by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Monday, September 26, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 43 days away. Election Day 2024 is 771 days away.
Six ways these midterms are different
It may be Rosh Hashanah, but you could almost think of 2022 as the Passover election. Why, the constant refrain has been, is this midterm cycle different than all other midterm cycles?
It’s usually a loaded question, of course. If your view is that these midterms are a substantial departure from past ones — that it’s one of those rare “asterisk elections,” as Nate Silver put it — the implication is that Democrats might be able to buck decades of history and stave off losses even as the incumbent president’s party.
This morning, I want to ask a similar question but from a different angle. I want to investigate a few ways that it occurs to me that 2022 is genuinely different than past cycles — but not necessarily to discern an electoral advantage for one party or the other.
Of the six differences I’ll focus on, it’s not my opinion that they systematically favor a single party. But one of my larger fascinations is the ways in which American politics is constantly changing and evolving, and I think all six of these are neat reflections of the changes our politics are undergoing right now. Not only that, but they might even offer a window into where we’re going next.
1. The salience of abortion. This first one should hardly come as a surprise, considering that it has quickly become conventional wisdom that Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — the Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion — has reshaped the 2022 midterms.
But the ways in which Dobbs has changed 2022 as an election cycle have masked the extent to which the decision has also rejiggered American politics broadly. Abortion, after all, has hung around the edges of our politics for decades — but, with Roe v. Wade long blocking any major movement on the issue, it has rarely been an election-deciding factor. All arguments about it were made largely theoretical by the existence of Roe.
I looked at exit polls for the seven election cycle since 2008 and found that abortion was never even mentioned as a top issue for voters in any of them. This year, polling routinely ranks it towards the top. In another metric, Gallup found that abortion has shot to its highest level since it began being tracked in 1984 in their regular survey of America’s “most important problem.”
The economy was the top issue named by voters in all of those previous cycles. It remains there, but rarely has it been as threatened by the rotating second-place issue as it is by abortion today. Partly, that’s another way to say this election cycle might not be simply a referendum on the sitting president, since you could think of voter opinions on the economy as a rough stand-in for presidential approval.
But it also shows politics being reframed around a non-economic issue in a truly rare way, one that forces the question of how long this reorientation will last. By the next election cycle, will we have settled into a post-Roe status quo that moves abortion politics back out of the spotlight? Or will the focus on abortion remain hot, as state and federal officials continue to debate the issue with their newfound influence over it? As the increase in female voter registrations this year shows, the issue set that’s salient in an election can do much to influence the universe of likely voters, so it’s far from an idle question.
2. Changing coalitions. The modern trend of minority and working-class voters gravitating towards Democrats, and white and elite voters reliably siding with Republicans, seems to have officially come to an end.
This is a continuation from the past three election cycles, but as the first election in the post-Trump era (at least on paper), it’s notable that the coalition shifts seem to be staying put (and even accelerating). Considering Trump is no longer on the ballot or in the White House, 2022 could be the year that’s seen as formalizing the reversal and confirming its staying power.
Here’s an example: in the first New York Times/Siena poll of the cycle in July, the Times writeup noted that for the first time in their decades of polling, Democrats performed better among white college graduates than they did among nonwhite voters. Noting that Democrats once lost the first group and dominated with the second, the Times called the change “remarkable”; indeed, it is nothing less than a tectonic demographic shift that will continue to reverberate in politics for some time.
One implication is that, at least politically, the U.S. is less polarized along racial lines than it has been in decades: a CNN analysis found that the partisan gap between white and nonwhite voter preferences is now smaller than it has been this century. (In its place, of course, polarization along class and educational lines has become more prominent.) Much of the shift is attributable to Hispanic voters, who are now split roughly evenly between the parties; America’s next-generation electoral map and strategy will be set based on whether that trajectory continues.
3. Record-setting interest. After politics became something of a national pastime in the Trump era, the general expectation was that interest would wane under Biden. Instead, new records are being set. With enthusiasm at an usual high for both parties, “the country is poised to break the modern midterm turnout record just four years after setting it,” Roll Call reports.
In one early sign, per CNN, nearly 42 million people cast ballots in the first 40 state primaries this election cycle; 40 million had voted in the same primaries in 2018. According to AdImpact, nearly $9.7 billion is set to be spent on political ads this cycle — more than in any other presidential year, let alone previous midterms. It appears that Trump-level interest and engagement in politics are here to stay for the near future.
One other factor to note is that attention has not just been hot on the normal gubernatorial or Senate races. After the efforts to overturn the election in 2020, spending on lower-ballot contests like secretary of state races is setting records — another genuinely unique ingredient of this election.
Every two years, you’ll find pundits insisting that this is the most important election since 1860. But some polls show that Americans might actually believe it this time, with voters in both parties pointing to existential threats to our democracy as another top election issue. The record-setting interest in these midterms, including a rare spotlight on election-administrator races, is easier to understand in that context.
4. Relationships with the press. This change is a subtler one, but it has still been interesting to track throughout the election cycle. “Many Republicans on the campaign trail are shunning mainstream press,” NPR reported last month. Then, last week from the same outlet: “This midterm season, the role of the debate has changed.”
This is not the first election cycle where partisan media outlets have been available to give candidates a “safe space” to get their message across. But it is the first where so many candidates are retreating into those spaces so fully, to the point that they’ve given up on speaking to mainstream reporters or even to holding debates.
