80 (regardless of your habits), a lot can happen in two years. Perhaps DeSantis’s best strategy would be to host a lot of high-saturated-fat Florida Republican dinners in honor of Donald Trump. And I wouldn’t be surprised if someone who is not currently very prominent on the political radar becomes the Democratic nominee in 2024.

    1. I think Desantis already threw down the gauntlet against Gen Z with his “Florida is where Woke comes to die” comments. My small sample group of Gen Z are feeling really good to have had their voice heard in this election. They do not share their hot red parents vision of the future.

  13. The longer-term issue is, obviously, that the GOP’s position on social issues will eventually be entirely out of step with modernity if they don’t adopt at least a little bit of flexibility. If that ends up being the case, the rest won’t matter. The new generation of voters and, really, the one right before that too, aren’t especially amenable to being instructed about what’s morally “right” and “wrong” and so on, and they aren’t amenable at all to the idea that America somehow can’t be a pluralistic society and still be “American.” Any version of that kind of regressive paternalism, particularly when handed down from the Supreme Court, is going to be summarily dismissed by younger voters. Two generations from now, the current GOP position on a lot of key social issues is going to look like it walked out of the medieval period. If I were a Republican strategist, I’d be hard at work figuring out how to ameliorate that situation, because it’s inevitable. None of that is meant to be partisan, it’s just the way it is. Times change. You have to evolve.

  14. Predict it has Warnock at 77% likely to win the runoff. If anything, I think that understates it, because Walker finished second in the General when Republican voters had other candidates they really wanted to vote for on the ballot, and now it’s just Walker. Warnock’s support will turn out for him as it did in the 2021 Special Election.

    As for Biden not being able to say what democrats would derive from a Warnock victory, I think that’s because he knows it’s best for him not to say why it mattered. In the short term, the democrats would be able to afford to lose one senator on votes and also wouldn’t lose their majority if one senator is indisposed. Longer term, as dayjob pointed out, the 2024 Senate map is daunting for them.

  15. As for the extra Senate seat, the elephant in the room knows why it matters and his name is Manchin. I appreciate your take on why the GOP underperformed but it is essentially the polar opposite argument that Tim Alberta made in the Atlantic on Thursday. His perspective is that because Trump always has to be the center of attention and because he is what defines the GOP these days, this vote was a referendum on Trump instead of Biden. I tend to agree with that take, I think the reason for GOP losses are the moderates. I live in a heavy MAGA neighborhood and I can assure you that when I went to vote they were out in full force. But they are still the minority of voters. What seems to be the difference for the midterms is that democrats and moderates both came out to vote. They are sick of the extremist views and anti-democratic positions and their votes reflect that the GOP should have dumped Trump after January 6th. That and pretty much every woman who isn’t an acolyte of the White Evangelical Nationalist movement is pissed that the Supreme Court Trump and McConnell put together decided to take away their bodily autonomy.

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