November 15, 2021 - Washington, DC, United States: President Joe Biden at a ceremony where he signed into law the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, H.R. 3684, and the "Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act". (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

When you hold 435 House elections, 34 Senate elections, and 36 gubernatorial elections at the same time, you don’t always get definitive answers about what voters want. Local quirks can make it hard to draw broad conclusions. But this year, many theories about how to win elections were tested, and we got definitive answers. What did we learn this year? A lot.

Swing Voters Exist: “Modern elections don’t turn on capturing a mythical ‘center,’ they turn on activating, expanding, and mobilizing your base and demoralizing the opposition,” wrote the progressive commentator Jamelle Bouie for Slate in 2018. Fresh from her first primary election win in that same year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “Our swing voter is not red-to-blue. Our swing voter is the voter to the non-voter, the non-voter to the voter.”

The jolt of Donald Trump’s fluky 2016 Electoral College victory turbocharged such simplistic conclusions, though they initially sprang from more nuanced data-driven analyses, like Alan I. Abramowitz’s 2011 book The Disappearing Center and the 2012 academic paper from Andrew Gelman, David Rothschild, Sharad Goel, and Doug Rivers titled “The Mythical Swing Voter.”

The academic debate has ideological overtones. If elections are primarily won with base turnout, then Democrats should move farther to the left without fear of alienating moderates. If not, then Democrats need to be more careful about their mix of issue positions.

In 2022, we got a crystal-clear answer: Swing voters exist, and they swung.

As Nate Cohn reported, “Final turnout data shows that registered Republicans turned out at a higher rate—and in some places a much higher rate—than registered Democrats, including in many of the states where Republicans were dealt some of their most embarrassing losses,” particularly Arizona, Nevada, and Georgia. Cohn also notes that preliminary data suggests that the African American share of the electorate might have “sank to its lowest level since 2006.” Without swing voters, Democrats would have lost the Senate.

Knowing that swing voters exist doesn’t mean that progressive ideas must be jettisoned to win them over. But just because wooing swing voters is tricky doesn’t merit waving them away as mythical unicorns.

Bipartisanship Is Alive—and Popular: When Joe Biden ran for president in 2020, his pledge to revitalize bipartisanship was often mocked as naive. Upon his inauguration, Ezra Klein of The New York Times published a column advising the new president and his party to disregard existing Senate rules and norms, so a robust and partisan policy agenda could be implemented without fear of Republican obstruction or bipartisan dilution. In making the case for abolishing the filibuster, Klein argued that the Democrats in the past “have preferred the false peace of decorum to the true progress of democracy. If they choose that path again, they will lose their majority in 2022, and they will deserve it.”

Democrats did choose the path of decorum. The choice might have been forced on them when an attempted suspension of the filibuster for voting rights legislation was blocked by Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. But Democrats went down the bipartisan path nonetheless and took it further than many thought possible. Senate supermajorities passed legislation addressing infrastructure, gun safety, Ukraine, hate crimes, domestic violence, semiconductor manufacturing, the postal service, and forced Uyghur labor. Plus, through negotiated bipartisan agreements, the government never shut down, and the debt limit was not breached.

Moreover, several Democratic congressional incumbents survived tight races after stressing bipartisanship in their ads, such as when Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock stood in a vat of peanuts and talked up his bipartisan efforts to lower international trade barriers for peanut exports. Democrats kept control of the Senate and barely lost control of the House. (The net loss of nine House seats was the sixth-best midterm performance by the president’s party of the 20 midterm elections since the end of World War II.)

Bipartisanship might not reliably produce the best policies. And certain bipartisan compromises can be political duds, alienating voters across the ideological spectrum. But the idea of bipartisanship clearly has durable political appeal. And enough elected officials in both parties exist who are willing to engage in bipartisanship—including the Democrats’ longtime legislative bête noire Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—to make its pursuit worth trying.

You Can “Out-Organize Voter Suppression”: Following Trump’s defeat in a high turnout election, several Republican state legislatures—most prominently, Georgia’s—moved to restrict voting access, sometimes admitting that their intent was to help Republicans win. Panicked Democrats sought a federal voting rights bill to neutralize voter-suppression tactics. But by the summer of 2021, anyone could see that Senate Democrats didn’t have the votes to pass their preferred bill, either through regular order or by suspension of the filibuster.

So, the Biden administration delicately tried to soothe anxious Democrats that they could win elections anyway. Vice President Kamala Harris delivered a speech in which she explained their strategy: a $25 million Democratic National Committee program to help voters navigate state election laws and to defend voting rights with litigation. “We are going to assemble the largest voter protection team we have ever had,” Harris said, “to ensure that all Americans can vote and have your vote counted in a fair and transparent process.” Reportedly, in private calls with civil rights leaders, White House aides assured Democrats could “out-organize voter suppression.”

The message was not well received. Voting rights activists told Salon.com that the White House talking points were “empty platitudes and statements” and “insulting to the hundreds of thousands of organizers who worked tirelessly to turn out voters.” The head of the New Georgia Project said, “We cannot out-organize partisan takeovers of our election systems when they are sanctioned by law.” The White House shelved such talk and pushed for the voting rights bill, which unsurprisingly was filibustered in January 2022.