Reporting on one such candidate, Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, Puck News called it his “snowflake strategy,” noting that he has spoken almost exclusively to “fringe websites that are practically unknown outside of MAGA world” for months.
On the other hand, the new approach to debates crosses partisan lines. Republicans like Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker have expressed hesitance to debate, as have Democrats like Arizona gubernatorial candidate Katie Hobbs and Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman. (Hobbs has ruled out a debate altogether.)
This raises the possibility that, in an age of candidates being able to speak directly to voters via social media, the role of debates might be shrinking in the modern political era. Why risk a debate when you could argue with your opponent by stitching their TikTok, or rebutting them on your podcast? And who watches network TV now, anyways?
5. Negativity of campaigning. You might have thought that the acidity of American politics reached its high watermark in 2016, with Donald Trump chanting “lock her up” and Hillary Clinton calling his supporters a “basket of deplorables.”
But, based on advertising, this has actually been the most negative election cycle in recent memory. According to the Wesleyan Media Project, 48% of House ads, 55% of Senate ads, and 51% of gubernatorial ads this cycle have been attack ads, far outstripping the levels seen in previous campaigns.
6. More incumbents ousted. One final trend worth noting: according to a count by Ballotpedia, 15 House incumbents were defeated in primary challenges this cycle, more than any election cycle since at least 2002.
Redistricting certainly played a role in this, since a few incumbents were pitted against other incumbents, but that isn’t the whole story: it’s also a reflection of the anti-establishment energies coursing through both parties. (Nine of the ousted incumbents were Republicans; six were Democrats.)
Another factor worth mentioning: this cycle also saw a very abnormal level of across-the-aisle primary spending, with Democrats spending tens of milions of dollars to meddle in Republican primaries, including to boost some of those incumbent-slayers. Parties meddling in their rivals’ primaries isn’t new — but it’s never been carried out in such a sweeping and systematic fashion. Do not be surprised if this tactic continues into future election cycles.
The other elephant in the room for many of these primaries, of course, has been Trump. I really didn’t intend for this to be a piece about the 45th president, but it’s unmistakable how many of these differences I’ve identified can be traced back to him.
Whether it’s the justices he appointed to the Supreme Court, his rhetoric about the media, his efforts to oust unfriendly congressional incumbents, the new Republican coalition he has formed, or the interest in politics he sparked: Trump’s shadow is visible behind each of these shifts.
That all of these changes are still reverberating even with Trump formally out of the picture is confirmation of how much he has molded American politics in these last six years. He is not the sole factor behind any of these changes, but he has indisputably had a hand in each, to a level that is vanishingly rare for just one person.
These are just six ways that I’ve noticed 2022 has diverged with past election cycles. Can you think of others? Send them my way and they might get featured in the newsletter.
What else you should know
➞ Italy: “A party with neo-fascist roots, the Brothers of Italy, won the most votes in Italy’s national elections, looking set to deliver the country’s first far-right-led government since World War II and make its leader, Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s first woman premier, near-final results showed Monday.” Associated Press
➞ Arizona: “An Arizona Superior Court judge ruled Friday that a 1901 ban on nearly all abortions in that state can be enforced, a decision that is likely to see an appeal and is all but certain to galvanize female voters to turn out in greater numbers in the state's closely contested US Senate and governor's races.” CNN
➞ 2024: Here are two interesting results from the Washington Post/ABC News poll released this weekend. 56% of Democrats want someone besides President Biden to be their party’s nominee in 2024. Republicans, meanwhile, are split 47%-46% on whether Donald Trump should be their standard bearer. In other words: neither party faithful seems wild about their presumptive presidential candidates. Keep an eye on this.
- Speaking of Biden: “Democrats are warming to a Biden 2024 campaign. They're just not sure if he'll run.” CNN
- Speaking of Trump: “Three Conversations with Donald Trump” The Atlantic
Today at a glance
All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch it.
➞ President Biden will start his day in Delaware, where he spent the weekend. He’ll travel back to the White House and then hold an event celebrating the Atlanta Braves, the 2021 World Series champions (11:45 am). Finally, Biden will deliver remarks at the third meeting of the White House Competition Council, which he established last year.
➞ Vice President Harris landed early this morning in Japan, kicking off a weeklong tour of Asia. Also earlier this morning (which was evening in Japan), she met with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and had dinner at his palace.
➞ White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre will hold her daily press briefing (1:30 pm).
➞ The Senate is out until tomorrow.
➞ The House is out until Wednesday. The chamber will meet briefly today for a pro forma session (10 am), but no business will be conducted.
➞ The Supreme Court is out until Friday.
Before I go...
I want to wish a L’Shana Tova to everyone celebrating Rosh Hashanah today.
According to the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah is the start of the new year. (It’s now 5783, for those keeping track.)
Growing up, it was also always an opportunity to spend time with family, celebrate, and reflect.
This year, of course, I’m at college — far from home — but still found myself at services last night, surrounded by familiar prayers, melodies, and friends, instead of family members. (In a room that has played host to presidents from Hayes to Obama, no less. Always a political connection.)
If today is meaningful for you, I hope you similarly find a place to mark the day and have a moment of reflection. And may you all have a sweet and happy year! 🍎🍯
In Friday’s newsletter, I misstated the party breakdown of the U.S. House. There are 221 Democrats and 212 Republicans.
Thanks to the readers who caught my error.
That’s it for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.
If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.
Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.