By the numbers: what we’ve learned from the 2022 US midterm elections

Votes are still being counted across the US following Tuesday’s midterm elections, and we do not know which party will control the House of Representatives after the Democrats were projected to hold the Senate on Saturday night.

But it is clear that Democrats fended off a predicted “red wave” of Republican wins across statewide and federal races, as they were buoyed by underperforming Trump-backed candidates, targeted spending on key races and a diverse base of support. Democrats’ losses at the federal level are historically low for the party of a sitting president facing his first midterm. And at the state level, the party posted gains in both legislatures and governorships.

Demographics and money played key roles, as did the divide between urban and rural America, revealing suburbia as the most important political battleground. And the American people weighed in directly on some pressing issues of the day, including abortion rights, drug legalisation and elections themselves.

Here are seven takeaways from the yet to be resolved midterm elections.

Republicans are on track to take the House, but a ‘red wave’ failed to crest

While statistical models and pundits predicted losses in the dozens for Democrats, control of the House remains up in the air. Republicans have won or currently lead in 221 seats, which would be enough for a narrow three-seat majority. Should that margin materialise, it would represent a loss of just six seats for Democrats.

This is unusual for a midterm election, which typically features double-digit seat losses for the incumbent president’s party. It is even more surprising given Biden’s faltering approval rating. In the past 50 years, only three midterm elections have gone better for incumbent presidents in the House — 1986, 1998 and 2002. All three of those races featured presidents with approval ratings nearing 60 per cent, while Biden’s currently sits in the low 40s.

Democrats performed well at the state level

Though there are races left to be called, it is clear that Democrats scored important victories in state races, holding on to and flipping competitive legislatures and governorships. Control of governors’ offices and state legislatures influences how easily a party can implement policy, including on issues like abortion, gun control and schooling.

Democrats have thus far maintained control of all the state chambers where they previously had a majority, the first that has happened under an incumbent president since 1934, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats also flipped four Republican-held state legislative chambers and two Republican-held governorships.

In total, Democrats have added four states to their list of “trifectas” — places where a single party sits in the governor’s chair and controls both legislative chambers. Democrats lost one trifecta after Democratic governor Steve Sisolak lost his bid for re-election in Nevada, the first incumbent governor to lose a race in this election. While the GOP recorded no flips in state chambers or new trifectas, Republicans still hold 16 more state chambers and have full control of five more states than Democrats.

Trump’s endorsees did ‘GREAT’, but . ..

Former president Donald Trump loomed over this week’s electoral proceedings, having endorsed dozens of candidates for congressional seats and also picked a fight with a possible future presidential campaign opponent, Ron DeSantis, who won re-election as governor of Florida.

Trump touted his endorsees’ (and his own) win record with characteristic capitalisation on social media: “A GREAT EVENING, and the Fake News Media, together with their partner in crime, the Democrats, are doing everything possible to play it down.”

Indeed most Trump-backed candidates won — but a winning record was no surprise given that most Trump-backed candidates were running in solidly Republican House districts. But those in more competitive districts and tighter races faltered. Of the six Trump-endorsed candidates in Democratic-leaning or toss-up House races, zero won, according to a Politico tally. In the Senate, one of Trump’s four toss-up endorsees won while another is headed to a run-off.

Suburbia is the true political battleground

With a few races left to call, it appears that Republicans will hold 92 per cent of all rural seats (as categorised by a Washington Post census analysis). Meanwhile, Democrats are on track to hold a parallel 92 per cent of districts in urban areas. Only one Republican, on New York’s Staten Island, will represent an entirely urban district.

This would represent a congress even more polarised by district density than the current one, though an exact comparison is muddled by this cycle’s freshly drawn districts. This continuation of a years-long trend has increasingly turned suburban areas into the battleground for majority control. If Republicans squeeze out a narrow House majority, as expected, it appears it will be largely driven by their dominance in rural and exurban areas.

A young and diverse coalition of voters ensured Democrat victories

Young voters have received a flurry of thank you messages from Democrats — including from President Joe Biden — for showing up at the polls and helping the party survive a tough midterms. More than a quarter of 18 to 29-year-olds voted in this election, the second highest turnout on record for a midterm election, according to analysis of polling data by Tufts University.

While the youth vote helped give Democrats an edge in competitive races, Black voters also overwhelmingly turned up for Democratic candidates. Latino voters also tended to back Democrats, but preferred some Republicans in states like Florida and Ohio.

In the tight senate race in Pennsylvania, over 85 per cent of Black voters voted for Democratic candidate John Fetterman, compared to less than half of white voters, according to survey data from AP VoteCast. Fetterman scored a surprising victory against Republican challenger Mehmet Oz. 

College-educated women also heavily favoured Democrats in battleground states. 66 per cent of surveyed college-educated women backed Democrat Josh Shapiro in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race compared to only 32 per cent who chose his Republican opponent, Doug Mastriano. Shapiro won that race by a margin of about 14 points.

Record spending tips the scales in close Senate races

This midterm election cycle was the most expensive on record, with political spending across all federal and statewide races expected to exceed $16.7bn, according to estimates from OpenSecrets.

Pro-GOP outside groups, like super Pacs and hybrid Pacs, have spent nearly $1.1bn on federal contests this cycle, about 50 per cent more than pro-Democrat groups have spent. Around half of this massive sum came from just 10 Republican donors, including $77mn from shipping magnate Richard Uihlein and $67mn from Citadel CEO Ken Griffin.

That Republican edge seemed to boost candidates in close senate races in Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina, where Republicans beat out their Democratic opponents. In the Pennsylvania senate race, the single most expensive of the cycle, Democrats emerged victorious with the help of over $132mn in outside spending backing Senator-elect John Fetterman.

Ballot measures painted a mixed picture of preferences

It was not just politicians on the ballot on Tuesday — it was also policies. There were 133 ballot measures up for consideration across the country, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, including measures about abortion rights, drug policy, gambling and voting itself. Here is a small sampling of some of the questions, and the answers that voters provided.

Voters took stands in a number of states to enshrine reproductive rights or reject restrictions on abortion. Marijuana or cannabis legalisation passed in some states but failed in others — Colorado, meanwhile, voted to decriminalise certain psychedelics. Sports gambling legalisation failed badly in California, despite having spread rapidly across many other states in recent years. And while certain states decided to require voter ID, for example, other states established expanded access to voting.

Additional work by Oliver Hawkins

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