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What to Watch for in the Midterms

Inflation, abortion, and democracy will be decisive. Will voters accept the results?

November 2, 2022

Once a president’s honeymoon period ebbs, America’s affections typically shift to the other party. In that sense, President Biden’s first year in office kept to the historical script, as Americans began to narrowly favor Republicans to control Congress starting in late 2021. What happened next, though, was less typical. During the summer of 2022, the public changed its mind, giving Democrats a narrow edge. Now it appears that Americans are flipping back, with Republicans pulling ahead as the elections approach. If you’re experiencing whiplash, opinion polls may be to blame.

What’s causing the public’s indecision? And when the music stops, who will be left without a chair?

On November 9, the day after the polls close, the Brennan Center will hold a live virtual event with Democratic strategist and former Obama advisor David Plouffe, prominent Republican strategist Rob Jesmer, Elise Jordan, writer and analyst for MSNBC, and moderator Sewell Chan of the Texas Tribune. It will be a great opportunity to hear smart takes on the outcome from both sides of the aisle, and to get your questions answered. Here are some thoughts to get you started.

Did abortion rights enthusiasm stick?

Most Americans can’t remember the pre-Roe era and have never lived without the reproductive freedoms that Roe guaranteed. The sudden withdrawal of those guarantees by the Supreme Court in June galvanized pro-choice Americans — women, in particular.

In the weeks following Dobbs, the case that overturned Roe, women represented significantly more than 50 percent of new voter registrations in many states. When Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected new abortion restrictions in their state in August, abortion rights looked like the decisive issue in America. As recently as mid-September, opinion polls showed that people opposing Dobbs not only outnumbered those who supported it, but did so with more intensity. Poll watchers wondered whether a historically wide gender gap could upend the traditional midterm bloodbath for the party holding the White House.

As the polls tightened in October, however, it appeared this intensity was fading. The exit polling and turnout data that we get on election day should provide some very interesting insight into the durability of the Dobbs effect.

Pocketbook politics

If abortion rights are fading in the public mind, economic issues are likely replacing them. Inflation is at its highest level since 1981. The Fed is raising interest rates to restrain it, running the risk of recession in the process.

The public is clearly concerned. The only time in the past three decades that public confidence in the economy has dipped lower than it is today was after the 2008 mortgage bubble burst. A majority of Americans report feeling personal strain because of inflation.

The academic literature on whether economic issues affect voting behavior is lively and divided, but the weight of the research suggests that economic issues affect voter behavior and that voters blame the incumbent for economic difficulties. That’s bad news for Democrats.

Despite a major summer publicity push, most Americans are unfamiliar with the Inflation Reduction Act, the Democrats’ signature legislation. When informed about its provisions, people tend to react favorably, but, even then, only a minority believe it will slow inflation.

Did Americans embrace or reject election denial?

According to a Washington Post analysis, election deniers are on the ballot in 48 states. There are 300 candidates for the House who publicly doubted the results of the 2020 presidential election, and at least 170 of them have a good chance to win.

Election denial is not the only issue in those races, of course. In many districts, party affiliation strongly favors the election denier, even if voters in the district trust the 2020 results. The question will be whether election deniers significantly outperform or underperform those expectations overall.

There are, in addition, some notable down-ballot contests in which election denial has become the central dispute between the candidates. GOP Arizona secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem has claimed, without evidence, that the 2020 election in some counties was “irredeemably compromised” and is running to correct those imagined errors. Republican Kristina Karamo, who is seeking the same office in Michigan, insists that Donald Trump won the state in 2020 and has largely built her candidacy around those claims. How will voters respond to these single-issue races?

What next?

Our panelists on November 9 will also be looking forward. We may not yet know who will control Congress in 2023, but the picture should be getting clearer by the hour. If the Democrats lose one or both houses, how will Biden shift his priorities? Will he use executive action more aggressively to implement his agenda?

And what will become of Biden’s presidency more broadly? If Republicans take control of the House, will they move to impeach the president? Will Biden’s party lose faith in him as a standard-bearer?

And, finally, will significant segments of the public refuse to accept the results of the 2022 election? It’s a question that we never had to ask before. But Donald Trump changed everything. Will defeated candidates concede honorably, or will they spread baseless claims of fraud? Will we see post-election violence, as we did after the 2020 elections?

Much to discuss. We hope to see you on November 9.