Juan Cole Politics

Joe Biden Holds Red Wave to a Ripple in Surprising Midterms

How to explain the rush to the polls and the respectable defense the Democrats put up in both houses of Congress, whatever the ultimate result?
The 2022 midterm elections proved a small win for Biden, and a huge loss for his predecessor Donald Trump. {Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0]

By Juan Cole | Informed Comment

Over the past 40 years, midterm elections have typically quiet affairs in which only 38% to 40% of voters show up at the polls, and those who vote skew toward the older, wealthier and whiter spectrum of the electorate. In contrast, in presidential election years, the turnout tends to be between 58% and 66% (in 2020).

The 2022 midterms, however, looked more like a presidential election, following on the unusual turnout in the 2018 midterms of 53%. Yesterday’s tally will rival that one and likely exceed it.

As of the early hours of Wednesday, control of the House of Representatives was considered too close to call by NBC news, which did admit a tilt toward Republican control. Steve Kornacki at NBC pointed out, however, that Democrats have picked up some seats, though not as many as Republicans had, and that the California tally could still allow the Democrats to keep the House. The control of the Senate was equally impossible to predict early Wednesday morning, with the win of John Fetterman in Pennsylvania keeping Dem hopes alive. That such a possibility still existed, if a little unlikely, at that advanced hour flew in the face of historical expectations. With President Joe Biden at a 44% approval rating and facing his first midterm, past trends would have predicted a huge Republican wave such as swamped Bill Clinton in 1994 or Barack Obama in 2010.

That did not happen. Biden is doing historically well in these midterms.

How to explain the rush to the polls and the respectable defense the Democrats put up in both houses of Congress, whatever the ultimate result?

The Jan. 6 Insurrection cast a long shadow over this midterm, with prominent Republicans taking a Trumpian position in favor of election denial. There is reason to believe that the public had a great deal of concern about the future of democracy were Trump’s Republican Party to dominate the outcome heavily.

It is also possible that the Dobbs Supreme Court decision striking down a woman’s right to full health care while pregnant impelled many women to vote, and to vote Democratic. This consideration was less prominent in a lot of pre-election polls and exit polls, but there are lots of possible explanations for the disparity. If asked their top concern, women may have said inflation and the economy, but there may not have been a follow-up question about their second biggest concern, which may have been Dobbs. In Michigan I think Tudor Dixon’s stance opposing abortion under any circumstances hurt her and allowed Governor Gretchen Whitmer to win a second term.

Stella Rouse and Shibley Telhami at the University of Maryland warned that their polling was picking up significant concern over abortion and the fate of democracy in addition to the economy.

Article continues after bonus IC video
MSNBC: “Democratic Showing Could Mean New ‘Rules Of Politics’: Kornacki”

One consideration is that favorable/unfavorable numbers for a president in polling do not now mean what they did 20 years ago. In 1996, 56% of voters said they viewed Bill Clinton favorably, but 53% viewed Bob Dole favorably, too. Those results would have been impossible unless at least some members of each party though well of the standard bearer of the other.

In 2022, Biden’s 44% favorability rating is ahead of Donald Trump’s 39.9% favorability rating. This result is an index of the severe polarization of the country. Members of each of the two major parties are simply unwilling to concede that there is anything good about the leader of the rival party. American politics have long been treated by most people here, including the press, like a sports competition. In the old days, perhaps it was mostly like a tennis match, where each of the two players can be respected, and the loser leaps over the net to shake hands with the victor — all very genteel. Now our politics is a hockey match, with a lot of dirty tactics and a full-throated hatred for the other team. A majority of hockey fans actually oppose a ban on fighting among the players.

So Biden would likely be just as popular as Clinton was in a less polarized electorate.

Just as the 2018 Blue Wave reflected public anxiety about the antics of the erratic and flawed Trump, so those anxieties still likely drove Democratic voters to the polls in record numbers in 2022.

Trump, moreover, lost these midterms decisively. With the exception of the shockingly bad author J.D. Vance in Ohio, Trump’s prominent personal picks did not appear to be faring very well on election day, and while things may change slightly, this conclusion is unlikely to be altered.

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Juan Cole
Juan Cole

Juan Cole is a public intellectual, prominent blogger and essayist, and the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan.


  1. Why wouldn’t the dems do well in the mid terms?
    Everything is going great,
    we’re all living the dream!

  2. I don’t know if I typify the average voter, but I am completely sick and tired of the SYSTEM. I see the deep- rooted Corruption, and lies used to sway voters, and the bribery and payoffs with politicians selling their souls and constituencies for the God Almighty dollar, and a President who has been in the pockets of big business all of his career. It smells, stinks to high heaven, and is a cancer in a so-called Democratic system that is now the Corporate State. Biden sees himself as a Dominator, not a Public Servant. And he answers to those who pay him. And its not the Taxpayer. Do you know that a large portion of the GNP has gone to black projects in the Military Industrial Complex which the people know nothing about. When you wonder why we still have poor in this country it is because of this, stealing from the people. When the people learn of the depth and breadth of the corruption, and abuse of women and children who are used for sick scientific purposes and for technological control of consciousness purposes, it will dismantle the system and start anew as should have happened long ago.

  3. Desperate times call.for Desperate measures Even passive.voters sensed the danger facing the working class with the passing of anti abortion laws and massive voter suppression canidates at state.levels.It ain’t much.but.it is a start.

  4. Once, again, Biden made a potential landslide (under Bernie) into a tossup. When will the Democrats once again become a Party of the working class? My guess…Never.

    I once taught school. I noted that schools with ‘good reputations’ took a long time to lose them, despite educational degradation. And, then, despite becoming an excellent educational facility, to regain that reputation took just as long.

