As the new Congress convenes, I have brought together into a single report the research I conducted during the campaign for the November 2022 elections. Its implications go well beyond a single set of midterms. The model that we use, and the findings reported here – based on a poll of 20,000 Americans and extensive focus groups in the key states of Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida and Arizona – help us understand the landscape of opinion in the United States, the divisions that continue to define American politics, and the forces that will be at work in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election and beyond.
The research also helps explain why the red wave scheduled for November never materialised, despite economic pain and voters’ clear view that the country was heading in the wrong direction, with the Biden administration’s policies making things worse rather than better. Our analysis shows that we saw, in effect, one midterm but two elections, with different parts of the electorate voting according to completely separate sets of perspectives and priorities. Meanwhile, as the exit polls confirmed, nearly as many voters treated the election as a referendum on the former president as on the incumbent – hence the result that seemed to defy political gravity.
The temptation for the Democrats will be to take the result as an endorsement. Our findings suggest this would be a mistake. Relieved though many moderate voters were to see the end of the Trump term, few are very impressed with the administration’s record or agenda, and many doubt that President Biden is up to the job today, let alone a second term.
For the GOP, the result has brought some questions into sharper focus. Congressional candidates found that Donald Trump’s endorsement was far from the magic touch some had hoped. Voters had their own view of the contenders’ qualities, especially those loudly denying the results of the 2020 election. Another lesson is that the overturning of Roe v. Wade could continue to be a problem for the party: though the issue is in the hands of the states, many potential Republicans are uneasy about wide disparities in the law between different parts of the country – another factor contributing to the midterm result. And while there is little appetite for re-amplifying the rancour of recent years, there is demand for an alternative to the policies and values currently on offer from the Democrats – and even more so if a more radical ticket emerges to supplant Biden and Harris.
Who is best placed to present such an alternative will be the subject of spirited debate. As is clear from this research, turning the page on Trump – if that is what the party decides to do – cannot mean turning the page on his supporters. He was a symptom and an accelerant of the tensions we see today, not their cause, and he won by giving a voice to large numbers of voters. The job of his successor will be to pull off the same trick.