IT’S almost become part of American folklore that its citizens don’t take midterm elections very seriously. It was David Letterman, one of the country’s best-known television hosts and comedians, who once jokingly summed up this supposed national disdain.
“You can cut the indifference with a knife … it’s the day Americans leave work early and pretend to vote,” Letterman quipped.
In the past, there was undoubtedly some truth to this notion of “indifference” toward the midterms, but this Tuesday’s vote is shaping up as something quite different and engaging Americans to a degree rarely seen before.
Nearly 250 million citizens are eligible to vote on November 8 in a ballot that will determine the makeup of the 118th US Congress and will be voters’ first opportunity to manifest a national verdict on the presidency of Joe Biden, albeit that his name will not be on the ballot.
If history is anything to go by, then the party that controls the presidency – in this case the Democrats – often fares poorly in the midterms. It’s that moment when the electorate can vent their exasperation or disappointment with the president and an opportunity to put a political shot across the bows of the incumbent administration.
With Biden currently running on low approval ratings, that might just be how it plays out on Tuesday. According to a two-day national Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll completed last week, only 40% of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance – a percentage point higher than a week earlier.
Despite the increase, Biden’s approval rating remains near the lowest levels of his presidency, and his unpopularity is helping drive the view that Republicans will win control of the House and possibly also the Senate on November 8.
Should that happen, it would not be the first time midterm setbacks have scuppered the domestic agendas of presidencies. As US national editor of the Financial Times Edward Luce rightly pointed out in an op-ed the other day, Newt Gingrich’s new-model Republicans in 1994, Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic wave in 2006 and the Tea Party sweep of 2010 put paid to the domestic plans of Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama respectively.
What happens then on Tuesday will set the tone for the rest of Biden’s first presidential term. In terms of what’s at stake, in the first instance all eyes will be on who ends up controlling the two crucial bodies of government – the Senate and the House of Representatives.
In the US’s two-party system, this is essential for getting laws made. Currently Democrats control both bodies and the presidency and losing either the House or the Senate to Republicans would significantly decrease the Democrats’ power in the next two years of Biden’s term.
The Democrats presently hold a majority of just eight in the House of Representatives and their chances of holding on to that look poor. The fight for control of the Senate is just as tight as that for Congress, if not more so. There are 100 US senators, but just 35 of the seats will be contested on Tuesday across 34 states (in Oklahoma both of the senate seats are up for election).
At present, there are 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans in the Senate, with Kamala Harris, the US vice-president, casting the tie-breaking vote.
Republican control of either the Senate or House of Representatives would be enough to derail most legislation Biden and his fellow democrats want to enact. It would also allow Republicans to push ahead with a flood of congressional probes of his administration. With the elections only two days away, both Democrats and Republicans respectively are making ominous overtures in the hope of persuading Americans to vote for them.
As the Republicans see it, if people vote Democrat, the country will collapse through a combination of inflation, immigration and crime. The Democrats, meanwhile, argue that a vote for the Republicans will result in America’s democratic institutions and protective measures being overturned, pointing as a prime example to the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol that sought to keep Donald Trump in power.
And speaking of Trump, the former president is now expected to announce another White House bid in the wake of the midterms. The American news website Axios first reported that Trump and his advisers were discussing an official launch on November 14, less than one week after the midterms and just two days after his daughter, Tiffany, is set to be married at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
“And now, in order to make our country successful and safe and glorious, I will very, very, very probably do it again,” the former president said during a rally last Thursday night, teasing a 2024 bid. “Get ready, that’s all I’m telling you, very soon. Get ready,” he added.
While Trump is not on the ballot in the midterms, many political observers see Tuesday’s election as a litmus test of his influence within the party and of his electoral viability ahead of a potential presidential bid in 2024.
As the possibility of Trump running again in 2024 hangs over America, his false claim that the 2020 vote was stolen has become entrenched. Roughly half the Republicans running for federal or state-wide office in the midterms believe the presidency was stolen from Donald Trump in 2020 and it is commonplace for them to propagate this untruth “I think like a moth to a flame, Trump will run in 2024,” one senior adviser told Reuters news agency, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I think that he wants to run and announcing before Thanksgiving gives him a great advantage over his opponents and he understands that.”
