The 2022 midterm races in Pennsylvania and across the country delivered some unexpected results. This month’s newsletter, co-written with Stephen Medvic, the Honorable and Mrs. John C. Kunkel Professor of Government at Franklin & Marshall College, attempts to understand just what happened.
Thank you for reading,
We must admit to being unsure about how the 2022 midterm races in Pennsylvania would turn out because of the many conflicting signals the polls were showing. Our polling showed contextual indicators that normally mean lopsided wins for the out party, in this case the Republicans, while at the same time we had campaign indicators that suggested the Democrats had distinct advantages. In short, the conflicting pre-election indicators couldn’t really tell us whether electoral conditions or campaign execution would matter more. The final election results show us that the campaign context mattered, but that the campaign execution by the candidates mattered more.
The polling was clear throughout the fall campaign that Republicans had tremendous advantages this election cycle. Our final poll showed that President Biden’s job approval rating in the state was 36 percent, about equal to President Obama and President Trump at the time of their first midterms. More voters favored Republican congressional candidates and more Republicans than Democrats planned to vote. Finally, concerns about the economy were high and most voters thought the state and nation were headed in the wrong direction.
Despite these advantages, the Republican candidates for Governor and US Senate were struggling and consistently under-performing. The Democratic candidates were viewed more favorably than their opponents, and a majority of Republicans would have preferred different candidates to represent the party. The Democratic candidates were both rated better than their opponents in being able to represent the state’s voters and being closer to their views on social issues. And, outside of the polling, it was clear that the Democrats’ fundraising was outpacing their opponents’.
The Economy or Abortion Rights?
What was unclear, and what remains a point of debate, is whether it was the economy or abortion rights that figured more into the final election results. Our own polling presented a mixed picture about the topic (see Table 1). When asked about the most important issue facing the state, the economy was clearly the top concern for voters. But when we asked about what was driving voters’ choice of candidate, abortion seemed to be higher on the list. Exit polls showed that these ended up being important to about the same proportion of voters.
Contextualizing the Results
The Democrats’ performance in 2022 in Pennsylvania were historically rare and in some cases unprecedented. Pennsylvania has not had two Democrats elected to the US Senate since the 1940s and the state had never before elected Democrats to three consecutive gubernatorial terms. Table 2 shows how the incumbent president’s party has performed in Pennsylvania mid-terms since 2002. Before 2022, there was typically a large decline in voter turnout and an aggregate loss of support for candidates from the president’s party. That did not happen this year.
Figure 1 shows how the 2022 county-level vote shares for the president’s party runs counter to prior mid-terms. In the 2010 and 2018 mid-terms in Pennsylvania, the county-level share of the vote for the US Senator running from the incumbent president’s party received a smaller share of the vote. This is the traditional pattern we see in mid-terms. But in 2022, John Fetterman ran ahead of Joe Biden’s vote share in most counties. The lighter gray dots in Figure 1 represent counties won by President Trump in the 2016 election.
It takes time to sort out the results of an election. Although it is common for an election to produce a set of narratives, including those pushed by motivated factions with each party, these immediate hot takes tend to get moderated and adapted with time.
One way to think about these election results is to think of a midterm election as an opportunity for the electorate to temper the president's policy agenda. If the president is taking the country in a liberal direction, the midterm elections are an opportunity for voters to pull the country back in a conservative direction. Voters, in other words, are typically seeking to balance the president's agenda by voting for the opposition party. This year, however, the issues voters cared about - which included abortion and the protection of democracy, as well as the economy - disrupted the balancing that usually takes place. On abortion and on election denial, voters appear to have wanted to move in the president's direction, not the Republicans'.
Midterm elections are also commonly thought of as a referendum on the president's performance and not a choice between two alternatives. That's because the alternative to the president typically isn't personified by another political figure. This year, Donald Trump inserted himself in the elections by making endorsements in high-profile races and by actively campaigning for those candidates in competitive states. Faced with a choice between Joe Biden and the Democrats, on the one hand, and Donald Trump and his hand-picked candidates, on the other, just enough voters chose the former, giving Democrats a better-than-expected showing. Evidence that this was as much a choice as it was a referendum can be found in the exit polls showing that a plurality (49%) of voters saying they "somewhat disapprove" of the job Biden is doing voted for the President's party. Were it a true referendum, most of these voters - who, after all, disapprove of Biden's performance - would have voted Republican.
Another piece of evidence that the election was a choice is the fact that moderate and independent voters supported Democrats in sizable numbers. This is extraordinarily unusual in a midterm election. As the Wall Street journal noted, “Republicans succeeded in one of their top goals this year: They brought more of their party’s voters to the polls than did Democrats. But in the course of energizing their core voters, Republicans in many states lost voters in the political center—both independents and many Republicans who are uneasy with elements of the party’s focus under Mr. Trump.”
One story line that has emerged from the 2022 mid-terms is to note the depth of support that John Fetterman received in rural counties, which reflected his effort to win back voters that many feel the party has lost. The coverage implies that his combination of personality and policy positions, including many progressive positions that seem out of step with rural voters, could be a map for future Democratic candidates to pursue.
The analysis about Fetterman may be true, but it fails to acknowledge the success that Josh Shapiro had among these same voters. Despite being a much different candidate stylistically and politically, Shapiro actually outran Fetterman in every county in the state. Table 3 shows each candidate’s preliminary vote share by metro type, from the largest to the smallest.
The meaning and consequences of these midterms will be debated until the next election, but one thing we should probably all remember is that the sometimes forgotten center remains in American politics. Sometimes that center can deliver a surprise.