With Democrats maintaining their Senate majority and the race for the House still too close to call, it’s looking more and more like the 2022 midterms will defy what has been regarded as a law of politics: The president’s party always loses, and often loses big, in midterm elections.
But why do we expect that in the first place, and what was different this year? Scholars have tested different explanations, asking whether midterm losses are due to “surge and decline” after a strong victory for the president’s party, a referendum on presidential performance or an expression of the voting public’s preference for balancing power between the two parties. For 2022 specifically, there are already theories floating around about the role of Dobbs v. Jackson, election denialism, former president Donald Trump and candidate quality.
But often ignored is that the “midterm curse” is also a result of the actions of campaigns. What ties together the major midterm results of 1994, 2006, 2010 and 2018 is the role of movements that worked alongside parties — sometimes harmoniously within them, sometimes in tension — to define the out-party’s campaign and offer voters something to vote for as well as something to vote against.
Rather than automatically supporting the opposition, voters want to know what the alternative looks like. Without someone to show them, the party that’s out of power can lose its shine. Instead of behaving as the models predict, voters go to the polls and make up their own minds.
We tend to assume that the party in power loses in the midterms because that’s just how voters operate. But it’s been evident for a few months that the polls of individual races were largely telling a different story than we usually expect at midterms. And that might be one more way that we saw democracy at work last week.
The individual stories of past midterms
There’s a striking variety of explanations for similar outcomes in different midterms. In 1954 and 1982 — years where Republicans lost House seats with a Republican in the White House — there were economic downturns. In 1974 — when Republicans lost 48 seats — the Republican Party was reeling from Richard Nixon’s resignation, and the Democrats seized the moment.
The 1994 Republican wave was not just thermostatic politics or even a reaction to Bill Clinton’s failures: It was the product of many years of careful movement-building. It was an iconic midterm contest, complete with a bombastic opposition leader in Newt Gingrich (who became House speaker as a result), an unpopular president scrambling to deliver a policy win and, in the end, an out-party that gained power after 40 years in the House minority.
The 1994 midterms were a significant turning point for the nationalization of politics, contrary to the conventional wisdom that “all politics is local.” House Republicans ran as a team, presenting their priorities as a unified Contract with America and coordinating with conservative groups. Conservative leaders, including politicians and religious activists, had been building this movement for over a decade, forging a coalition, recruiting candidates and refining messages that were echoed on conservative talk radio.
In a sense, the 2010 tea party phenomenon took root long before the 2010 midterms. Some experts connected it to the John Birch Society and other reactionary movements of the past. But as a social movement at the forefront of the Republican Party, the tea party made a clear case for electing Republicans to Congress in 2010, recruiting candidates and messaging aggressively about the shortcomings of the Obama administration. Not all of its candidates were successful, but they contributed to the party’s overall success in the midterms — a prediction-defying 63 seats.
While the tea party’s signature move was to criticize and even demonize then-President Barack Obama, it also offered something of a forward-looking, if highly controversial, story to voters. Tea party candidates promised to restore constitutional values and lower taxes, with the social and racial implications of their pledges (sometimes) left unsaid. They held rallies and meetings, bringing together voters who were new to the political process alongside seasoned political activists. The energy and organization of that patchwork national movement helps to explain Republicans’ 2010 success.
Looking at past Democratic midterm victories, the issues are different, but the dynamics are not dissimilar. In 2006, Democratic campaigns leveraged the anti-war movement, which pushed the party to oppose the war in Iraq. Democrats tied vulnerable Republicans to the Bush administration and the increasingly unpopular war. Like the tea party, the anti-war movement didn’t exactly cross party lines — Republicans mostly remained behind George W. Bush — but it had a tense relationship with the party, energizing voters to back Democrats as the opposition yet criticizing the party for its tepid approach and pushing them to take stronger stances.
