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5 Things To Watch Going Into The Midterms

Though 2022 has only just begun, the midterm elections are already looming over the political horizon. Democrats’ loss in the Virginia governor’s race last year — and their surprisingly narrow win in the New Jersey governor’s race — both suggested that we could be heading for a red wave in this year’s midterm elections. And overall, the political environment is looking favorable for Republicans. Based on House retirements — which can give us some clues about how the congressional elections might unfold — it also seems like Democrats are more worried than Republicans. Those worries aren’t unfounded, either, since the president’s party almost always struggles in midterm elections, usually losing ground in the House and often in the Senate too.

But there are also a lot of factors that could shake things up. Over the past year, Republican legislatures across the country have passed an unprecedented slew of laws to restrict voting access, including some states that will be most closely watched this November. Fears about inflation are simmering, but the labor market is recovering, albeit unevenly. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases have surged to an all-time high, driven by the omicron variant, even if so far deaths and hospitalizations have not been as bad as last year. And finally, state lawmakers are in the process of redrawing congressional maps based on the results of the 2020 census, setting the geographic boundaries that will shape congressional power for the next decade (if the courts don’t strike them down).

It’s impossible, of course, to predict how all of these four moving pieces — voting restrictions, the economy, the pandemic and redistricting — will affect each other. But we do have a sense of the role they could play individually. So here’s an overview of what we know about what each of these indicators could mean for the midterms, and what kinds of surprises could be in store this year.

A wave of voting restrictions could affect turnout in swing states

Under the fraudulent pretense that widespread voter fraud cost former President Donald Trump the 2020 presidential election, at least 22 states have passed 53 or more new voting restrictions. And since the federal government has not yet passed federal voting rights legislation, these statewide bills could have an impact on turnout and voter enthusiasm heading into the midterms.

The number of voting restrictions that were enacted in 2021 is astonishing. In fact, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, the total number of restrictions passed in 2021 shatters the previous record-high, which was 2011, when 14 states enacted 19 bills by October of that year. And a lot of the bills passed this cycle have curtailed the expansion of absentee voting from the pandemic, but bills requiring proof of identity to vote and preventing the implementation of automatic voter registration were prioritized too. 

The short- and long-term effects of these newest statewide laws are still a bit of an open question; we’ve never seen such aggressive and widespread GOP-led efforts to pass new voter restrictions, but also there’s conflicting research on the effects of proposals like these. On the one hand, some studies show that some policies, like voter ID laws, which have long been anathema to Democrats and voting rights advocates, don’t necessarily decrease voter participation, even among people of color. And although a number of Republican-led states targeted absentee voting after it helped clinch Biden’s 2020 victory, a recent study found that states that implemented absentee voting in 2020 didn’t see a huge increase in turnout when compared with states that did not implement it. So it’s not a foregone conclusion that states like Georgia, which has received national attention for pushing stringent and anti-democratic voter laws, will actually see lower turnout — at least probably not as a result of the restrictions. In fact, other reporting has found that, counterintuitively, some restrictions can backfire and instead boost turnout because voters might be more energized to cast a ballot.

That said, the totality of the laws that have been passed this cycle makes it hard to predict their effects this November. And the fact remains that some of the most restrictive measures on the books are in swing states, which could affect the midterm result, in addition to disenfranchising voters there. There’s also, of course, the possibility that the newest state laws will make administering elections more open to partisan interference, since many of the bills proposed by Republican legislatures reassigned election administration to highly partisan legislatures — which could allow elected lawmakers to overturn the will of the voters and determine their own preferred winners of elections.

Economic worries could play a role — but they might be trumped by partisanship

Inflation is accelerating at the fastest pace in decades, and although the economy is bouncing back in other ways, most Americans feel pessimistic about the country’s economic challenges. That could be a worrying sign for Democrats’ electoral chances in the midterms this year. Often, the economy is seen as a critical electoral indicator, particularly regarding presidential elections. 

But the upcoming election cycle could be different. That’s in part because there’s evidence that the economy just doesn’t matter as much in midterm elections. More broadly, views of the state of the economy are also increasingly partisan — which means that Republican and Democrats’ views of the economy may be more influenced by politics than by how the economy is actually doing.