    Democrats are becoming recognized as being just as ‘big business’ and wealth oriented as Republicans. It’s taken several decades to irritate the 98%, and it will take decades to win them back.

  5. I’m not happy about the election results. By narrowly avoiding defeat, the Democrats also have avoided an opportunity for introspection. Neoliberalism and endless war will remain unchallenged while the divided Congress will insure that no serious legislation will pass – only unwarranted increases in spending for “defense “, flushing more billions down the Ukraine toilet, and of course, whatever the apartheid regime occupying Palestine demands.

  6. I tend to agree with Charles Dunaway. I find it shocking that a hack with no good features can be selected!! as a candidate, then elected, do his best to bring Russia and China into wars , alienate and cheat “our allies” the EU a,d then be rewarded!

  7. Democrats: The American people fail to drag the Dems into an alley and beat the snot out of them, instead only costing them control of the House and keeping the Senate firmly in right-wing hands, albeit with (D)s hanging off those right-wings.

    And the Democrats respond by thinking this means the American people love the Dems. Seriously?

    A failure to listen is at the root of many Dem problems. They only hear money talking.

    In a two-party system that is designed to throttle any independent voices, just because many voters decided that Trump and his minions are just a tad bit worse than Biden and his minions, that is not a ringing endorsement. Of course, being the ‘Lessor Evil’ by the smallest possible margin has been a goal for the Dems for over three decades. I suppose in that sense, all the “Loyal Dems” must be quite proud of this election. They got close to Maximum Evil, but still stayed just a tad bit less evil than the fascists. That deserves a toast in the drink of the oligarchs, expensive champagne.

    If ‘exit polls’ wanted a good question to ask, they would ask voters if they voted with a clothes pin on their nose. A report on the Clothes Pin Percentage would actually be interesting.

    Remember, a two-party system is only one party more ‘democratic’ than the old USSR one-party elections. They also got to choose the hairstyles of the people ‘leading’ them.
    Meanwhile, 70% of Americans still think the country is heading in the wrong direction. That’s some great democracy they have. Best in the world, or so they claim.

  8. LOL.

    “So Biden would likely be just as popular as Clinton was in a less polarized electorate.”

    So, the Democrats work hard at seriously p@#$$g off a vast majority of the American people, and then the Democrats claim that their current, highly unpopular Great Leader would be more popular if this was in an age where a vast majority of the American people had not been @$#%@##$ up the @#$$ by the bankers and the Dems for so long and so much that now the environment is ‘polarized’.


  9. I’ll admit that so far, I’m a bit surprised. The D’s have certainly over-achieved, in one sense: they seem to have overcome at least to some degree, the expected blow-back from high inflation and other economic worries, along with their collective failure to do anything remotely resembling their campaign promises of past elections.

    Let’s not overlook the all-important role of campaign cash though, which on the D’s side was mostly spent pointing out just how nasty the opponents are.

    Some are saying, elsewhere, that it was the young who came to the rescue. If so, how long will the D’s be able to count on them? Results matter, and so far the D’s have only mainly rhetoric since 2019; they’re short on results (at least positive ones). I don’t think the young, the Independents, and others who were willing to hold their nose to keep the feared bloodbath from rising to the level expected, will keep voting LOTE if the existential threats that the D’s are NOT addressing continue to grow in urgency. Which they will.

  10. Rosemerry, : features, qualifications, credentials, capabilities has absolutely nothing to do with GOP candidates. Loyalty to Maga is the only requirement. We all know the election was Stolen – – – – from righteous people. It was rigged in favor of : undesirable voters. Legislation must be carried out to prevent undeserving people from voting and having power. We will no longer have a nation – – for our type of people – – if you don’t fight like hell.

  11. I think Joe Biden’s job should have been over when he defeated Trump and that he should retire and hand over to Kamala Harris. His predilection for playing giant games of chicken with the Russians and the Chinese has to be called out. His European proxies face a winter with sky-high heating costs which the poor cannot afford because of his decision that Russian power can’t be allowed to pass into his European sphere of influence through the Nordstream pipelines. Now the Head of the Royal Navy is saying that they can’t have done the deed of blowing them up, as Putin accuses, because they don’t have that capability. This despite having taken part in recent military exercises in the Baltic relating to mines. Is this how frogmen save themselves when coming to the boil in hot water? By denying that they’re frogs? And Biden, like Hillary-“Can’t we just drone this guy?”-Clinton before him wants our one remaining investigative journalist, Julian Assange, to die in British prison, where the still unconvicted victim of the US’ Swedish sheep-dipping operation that saw him wait two weeks in Sweden trying to face his accusers before being charged as a fugitive on the day he left with full permission, had to marry in the prison corridor because the prison chapel was too sacred a place for him. America exercises the same clout with British courts that it seems it has in our military alliance. I’m scandalised if the Russian claim is correct and the UK government agreed to do the sabotage. Albeit this doesn’t distract from the horror at the loss of all these conscript lives to the dynamics of the war industry.

  12. This (pending) election result was indeed a surprise and for me, shows how effective diversionary tactics like abortion can be. I say diversionary, because as important as they are to people personally, issues like gender and abortion do not directly threaten corporate bottom lines or industry and military lobbying. As Chris Hedges has written, a female, black or hispanic CEO does not change how the economic system functions.

    Without meaningful change, economic and social alienation will just fester, regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans hold power.

  13. Um, the Dems lost the House. Did you miss that? In our corrupt system, the majority rules absolutely in the House. Here’s hoping (a small hope) that the reactionaries in the ‘Con Party withhold money for Ukraine. But one thing they may work with Cracker Joe on 8s cutting Medicare and SS, Biden’s 50 year old dream wish.

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