Published: November 8, 2022
Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved elections. I love campaigns, debates, (and even lawn signs a little bit – don’t tell my colleagues). The first campaign I had the privilege of getting (barely) paid to work on was Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000. When that campaign wrapped up, and the matter was before the Supreme Court, I attended the counter-protests outside of the vice presidential residence in DC. In a moment that was more preface than I knew at the time, a friend saw one of the pro-Bush protestors opening the trunk of his car to reveal that it was full of guns. “That’s in case this don’t go right,” he far too comfortably mentioned to her as she walked past.
Well, 22 years and 5 presidential elections later, our democracy is still holding on?
Just a couple notes on what to watch today as the results unfold this evening. It’s been a rollercoaster of a political season and the ups and downs have been a mix of terrifying highs, and blood curdling screeching declines. But I am happy to bid farewell to a political season that closed with Ron DeSantis claiming that God made him on the 8th day, and former President Trump one-upping that weirdness by giving him the new nickname, Ron De-sanctimonious. Which, actually, I don’t hate.
There are a lot of dark clouds out there (particularly in Southern California where we’re getting some rain) – and I go through some of them below. But it’s not all gloom. Turnout is on the rise – which is generally good for a democracy. And while young people are still voting at an unfortunately low rate, their civic engagement is way up. In fact, according to a new report, young people are getting onto ballots across the country in big numbers. 1 out of 6 candidates this cycle are millennials and Generation Z is on the ballot for the first time.
Now some context for tonight. Going back to FDR’s first term, there have been 22 midterm elections. In only two of those did the president’s party pick up seats — in 1998, after gross Republican overreach during the Clinton administration, and in 2002, after the 9/11 attacks. Losing ground is the norm. If you look at the first-term midterms going back to President Clinton, the incumbent party loses an average of about 37 seats in the House. Even the worst projections don’t suggest that difficult of a night but there is historical context to the night we’re about to have.
That said here are some things to consider as the results come in:
- Election night might stretch for weeks. In California there are thirty days to certify elections. First they count the early vote through Monday, then the day-of votes, then the provisional ballots and then everything that was postmarked by Election Day. It takes a long time so do not anticipate that everything will necessarily be called this evening. The facts will not prevent Republicans like Kevin McCarthy from claiming fraud even though it is the simple process of accurately counting, but it will likely take a minute.
- GOP plans for a majority. Republicans have said that, should they take control of one or either body of Congress, their governance will not much relate to the thrust of their campaign messaging. They campaigned on crime, immigration and inflation, but their strategy for Republican power in the House or Senate will be antagonizing, investigating and probably a lot of embarrassing themselves. Investigations of Anthony Fauci and Hunter Biden are first on their agenda, impeachment of President Biden, Attorney General Merrick Garland, and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Myorkas, following quickly thereafter. And then of course is the reckless game of chicken that they will play with the debt limit. But the thing that will make 2023 and 2024 most miserable will be the race to the bottom between Marjorie Taylor Greene and the handful of like-minded, thinly-veiled racist, QAnon-supporters who are likely to be elected this evening. Those individuals who will be competing to win social media attention against a backdrop of an open GOP presidential primary, and I don’t even have the imagination to predict what that looks like. We have seen a political season of election denial, acceptance and mocking of political violence, and political discourse completely devoid of truth — but we ain’t seen nothing yet compared to what those dynamics will mean in coming months. From a policy standpoint, the MTG crowd is saying that they will cut off all funding to Ukraine, and that they are perfectly fine with the nation defaulting. When it comes to political rhetoric, the spread of misinformation will increase exponentially.
- Speaking of which, social media is going to get worse. On the one hand, state-sponsored actors (working at the behest of countries such as Russia and North Korea), have already ramped up their activity to sow disruption in our politics. As results begin rolling in, you should anticipate that the accounts controlled by those foreign actors will actively engage to elevate conspiracy theories put out by some of the leading (and most hateful) voices on the right like Benny Johnson and Charlie Kirk. They win when Americans don’t trust elections officials. On the other hand, tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk win when they get more engagement on their platforms, regardless of what content is getting the engagement. On January 6th, Facebook utterly failed to do what it could to quell the violence at the Capitol, acting well after it was far too late. Elon Musk has sent mixed messages about what he wants for Twitter. On the one hand, he has taken the time to sit with civil rights groups to hear their concerns about the platform. On the other, he is actively dismissive of progressives like AOC, he shined his spotlight on conspiracy theories casting doubt on the circumstances of the attack on Paul Pelosi, and he is exciting a battalion of the worst elements on the internet. He has big plans for fixing Twitter – and some of his ideas are legitimately good ones – but his actions so far are putting him on a course to making the platform into nothing more than another Truth Social or Parler, with progressives and independents finding their place on a clone that will undoubtedly develop in coming months.
