The 2022 midterm results came as a total shock to many political observers. As of Thursday morning, Democrats appeared likely to retain the Senate and even have an outside chance at holding the House, defying widespread pre-election expectations of an impending red wave.
So what happened? Why did Democrats do so well, and what does it say about American politics going forward?
To find out, I called up David Shor, one of the Democratic Party’s most influential (and controversial) elections data analysts.
Shor is best known as the leading intellectual architect of “popularism,” a political strategy that urges Democrats to focus their policy and message on the issues and policies that poll best while trying to downplay the issue areas where they’re out of step with the public. Often, that leads Shor to advise Democrats to emphasize “kitchen table” economic issues and moderate their positions on “identity” issues like policing and immigration.
But this time around, Shor says, Democrats won precisely because they campaigned on a popular identity-related issue: protecting abortion rights.
The decision in Dobbs v. Jackson was a shock to the electorate’s system, waking people up to the fact that Republicans held a truly extreme position on an issue they really cared about. The GOP’s push to gut abortion rights gave Democrats a golden opportunity to paint Republicans as extremists.
“Banning abortion without any exceptions is probably as unpopular, or more unpopular, as defunding the police,” he tells me. After Dobbs, “abortion went from being a somewhat good issue for Democrats to becoming the single best issue.”
What follows is a discussion of the 2022 data that led Shor to this conclusion, the midterms’ implications for how we understand the big picture of American politics, and whether Dobbs will remain an albatross around the GOP’s neck in 2024. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Looking at the 2022 results, what jumps out at you the most?
This is a story of Republicans being mobilized and showing up to vote, but Democrats winning anyway because Democrats did a better job of persuading independents and moderate Republicans to vote for them.
It’s really hard to put an exact number on [turnout] until more data comes in. Yet if you really look at it from a couple of different angles — whether it is ecological analysis of county-level results, whether it’s individual-level early vote data, or whether it’s the AP VoteCast exit poll — it does seem like the electorate was something like 2 percentage points more Republican in 2022 than it was in 2020.
Non-white turnout, if just defined by a drop-off from 2020, was substantially lower than white turnout. That’s fairly clear, both from early vote data and from county-level results, in places like Georgia. And it really does seem like, in relative terms, Democrats did worse in non-white areas in most of the country with the exception of the Rio Grande Valley.
The difference, and the reason why Democrats won, is that they managed to both win independents — which is probably the first time that a party that controls the presidency has won independents in a midterm since 2002. And [they] managed to get a non-trivial number of people who self-identify as Republicans to vote for Democratic incumbents.
I think that that’s due to a couple of factors. Democratic incumbents ran very, very disciplined campaigns that focused on issues that people cared about, whether it was abortion or whether it was economic issues like the cost of living.
And it’s a testament to the Dobbs decision, which I think had an immediate impact both on polling, on primary vote share, and on special election results. And also a testament to Republicans running quite bad candidates.
So of the various reasons why Democrats succeeded at persuasion, in your thinking, which one jumps out at you as most important?
I think that the biggest factor was the Dobbs decision.
If you look at every indicator that election nerds look at prior to Dobbs, whether it’s how Democrats were doing in special elections relative to their previous presidential election results, whether it’s the ratio of folks who voted in the Democratic primary relative to the Republican primary, whether it’s polling — all of the lights were flashing that Democrats were heading toward a red wave.
All of those indicators changed dramatically after the Dobbs decision. And I think it really fits into this almost optimistic vision of politics that Republicans did a thing that was really unpopular.
One of the most powerful forces in political science is this idea of what they call thermostatic public opinion, which is that voters really tend to punish dramatic policy change. This is one of the big reasons why generally midterms go very poorly for the party that controls the presidency.
What’s really unusual about this cycle is that Republicans managed to enact a radical unpopular policy change despite not controlling the presidency or the Congress. That allowed Democrats to campaign as the party of the status quo in a way that was both historically unusual and quite powerful.
On top of that, I think it’s really clear that Republicans did nominate bad candidates who both had a lot of trouble raising money and who came into the cycle with low favorability ratings. That really allowed Democrats to outperform [even in] places where they didn’t have the benefit of incumbency.
I want to read a quote from David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College, on the question of candidate quality. He argued that people are overstating the importance of candidate quality in 2022 relative to elements of the national political environment:
I think the “bad Senate candidates” argument is becoming too dominant as an explanation for the lack of greater GOP gains. Given historical patterns in midterms, the bigger GOP underperformance is in the House, where there were plenty of serviceable Republican candidates who struggled to win toss-up seats against equally generic Dems, and where the pre-election generic ballot polls were much less pro-Republican than we’d expect given Biden’s job approval ratings. The story should be more about national party images & issues than ‘lol Dr. Oz.’
