U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., 7th District, chats with supports during an election night watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in Fredericksburg, Va. (Shaban Athuman/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Like many people, I was stunned by Tuesday’s election results. It wasn’t just the public polls that made me think that Republicans were in for a good night; it wasn’t even the relentlessly negative prognostications in The New York Times. (See our Monthly colleague James Fallows discuss the Times’s political coverage here and Judd Legum examine it here.) I was swayed by smart, professional Democrats whom I’d been speaking with and who had turned deeply gloomy in the weeks leading up to the election.

We still don’t know entirely why Democrats defied historical trends and avoided the typical midterm drubbing faced by a president’s party. We have clues, certainly, from the kinds of candidates who won, from exit polls, and from anecdotes, but parsing it all is not easy.

Let’s start with the Roe v. Wade earthquake, which upended 50 years of nationwide legal abortion in America. Was the Dobbs decision, overturning Roe, the reason Democrats did so well? Was it a necessary but insufficient cause? In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln, in one of the great bits of understatement, said, “Slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war.” No kidding! Roe somehow had a lot to do with what happened, but how, exactly, we’re not sure. 

Let’s drill down a bit. We know the public supported keeping Roe. We know legal-abortion initiatives were on the ballot this week. Voters approved these initiatives everywhere they were on the ballot, including in states where they were expected to prevail, such as California and Vermont. But voters also gave the thumbs-up to legal-abortion referenda in Michigan and, perhaps, most interestingly, Kentucky, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996 or elected a Democratic U.S. senator since 1992. Trump carried the commonwealth by 26 points in 2020. 

Do those plebiscites prove that the Dobbs ruling, abolishing the constitutional right to an abortion, energized the sleeping pro-choice giant and carried the night for Democrats? That seems plausible, but conservatives did just fine in Kentucky, so it’s not like the electorate was suddenly swarming with Democrats. It could be that there was more pro-choice sentiment among Republicans than was previously known.

Let’s look at turnout as a factor in the Democrats staving off utter disaster. Almost 47 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, which is slightly lower than in 2018, when it topped 49 percent, but still high. If Roe galvanized the pro-choice majority, you would expect higher turnout than four years ago, when Roe was threatened but still the law. Of course, turnout varies by state. If the election were all about abortion, you might expect to see an explosion of turnout in states with abortion on the ballot. But if you look at states where the legal-abortion ballot initiatives fared well, turnout was lower than or the same as in 2018.

What is interesting is how much higher turnout was than it was just 20 years ago. In 2014, only 36 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls, the lowest point in 70 years. You might think, “Hey, it was a quiet year.” But in 2002, turnout was only 37 percent, just 14 months after 9/11, with the war in Afghanistan in full and Iraq looming. It could be that we’re in a sustained period of high voter turnout.

We know youth turnout had something to do with the Democrats breathing a sigh of relief. There was a spike in youth turnout, and it was strongly Democratic. The Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement found that 27 percent of those critical 18- to 29-year-olds showed up at the polls. That rate is lower than the national average, which is to be expected, but higher than usual, though still lower than 2018. Youth made up 12 percent of all votes in this midterm, still short of 2018, when they were 13 percent.

The “youngins” were strongly Democratic. Voters aged 18 to 29 voted for Democrats in House contests by a margin of 63 to 25 percent, according to the Edison Research National Election Pool exit poll conducted for ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN. By contrast, voters aged 45 to 64 preferred Republicans by a 54 to 44 percent margin, and voters 65 and older went for Republicans by 55 to 43 percent.

So, according to the exit polls, young people tilted the voting pool left. In time, we’ll have more information than just what folks told exit pollers. 

