Dumb luck also decided the midterm.
The obligatory post-election wrap-up.
Yes, voters cared about Roe being overturned and they were exhausted with the Trump’s The Big Lie/Jan 6th MAGA candidates. But this was fairly evident by polling in late September, when polls showed the Dems retaining the Senate and having a chance to keep the House. What was most significant about last Tuesday’s results was the tiny winning margins in a few elections that decided control of both the Senate and the House. Margins that amounted to random chance than a measure of true voter sentiment.
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Historically, the party of a first term incumbent facing tough economic head winds should lose upwards of 50 House seats and a few Senate seats. So, to come even close to “breaking even” certainly indicates the electorate was rejecting the GOP message. So even if the Dems lost the Senate by one seat and the House GOP majority was more than 15 votes, it would still be an historic rejection of the GOP by voters.
But if the GOP did win the Senate by one seat, the media ecosystem would spin this into a major defeat for Biden and a vindication for Trump. Even though in the big picture there is not much difference between a swing of one Senate seat. Either way, based on historical standards, it would be considered a rejection of GOP extremism. But with our “winner take all” political system, that one seat swing means a lot of power.
Which brings me to an important post-midterm autopsy question: Who are these last-minute undecided voters that swayed razor-thin elections in favor of the Dems (this time)? By some accounts, undecided voters could be as much as 10 percent of the electorate. Many of them probably never reach a decision and don’t vote. But the others? Well, today, they control the fate of America, deciding close elections that impact who controls power in America.
Last week a study about undecided voters released that answers the question: Who are these people? After conducting nearly 500,000 interviews of thousands of voters for more than a one year period covering the 2020 election looking at undecided voters, the authors concluded:
“The only characteristics that seem to be consistent among undecided voters is that they are younger, less educated, less wealthy, and less politically aware and engaged than partisans—all factors that may contribute to their inscrutable inconsistencies… undecided voters are highly idiosyncratic. They have all different kinds of combinations of policy positions, so there is no clear winning policy message. Moreover, there’s little evidence that they vote on policy. At the very least, their policy preferences are largely untethered to their attitudes towards the two major parties”
So in the broadest sense, the midterm election result was about voters saving democracy and a reaction against the Dobbs abortion decision. But that is not why the Democrats retained the Senate or why the GOP appears to have a small, unworkable, majority in the House. These events have as much do with random events—like more COVID deaths in red counties or the personal moods of thousands of Gen Z voters on Election Day—than a resounding repudiation of the GOP and what they currently stand for.
The author’s of the New America study continue: “The persistence of an unpredictable and inconsistent group of undecided voters holding the balance of power raises serious questions about whether elections in the United States reflect an accurate aggregation of the people’s will or a series of lucky draws.”
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There are many implications to this. First, voting matters and voter turnout is still the most important thing in American politics. Second, people should stop consuming the pre-and-post media election analysis. It’s redundant, exhausting and anxiety ridden. In the closing week, I try to sip from the media hose and not drown in the inane punditry in the last days. Third, based on the 2016, 2020 and this election, expect razor sharp margins to decide scores of individual elections—which in turn will decide the Presidency or control of a branch of Congress—for the few more election cycles (at least.)
Also lost in the election punditry is how intractably 50/50 we are politically as a country. In more rational times, parties and politicians in power would construct some compromise to allow them to grow into a 55% or more controlling majority. But our “winner take all” rules and the political cage matches that grows from that, makes rational behavior harder and overreach easier for the party in power. An overreach often corrected in the next election cycle. (And the fact that Biden and the Dems did not get punished for any perceived overreach indicates just how much more overreach The Big Lie and Jan. 6th truly was.)
So while I want to join in the chorus of Democracy supporters heralding these results, we’ve been here before. Yes, the results are encouraging. But we are still very much a fragile 50/50 country where random events and the whims of a tiny percent of fickle and unreliable voters can determine our political fate. We have not yet hit rock bottom.