Do you think that’s right?
It’s going to take some time to dig into the data and figure out what our overall popular vote numbers were. But I think an initial read suggests that [these House results] was much more about incumbency: incumbents being able to present themselves as the party of the status quo and outperform their national environment. [Also], if you look at governor’s races, it really looks like there was more ticket-splitting this cycle — somewhat more than there was in 2018.
I think that gets to one of the most interesting things about this cycle. Generally the trend going back to the ’80s, maybe longer, has been the decline of incumbency advantage and the decline of ticket-splitting.
[In 2022], the arrival of dramatic policy stakes due to issues like abortion probably contributed to Democrats being able to plausibly outperform in places like the Midwest, where you could really draw a very plausible line from Republican victory to dramatic changes in abortion law, relative to states like Oregon and New York where that wasn’t the case.
The Dobbs decision gave incumbents an opportunity to really distance themselves from the broader forces of midterm loss. And that created an environment that allowed some more ticket-splitting than traditionally would be the case.
What you just said — that Dobbs fundamentally changed the race — would’ve been conventional wisdom about two months ago. But in the past several weeks, there was this sense that Republicans had pulled ahead, that abortion wasn’t the top of the priority list, and voters cared more about inflation and crime.
So what happened? What was wrong with people’s read of the numbers going into Tuesday? And why did everybody flip their pre-election analysis so quickly?
It definitely does seem like issues like crime probably played a role in places like Oregon and New York. But Democrats were able to go on the offensive against Republican candidates and defined Republican challengers [in the summer], when normally Democratic incumbents get pummeled and weakened over the summer. That really was an enormous gift.
I think that when it comes to why is it that things were more Democratic than people were expecting, it’s hard. I’m not a pollster, so it’s always a little hard to deconstruct these things. But an important thing to remember about polling is that most variance in public polls generally comes from differential response rates.
Basically, when the news cycle seems to be for Democrats, Democrats pick up [phone calls from pollsters]. And when the news cycle feels like it’s good for Republicans, Republicans end up answering the phones more.
And I do think that there was an enthusiasm from the Republican base, evidenced by the fact that Republicans turned out at higher rates than Democrats. But that didn’t change the reality that swing voters were turned off both by the candidates that Republicans ran and by the radical unpopular thing that the Republican Party did.
At this point, whether you like it or not, you’ve been cast as the embodiment of a political approach called popularism: basically say popular things, do popular things, and don’t talk about the unpopular things you support and do.
To what extent do you think Democrats took your advice in this cycle? Did they embody the popularist doctrine in emphasizing abortion in their messaging? What about democracy, which you’ve told me performed poorly in ad tests but was the subject of Biden’s closing argument?
If you actually listen to candidate speeches, read candidate mail, or watch ads, what you’ll see is that there were very few ads about January 6. And even the few that did exist mostly existed in the context of painting Republicans and contrasting the extremists of Republicans with the extent to which Democrats cared about concrete economic issues.
Really most of Democratic ads that went on the air — nearly all, I’d say — were either about abortion or about bread-and-butter economic issues. So I would give Democrats a good grade in terms of what they talked about.
And I just want to talk a little bit about abortion and how it fits into this [popularist] framework.
One thing that we like to do is measure what political scientists call issue ownership. You go through 30 different issues and you say, “What party do you trust more on education? Or on health care? Or on immigration?” When you do that, what you really see — both here across time and in other countries — is that the center left tends to do better on things like education and health care, while the center right tends to do better on things like the size and scope of government, immigration, [and] crime.
Before the Dobbs decision, abortion was a somewhat above-average issue, since I think the public has become more liberal on abortion over the past decade as the population has gotten more secular and more educated. But it still wasn’t an absolute standout.
After the Dobbs decision, there was a sudden jump: Abortion went from being a somewhat good issue for Democrats to becoming the single best issue for Democrats. It really raised the salience of the issue and brought into the public consciousness the reality that Republicans actually do hold these very unpopular beliefs.
This is important not just as a nitty gritty campaign matter, but also a big conceptual statement about where our politics is heading.
A lot of this debate over the “postmaterial” turn in Western politics — broadly, the fact that economic issues have become less salient while cultural issues have become more important, owing to education level replacing economic class as the defining political cleavage in Western countries — gets boiled down to “postmaterialism is bad for left parties.”
