By Jonathan Bernstein / Bloomberg Opinion
The polls won’t close for a week, but there already is plenty of spin casting blame and taking credit for midterm wins and losses. Yet as misleading as some spin can be, pre- and post-election attempts at explanation play an important role in the political process, whether or not those explanations are backed up by facts.
First, a reality check on the recent spin. A lot of election commentary this week has centered on the notion that Democrats are suddenly struggling. It looks like Democrats will have a tough Election Day. But that’s something we have known was likely since Joe Biden won the 2020 election. Political scientists find that midterms are mainly driven by the president’s popularity; which in turn tends to be a function of the economy. With a Democrat in the White House and with perceptions of the economy so negative, the chances for an overall winning year for Democrats have always been slim.
Indeed, as political scientist John Sides points out, analysis that just takes into account those fundamentals — presidential popularity and economic sentiment — estimates that Republicans, all else being equal, would gain between 40 and 45 seats in the House and between one and three seats in the Senate. Some models are even more optimistic about Republican gains. As Sides says, “basic indicators suggest that 2022 should be bad for Democrats and you should calibrate your expectations to that.”
Of course, if Republicans gain “only” 30 House seats and one Senate seat, they are going to have a comfortable majority in the House and a narrow majority in the Senate, and they’ll feel pretty happy about the election. That’s certainly a reasonable reaction.
Did Democrats put too much emphasis on abortion? Did Republicans help themselves by emphasizing crime and the border? Was talk of Republicans suffering a penalty for nominating poor candidates in many races overblown? Any of these things might be true.
But go back to those fundamentals, which indicate that Republicans should gain dozens of House seats. Other factors — the policy questions or advertising or the candidates themselves — matter far less. And if Republicans win fewer than 40 House seats, that means those factors amounted to a wash or, more likely helped, not hurt, Democrats.
This is perhaps a counterintuitive conclusion. The tendency is always going to be to assume that whatever the winning party did helped them and whatever the losing party did hurt them. But the truth is far more complicated. The big things that drive elections are largely out of the control of campaign operatives and perhaps even out of the control of elected officials. And the small things that may matter at the margins almost certainly don’t all push the results in the same direction.
It could be, for example, that crime helped Republicans a little, abortion helped Democrats a fair amount and border issues didn’t have any effect at all. Or any other combination. It’s almost certainly not the case that everything Republicans did helped them and that everything Democrats did was ineffective; indeed, that won’t be the case even if it turns out that Republicans surpass the fundamentals and gain 50 or more House seats.
So, spin can be annoying and even flat-out false. But it winds up playing an important role in the electoral process as oft-repeated claims are accepted as truth. That’s what happened after the 1994 Republican landslide, when Democrats wound up believing that gun safety measures were a huge factor in why they lost. It probably wasn’t true, but Democrats who believed it was true retreated on that issue for almost 20 years.
While some people explaining election results are trying to be objective, a lot of party actors will be trying their best to use expectations to their advantage. So anti-abortion Republicans will be arguing that their position helped or at least didn’t hurt Republican candidates, while Democrats who care about abortion rights will be claiming that things would have been worse for the party had it not focused on the issue.
Indeed, the battle over explanations, waged largely within each party, can wind up being as important in the long run as the election results themselves. In that battle, objective analysis may matter, but so will the skills and resources of those handling the post-Election Day spin.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. A former professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.