More than a month after the November 8 legislative elections, there is still one House seat left to be confirmed in Colorado, where a recount is underway. But one thing is clear: the “red wave” that Donald Trump promised never occurred.
President Joe Biden – despite low approval ratings and voter concerns about crime and inflation – managed to lead his Democratic Party to the best midterm election results (for an incumbent party) in 20 years. Usually, the party in power gets thrashed two years into a president’s term, but not this time. Across the country, pro-Trump candidates and election deniers were defeated in key House, Senate and gubernatorial races. The Republicans were not able to win back the Senate, while they barely took control of the House.
Nobody has had a chance to catch their breath, but engines are already gunning for 2024. Based on the midterm results, many are asking: which party would win the next presidential elections? The extrapolation of the results indicates how difficult that question is – and how tight the race will be.
It must be said that predicting elections is always a risky exercise in political fiction. For multiple reasons, every election is different: electoral laws change, voter turnout varies, contexts shift and new candidates appear out of nowhere. However, presidential elections in the United States tend to have much higher voter turnout rates than midterm elections, due to the fact that the Republicans and Democrats each present one unifying candidate at the top of the ticket.
Voter participation is one thing: behavior is a completely different story. The sporadic behavior of voters was on full display in the midterms. In key swing states – such as Georgia and Nevada – one party managed to win most of the House seats up for grabs, while another party won the Senate seats. And in other swing states – such as Wisconsin and New Hampshire – while one party managed to take the governorship, the other party won the House and Senate seats. As every candidate at the state, local and federal level showed up on the same ballot, this resulting split government means that many voters deliberately chose to vote for candidates in both parties, or simply voted in some races and abstained in others.
Since Senate and gubernatorial elections were not carried out throughout the entire country, it seems like a logical starting point to look at the results in the House of Representatives to determine each party’s presidential outlook. Every two years, all 435 House seats are up grabs, without exception.
One key weakness in this strategy, however, is that, due to partisan redistricting, the vast majority of House races are not competitive. This discourages participation. Any glance at a state’s political map shows awkwardly-shaped districts – the result of constant gerrymandering by the parties in power at the state level. This, obviously, distorts the use of House results to predict presidential elections – especially since the presidency is won based on states, not districts.
In the 2022 House elections – according to a national count by the Cook Political Report – the Republican Party won 54.4 million votes in total across the country, compared to 51.4 million for the Democratic Party. These figures are far off from the vote totals secured by Trump and Biden in the 2020 presidential election: 74.2 and 81.3 million respectively. This comparison shows the limits of this type of analysis.
To extrapolate the votes for the House, it makes more sense to look at the number of votes in each state, rather than in each district. Presidential candidates are awarded the total number of delegates in each state that they win. This number of delegates is determined by addition: two senators, plus the total number of congressional districts in each state (which are proportional to the population). It takes 270 delegates to be elected to the presidency. The states with the most electoral votes are California (54), Texas (40), Florida (30) and New York (28). Some states with tiny populations – such as Delaware, Wyoming, Vermont, Alaska or Washington D.C. – only have three delegates each.
Taking all of this into account, had the 2022 House elections been a presidential election, the Democratic candidate would have narrowly won, with 274 electoral votes. If, instead, the Senate results are extrapolated – one-third of the Senate seats were up for grabs – the margin would have been wider in favor of the Democrats, with 296 electoral votes. This is because, in Georgia and Nevada, while voters opted to vote for mostly Republican representatives, they chose to re-elect Democratic senators. Their opponents – hand-picked by Trump – were considered too underqualified and radical.
While this is a theoretical exercise, it helps reveal the frustration being experienced by the Republican Party. Given the economic and political climate, November was an ideal moment for the opposition party to wipe out the incumbents. And yet, the Republicans won the House by a tiny margin – 222 to 213 seats – and lost the Senate, with Democrats and Democrat-aligned independents controlling 51 of 100 seats.
The path for Republicans to regain control of the White House is certainly full of obstacles. The main one, though – according to many conservative analysts – is the former president.
Trump dominated Republican primaries earlier in the year, placing some of his favorite celebrities into highly-competitive races, such as Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, or former NFL player Herschel Walker in Georgia. But the Republican base – which is very loyal to Trump – is not the general electorate, which seems to prefer more moderate candidates. The party subsequently lost key Senate races in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire by tiny margins and only picked up eight House seats.
This failure has not rattled the 76-year-old former president. He announced his 2024 candidacy barely a week after the midterms. So far, he is the only Republican to have declared a presidential bid.
Trump continues to question his 2020 loss against Biden, with no evidence. His flirting with the extreme right has become an all-out embrace. While he will not be easy to defeat in his party’s primaries, he has significant limitations should he contest a third general election. Many establishment Republicans are betting on alternatives. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida – who won his re-election by a landslide – has appeared as the main contender, according to donors and opinion polls.
The midterm results clearly show that, whoever the Republicans choose, they will be stuck competing with the Democrats in a handful of key states, including Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Wisconsin. Biden won all five of them in 2020.
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