(Originally published by Stanford News on November 10, 2022)
SLS Professor Nathaniel Persily and other Stanford scholars weigh in on the 2022 midterm election results.
While votes from the U.S. midterm elections are still being counted and the full results of various state races are not entirely certain, what is clear is Americans did not succumb to paranoia or violence as feared, say Stanford researchers.
According to some scholars, the election felt almost like a return to normalcy: The most vocal election deniers lost, candidates running on extreme platforms failed to resonate with voters, and even polling – which has been off in previous years – fell reasonably within the margins of error. In an election where democracy was on the ballot, it proved to be one that was largely free, fair, and trustworthy.
Here, Stanford scholars – with expertise in democracy, politics, election administration, voting, polling, and surveying American attitudes – reflect on how the 2022 election has unfolded thus far, offering their explanations on outcomes ranging from the anticipated red wave that was more of a trickle, Democrats faring better than expected, and the limited role that disinformation appeared to play in this election compared to 2020. They also share what initial results might signal about 2024, when the next general election will take place. Scholars include:
- Bruce Cain, professor of political science in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S), and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West
- Emilee Chapman, assistant professor of political science in H&S
- Didi Kuo, associate director for research and senior research scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in the Freeman Spogli School of International Studies
- Nate Persily, the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at Stanford Law School and co-director of the Cyber Policy Center
- Robb Willer, professor of sociology in H&S
Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What one word would you use to describe the midterm elections so far, and why?
Cain: Relief … This was a gut check on American sanity, and fortunately, we passed (although not with honors). There was just enough recognition that the country cannot surrender to paranoia and violence.
Chapman: Complicated. Maybe the only clear narrative about the midterms is that there is no clear narrative. So far, a lot of the analysis has focused on what didn’t happen: the Republican wave that didn’t materialize. But there is no clear story about what did happen.
Persily: Surprising. I don’t think anyone predicted the particular mix of races that were won and lost. It’s quite rare that you would see such idiosyncratic results throughout the country, especially at a time when the president is so unpopular and the economy is in such a fragile state. One would have thought that there either would have been a wave election, but that would be a consistent story around the country. But instead what we see are pockets of Republican dominance and pockets of Democratic victories. Republicans have done really well in Florida and New York. Democrats have done really well in the Midwest and rust belt, except for Ohio, and then the Southwest is extremely competitive.
Is there anything you have been surprised by?
Cain: The outcome in California’s Congressional District 22 was heartening in that David Valadao, who had the courage to defy Trump and vote for his impeachment, was able to get reelected in a Republican seat. We need to have a responsible two-party system with a conservative party we can trust to uphold the values of democracy. I was also surprised at the margin of the no vote on Prop 30 [a ballot measure that proposed a tax to support the purchase of electric vehicles], but people seemed to appreciate that it may not be a good thing to let Uber and Lyft executives determine the state’s budget appropriations.
Willer: Well, one possibility is that Trump’s unpopularity and ongoing efforts to subvert democracy are hurting Republicans. You can see evidence for this in the poor performance of several Trump-backed candidates.
Another possibility is that Republicans ran many very low-quality candidates with little political experience, like Mehmet Oz, Herschel Walker, and others. This is also related to Trump’s ongoing influence over the party, as many of these low-quality candidates gained nominations in part through Trump endorsements. Additionally, Republican voters’ willingness to vote in primaries for candidates with little or no political experience is likely related to the legacy of Trump’s presidency.
But it’s very hard to disentangle the possible negative effect of being associated with Trump from the possible negative effect associated with low candidate quality. An example would be Republican Senate candidate Hershel Walker performing worse than Republican gubernatorial candidate Brian Kemp in Georgia. Is that difference because Walker is more aligned with Trump than Kemp, and some people were turned off by that? Or is it because of the many ways in which Walker is a historically bad candidate? Or is it something else entirely, like Kemp being an incumbent? It’s very difficult to disentangle these things, especially because Trump tended to endorse lower-quality candidates.
And, importantly, we also see examples of Trump-backed candidates – like JD Vance in Ohio – performing well – so I don’t think there’s a clear, nationwide repudiation of Trump and Trumpism here.
Are there any issues you are closely following?
Cain: The fact that the surveys got this right for the most part given that so many of the races were within the margin of polling error. But more importantly, we will see whether the attacks on the legitimacy of American elections abate or simply careen further into endless litigation and factual fantasies.
Chapman: I am, of course, most closely following the state-level races that will shape the impact of election deniers in 2024.
I am also following two other things with curiosity: One is ranked choice voting. Alaska recently adopted instant runoff (a form of ranked choice voting) for statewide elections, and its significance will probably be felt in this election. Ranked choice voting was also on the ballot in Nevada, and the “yes” vote appears to be leading.