This is not to say that the economy can’t influence politicians’ electoral fates. In fact, political science research has found that voters do reward presidential candidates when the economy is good, and punish them when it’s bad. It’s the overall trajectory of the economy that’s most important here, too, according to Christopher Wlezien, a professor of government at the University of Texas-Austin. “You might have a low unemployment rate and a low inflation rate, but if the economy’s not growing, that’s not really a ‘good’ economy,” he said.

But researchers have consistently found that the economy isn’t as important of a factor in midterm elections. That’s not because the economy is only important every four years — it’s just that other factors, like the generic ballot (a measure of which party people would back for Congress), are better predictors of which way the midterms will go.

Partisanship, too, can have a dampening effect. Polling consistently shows that Americans’ feelings about the health of the economy shift dramatically depending on whether a Republican or Democrat is president.

That detachment from the actual health of the economy could be particularly pronounced in this year’s midterms because the pandemic has the economy in such an intense state of flux. On the one hand, Democrats can point to economic improvement since Biden took over last January — the unemployment rate is falling and wages are rising. But there are worrying signs as well. There are the surging inflation numbers, for instance, and metrics like the unemployment rate are relative. In the November 2021 jobs report, the unemployment rate was 4.2 percent — much better than April 2020, when it was a horrifying 14.7 percent, but still quite not back to its pre-pandemic levels.

This leaves plenty of room for Americans’ political identities to influence how they see the economy. Those assessments will still be based on voters’ everyday economic realities — whether they think the rent and the price of milk are rising, whether they’ve lost or gotten a job, whether their neighbors seem to be struggling or prospering. But their preexisting views about the parties will likely do a lot to shape how they view the economy.

Voters’ fears about COVID-19 could haunt politicians

As we approach the two-year anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., there is still much uncertainty about what the future holds. While vaccination rates continue to slowly climb, the highly transmissible omicron variant and the need for all Americans to receive booster shots highlight just how unpredictable this pandemic remains. Despite concerns around omicron, many Americans are unwilling to give up the small freedoms they’ve gradually clawed back, and even with the new variant, inflation now beats out COVID-19 as the top concern in polls. This may be what it looks like for COVID-19 to start to become a fact of life, rather than a temporary disaster. But whether the pandemic is top of mind for voters this November or not, it will inarguably play a role in the midterms — both politically and practically. 

Let’s start with the practical ramifications. The 2020 election landed during an early wave of the pandemic, and most states made a number of special concessions to the way voters cast their ballots to make things safer and encourage physical distancing. But while these measures were enacted temporarily in some states, they’ve now become permanent in others. Nevada and Vermont switched to universal mail voting during the pandemic, for instance, and both have now made the change permanent, while many other states have now made no-excuse absentee voting (meaning voters don’t need a specific reason to vote by mail) the law of the land. 

Even some states that have recently enacted voter restriction laws kept a few pandemic-time voting expansions. For example, despite taking steps to make it harder to vote, Georgia also required a minimum number of drop boxes per county (prior to the pandemic, drop boxes weren’t required at all). It seems that once voters tried out new, more convenient ways of voting, many didn’t want to go back to the old way of doing things. 

But beyond changes to how we vote, the long tail of the pandemic will also likely play a role in for whom we vote — or that’s what many politicians are banking on, at least. On the Democrats’ side, there’s an effort to celebrate the party’s successes in responding to the pandemic, such as the relief package passed in March 2021, while also criticizing the response from Republicans. For example, during the California recall election last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom touted his pandemic response and later claimed his win demonstrated that voters appreciated a strong response to COVID-19. (How much of a role COVID-19 played in Newsom’s victory, however, is up for debate.) But Americans’ approval of the Biden administration’s response to the pandemic has precipitously dropped since early July 2021, around the time delta became the country’s dominant strain.

Earlier in the pandemic, approval of Biden’s COVID-19 response was much higher — higher even than his overall approval rating. Now, though, one of his few strong suits with the public has diminished, giving Republicans fresh ammunition. Republicans have leaned into calling out Democratic responses to the pandemic, like vaccine and mask mandates, as violations of freedom, although some Republicans have encouraged voters to get vaccinated (which hasn’t proven to be a particularly effective message with their voters). They’ve also begun firing up their base over the economic woes that have rippled out of the pandemic, such as labor shortages and supply chain delays.