The story goes that the increased salience of social issues has led to the decline of the Democratic Party, the Labor Party in the UK, continental social democratic parties, etc. But that seems to me, at least, that this has always been an oversimplification.
It’s true that certain issues like immigration can advantage right-wing parties — especially far-right parties. But just because politics is increasingly postmaterial doesn’t mean that Democrats or other center-left parties are necessarily going to perform poorly when they’re talking about social issues.
It seems like abortion in the US is an example, that the radicalism of the right’s social vision shows how a focus on postmaterial issues can advantage a center-left party.
What I would say is that even though it’s helpful to talk about social and economic issues, a lot of the time it does wash over I think a lot of subtleties. I think a lot of the difference is less social versus economic than material versus non-material.
Something that we’ve seen in ad tests that we’ve done — and this is also just consistent with academic literature on what kinds of arguments have been most effective at persuading people to hold more liberal views on gay rights or trans rights — is really just elevating sympathetic portrayals of how policies by the other side are concretely harming people.
What we see is that some of the best ads that ever get made by the Democratic Party are just putting a real person in front of a camera. It has to be a real person — it doesn’t work if it’s an actor — just going and telling their story of how what Republicans are doing are materially harming them. It plays a really big role in why ratchet effects exist, why it’s so hard to cut social programs. It played a really big role in the ACA fight.
But it also played a very big role in this race, where Republicans decided to do something that really materially harmed a lot of people in a way that was very workable to package into 30-second spots or into news stories. And I think that that’s something that’s really quite powerful.
But I mean, Republican immigration policies hurt real people in really concrete ways too, right? Child separation being perhaps the most egregious example. And there, your general view and the sort of consensus among people who look at issue polling is that Republicans have an advantage and Democrats should try to steer the conversation away from immigration.
So why wouldn’t the same tactic work on different issues that are coded as bad for Democrats? Or different broadly “social issues?”
A lot of this hinges on what you mean by sympathetic.
There’s a really big difference in polling between general support for more immigration and support for the DREAM Act — the DREAM Act is really considerably more popular than most other immigration policies. It’s actually I think probably the single most popular immigration-related policy that we [Democrats] hold. And one of the big reasons why is that children are seen by voters as more sympathetic.
But I think a lot of this just comes down to how popular these issues are. If you just ask people, “Do you think immigration should be increased or decreased or held the same?” the public does have more liberal views on immigration than it used to. It used to be, going back to the ‘90s, that only something like 6 or 7 percent of people would say that immigration should be increased. At this point, that proportion is closer to 25 or 30 percent. But when you look at abortion, the numbers are just different [and more favorable for Dems].
So I think the key point is that the Republican position on abortion is no exceptions at all, and that’s just legitimately an extremely unpopular thing in a way that is not true for [their stances on] many other social issues.
So what is the lesson here for Biden going into 2024? What can be learned from this year’s results that’s generalizable for future elections for Democrats, including 2024?
I think that the Biden administration really did show a fair amount of discipline in terms of crafting policy initiatives that were either popular or at least designed to not trigger mass mobilization against them. I think that they’ve done a pretty good job of trying to keep their administration focused on economic issues.
And to be clear, even though Democrats were given an electoral opportunity by the Dobbs decision, they had to capitalize on it. And they did.
Republicans right now have adopted this incredibly unpopular toxic policy. I would say that banning abortion without any exceptions is probably as unpopular, or more unpopular, as defunding the police. And if they continue to make that a core part of their agenda, that will continue to hurt them.
If you look at the old politics, the Democratic Party for a long time was able to capitalize on the idea that Republicans wanted to cut Social Security and Medicare. They probably likely suffered a lot when Donald Trump took that off the table by loudly repudiating it. And I think if [Republicans] don’t do that kind of thing with their abortion position, it really will continue to create problems for them, even though it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll lose every election forever.
I think it’s super interesting that right now both DeSantis and Trump have staked out either ambiguous or relatively moderate-by-the-standards-of-their-party positions on abortion. And it will be interesting to see whether they’re able to maintain that. I don’t have any special insight into intra-GOP politics, so I don’t really have predictions there.
But what I will say is that on the Democratic side, there are things that we can control: what issues we choose to make salient, what positions we take, and what focuses we take. I think that this election really shows that the gains to message discipline playing the issue-salience game are really large and that [Democrats] should continue to do that.