The other thing I am watching is how people used early and mail-in voting. 2020 marked a substantial shift from previous elections, both because these forms of convenience voting were much more widely used, and because there was a strong partisan divergence. Democrats in 2020 were far more likely to vote early and/or by mail than Republicans. I am watching to see whether and to what extent these two patterns remain. It seems likely that the widespread use of convenience voting is the new normal, but I am worried about the polarization of the voting method. If Democrats and Republicans predictably vote using a different method, this might make people more receptive to attempts to delegitimize the method of voting predominantly used by the other side. Polarization of voting methods may also make partisan-motivated manipulation of election administration even more attractive if it is easier to identify methods on which opponents disproportionately rely.
Persily: I was mostly concerned about the administration of the election given that there are such heightened concerns about fraud and integrity, as well as voter suppression. I wanted to see whether any of those fears would be realized and thus far they have not been, but it’s still early. I think it does depend on what happens in Arizona and in the Georgia runoff to see whether we have some of the disorder that a lot of people were worried about. To be sure, there were some malfunctions in Arizona’s Maricopa County that then led to conspiracy theories being propagated both by one of the candidates and the former president. But as a general rule, this was a very smoothly run election. And election officials deserve to be congratulated for it.
What role has disinformation played in this election?
Persily: We continue to be concerned about our monitoring of false narratives that are spreading online as well as potential threats to violence and other illegal behavior. The Stanford Internet Observatory has led the Election Integrity Partnership and has been investigating false claims about the election process and so they had a very busy day [on election day, Nov. 8]. It should be no surprise that Arizona, given the concerns about the machines in Maricopa County, was seen as quite an important producer of disinformation and conspiracy theories. When/if the Senate comes down to Georgia, we should expect a lot of these conspiracy theories to be revived. That’s especially true if Kari Lake wins Arizona but right now, it doesn’t seem like we have massive conspiracy theories akin to what we saw in the 2020 election.
Why do you think that is?
Persily: In part because it’s not a presidential election, which means that Donald Trump doesn’t have exactly the same megaphone that he had back then and he can’t be as formidable a player. Also, I think because there’s no systematic story you can tell around the country. There’s no man behind the curtain who is pulling all the levers that, on the one hand, would lead to Republican dominance in Florida and in most of New York, and on the other hand, Democrats being successful in the Midwest. We’ll see in individual races like in the Georgia runoff and in Arizona and maybe Nevada but there’s no theme of election rigging that could stick to the facts on the ground they developed on Nov. 8.
Is there anything about the 2022 election that makes it unique from other elections, midterms, or otherwise?
Cain: Normally, the first midterm of a presidency is all about the incumbent president. It was indeed about Biden, but it was also about Trump. The DeSantis victory and Trump’s, at best, mixed record of candidate endorsements raise the odds that Trump will have a serious challenge to getting the 2024 Republican Presidential nomination.
Kuo: President Trump loomed large over these midterm elections, and in some ways, the midterms were as much about the former president’s influence on Republican candidates as they were about Joe Biden’s first two years in office. The Big Lie, Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen, became an election issue, particularly in state elections. Some Republican candidates, particularly those endorsed by Trump, either denied the 2020 election results or refused to acknowledge whether or not the election was fair. President Trump is considering running for reelection in 2024, so it’s not surprising that a lot of attention was devoted to MAGA candidates in these elections.
Persily: This is the first election in the post-insurrection environment. And at a time when you had a collapse of confidence on the Republican side, with respect to the election infrastructure, there was a lot of anxiety coming into the administration of this election. Elected officials were facing unprecedented challenges, including threats to their safety and the safety of their families. I think there was justifiable concern about potential violence in the polls, but that did not materialize.
What lessons are we learning from the 2022 election that could potentially impact 2024?
Cain: We have learned once again that the country is divided into three camps – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The Democrats achieved quite a bit in the first two years just as Obama did with the Affordable Care Act. We are likely headed back to a divided government and a fight over the debt limit. Obama was able to navigate the 2011-2012 period well enough to get reelected. Can Biden do the same? If Trump is the nominee, the election comes down to the Electoral College, not the popular vote. If DeSantis is the likely nominee, will Biden be the best person for that contest? TBD, I think.
Kuo: I think there are promising signs of politics as usual. Joe Biden has been able to pass COVID stimulus bills, the Inflation Reduction Act, and industrial policy. Despite bad economic conditions, his party did well considering that presidents typically lose seats in the first midterms after they take office; the Biden agenda seems to be resonating with voters. As of this writing, we don’t know which party will control either chamber: if Republicans have a slim majority, they will likely block Biden’s remaining agenda. However, the Republican party continues to be divided between its establishment wing and its MAGA faction, and that division will likely play out in the Republican presidential race. The midterms seem to be showing that the Republican party needs to work harder to persuade voters, and that the MAGA message may not resonate.
Persily: The fact that many of the most vocal election deniers lost was a significant development in this election. It possibly signals a retreat to normalcy in part since the 2020 election. I think that the more false claims of vote rigging are defeated, the better it is for American democracy. I think those concerns still resonate with tens of millions of Americans, and many of them are going to hold elected office, so they’re not going away anytime soon. But I think that it’s quite an important signal from this election. Many people said that democracy was on the ballot in this election. And they were right because the very basic question as to whether we could continue to run elections that were free, fair, and trustworthy was an open question coming into this election, and I think that the professional running of this election suggested that we could.