Buoyed by economic problems and widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, the party out of power expected to win big, only to underwhelm and even lose seats in one chamber of Congress.
That may turn out to be how this year’s elections end, depending on the outcome of the Georgia Senate runoff next month, but definitely describes the 2020 result — even if Republican gains in the House and competitiveness in battleground states that year were overshadowed by former President Donald Trump’s claims to be the rightful winner.
Trump, abortion, and questionable GOP candidate quality loom large as explanations for why the red wave failed to materialize, but political polarization shouldn’t be undersold as a factor.
AGE CONCERNED PLAGUED OLDER PRESIDENTS BEFORE BIDEN
A red wave in the Senate always counted on Republicans winning all or most of the seven most competitive races: Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Arizona. Instead, the two parties split the six called races down the middle, with the seventh headed to a runoff because neither candidate could break 50%.
“In 2020, Joe Biden won 306 electoral votes, the exact same number Donald Trump won in 2016,” tweeted the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman. “In 2022, Republicans have won 222 House seats, the exact same number Democrats won in 2020.”
That House number includes races in which the Republican is leading — and, in one case, in which the Democrat has already conceded — but have yet to be called by the Associated Press at this writing. Still, Republicans and Democrats merely trading places is the likeliest outcome after the highest inflation in 41 years, rising crime in many areas, uncertainty abroad, large majorities telling pollsters the country is on the wrong track, and an unpopular president.
After a pandemic, a lockdown-induced economic downturn, an unemployment rate that at one point in 2020 hit 13%, riots in several cities, and four years of Trump, the best President Joe Biden could do was replicate his opponent’s 2016 showing. The current president won the Electoral College by fewer than 44,000 votes in three states.
Since the deadlocked 2000 presidential election, two popular vote losers have become president, and the popular vote winners have rarely done better than a bare majority. George W. Bush received 50.7% in 2004, Barack Obama took 51.1% in 2012, and Biden won 51.3% in 2020.
The strongest performance was Obama’s 52.9% in 2008 after Republicans had presided over the Great Recession, the Iraq War, and Hurricane Katrina. When the election happened, Bush was underwater by 40 points with a 28% approval rating, according to Gallup. A then-73-year-old John McCain still finished with 45.7% of the vote.
In other words, the biggest post-2000 presidential election victory was closer to Jimmy Carter’s win over Gerald Ford than the landslides of Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1984, each of which had followed more competitive races.
For nearly a quarter century, the two parties have been fighting to a near draw. Both have enjoyed good election cycles — Republicans in 2002, 2004, 2010, and 2014 and Democrats in 2006, 2008, and 2018 — but neither has held big advantages for long. The parties of Biden, Trump, Obama, and second-term Bush all had unified control of the federal government’s elected branches, only to lose it after just two years.
Obama had a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate after convincing Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) to switch parties. It didn’t even last to the 2010 midterm elections, as a Massachusetts special election went Republican in a foreshadowing of that November’s results.
Political scientists now debate whether there is such a thing as an electoral governing mandate. But for most of the 20th century, winning 51% of the vote in a two-candidate race would rarely have been considered one.
Combined with the ideological sorting of the two parties into more homogeneously liberal and conservative entities, these narrow majorities can breed further division as modest winners pursue sweeping agendas. It also leaves some angry voters politically homeless. Self-described independents split 49% to 47%, with Democrats having the slim advantage, in the 2022 exit polls.
In the elections since 1994, Republicans have knocked out most of the Democrats representing districts with a high percentage of conservative-leaning voters. Democrats have done the same to the Republicans representing districts with a high percentage of liberals. Centrists in both parties have seen their ranks depleted, and intraparty fighting among Republicans is now primarily between different factions of conservatives.
If the 2024 presidential election were held today, it would be a rematch between Biden and Trump — two men viewed favorably by about 4 in 10 voters, according to the 2022 exit polls.
There’s a reason politics leads to contentious Thanksgiving dinner conversations.