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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

July 19: Good News for Democrats in Full Midterm Data

Now that we have something more accurate than exit polls for examining the 2022 midterms, it’s time for a reconsideration of that election’s implications, as I noted at New York:

National elections are complicated phenomena. You can determine the results and their immediate consequences soon enough. But the internal dynamics of the electorate and the implications for future elections can take a while to grasp. At first, all you have are imperfect exit polls and pundit insights, and they sometimes produce equally imperfect conventional wisdom.

That’s what happened in the 2022 midterms. We know that Republicans managed narrowly to flip the U.S. House but fell short of expectations in that chamber, as well as in the U.S. Senate and to some extent state contests. There was a lot of talk about Democrats benefiting from highly motivated pro-choice voters upset about the reversal of Roe v. Wade, and Republicans suffering from extremist Senate candidates promoted by Donald Trump. Now we’re getting a clearer picture thanks to the Pew Research Center’s careful analysis of validated voters (those saying they voted and for whom Pew found voter files) from the midterms:

“In midterm elections that yielded mixed results for both parties, Republicans won the popular vote for the U.S. House of Representatives largely on the strength of higher turnout.

“A new Pew Research Center analysis of verified voters and nonvoters in 2022, 2020, 2018 and 2016 finds that partisan differences in turnout — rather than vote switching between parties — account for most of the Republican gains in voting for the House last year.”

So while Democratic turnout may have exceeded expectations, it didn’t exceed Republican turnout. And voters who did turn out overwhelmingly stayed with their own party:

“Overall, 68% of those who voted in the 2020 presidential election turned out to vote in the 2022 midterms. Former President Donald Trump’s voters turned out at a higher rate in 2022 (71%) than did President Joe Biden’s voters (67%) …

“Relatively small shares of voters defected from their partisan affiliation or 2020 presidential vote. Among those who voted for both president in 2020 and for a House representative in 2022, just 6% crossed party lines between elections or voted for third-party candidates in either election.”

Viewed in total isolation, this might be viewed as good news for Republicans going forward; that was how the New York Times interpreted the Pew numbers:

“The report serves as a warning sign for Democrats ahead of the 2024 presidential election, with early polls pointing toward a possible rematch between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump.

“Though Democrats maintained control of the Senate, all but one of their governor’s mansions and only narrowly lost the House, the Pew data shows that a larger percentage of voters who supported Mr. Trump in 2020 cast ballots in November than those who backed Mr. Biden did. People who had voted in past elections but sat out 2022 were overwhelmingly Democrats.”

But the midterm results and the Pew data on who voted and for whom should emphatically not be viewed in isolation from historic trends. There were two data points supporting the expectation that a “red wave” would form in November 2022. The first was the “midterm falloff” typically experienced by Democratic-leaning voter groups, particularly young and minority voters who have never participated in non-presidential elections in numbers matching the older and whiter voters who now lean Republican. The second is that traditional midterm voter backlash almost always afflicts the party that controls the White House. What the Pew analysis shows us is that the first phenomenon (a Democratic turnout falloff) indeed occurred, but the second (significant vote-switching away from Joe Biden’s party) largely didn’t. As so you had a small Republican ripple instead of a wave.

The other side of the “midterm falloff” coin is that turnout by pro-Democratic voting groups tends to improve in presidential elections. All else being equal, that means if Democrats can again hang onto their voters and they turn out at a higher rate, they should have an advantage in 2024. To put it another way, they should have lost significant ground between 2020 and 2022 but didn’t. The fact that Democrats didn’t do as well as they did in 2018, which the Times analysis emphasized, is extremely unsurprising: Republicans controlled the White House then, and Democrats did produce some vote-switching in their favor.

The exceptional party loyalty exhibited by 2022 voters found by Pew, it should be mentioned, refutes some of the impressions of unusual voter trends that pundits discerned right after the elections, some of them derived from iffy exit-poll findings. The exits showed Democrats carrying women by a robust eight-point margin (53 percent to 45 percent), which reinforced the belief the abortion issue changed the results significantly. The validated voter data showed Democrats carrying women by a more modest three-point margin (51 percent to 48 percent). On the other side of the ledger, exit polls showed Republicans winning 13 percent of the Black vote, more than double the percentage the GOP won in 2018. But Pew’s validated voter data showed Republicans winning just 5 percent of the Black vote, a point less than they won in 2018.

To be very clear, the Democratic advantage in 2024 that I’ve inferred from the Pew data is what would happen if only turnout patterns change in that election. Everything — from conditions in the country, issue salience, and the quality of candidates and campaigns — may not stay the same, which could mean a narrow GOP victory or the first comfortable win for Democrats (or for either party) since 2008. But there’s a reason Democrats were thrilled to come out of the midterms without bigger losses than they sustained, and there’s no reason to assume their position will become more tenuous in a presidential year.

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