Much ink has been spilled before and since the US midterm elections, with most of it missing the mark. Pundits who had unrealistic expectations regarding the outcome are now reacting in shock (or horror or delight, depending on their political persuasion) as their projections have been found wanting.
For example, those who forecast a “big red wave” are left to explain why it didn’t materialise. Never satisfied with simply being wrong, there are those who are now breathing a sigh of relief and incorrectly assuming that the closeness of this election means that the US electorate is moving away from the polarisation that has come to characterise our polity.
They are wrong. There never was going to be a “big wave,” and Americans remain as deeply divided as ever. As I wrote a few weeks back, this election was always going to be a “nail biter” – with the outcome never assured. Even before votes were cast, it should have been clear that the needle separating the gap between the two parties in Congress would move centimetres, not metres. Here’s why:
As a result of a decennial redistricting process favouring them, Republicans appeared certain to pick up a few new seats. They were counting on the public’s sour mood over inflation and high disapproval ratings for US President Joe Biden to give them an extra advantage in winning additional seats. But there were limits to how far they could grow their numbers because, of the 435 congressional seats that were being contested, only about 10 per cent were competitive. The remaining 90 per cent were solidly either Democratic or Republican. With Democrats holding a slim eight-seat majority in the House of Representatives, it was reasonable to assume that Republicans might take control of the Congress, but unreasonable to assume a landslide. Even now, a week after the election, with a handful of congressional seats remaining “too close to call”, the networks are projecting a slim 221-214 Republican majority. The Senate is no different. It now appears clear that in the next Congress, Democrats will at least maintain a 50-50 split or even, depending on the outcome of a run-off election in Georgia, expand their control of the Senate to 51-49.
Another area where the pundits are wrong is in their assessment of the fading power of former president Donald Trump. Before the election, commentators mistakenly framed it as a nationalised popularity contest between Mr Biden and Mr Trump. While it was true that Mr Trump had a hand in advancing some of his favoured Republican candidates, midterm elections are mostly localised contests. So, while some Trump acolytes lost against more popular Democrats, it’s a stretch to see the outcome as a definitive referendum on the former president.
In the wake of the election, there is a virtual media frenzy portraying Mr Trump as the big loser and a drag on his party. There are reports of other Republicans feeling emboldened to challenge the wounded leader in 2024. For some in the media, it’s a done deal – he is out, replaced by a new “flavour of the month”. Once again, caution is advised. It’s important to recall how many times Mr Trump was declared finished in the past. Each time there was a new scandal or an embarrassing debate performance, the press declared his candidacy dead. There were rumours as late as the Republican convention that the party leadership would try to end his candidacy. Although he is flawed, his hold over a substantial component of the Republican constituency remains strong. And now that Mr Trump has decided to run again, the party establishment will quietly gripe, fuss and fume, but they’ll avoid alienating Mr Trump’s fervent base.
One last observation about how some got this election so wrong: the defeat of some Trump loyalists and the closeness of the final results do not mean that Americans are coming together. In fact, as the exit polls make clear, the country remains as deeply polarised as ever – it’s just evenly divided between two warring camps.
Democrats voted for their party’s candidates, Republicans for theirs. Independent voters split down the middle. Democrats give Mr Biden high ratings, Republicans don’t. Republicans give high ratings to Mr Trump, Democrats don’t. Similarly, partisans on each side have deeply unfavourable views of the “other side”. And their views on issues like abortion, climate change, immigration, gun control and racism are mirror images of each other.
Not only did this election not ease the polarisation, it accelerated it. Both parties and their related interest group political committees spent an unprecedented $10 billion in TV and digital advertising during this campaign. There were no positive messages of healing and national unity. Many of the ads focused on attacks against the other party’s candidates and projections of negative doomsday scenarios if that other party should win. This incessant polluting of the political discourse has been corrosive. A few examples: 60 per cent of Republicans still believe that Mr Biden didn’t win the election and that he is an illegitimate president. And in just the first 10 months of 2022, there have already been 9,625 recorded threats against members of Congress.
Because we still don’t know what the final outcome of this election will be, it’s hard to make projections moving forward. If Republicans do win control of the House, they will be unable to restrain themselves. There will be investigations of the president and his family, maybe even a move toward impeachment, and government shutdowns owing to their refusal to pass budget extensions. All of this will only deepen the polarisation, making the next two years both difficult and divided.
Dr James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National