Upset Democratic special election wins in Alaska and New York over the past two weeks are the latest sign that the political environment might be unusual for a midterm election. Frankly, the results since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade have looked more like 2018 than 2020, with Democrats competitive even in red-leaning districts. That probably won’t hold.
But even if it’s just a neutral year — as the generic congressional ballot currently shows — Democrats would probably be pleased. It would likely be enough for them to hold the Senate, and even gain a seat or two. It would even give them a chance in the House.
Or maybe not. Democrats are fighting against a lot of midterm election history where the president’s party typically does poorly. They’ve also benefited from a turnout advantage in recent special elections that may not be replicated in November. The FiveThirtyEight forecast does not consider the special election results and hedges based on these historical trends; it’s why it still has Republicans as 75 percent favorites to keep the House, although Democrats’ chances of retaining the Senate continue to improve and are now 68 percent.1
Still, whenever a Democrat gets elected in Alaska — even given the quirks of the instant-runoff process in the state — it’s probably worth asking again if things could go really badly for the GOP.
Last month, I examined a series of what I called asterisk midterm elections. These were the midterms that were the exceptions to the rule: When the president’s party actually gained seats in the House, or at least fought things to a near-draw while gaining in the Senate. The elections were 1934, 1962, 1998 and 2002, and three of the four involved some type of national emergency (the Great Depression, the Cuban missile crisis and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks). The 1998 midterm was the exception to this, but it did have a national controversy of its own — a backlash to Republican overreach on the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent impeachment trial. I argued that 2022 has some features in common with these elections, but it had the most in common with 1998 given the partisan overreach that is happening now.
In particular, the involvement of former President Donald Trump makes 2022 different than almost any other midterm.
At this point, we’re used to Trump’s ubiquity in American political life. But this degree of involvement from a former president — or, for that matter, even an ex-presidential candidate — is highly unusual. Take a look, for example, at the amount of Google search traffic for Trump as compared with other former presidents.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush kept a very low profile after completing their second terms. And the previous losing candidate before Trump, Hillary Clinton, famously retreated to the woods in Chappaqua, New York, after 2016. Their search traffic quickly dropped to near-zero once their campaigns or presidencies were over, and then stayed there.
Trump’s search traffic, meanwhile, is much less than during his presidency, but it’s still fairly high. Over the past year, in fact, there’s been about as much search traffic for Trump as for the current president, Joe Biden!
And the amount of news interest in Trump has been increasing recently. Part of that is the string of endorsements he’s made in Republican primaries, but the bigger factor is the FBI’s seizure of classified documents he had in his possession at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.
When that seizure occurred, a certain strain of conventional wisdom suggested that this could help Republicans in the midterms, such as by increasing the enthusiasm of GOP voters.2
If that’s true, it’s not showing up in the data. The past four special elections — two in New York, one in Alaska and one in Minnesota — all occurred after the seizure on Aug. 8, and they all showed excellent results for Democrats. And Democrats have actually gained about a point on the generic ballot since then, although it’s a small enough difference that it could be statistical noise.
It’s not exactly some genius insight to suggest that Trump could cause problems for Republicans in the midterms. At the very least, he’s directly put their prospects at risk by endorsing inexperienced candidates like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Blake Masters in Arizona, who are badly underperforming partisan benchmarks in their states.
But it’s also the case that Trump’s continued dominance over the GOP violates a potentially key assumption behind the “midterm curse,” which is that a party usually tries to pivot away from its losing candidates.
Sometimes that pivot involves providing voters a menu of new policy options, such as the GOP’s “Contract with America” in 1994. Many times it’s a pivot to the center, though it doesn’t need to be; the tea party movement in 2010 was more conservative in some ways than Bush, but it still offered voters something a little different.
The pivot doesn’t necessarily need to involve a new figurehead for the party, either. It probably helps if you don’t have one, in fact, since then you can frame the election as a referendum on the incumbent party’s performance and take advantage of thermostatic changes in public opinion rather than as a choice between imperfect alternatives, as presidential elections turn into.
In 2018, for instance, Trump gave Democrats a lot of ammunition to run on, and they nominated different kinds of candidates in different kinds of districts while preparing for a very large presidential primary field. What you didn’t see, though, was a lot of Clinton, who didn’t make her first campaign appearance until October.
Let’s play out that counterfactual, though. Imagine that, in 2018, Clinton had been very active on the campaign trail, endorsing candidates that often went against the wishes of the party establishment, repeatedly claiming that the 2016 election had been stolen — and then there had been a FBI seizure of classified secretary of state records in Chappaqua.
Would that have helped Democrats in the midterms? Probably not.
But if anything, Republicans are doubling down on Trump and Trumpism. This week, he demanded a redo of the 2020 election. The leading candidate for the 2024 nomination apart from Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, defended Trump after the Mar-a-Lago search and has even come to mimic some of his mannerisms and manners of speech. Republicans have had problems with candidate quality in Senate and gubernatorial races before, but this year, inexperienced and/or very right-wing candidates — often ones endorsed by Trump — are the rule and not the exception.
All that said, I still think the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe — and maybe declining inflation — are the more important factors in Democrats’ recent surge. But Republicans are behaving in atypical ways for an opposition party in the midterms, and they may get an atypically poor outcome as a result.