Listen to most conservatives–and a great many Democrats–and they’ll say they’re looking forward to 2022. The reasoning is simple: conventional wisdom says that conservatives are likely to win the House and retake the Senate in under two years. Predictions markets are favoring both of those outcomes, and past history suggests they will be right. The president’s party usually loses ground in Congress in the succeeding midterm, due in part to the complacency of their own voters, the disempowered rage of their opponents, and inevitable elements of scandal or malaise in the new administration. The last two Democratic presidents have been hit especially hard in their first midterm, with Democrats suffering historic defeats in both 1994 under Clinton and 2010 under Obama. It’s easy to see why Republicans would be licking their chops as 2022 approaches, and why House Republican candidate recruitment is having a bonanza year.
But there are also reasons to believe that Republican optimism may be misplaced. The Trump era has recalibrated much of American politics in ways that may have profound, long-term and unexpected consequences–including for the upcoming midterm elections. Most of the changes have been to the benefit of Republicans when Trump was on the ballot: Trump activated a new base of infrequent conservative voters, and accelerated a realignment that has maximized the geographic efficiency of the GOP coalition. The price for those advantages was irrevocably alienating large segments of America’s growing electorate: young voters, suburbanites and (despite Trump’s modest gains) most non-whites.
Crucially, those changes may also cost his party heavily when Trump is not on the ballot. Trump undeniably had the power to turn out infrequent conservative voters in 2016 and especially in 2020, upending pollsters’ models and shocking most analysts. But that attraction did not extend to Republican candidates in the 2018 midterms, where Democrats made gains largely in line with public polling. Trump’s base was not so eager to turn out for his defenders in Congress when he wasn’t there.
More recently, the Senate runoffs in Georgia and the most recent school superintendent race in Wisconsin should be a cause for grave concern for Republicans. GOP turnout was disappointing at best in Georgia, allowing Democrats to recapture the Senate. Much blame has fallen on Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him for depressing base Republicans from believing that their vote would matter, particularly in hard-fought Georgia where so many of those false accusations were made. But GOP woes continued most recently in Wisconsin: a school superintendent race that was nominally non-partisan but widely seen as a Democrat-Republican proxy battle saw the more liberal candidate trounce the conservative by a whopping 16 points. Obviously, one should only cautiously extrapolate too much from any non-partisan downballot race. But it’s remarkable nonetheless that liberals and progressives were excited and enthusiastic to turn out (and conservatives comparatively depressed) in a comparatively minor spring special election even when Democrats have a trifecta of control at the federal level.
This may not be a short-term trend, either. By trading away professional and middle-class suburban voters in exchange for lower-trust, less frequent exurban and rural voters–and by polarizing their own electorate against mail voting–Republicans have also given up their advantage among the most reliable voters. It used to be that Republicans could count on the comparatively comfortable high-propensity homeowners who voted in every election and knew their city councilors by name, while Democrats had to turn out all the least reliable voters. No longer. The Democratic Party still depends on support from the most marginalized communities, but it can also increasingly count most of the electorate’s easiest turnout targets among its committed base of supporters.
Moreover, the frenzy of bigotry and hatred that Trump inspired in his “f— your feelings” and “own the libs” base has created an equal and opposite reaction from traumatized left-of-center voters. The January 6th insurrection drove the point home. It will be a long time before liberal and progressive voters let down their guard against a political movement whose animating goal is to not only disenfranchise and dominate but actively inflict cruelty upon them. For many formerly apolitical liberals and centrists, voting has become a matter of self-preservation.
Finally, the Biden Administration is betting big on policies that should deliver major quality of life improvements to voters all across the country, including and especially the white working class that has increasingly become a Republican mainstay. It may or may not work, but politicians have much more control over economic benefits than they do culture wars. This in turn has led to something of a detente on the left because socialist-leaning materialists and Sorkinist centrists: as long as the GOP is going to spend all its time fulminating over Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, why not try delivering on jobs, stimulus, infrastructure and broadband to Trump country and see if it makes a difference? It’s the right thing to do at a policy level. And even if it only helps at the margins electorally, in a country where the GOP has leveraged its minoritarian geographic advantages for maximum narrow efficiency, marginal demographic shifts can result in tsunamis on Election Day.
In short, Republicans cannot live with Trump, but they cannot live without him, either. Democrats have taken the lessons of the Trump era to heart on voter mobilization and spending priorities, the Democratic-leaning electorate does not seem likely to be caught napping again, and there are vanishingly few persuadable voters left. Republican dependence on a low-trust, conspiracy-driven coalition combined with hostility to mail-in voting makes them vulnerable to fickle turnout. And the overall share of the GOP electorate continues to decline, limiting the power of its geographic advantages.
It could well be that 2022 upends expectations as much as the 2016 and 2020 elections did, but this time in Democrats’ favor.