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Faculty voice: The Surprising Results of the 2022 Midterm Elections

November 10, 2022 - Jordan Cash, Ph.D.

Jordan Cash is an assistant professor of Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy (PTCD) in James Madison College. Cash joined JMC this fall. Previously, he was a lecturer at Baylor University and was founder and director of the Zavala Program for Constitutional Studies.


Over the past 40 years, it has become a truism of American politics that midterm elections are often painful for the president and his party. The past six presidents have all seen their party lose seats in Congress during a midterm, often losing a majority in at least one chamber.

Knowing this history makes the results of the 2022 midterm elections all the more surprising. President Joe Biden currently has the lowest approval rating of any president at this point in their term in the modern era, and polls consistently show that an overwhelming majority of voters believe the country is on the wrong track. In such an environment, many expected that the 2022 midterms would be a “red tsunami” of Republican victories.

But it wasn’t.

So, what happened?  

While there are many different ways we can try to make sense of the election, I think two issues stand out as needing further elaboration. 1. Polling difficulties and unrealistic expectations; and 2. Candidate quality.

The last several elections have not been kind to pollsters. After Trump’s upset victory in 2016, pollsters have tried to ensure that they do not undercount Republican support. In this election, however, they seem to have overcompensated for past errors, producing models that overestimated Republican support and creating high expectations for Republicans that they failed to meet. Apart from polling errors, we must also consider the impact of early voting. With voters able to cast votes weeks before Election Day, those votes may not be accurately reflected in the polls leading up to the actual election day. So, rather than our elections capturing public opinion expressed all at once in early November, they now seem to reflect public opinion as expressed over several weeks — something which is exceedingly difficult for polls to capture or predict.

Additionally, this election shows that regardless of the larger environmental factors, candidate quality matters, particularly in state-wide races which tend to depend more on candidate personality. Republicans ran weak candidates in winnable races who subsequently lost. Conversely, Republican gubernatorial candidates often outran their senatorial counterparts. Why that happened is a question Republicans will need to answer as they try to understand how the purported red wave became a trickle.

On the whole, Biden and the Democrats survive — and even thrived — through what history suggests should have been a bad night for them. Yet even while the Republicans failed to meet expectations, if they manage to retake the House, as current trends suggest they will, or even the Senate — which remains a possibility — it will have been a good, albeit disappointing, election for them. The resulting divided government will make it very difficult for Biden to achieve his policy goals moving forward. Thus, although this was a strange election, the main takeaway may simply be that Americans remain polarized and divided, and we should prepare ourselves for two years of national gridlock.