In the recently concluded US midterm elections, Donald Trump was not formally on the ballot, but he lost. Stated another way, democracy was on the ballot, and it won. America averted a looming disaster.
Why are the midterm elections so important? The entire House of Representatives, consisting of 435 seats, was up for election. America elects its lower house for only two years. Also at stake were 35 seats of the US Senate (out of 100), 36 state governor’s races (out of 50), 85 per cent of state legislative seats (nearly 6,300 in all), key state-level executive positions, and mayoral contests in many cities. Presidential candidates are obviously not on the ballot in midterms. Otherwise, midterm elections are a huge political exercise, having significant implications for policy and politics.
The US has also developed a highly unusual midterm tradition. It revels in something not possible in parliamentary systems, as in the UK, Canada or India. There, the party running the executive is also in control of the legislature, at least the lower house. In presidential systems, a split between the executive and legislature is possible. Indeed, the US President’s party generally loses seats in the US Congress in the midterms, which can lead to a loss of majority in the House of Representatives and/or the Senate. Since 1934, only two presidents, Franklin D Roosevelt (1934) and George W Bush (2002), saw their parties gain seats in both houses.
Some of the recent reverses are also noteworthy. Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992, but Democrats lost the majority in both houses in 1994, as did George Bush in 2006. Barack Obama won handsomely in 2008, but Democrats lost control of the House in 2010. After Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential win, Republicans lost 41 seats in 2018 and also their majority in the House.
This year was expected to be no different. But results have significantly broken from the tradition. With counting still unfinished, Democrats are expected to keep control of the Senate. Republicans might get a majority in the House of Representatives, but only barely. Winning 218 seats is required for a majority in the House; the current prediction is that Republicans will get around 220. In governors’ races, too, Republicans have fallen short of expectations. Unlike India, the US has no independent nationwide Election Commission that organises elections and certifies results. States do that here, giving governors and secretaries of state enormous powers.
As we have always known, elections have two sides. One side is purely statistical: How many seats, where, and at what level? The other is about meanings. What does it all add up to, and why?
It is at the level of meanings that the 2022 midterms have produced a most unexpected outcome. The polls were predicting a massive “red wave”. Unlike China and the former Soviet Union, “red” in America means “Republican”. Bill Clinton witnessed a red wave in 1994. Democrats lost 54 seats in the House and 10 in the Senate, losing the majority in both.
This year’s red wave, if it had taken place, would have been qualitatively different. It would have put Trump-supported Republicans in control of the legislature. An astronomically large proportion of these candidates are “election deniers”, meaning they have accepted Trump’s falsehood that Joseph Biden stole the 2020 presidential elections. Many supported the January 6 attack on the Capitol. A red wave would have also meant having governors, who might not certify elections in the future if the elections did not go their way.
That is why democracy was on the ballot. Trump and many of his Republican candidates were basically saying that they would accept election results only if they won, not if they lost. So long as this is a niche view, democracy is not threatened. But if this view comes to power in a hegemonic way, democracy cannot survive. America has averted a fateful clash at the summit of the polity, the kind of clash that Latin American presidential systems have often witnessed, leading to the collapse of democracies.
Why has Trump been able to maintain such a hold over the Republican party, even though he lost in 2020? This is an institutional consequence of America’s primary elections system. As a Democrat or Republican, you must first win an in-party primary before you can be a candidate in the general election. If the party base becomes radicalised, the so-called fringe becomes the mainstream. This is what has happened to the Republican party. An estimated 30 per cent of Americans, overwhelmingly Republican, believe Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and Biden is not a legitimate president.
But to win a general election, those who win primaries must go beyond their party base and win the vote of independents, estimated to be 30-35 per cent of the voting population. That is why Trump lost in 2020 and that is where Trump-endorsed candidates faltered in the midterms. They attracted the committed party base, but not enough independents to produce a massive victory.
Though exit poll data are not entirely reliable, the two issues that apparently killed a potential red wave were abortions and democracy. In the summer, the US Supreme Court ended abortion as a nationwide right of women, leaving it for the states to decide whether women could have an abortion and until which week of the pregnancy. Women’s votes appear to have gone hugely against Republicans because Republicans supported the court’s decision.
The vote of the younger generation — in the 18-29 age group — also seems to have gone against Republicans by a 2-1 proportion. We will know more about this later, but a reasonable guess is that Trump’s truculent inability to accept his defeat and his obsession with vote restrictions does not attract younger Americans. Their view appears to be that elections should decide who would rule, and voting should be made easier, not harder, especially for groups whose voices normally tend to get ignored. That is exactly the opposite of what Trump and his base want.
Other than winning 2016, Trump has lost all elections since then: The 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential, a 2021 senate reversal, and now the 2022 midterms. Would he decline now, or will Republicans double down on his plans and strategy? If the answer is the latter, democracy has survived for now, but trouble lies ahead.
The writer is Sol Goldman professor of international studies and the social sciences at Brown University