- Voters of Color, Part I. If public and private polling is to be believed, Democrats have seen major erosion in their support from communities of color this election season. Black and Hispanic voters in particular have been sliding more and more into the Republican column and the results tonight could portend a steep climb into 2024 in keeping together the Biden coalition of voters that made up his victory two years ago. Races in Arizona, Florida, and Nevada will be telling in how much work we still have to do. There is a clear messaging problem, the question is what is the policy problem. As we watch the returns coming in, Democrats ought to be asking if we are prioritizing in a way that broadens our appeal beyond too narrow a band of voters. President Biden closed out these midterms with a message that emphasized choice and democratic norms — both issues of the most important consequence. Making economic issues secondary may cost us in key elections.
- Voters of Color, Part II. In addition to the messaging problem, there is a huge personnel and organizing problem. There were very few people of color managing races in swing states this cycle, and very few consultants of color making the ads that voters saw (Chuck Rocha made a good point about this in Politico). When that’s the case, the work of convincing and turning out voters of color isn’t prioritized. If we’re going to win the trust of voters of color back, it will require people in power who recognize the importance of investing and organizing in those communities, and not just the few months before every election, but all of the time.
- Early Vote. The numbers of votes cast before Election Day are higher than they’ve ever been in a midterm. If those are primarily Democratic votes, great. It is proof that years of investment in grassroots efforts to mobilize voters early, is working. And frankly, that could mean a better result for Democrats than most pundits are predicting. If it is a more mixed picture, and Republicans are out-performing their past history (because, as mentioned above, voting is up across the board), it could mean for a long night.
- The vote in the LA mayoral is going to be wild. Firstly, I believe that Bass is going to win. But looking inside the numbers, it may be difficult to declare a winner tonight. If you look back to the primary, Caruso’s voters gave him a pretty big lead the night of the primary. But as those later ballots came in, Bass absolutely demolished him, despite the fact that his advisers had convinced him he could get over 50% that night. (As a reminder, he barely got over 35%.) That said, Bass’s voters are more likely to vote later so it would be right to anticipate that it could take a while before she is declared the winner. In this case, there were already a lot of votes on the way before the thrust of Caruso’s paid media campaign this fall took root, so there is a chance that he has more support in the later ballots than before. The point is, the vote is going to potentially go up and down a lot before it stabilizes.
- If Democrats win. You can turn to any news source in the country and find predictions of our demise tonight. What about the thought exercise of Democrats winning? If we win, the narrative will likely be that Republicans overreached on Roe, on their affiliation with the January 6th insurrection, and on their rhetoric in the closing days of this cycle. They claimed that President Biden’s admonition that the character of our nation is on the ballot resonated, and Democratic accomplishments combined with an actual vision for our economy was meaningful to voters. Voters will have rejected Republican candidates who were weak conspiracists who elevated wacky and sometimes violent rhetoric. Combined with a ground game that remains stronger than the Republican efforts, we were able to hold onto the House and the Senate, and can focus on planning for Thanksgiving and early Christmas gifts that need a longer lead time because of personalization, etc. As hard as the hardworking men and women on campaigns across the country, and in the campaign committees in Washington, have worked, this is unfortunately not the most likely scenario.
As I said at the beginning, midterms have a stability to them in that the president’s party is generally massively on defense. That doesn’t mean that the progressive movement is doomed, nor that Democratic leaders have fundamentally failed. We can always do better but we still are the party that has repeatedly saved this economy – and has a plan to make it stronger going forward. We are the party that protects and continuously fights for civil rights. And we are the party of freedom (particularly when it comes to the freedom of choice). There may be some gloom tonight but then we are onto our next fight.