Pundits, political scientists, and pollsters predicted the 2022 elections would be a red Republican wave. Now they are saying it was a blue Democratic wave.
It was neither a blue nor red wave. Perhaps it was more a purplish ripple, where neither party won a mandate and the results of the election suggested more an endorsement of the status quo.
Going into the 2022 elections America was a closely divided nation. The Democrats had slim control of Congress. Public opinion was sharply divided across the nation on a range of issues. There were many states whose governments were all Republican or Democrat. Then there was Minnesota, one of only two states with a divided government and legislature at the time.
Nationally, the political division meant there were fewer than 30 U.S. House and nine Senate seats that were competitive — and which would determine who won control of these chambers. In the Minnesota Legislature, it was also about nine House and seven Senate seats that would matter.
At the national and state levels the competitive swing seats were mostly in the suburbs. This meant a few swing voters in a few suburban swing districts would decide control of the Congress and Minnesota’s Legislature.
History suggests the president’s party in midterm elections does badly, losing an average of 26 U.S. House and four U.S. Senate seats. Political science models suggest that the president’s approval rating in the second quarter of an election year, along with the country’s economic performance, predict election results. With Biden’s lower approval rating earlier this year and an economy facing problems, the 2022 election was supposed to be a Republican red wave.
Yet the 2022 elections did not work out as predicted. The U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning abortion rights gave Democrats an apparent boost, according to the polls. This blunted the Republican advantage to a degree, leaving Republicans, when the votes were counted, with narrow control of the U.S. House, the Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate, and, in Minnesota, the Democrats with narrow control of both the state House and state Senate along with control of all four constitutional offices (governor, attorney general, secretary of state and auditor, all of which are voted on statewide).
Because the Red Wave did not appear to happen, a Blue Wave was declared. Democrats had a great year, the reasoning goes, and because in Minnesota they had control of the Legislature and the governorship, some in this party are saying it is time to “go big and then go home.”
The reality is that there was no wave nationally or in Minnesota.
For the most part incumbents won re-election 95%+ of the time. Only one U.S. Senate seat flipped party control. Few legislative chambers across the country changed hands. The election in many ways was an endorsement of the status quo — but with minor adjustments.
Republicans, meantime, can claim victory. They flipped the U.S. House, and approximately 5 million more voters cast ballots for their congressional candidates than for Democrats. Republicans still control more governorships and legislative chambers than Democrats. Democrats did win back some governorships and held control of the U.S. Senate, but their candidates received 500,000 fewer votes than the Republicans’ Senate candidates.
The election was less a wave than a ripple. The Democrats managed to motivate a few more voters in a few swing suburban districts than the Republicans did. Had a few more Republicans shown up in a few critical races, the results nationally and in Minnesota could have been different.
Compared to 2018, nationally and in Minnesota, voter turnout was down. Granted, 2018 had unusually high turnout, but we may be in the middle of a generational turning point.
The 2020 election was the first one in 30 years where Baby Boomers were not the largest generational voting bloc. They and the Silent Generation are exiting the political process and are being replaced by younger Millennials and Gen Z voters who are more liberal than the Silents and Boomers.
It’s also more difficult to determine if these younger voters are going to vote, and they’re harder to poll.
This year, pollsters missed these voters. In a few critical suburban races, younger voters, along with some female voters, made the difference for the Democrats. While the polls were generally accurate in saying the races would be close, they did not always correctly predict the correct winner.
Why is all this important? In Minnesota flip 321 votes in Senate District 41 and the GOP has a 34-33 majority. Three Seats won by the DFL were by a margin of 2,215 votes. In the House, the DFL won three races by a combined 1,251 votes. Change 1,500 votes and the Republicans would control the House and Senate.
So why were most pundits, political scientists and pollsters wrong? Each election is unique. Elections are not decided by models. Campaigns matter. As do candidate quality, messaging and strategy.
Despite their victories, in Minnesota Democrats do not have a mandate. To enact their dream legislation, progressive Democrats will need to rely on colleagues in moderate districts. In these districts it may be difficult to legalize recreational marijuana or codify abortion rights. Also with Democrats wanting a bonding bill that requires 60% majorities, they will need Republican votes.
The 2022 elections were not a wave for either party.
David Schultz is a professor at Hamline University in the departments of political science, legal studies and environmental studies.
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