New Times,
New Thinking.

Donald Trump’s comeback has stalled

The former president’s anointed candidates were defeated in key races against the Democrats.

By Harry Lambert

So much for the “red wave”. The Democrats have fared far better than expected in the US midterm elections. They are unexpectedly on course to retain control of the Senate and only narrowly lose the House of Representatives. In the past week expectations had tended towards a “red wave” of Republican victories, but one outlet predicted otherwise: the New Statesman, through my colleague Ben Walker’s election model.

The leading US forecasters, the Economist and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, gave the Republicans a 55-60 per cent chance of taking the Senate, and betting markets put the probability as high as 75 per cent. The NS model predicted that Democrats would retain power and end up with 51 Senate seats, picking up one in Pennsylvania – where John Fetterman has now been declared the victor. The model also captured how close the contest for the House would be.

Fetterman was unable to campaign for much of this summer after suffering a stroke, scuppering his plans to roam the state, but that has not prevented the Democrats from picking up voters in the state’s less urban areas, where they had struggled since 2008.

It is not yet clear why the Democrats have proven so resilient. These results are surprising. Take Joe Biden’s approval rating: at 41 per cent, it is lower than Donald Trump’s before the 2018 midterms and Barack Obama’s in 2010. Trump and Obama both suffered stinging midterm defeats – Trump lost 40 seats in the House; Obama lost 63 – and yet the Democrats under Biden are set to lose only a dozen or so. His party has managed to get candidates elected independently of a president whose approval rating is 10 percentage points lower than his vote share in the 2020 presidential election.

Biden’s unpopularity was one of the reasons why expectations of a red wave took hold. The historical tendency for a president’s party to lose seats was another; since 1946 the party in the White House has lost an average of 26 House seats and four Senate seats in midterm elections. Given those facts, many defaulted to such an outcome in the past ten days as public polls shifted in favour of the Republicans in many key states. And there was a willingness to believe in that shift as polls had missed the scale of Republican appeal in 2016 and 2020.

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We are always attuned to the last war. Yet the public polls that flooded the market in the final week of the campaign were misleading. An average of the most recent surveys in Pennsylvania, for instance, suggested that Fetterman’s lead in the state had evaporated, but many pollsters had simply already run their final polls (which showed Fetterman comfortably ahead) in the preceding weeks. This is the tension of polling: do you trust newer data, and believe in late shifts in voting intention, or stick with many weeks’ worth of older data? There is no right answer.

How do the results frame the run-up to the 2024 presidential election? The Trump show is about to return (I’ve written about what that show is like to attend in this week’s magazine), but Trump has suffered a setback. Not only have many of his anointed candidates fallen short, but Ron DeSantis, Trump’s main rival for the 2024 Republican nomination, has bucked the national trend and cruised to re-election as governor of Florida.

It has been an excellent night for the Democrats, but two sobering realities remain. They are still set to lose the House tonight, and with it their ability to pass legislation. Biden will end this week a weaker president than he began it. And the party faces a series of gruelling Senate races in tougher seats in 2024. They may be set to cling on to the grander half of Congress tonight, but their hold on the chamber remains insecure.

[See also: What the US midterm results mean for the war in Ukraine]

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