There’s also a good chance that other issues will eclipse the pandemic. Along with the economy taking up more mental space lately, Americans’ concerns around the pandemic tend to ebb and flow with case numbers, as a series of pre-omicron polls from Fox News show. When asked in early August (as the late-summer surge was starting to grow), 69 percent of registered voters said they were very or extremely concerned about the pandemic. That number then grew to 74 percent in mid-September, as that wave was cresting, but when asked again in mid-October (with that wave on the retreat), it shrank back to 67 percent. 

As vaccinations increase and more workers begin to trickle back into the office, it’s possible that the pandemic winds up playing a smaller role in the midterms than it has so far. In fact, even in November 2020, as cases swelled to record levels, COVID-19 didn’t play as big of a role in the election as many expected. By this November, it could be an even more minor player in our electoral circus.

Republicans stand to benefit from redistricting, but the overall impact might be small

We’re roughly at the halfway point in redistricting, as 32 states with 279 congressional districts have finished redistricting following the delayed release of the 2020 census last year.1 And while many states still have to draw their lines, we already have a decent idea of what the overall contours of the congressional map will be.

But given the amount of control Republicans have over the redistricting process — the GOP will draw more than twice as many districts as Democrats this cycle — it’s a little surprising that neither party looks set to make major gains in the House due solely to redistricting. We just haven’t seen a dramatic shift favoring one party in the states that have finished drawing their lines. Compared with the old national map, the number of Democratic-leaning seats (defined as seats having a partisan lean of at least 5 percentage points more Democratic than the country as a whole) has increased from the old map, while the number of Republican-leaning seats (R+5 or redder) hasn’t really changed.2

One thing we can point to, though, is that the number of highly competitive seats — those between D+5 and R+5 — is down. And that’s in large part because Republicans have so far been particularly successful in making competitive seats they control much safer for their party in 2022. The number of competitive Republican-leaning seats has shrunk from maps drawn the 2010 census, while the number of safe Republican seats has increased markedly. We can see this trend clearly in states where the GOP controlled redistricting, as previously competitive seats like Indiana’s 5th Congressional District or Texas’s 24th District have become far redder.

For Democrats’ part, they have also tried to create more Democratic-leaning seats in states where they controlled redistricting. So far, they haven’t increased the number of safe Democratic districts, but they have increased the number of competitive Democratic-leaning seats. This reflects their strategy to trade away some dark-blue seats in states like Illinois and Nevada to improve their party’s position in nearby districts that were more competitive on the pre-2022 maps.

The reduction in baseline competitive turf is an important feature of this redistricting cycle; it means that the two parties will be able to more easily lock in control over more seats and to narrow the already-thin campaign battlefield. Most congressional districts are currently quite safe for one party or the other, and that’s not likely to change. It’s true that 18 states haven’t yet finished drawing their lines, but we don’t expect one party to substantially benefit from these new maps. Yes, Republican mapmakers in Florida may draw lines that add a seat or two to their column, but Democrats in New York could produce a map that gives them a chance of flipping a handful of GOP-held seats.

And beyond those two states, about one-third of the remaining seats left to be drawn are not under one party’s control, usually because the state has divided government — as is the case in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, for instance. A map in one state might end up benefiting one party more than the current lines, but this collection of maps could very well work out to be a wash in the end.

Still, there are wild cards to keep in mind, such as lawsuits that could overturn potential gerrymanders. Yet while Republicans have wider control of redistricting than Democrats, and while they have done quite a bit to shore up their incumbents, The Cook Political Report estimates that the GOP might gain only two to three seats from the redistricting process — a seat swing that is unlikely to decide the House’s fate on its own, considering the president’s party has, on average, lost 26 House seats in midterms since World War II.

What about an October surprise?

We’ve walked you through a host of factors that could influence the 2022 midterms, but sometimes a surprising last-minute event shakes up the race. A hallmark example of this is the 2016 presidential election, when FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress days before the election announcing that the FBI had reopened its investigation into the private email server Hillary Clinton had used as secretary of state. The news dominated headlines, and her lead in the national polls fell nearly 3 points over the next week, with her going on to narrowly lose to Donald Trump.

Now, there aren’t many moments that count as “October surprises” — most day-to-day news events and candidate gaffes during a campaign don’t matter very much. But as the 2016 example shows, they can’t entirely be ruled out as a factor that could affect voter attitudes, especially if a fair number of voters haven’t made up their minds.

Footnotes

  1. Including the six states that only have one district.

  2. Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

Kaleigh Rogers is FiveThirtyEight’s technology and politics reporter.

Alex Samuels is a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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