Then Democrats pretty much forgot about the whole legislative debacle and overcame voter suppression. Democrats won statewide races in several states—Arizona, Kansas, Wisconsin, and … yes, Georgia—that have strict voter ID laws.

In his victory speech, Warnock pushed back on the notion that his victory means there was no voter suppression: “The fact that voters worked so hard to overcome the hardship put in front of them does not eliminate the fact that hardship was put there in the first place.” True, but it also means the White House was right in the first place.

Voters Care about Democracy (Even Some Republicans): The year began with widespread panic that a legion of Trump loyalists who echoed his lies about the 2020 presidential election was running for office—especially secretary of state posts—and could help him steal the 2024 presidential election. But several 2022 election deniers lost their elections. Out of 15 contested Republican secretary of state primaries with election deniers, as determined by the States United Democracy Center, only five won. (Additional Republican election deniers were on general election ballots either from uncontested primaries or party-based processes.) The only election-denying secretary of state candidates to win in November were in Alabama, Indiana, and Wyoming—all states that reliably vote Republican in presidential elections. Election-denying gubernatorial candidates also lost in the pivotal swing states of Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Where many election-denying—or at least, election-questioning—candidates did win is in U.S. House races. Out of 222 Republicans in the upcoming 118th Congress, 154 are on the Washington Post list of candidates who either “denied or questioned” the 2020 outcome. Fortunately, their ability to cause mischief will be constrained because—in another bipartisan success story—Congress passed a bill reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887, tightening the process for counting and ratifying the Electoral College count.

Voters Care About Abortion (Even Some Republicans): Before and after the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year, some pundits, and many Republicans, insisted that abortion would not become a factor in the midterm elections. They pointed to polls that ranked abortion low on lists of issue priorities, as well as the sleepy response by most Texans after enacting a severely restrictive abortion ban.

These proved to be misleading metrics. The real test was whether abortion was a big enough issue to a faction of historically Republican but latently pro-choice voters. As Politico recently reported, Democratic and Republican “campaign strategists kept making the same startling finding” in their focus groups: “Abortion hadn’t simply awakened Democratic voters. It was actually persuading swing voters.” (Who, by the way, do exist. See above.) A Republican operative, who convened an Arizona focus group of Republican women after the midterms, concluded in a memo, “Aside from Trump, abortion was THE central issue of the campaign,” and “extreme abortion positions … took Republican candidates out of consideration for many of these women, including women who consider themselves pro-life.”

“Defund the Police” Is Political Poison: Several Democratic New York House candidates, mainly in the New York City suburbs and upstate, lost close races after being savaged in ads as soft on crime. Democrats kept the governor’s seat, but Lee Zeldin took the largest share for a Republican since George Pataki won his third term in 2002.

Ocasio-Cortez has long defended the use of the “Defund the police” slogan. In December 2020, she argued on Twitter that “it wasn’t until [activists] said ‘defund’ that comfortable people started paying attn [sic] to brutality.” After the midterms last month, she criticized fellow New York Democrats for running away from her approach: “This overreliance and insistence on leaning into Republican narratives on crime and safety hurt Democrats in the state of New York. Instead of ignoring or even pivoting and commanding the narrative on crime and public safety, a lot of Democrats leaned into Lee Zeldin’s approach.”

But that critique ignored all the other successful Democratic candidates that blunted Republican attacks with their own ads supporting increased police funding and explicitly rejecting “Defund the police.” Perhaps the most powerful of these came from the Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman.

The campaign of the Republican candidate, the celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, claimed that Fetterman wanted to “eliminate life sentences for murderers” (he supported that for people convicted of “felony murder,” or being liable for murder when participating in a felony that resulted in a death), and highlighted video of Fetterman promoting the reduction of the prison population by one-third. Fetterman chaired the state parole board, and conservative media reported on first-degree murderers he paroled.

As Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives might appreciate, Fetterman didn’t run away from his principles. In an interview during the campaign, he defended his parole record by saying, “I believe the perfect metaphor is ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’ … I’ve asked people, would you want Morgan Freeman to die in prison or not? And I’ve never met anybody that says, ‘Yeah, he should die in prison.’” He further argued, “You’re talking less than one percent of individuals that are condemned to die in prison … They’re usually elderly. They’re most likely to be Black. And they are deeply remorseful for what they were involved in, or what they did directly; and they’ve done 40 years or more, maybe sometimes more than 50 years.”

But that was for a print interview and not even for a Pennsylvania media outlet. That’s not the messaging his campaign deployed in TV ads with a wider reach. For those, he leaned into Republican narratives.

Fetterman, the burly former mayor of a majority-Black Pittsburgh suburb, mocked his Republican opponent as an out-of-touch elitist. “Doc Oz in his Gucci loafers is attacking me on crime,” he said incredulously. “Doctor Oz wouldn’t last two hours here in Braddock.” He then touted his tough-on-crime mayoral record: “When two of my students were murdered, I ran for mayor to stop the violence … We did whatever it took to fund our police and stopped gun deaths for five years.”

Fetterman’s approach shows that you can hold progressive views on criminal justice and win, just as long as you don’t support defunding the police and prove that you take the problem of crime seriously, and support the idea that there are persuadable voters outside the base than can be wooed by commonsense appeals. That’s why Fetterman will soon be seated near Warnock in a Senate with a Democratic majority.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.