Midterms are a referendum on Biden and a test for Trump

On Tuesday, November 8, Americans will determine the composition of the House, Senate and state legislatures, in a prelude to the 2024 presidential election

Pennsylvania State Rep. Leslie Rossi poses with a giant cutout of former US President Donald Trump in front of the "Trump House," which she created in 2016, in Youngstown, Pennsylvania on November 6, 2022.
Miguel Jiménez

More than 41 million Americans have already voted early – by mail or in-person – in the midterm elections, set for Tuesday, November 8, 2022. This is a far higher early voter turnout than in 2018, the midterm cycle that saw the highest level of participation in recent history. Still, it’s too early to tell if this is simply a sign of post-pandemic caution – with some Americans wanting to avoid crowds on election day – or representative of an engaged electorate.

Generally, voter turnout in the midterm elections – held every two years – isn’t as high as during presidential election cycles. This poses a problem for President Joe Biden – who has high disapproval ratings – and a potential benefit for former president Donald Trump. As Democratic-leaning voters seem unenthusiastic, Trump is hoping that his Republican base will turn out in higher numbers to voice their rejection of the Biden administration. This would bolster him should he mount a comeback in 2024.

It’s possible to see Tuesday’s elections as a referendum on Biden’s government. Inflation – the highest in the last four decades – has eaten away at Americans’ purchasing power. This has contributed to low levels of popularity for the president and the Democratic Party at large, which currently controls the White House, Senate and House of Representatives. With gasoline and food prices on the rise, consumers are feeling the pinch.

Despite Biden boasting of low unemployment numbers and various legislative initiatives – including the passage of environmental standards, some student debt forgiveness and modest gun control restrictions – his approval rating hasn’t budged from the high-thirties or low-forties in opinion polls.

It’s also possible to see Tuesday’s midterms as a referendum on Trump. The former president has actively campaigned for Republican candidates, including many far-right extremists who, a few months ago, were considered to be incapable of appealing to centrists or winning general elections. However, some of the most pro-Trump candidates are now on the verge of knocking out Democratic senators, congresspeople and governors across the country. This is a huge setback for Democrats – many of whom went so far as to support extremist Republicans in their primaries, in the hope that it would be easier for Democratic incumbents to fend them off.

Some of Trump’s favorite candidates for the Senate are Herschel Walker (Georgia), Blake Masters (Arizona), Dr. Mehmet Oz (Pennsylvania) and Don Bolduc (New Hampshire). They are all in statistical ties with their Democratic opponents, despite having voiced bizarre opinions – including that the false claim that the 2020 presidential election was rigged in favor of Biden.

If Trump’s base manages to get candidates like these into office, he may have more of a case to seek the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Following the midterms, there will likely be an internal debate within the party about whether it’s best for Trump to try again, or if it’s preferable to have a younger candidate with less legal baggage be the nominee for the presidency.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a rally on November 6.
US President Joe Biden speaks during a rally on November 6.DPA vía Europa Press

Biden’s team has tried to paint the midterm elections as a decision between two starkly different visions of the country: a Trumpist Republican one, that stokes fears about inflation, crime and immigration, while the other – the Democratic vision – offers protections for social services, workers, students and democratic institutions. Biden has, on repeated occasions, warned voters about the threat to democracy that many Republican candidates pose. More than 300 GOP candidates – in accordance with the conspiracy theory that Trump has pushed – refuse to accept the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The midterm elections are not so clear-cut. The average ballot has countless candidates – Americans can elect state representatives, congresspeople, senators and – in 36 of the 50 states – governors. There are also several state referendums that deal with issues ranging from abortion to marijuana legalization, from voting rights to union rights.

In many Republican-led states, there have been allegations of attempts being made to hinder lower-income and minority voters, who often have to wait in long lines to enter overcrowded polling stations. These elections – the first since the Trump-instigated Capitol Riots of January 6, 2021 – will be a test of strength for America’s democratic system.

In total, when it comes to the legislative branch in Washington DC, 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs, along with about a third of the 100 seats in the Senate. However, only about 50 House seats and less than a dozen Senate seats are actually in play – support for each party is not well-distributed in the United States.

Of these competitive races, almost all polls show that the Republicans will win enough of them to take control of both legislative bodies. As the Democrats have lost any hope of keeping the House, they are betting everything on winning key Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Hampshire and Nevada, to at least maintain control of the upper body.

Experts have warned that it could take days – if not weeks – to learn the final results of the midterms… especially for Senate races. For instance, in 2020, it took four days to count all the votes in Pennsylvania and Nevada. In Arizona and North Carolina, it took over a week. And, in the case of Georgia, it took months – that state has a two-round system, which requires the top two Senate candidates to compete in a runoff election if neither gets more than 50% of the vote in the first round. If this were to occur again in 2022, it’s possible that the composition of the Senate won’t be known until mid-December.

No matter how long it takes for the final results to come in, they will have a lasting effect. Should the Republicans take control of the House, it’s likely that they will hamper Biden’s legislative agenda and open up investigations into his administration and family affairs – they may even attempt to impeach him. However, Republicans won’t be able to impose their agenda on the country, even if they manage to control both legislative bodies: after all, Biden has the power of the presidential veto. This means that the American people will likely have to look forward to two years of stagnant, split government. Neither party looks open to negotiating with the other in such a polarized political climate.

It’s clear that, regardless of the result, the conclusion of the 2022 midterms will mark the starting point for the 2024 presidential campaign. Based on how the electoral map looks after Tuesday, both parties will be thinking long and hard about what kind of candidate stands the best chance of winning the White House in two years. In American politics, there’s no such thing as a break.

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