In 2018, the resistance movement, which encompassed numerous grassroots activists and groups like Indivisible, was more analogous to the tea party, organized around opposition to the sitting president. Yet it was also focused on strengthening and shaping the Democratic Party rather than pushing it in a particular ideological direction. Under the broad banner of anti-Trumpism and pro-democracy activism, with a strong push for women to assert their political power, this movement helped Democrats win 40 House seats in the midterms. Over time, these changes would also lead to victories in previously Republican-leaning states like Georgia and Arizona, as college-educated, suburban women shifted into the Democratic coalition. It also led to a backlash against the white nationalism that seemed to reveal itself after Trump was elected, as Democrats elected a diverse slate of candidates to political office.
Notably, each of these movements was tailored to the individual midterm environment. The tea party in particular has been criticized for being an “AstroTurf” rather than a grassroots movement, yet research has demonstrated that there was real variation in the kinds of organizations that emerged in different places. It emphasized on national issues while employing local tactics — candidate recruitment, mobilization and messages tailored to specific audiences in different states and congressional districts.
In the two recent midterms that were the exceptions to the rule, 1998 and 2002, these kinds of movements failed to materialize. Instead, in 1998, the conservative movement that had so much verve as an outsider movement had to contend with the realities of governing. Under Gingrich’s leadership, the party became the face of the unpopular Clinton impeachment, which voters largely saw as an overreach and a distraction.
In 2002, still operating under the shock of the 9/11 attacks, Democrats were unable to mount serious opposition to the Bush administration. Republicans, in turn, effectively defined the national security issues that had taken on new importance. It’s possible that entrepreneurial activists could have helped to redefine the out-parties, or maybe no one could have successfully done that under those conditions. But either way, there was no movement redefining politics in a way that favored the president’s opponents, and, the out-party did not see the usual gains once the votes were in.
Back to 2022
When we look closely, there are similarities between the 2022 midterms and those of 2002 and 1994. No organized movement like the tea party or the resistance has come forward to oppose President Joe Biden. Instead, the predominant grassroots movement within the Republican Party focused on elevating Trump and his conspiracy theories.
The tension between the party and the president is nothing new. The strain of the relationship between presidents and parties, the former all about individuals and hierarchies and the latter about organization and coalition-building, has been well-documented by political scientists.
But Trump is especially lacking as a team player, keeping the focus on himself instead of on issues where Republicans have demonstrable advantages with voters, like the economy and crime. He backed a slate of inexperienced candidates in competitive statewide races whose primary qualifications were loyalty to Trump himself. His insistence on denying the 2020 election results also hurt the prospects of candidates for secretary of state, keeping the topic of election denial front and center. And he’s actively disparaging candidates who have been successful in winning over voters in the midterm. Not only is Trump openly feuding with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Trumpiest breakthrough candidate of the 2018 cycle, but also has criticized Mike DeWine, whose solid victory in Ohio demonstrates the effectiveness of a brand of Republicanism distinct from Trumpism.
It’s not that Trump is the sole reason that Republicans underperformed. But he had the biggest platform and was at the helm of the only significant grassroots movement ostensibly under the GOP umbrella. With that movement, Trump kept the focus on himself and his discredited ideas about the 2020 election continuing to sow discord within his party.
Instead, the closest thing to a coordinated movement that melded national issues with local candidates and concerns was the backlash to the Dobbs decision — an organized, energized patchwork national movement whose primary purpose might have been to secure abortion rights but whose secondary purpose, in that mission, was to oppose Republican candidates. Like past successful midterm movements, the anti-Dobbs movement included voter registration efforts, and abortion referendums in conservative places like Kentucky and (over the summer) Kansas. It also included advertisements from national organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America and statements from Democratic governors. Because of the timing of the decision, after most states’ primaries, this movement was not especially involved in candidate recruitment — but it performed many of the same functions of out-party movements in the past.
There are other factors that explain why a red wave never emerged. Democrats didn’t have very many seats to lose in the first place — their margins in both chambers were quite narrow after suffering unexpected losses in the House in 2020. And the Senate map lent itself to a series of competitive contests.
But all of the major theories of midterm elections — surge and decline, balancing power and presidential referendum — depend on parties and movements to communicate, in the course of the campaign, how the out-party intends to fulfill these needs. Voters want a chance to weigh in on the problems of the party in the White House. But we may have underestimated the demand for a set of promises and plans.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.