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Will the economy be Republicans’ trump card in the 2022 midterms?

This week, I sat down with Kyle Kondik, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and Managing Editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, one of America’s foremost newsletters on elections. We discussed whether the Republican or Democratic parties in the United States are more likely to win the majority in the upcoming Senate and House elections on November 3. Many of our readers may be focused on the continuing political turmoil engulfing the UK. However, across the pond, the elections, commonly referred to as the “midterms,” are a litmus test for a host of political issues racking the nation.

The midterms crucially determine the party composition of key institutions: the Senate (the legislative upper chamber) and the House of Representatives (the lower chamber). Also decided are a number of gubernatorial races (each state has an executive, or ‘governor’, who wields considerable power over local issues such as abortion access and the running of statewide elections. Midterm elections historically have not been met with the same degree of media and public interest as presidential elections, but 2022 seems to be bucking the trend for a number of reasons. 

First, former President Donald Trump has not desisted from making the false claim that he won the 2020 election, and a number of Republican nominees in gubernatorial races have promised not to certify “fraudulent” election results in the future. Given the fact that in the US, statewide election results do need to be legally certified by certain elected officials, the prospect of the election of officials who have promised not to heed statewide results has increased the notoriety of these elections. 

Second, the US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade, which guaranteed abortion access as a federal right (which individual states could not restrict) has meant that several states have banned abortion outright, even in cases of rape, incest, and imminent danger to the mother. This has caused a predictable electoral backlash; women in particular have been registering to vote Democrat in large numbers as a consequence. In the month of August, new female voter registrations outnumbered those of men by approximately nine to ten points (Forbes). Even in solidly Republican states such as Kansas, abortion has proved to be an issue that Democrats can campaign and win on; over 70% of the US population believes that women should have some access to abortion during the first sixteen weeks of their pregnancy. 

While Republicans, as a self-proclaimed “pro-life” party which by and large opposes abortion in most if not all cases, would seem to be in a difficult electoral position as a result of their intensely unpopular position on abortion, they are in fact the frontrunners to take the House of Representatives (and possibly even the Senate); both chambers are currently controlled by the Democrats. This is because they are trusted more on the most important issue of the day: the economy. Much like the UK, rampant inflation has been dogging the US economy for over a year, and as the governing party, the Democrats have taken most of the blame for it. In the twelve months before August 2022, the annual inflation rate was at 8.3%, a level not previously seen for decades. While the Democrats have taken credit for slowing down the pace of inflation, the slowdown has evidently not been fast enough to restore voter trust; when asked about which party they trust more to competently handle the economy, voters give the Republicans a roughly fourteen point edge. 

As election day approaches, one might benefit from looking at polling averages. However, the polling predicts a very close election (in some cases, a slight Democratic lead is present), in line with these competing trends. Moreover, polling before the 2016, 2018, and 2020 elections  was marred by inaccuracies and typically under-reported Donald Trump’s support. 

Back view portrait of young African-American people standing in voting booth and thinking, copy space

With all this in mind, my first question to Professor Kondik was whether Donald Trump still has the stranglehold over the Republican Party that many make out. “It is strange for a former President, in particular a defeated former President, to remain a significant figure in politics following a presidency. While Jimmy Carter has had an illustrious post-Presidential career, he never became involved in political minutiae after leaving office (having been defeated by Ronald Reagan) the way Trump has”. This seems true to me; after all, research has shown that having Trump’s endorsement is the biggest factor in whether Republican voters support their candidates. The next logical question, then, is whether Trump is a liability or an asset for the party. While his demagoguic rhetoric may have put off moderate voters, I wondered whether he has a record (particularly during the 2016 Presidential Election) of garnering the support of disaffected former Democratic voters in blue-collar America. While Kondik agrees with the latter statement, he concludes that “Trump is ultimately more of a liability, particularly after the January 6th insurrection” (during that event, he incited his own supporters to invade the Capitol Building in order to prevent the orderly transition of power). “Ultimately,” Kondik continues, “Republican candidates need to find a way to keep the Trump ‘base’ onside by incorporating some of his policies but without showcasing him front and centre”. 

Next, I ask him the obvious question: will the Democrats’ momentum on the abortion issue, along with their other legislative victories this year (in particular, their infrastructure investment bill and climate change legislation) outweigh voters’ disappointment with their economic performance? Kondik agrees that the abortion issue is a potent one and can potentially help the Democrats stem their losses, pointing to recent Democratic victories in formerly solidly Republican states such as Alaska and Kansas as evidence for this contention. However, he also contends that if the economic situation does not improve by November, it is unlikely for Democrats to retain control of the House of Representatives without a marked improvement in the economy (in particular, inflation statistics) given the salience of the issue among the electorate. That being said, the Democrats have a much better chance of holding the Senate, where Republicans have nominated a slate of very unpopular candidates, one of whom is currently accused of having paid for his mistress’s abortion (while he was married), despite publicly advocating for the prohibition of abortion in all cases, including those in which the life of the mother is in danger if the pregnancy goes ahead. 

Elections are incredibly unpredictable, and the 2022 midterm is proving to be no exception. Veteran political strategist James Carville, when asked about which party would win the 1992 election, once said “it’s the economy, stupid”. Only time will tell whether Republicans can rely in this conventional wisdom to pull them to victory in 2022. 

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