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The Red Ripple Excerpts: Five Takeaways from 2022

On Wednesday, we announced the release of our new book on the recent midterm elections: The Red Ripple: The 2022 Midterm Elections and What They Mean for 2024. What follows are a few excerpts from the book, illustrating five takeaways from the election. As a reminder, Crystal Ball readers can get 25% off by using the code RLFANDF25 when purchasing the book directly through the publisher, Rowman and Littlefield. The book is also available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other book retailers.

1. 2022 was another change election – but with an asterisk

In his introductory chapter, Crystal Ball Editor-in-Chief Larry J. Sabato put 2022 into historical context:

In the last sixteen years, 2006 to 2022, every election but one has been a change election. After a dozen years of GOP control in the House, Democrats took over Congress in 2006, then Barack Obama swept to power in 2008, ending GOP control of the White House. A backlash to Obama led to a GOP landslide for the House in 2010, and Republicans completed their takeover of Congress by capturing the Senate in 2014. Two years later, Donald Trump shocked the world in a repudiation of both Obama and his chosen Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton. But two years after that, in 2018, Democrats grabbed the House back by a comfortable margin as voters punished Trump for his excesses. In 2020, the voters completed the job by ousting Trump from the White House and giving Democrats narrow control of both houses of Congress. Only in 2012 did American voters endorse the entire status quo, reelecting Obama, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House. How to explain so many shifts in so few years? Usually it was presidential unpopularity caused by a corrosive war (Iraq), a bad economy, and other crises. Yet all indicators do not have to be pointing down for the White House to experience an electoral setback. As we discussed before, even a very good economy could not save Trump’s Republicans from a House shellacking in 2018.

Which brings us again to 2022. Was it a “change” election or a “status quo” election? Yes, the Republicans captured the House, but by an underwhelming showing far below what their leaders and analysts expected. The GOP lost ground in the Senate when the opportunity to take a majority had obviously been available. And Democrats gained governorships and reelected all but one of their threatened incumbents. Perhaps 2022 is best characterized as an unusual semi-status quo election in which at least some voters in key states pushed the opposition party, not the president’s party, to change.

2. Presidential voting patterns continue to bleed down the ballot

Crystal Ball Senior Columnist Alan Abramowitz noted the high correlation between the 2020 presidential results and the 2022 House and Senate elections — a growing trend that is showing little sign of abating.

House and Senate elections are now extremely nationalized. The presidential voting preferences of a state or district are a powerful predictor of Senate and House election results. In the 2022 Senate elections, the correlation between Donald Trump’s margin in 2020 and the Republican Senate candidate’s margin in 2022 was a remarkable .96, and thirty-four of thirty-five contests were won by the party that carried the state in the 2020 presidential election. Democrats held all their seats in states carried by Joe Biden and picked up an open Republican seat in Pennsylvania, a state carried by Biden. In the 2022 House elections, the correlation between Trump’s margin in 2020 and the Republican House candidate’s margin in 2022 was even stronger than in the Senate elections at .98, and 412 of 435 contests were won by the party that carried the district in the 2020 presidential election.

3. Localized changes in electoral coalitions continue

Crystal Ball Associate Editor J. Miles Coleman, in his chapter about the Senate, points out several shifts going on in the electorate. One of those is in Nevada, which featured 2022’s closest Senate election: Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s (D) 0.8-point reelection victory over former state Attorney General Adam Laxalt (R). While close to 70% of the state’s vote is cast in populous Clark County (Las Vegas), Washoe County (Reno) proved crucial to Cortez Masto’s victory:

Reno’s Washoe County, the state’s second largest county, also received ample attention from the rival campaigns. Bordering Lake Tahoe, this historically Republican area is an attractive destination for Californians who are priced out of markets like the San Francisco Bay area. In 2016, Tesla built its Gigafactory near Reno, which created thousands of tech jobs in the area. Because of those types of trends, Washoe County is more college-educated than Nevada as a whole (broadly speaking, college graduates have been trending Democratic). In 2016, Cortez Masto narrowly lost the county as Clinton carried it. But six years later, her 8,600-vote margin there more than accounted for her 7,900-vote statewide margin of victory. Clark County, though still blue, has trended Republican in recent cycles—so look for Nevada Democrats to increasingly lean on Washoe County in statewide races.

4. Turnout patterns in the key states were mixed

Overall turnout of those eligible to vote in 2022 was about 46%, according to the US Elections Project. That was down 4 points from 2018’s modern record midterm turnout, but was still robust compared to the average of about 41% turnout over the past century, as The 19th’s Grace Panetta wrote in her chapter on election laws and turnout. While turnout was generally down, a handful of states did see increases compared to 2018. But in the most electorally vital states, the patterns were mixed:

Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—battleground states with competitive statewide races—saw slight increases in turnout over 2018. But other states in that category, like Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin, did not. A few states with non-competitive races at the top of the ticket, like Arkansas, South Dakota, and Maine, also experienced increases in turnout. And out of the five states with an abortion-related issue on the ballot in the general election, only Michigan saw an increase in turnout over 2018.

5. Abortion didn’t drive everything, but it will continue to matter

Natalie Jackson, a National Journal polling columnist and former research director for the Public Religion Research Institute, evaluated the impact of abortion on the election. “The mixed outcome from the election mostly supported the idea that the combination of salience and competitive races meant that abortion mattered in some places more than the others,” she wrote, highlighting Michigan, where Democrats did well as voters approved a constitutional amendment in support of abortion rights as a prime example of a competitive state where abortion was a highly salient issue.

In conclusion, she noted:

As legislatures and health officials across the country struggle to adjust to the new post-Roe normal—in which there is no federal guidance, and state-level laws, exceptions, and conditions vary tremendously—it is likely that reproductive rights and restrictions will remain a significant part of electoral politics. The 2022 midterms did not show that the issue was a substantial determinant of the national mood, but it did show that it can matter for close contests, and it can produce some surprising results when on the ballot in the form of a referendum in Republican-led states.

The public opinion landscape is still shifting, however. Late 2022 survey results showed that even most Republicans were against the harshest restrictions, including not allowing abortions in cases of incest and rape (70 percent of Republicans and 89 percent of Democrats oppose), and about two-thirds of Republicans (and more than eight in ten Americans overall) oppose allowing private citizens to sue those who seek abortions or criminalizing seeking an abortion. And, tracking data shows that Republicans went from about 20 percent saying abortion should be illegal in all cases to just 11 percent holding that view in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision.

Looking toward 2024, reproductive rights are likely to play a similar role as they did in 2022. In the shadow of a presidential election that might include former president Donald Trump, there is little reason to think reproductive rights will be the top issue on Americans’ minds. But there is every reason to think the fluctuating state laws and associated court cases will keep the issue on the map as one that matters in some areas and for some competitive elections.