Earlier this year, it appeared that Democrats were going to get destroyed in the midterms. Joe Biden’s approval rating was in the toilet, inflation was raging, and everything was going wrong. It wouldn’t have been historically shocking if Democrats lost seats in November. The party in power typically loses seats in midterm elections, thanks in part to the electorate’s preference for balance.
But then something weird happened. Joe Biden’s polls went up. And up. And up. Republican Senate nominees starting flailing across the country. Today, Democrats are favored to keep the Senate, and they have doubled their odds of holding the House. How did this happen? FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver joins the podcast to explain the big picture and analyze the most fascinating individual races, from Pennsylvania to Ohio.
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After the surprising result in the special House election in Alaska, Nate Silver discusses the overall electoral climate leading into the November midterms.
Derek Thompson: I’m a huge fan. It is great to have you here. It is great to meet you, voice to voice. So let’s start with the news. In Alaska on Wednesday, Mary Peltola, a Democrat, defeated Sarah Palin in Alaska’s special House election. And this is just the latest special election where Democrats have either won or significantly overperformed Joe Biden’s edge in 2020. What are these special elections telling us about Democrats’ chances in the midterms?
Nate Silver: Yeah, I mean, so in general, we have seen a big shift in the climate over the past few months, which you can date to the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, but there are also other factors I’m sure we’ll talk about later on.
The Alaska result? I mean, on the one hand, whenever a Democrat wins in Alaska under any circumstances, something went wrong for the GOP. And you don’t expect things to go wrong in a state like Alaska when you’re in some supposed red-wave year, which I think even Mitch McConnell doesn’t believe at this point. On the other hand, you do have a ranked choice system being implemented in Alaska and that helped Democrats win. Sarah Palin is still a very polarizing figure up there; she was in second place as candidates were eliminated one at a time. And then Nick Begich, who was the more moderate Republican, had his votes split enough away from Palin toward Peltola that she won by a couple of percentage points.
There were also a fair number of wasted ballots. We saw this in the New York mayor’s race. Here in New York, we have ranked choice voting, and not everyone actually fills out all the choices from one to four, one to five, depending on the jurisdiction. And so therefore being a second choice in theory may not translate in practice. And so Palin may have won if there weren’t as many wasted votes.
But still it’s a pattern now of, I think, five special elections since the Dobbs decision where it’s not only not a red wave, it looks like a fairly blue year, if anything. These results are not that far out of line with what you saw in and up to 2018. That needs to be balanced against other evidence as well as historical priors, as I call them, or precedents, basically, in which usually the president’s party struggles at the midterms.
But this is real data now. This is not theoretical polls—and we’ve got to have a conversation about how reliable polls are these days. Democrats are very motivated to vote. I should mention, too, the Kansas abortion referendum, which lost overwhelmingly. And Kansas is a little bit more moderate than you might think, it’s not Alabama, but it’s still Kansas. And it lost by a lot and on very high turnout. So clearly something has changed in the electorate. We’re in an environment that looks more and more like an unusual midterm climate.
Thompson: To set the stage here, why is it that parties in power are historically more likely to lose during midterm elections? And how much should we lean into that historical precedent for 2022?
Silver: So it really is one of the more robust historical precedents in politics. It’s been reliable for many years. There have been exceptions. 1998 is one that’s attributed to Monica Lewinsky and the backlash to the Clinton impeachment attempt. 2002, which was after 9/11. In 1962, you basically had a neutral year after the Cuban missile crisis. But those are pretty few and far between in behind more years like 2018 or 2010, where you have a pretty big backlash against the president’s party.
The reason for that is somewhat disputed. But one idea is that voters want balance. Voters are actually kind of lowercase-C conservative in the sense of not wanting a lot of policy changes. Typically, if a party comes into office, it gets a trifecta—meaning they have the presidency, plus both branches of Congress—they’ll pass a bunch of new legislation. Maybe it goes too far. Obamacare, for example, a policy that is now fairly popular, was unpopular at the time in 2010. And so voters are trying to backlash and make sure that there are checks and balances on each party’s authority.
So what’s potentially different this year is that the Dobbs decision shows how much power the Republicans have, even when they’re out of power. Through the Supreme Court where you now have a 6-3, I think, frankly, very active Conservative majority. They are exercising a lot of political power and they struck down a policy, Roe v. Wade, that was a very popular precedent. So that might be the reason why the theory is violated here. It seems more like sides are battling back and forth over who truly has more power, despite the democratic trifecta that was brought to voters’ attention in a really dramatic way by the abortion decision. We can talk about things like January 6 or Republican threats to electoral integrity or whatever else. To some extent that’s kind of theoretical. You can talk about how, “Oh, well, if Republicans get into office, they’ll do this ...” And that could be really bad. But you actually have a living example of that in the Supreme Court decision.
This excerpt was edited for clarity.
Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Nate Silver
Producer: Devon Manze