We still can’t be sure why young voters moved left. Did they vote more Democratic because of abortion rights, or was it the combination of Dobbs and other issues—say, the Biden administration’s student loan forgiveness or the GOP’s less-than-enthusiastic support of LGBTQ rights? It will take time and more in-depth surveys of voter files or data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey’s Voting and Registration Supplement, due next year, to make more sense of it. Keep in mind that the 18–29 cohort becomes more Black and brown every year, more so than the rest of the population, and that alone could account for some of the leftward movement. For what it’s worth, the 18–29 population is now more Gen Z than Millennial. 

We don’t know the effect voting from home—or vote by mail, as it’s commonly called—had on Tuesday’s surprising results. We know that vote by mail has become more widespread in the past three years. It was adopted in many jurisdictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic when gathering at polling stations could have led to superspreader events. As the Monthly has reported, some states, mostly Democratic, have expanded or continued vote by mail while some, primarily Republican, have sought to curtail it. 

We also know that Donald Trump and much of the GOP have been on a tirade about mail-in voting, early poll openings, and ballot drop boxes. This seems to have led to Republican voters being much warier of using these convenient methods. (Early voting returns showed Democrats availing themselves of these methods much more fulsomely than Republicans.) 

Voting from home is a tool, and studies have shown that it can increase turnout for both parties. Like a No. 2 pencil, it’s ideology-free. If one party uses it more than another, that party has a distinct advantage. Because vote by mail is easier to use, it’s bound to increase turnout. When voting takes place over weeks, it’s more resilient than one-day voting, which could be altered by a weather event like heavy rain. Plus, as any campaign manager will tell you, it gets harder come Election Day to find supporters and get them out to the polls. The more votes you can put in the bank early, the better off you are. Your GOTV (Get Out the Vote) operation is much easier when you can target more selectively in the final days. 

Did vote at home help Democrats this cycle? We know that Democrats used that method much more than did Republicans. There may be a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul quality to that vote. Maybe Democratic voters just changed when they voted from Election Day to earlier. Conversely, we know that in 2020, many Republicans, somewhat oddly, brought mail-in ballots to polling stations, perhaps distrustful of the U.S. Postal Service but not wanting to stand in line. 

Finally, what did the democracy/extremist argument do for Democrats? My colleague Bill Scher makes a strong case that the democracy argument swayed voters. And while many Democrats pooh-poohed the president for delivering not one but two prime-time democracy speeches, the White House and the Democratic National Committee must have seen it as a fruitful move. I wonder whether election denial was enough of a factor to move voters, or if it had to be married to extreme positions on abortion or some bits of weirdness. Here in the Washington, D.C., media market, we’ve been inundated by ads featuring the Republican congressional candidate Yesli Vega questioning whether rape can lead to pregnancy. She was defeated by her opponent, Abigail Spanberger, the Democratic representative from Virginia. If Vega had simply said that the 2020 election wasn’t on the up-and-up, that might not have been enough to doom her good shot at knocking off the vulnerable incumbent. But many anti-Vega ads linked the two, portraying her as a whack job. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that J. D. Vance’s relatively calm demeanor helped him muscle through in Ohio, whereas Blake Masters seems likely to falter in Arizona. Both U.S. Senate candidates are Republicans and election deniers and pro-lifers. Ohio leans more right, sure. But a calm demeanor helps, and Masters, who has approvingly quoted the Unabomber, may prove to be too much for Arizonans. Perhaps the best argument for democracy having been a plus factor is the success of not-so-scary Republicans, some of whom crossed swords with Donald Trump, like Governors Mike DeWine (Ohio), John Sununu (New Hampshire), and Brian Kemp (Georgia), who ran far ahead of the GOP Senate candidates in their states. 

Then again, Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida, cleaned up in his reelection bid, and he is not calm. He’s an election denier, a mask-and-vaccine doubter, and so belligerent that he winds up in fights with everyone from Disney to Trump. He won, defying the idea that voters just want calm.

It’s a big, complicated country. And there’s still a lot that we don’t know.

Matthew Cooper

Follow Matthew on Twitter @mattizcoop. Matthew Cooper is Executive Editor Digital at the Washington Monthly. He is also a contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter who has covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.