What an uncharacteristic election shows about the US


During this year’s November midterm elections, all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and 35 seats in the Senate were re-elected. Voting for the entirety of the lower house as well as a third of the upper house, this election was critical as well as fortuitous for both parties, especially now that  the 2024 presidential election approaches. Coming out of the 2020 elections with a razor-thin grip on legislative branch dominance, the Democrats formed their first unified government, with party control of both houses of Congress and the presidency since 2011. 

This unified control by the democratic party has allowed them to follow through on legislation throughout the last two years that normally would face harsh opposition in a split government. However, many Democrat voters still remain upset with the lack of action by a unified and thus legislatively powerful party.

Midterm elections in the United States traditionally go against the incumbent president for a variety of reasons. This is evidenced by the strong trend of the presidency-holding party losing around 30 seats in both houses of Congress.. There are y two main reasons for this pattern. The first being that voters in the US tend to be motivated most by anger, a trend referred to by ThoughtCo as the “Presidential Penalty.” Because of this, the voters of the opposition party—those who have been unhappy with the presidency over the last two years—are the most motivated to show up at the polls. Contrastingly, complacent and satisfied voters of the presidential party are far less motivated to vote. Thus, the party of the presidency tends to lose seats. Secondly, there is the so-called “coattail theory,” in which a popular presidential candidate brings in party members to office on their “coattails.” In essence, a popular candidate motivates voters to go to the polls, and while there, they vote along party lines, bringing in congress members with their presidential vote. 

For these reasons, it was highly anticipated that the tradition would continue and that a “red wave” would lead to large Republican gains in this election cycle. Given the razor-thin majority held in the Senate, this “red wave” was expected to break the Democratic Party’s unity of the last two years. However, the marginal gains by the Republican Party signified more of a red ripple than anything else. The Democrats gained a seat in the Senate, which, when combined with the two independent senators who largely caucus with the Democrats, as well as the Democrats holding the tie-breaking vote in the vice president election, gives the Democrats a guaranteed majority even as the Georgia election remains undecided and moves to a run-off election. Currently, Democrats have lost only nine seats in the House, and are likely to lose the majority to Republicans.

So what caused this eight-seat loss in comparison to the average of nearly thirty? Or, perhaps more shockingly, what caused the Democrats to gain Senate votes during a presidential midterm? This is so rare that presidential parties have only gained seats in Congress three times: once immediately after 9/11, once during World War II, and once as Democrats feared losing influence during Clinton’s impeachment, all of which occurred under extremely rare and powerful circumstances.

Let’s break down the failure of the first typical reason a presidential party loses seats, the “presidential penalty,” and what its implication is. During this election, Democratic voters were just as angry and motivated as Republicans for two main reasons. Following the Republican Supreme Court’s overturning of the longstanding Roe v. Wade Decision ( which granted constitutional authority to the right to personal privacy from government restrictions over abortions, gay rights, etc.), democratic voters have been highly upset and thus highly motivated to vote. Second, former President Trump has largely hinted at a presidential run in 2024. This announcement undoubtedly inspired democratic voters who disapproved of Trump’s presidency. For these reasons and many more, the “presidential penalty” was countered by the Supreme Court and other Republican officials who riled up the Democratic party in the very same way the “presidential penalty” works. 

Thus, this year’s midterms show simply that the “traditional,” or for another word, archaic, social views of the so-called “Grand Old Party ” paired with highly inflammatory Trump politics inspire Democratic voters against them more than Republican voters for them. So long as the Republican Party clings to outdated social views and remains a Trump-centered party, they will continue to shoot themselves in the foot with their NRA bullets.

The coat-tail theory is the second. Biden won in 2020 by a very thin margin, leading to the large irrelevance of this theory. As Robert S. Erickson, University of Houston, wrote in the Journal of Politics, “The stronger the presidential victory margin or the more seats won in the presidential year and therefore “at risk,” the greater will be the subsequent midterm seat loss.” Biden brought in very few congressional members on his ancient coattails, demonstrating that democratic voters went to the polls along party lines rather than presidential ties.This reflects the country’s deeply divided political landscape, in which voters are increasingly inspired to support their party rather than a specific inspirational candidate.This speaks very well for the Democrats, especially when it comes to the midterms. Usually, presidential elections are seen as far more important than the midterms; however, now that voters are there to keep their party in power in place of select leaders, they see the midterms, in which they can keep or lose a unified democratic government, as equally important, inspiring the unusual presidential party turnout in this year’s midterms. Essentially, political polarization along party lines has led to an increase in midterm importance in the eyes of  the voters, which helps the incumbent party muster the support needed to keep their majorities.

In conclusion, the poor performance, or near absence, of the red wave in this year’s midterms implies a few things about the state and future of the nation. First, the GOP has one of two options when it comes to social views. They can remain the same, become further outdated, and continue to inspire the majority of voters who do not live in nursing homes to be against them. Or they can adapt to the times. Secondly, the GOP continues to hurt itself  with a Trump-centric party. His inflammatory views continue to inspire more Democrats negatively than Republicans positively, and his involvement in the party will continue to diminish its power. This will reign as a highly important issue in the 2023 Republican primary elections as he competes against his former cronies, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who now try desperately to distance themselves from him. Third and lastly, the democratic performance implies increasing polarization along party lines within the US. Voters are inspired to keep their party in power, not to back a specific leader, so the midterm elections are seeing increased relevance from both sides, not simply the dissatisfied one. So long as the country remains so staunchly divided by party, the importance of midterms will grow.

Featured cover image: iStock

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