Many election watchers believe the midterms will show to what extent the Republican Party has become what Trump’s son Eric has repeatedly termed “the Trump Party”.
“He literally brought in a whole new party that stands for something totally different than the wider class of the Republican Party ever stood for,” Eric Trump told conservative TV network Newsmax.
BUT Trump (below) also remains unpopular after his divisive four-year term that ended with the 2021 assault on the US Capitol by his followers, then two years during which he has continued to claim falsely that his election defeat was the result of fraud.
He also currently faces a raft of investigations, including a Justice Department probe into classified documents he took from the White House after leaving office, some of which prosecutors say have not yet been recovered.
Late last month, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 41% of Americans still view Trump favourably. But should he make another presidential bid in 2024, he will face a direct challenge from several major Republican figures who are considering whether to seek the party’s nomination in 2024.
Among these is Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who is expected to win his re-election race on Tuesday against Democrat Charlie Crist. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin and Trump’s former vice-president, Mike Pence, are also seen as being among potential rivals.
The Republican nomination, though, is a battle to be fought on another day and for now the focus remains on getting the best possible result on Tuesday. So just what are the key issues on which the midterms will be fought?
Throughout the course of 2022, a wide ranging and varied set of issues has dominated political discourse across the United States. This, after all, has been the year that saw the beginning of the war in Ukraine, continuing gun violence across the US, record numbers of refugees and migrants at the US-Mexico border and a landmark Supreme Court decision that rolled back the nationwide right to abortion.
Ever since the overturning of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade ruling in June, many conservative US states passed restrictive abortion laws, including near-total bans. It’s an issue that resonates with US voters, resulting in many Democrats prioritising it in their election pitches.
Since the start of the year, abortion has been the one issue that has seen an uptick among voters, and according to a Statista survey, it is the second most frequently cited concern – with 53% of respondents saying it would be “very important” for them when deciding who they want in office. Sensing this importance among voters, Democrats have sought to portray the elections as a referendum on reproductive rights.
“This November: Abortion access will be on the ballot. A woman’s freedom will be on the ballot. The future of women’s reproductive rights will be on the ballot,” was how Democratic senator Maggie Hassan, who is seeking re-election in New Hampshire, summed it up on Twitter on September 17.
But there are other rights issues of grave concern to voters. These were summed up by president Biden himself who has said that Americans “can’t take democracy for granted any longer”.
Speaking to the Democratic National Committee at Washington, DC’s Union Station, Biden was at pains to point out that threats by some Republican candidates to refuse to accept the results from Tuesday’s elections if they lose posed a threat to democracy.
“This driving force is trying to succeed where they failed in 2020 to suppress the rights of voters and subvert the electoral system itself,” the president said. “That is the path to chaos in America. It’s unprecedented. It’s unlawful. And it is un-American.”
Already there are reports of election workers being intimidated and harassed. There is mounting evidence too of armed men watching outdoor ballot drop-boxes, taking photos and videos of voters dropping off ballots.
Election officials nationwide are bracing for confrontations at polling sites led by a flood of conspiracy theorists who have signed up to work as partisan poll watchers. At least five people have been charged with federal crimes for harassing workers during early voting.
Alongside Biden’s warning of “make no mistake, democracy is on the ballot for all of us”, early evidence of intimidation and harassment has impacted on the thinking of many voters.
But concerning as these potential threats to democracy are, far and away the one issue above all else on voters’ minds on Tuesday will be the economy.
IN an October survey by Pew Research Center, about eight in 10 registered voters (79%) said the economy is very important when making their decision about who to vote for.
The cost of food, petrol and housing, respectively, are the three most concerning economic issues, according to poll respondents.
With the US Federal Reserve having hiked interest rates to the highest levels since early 2008, the Republicans have been pushing to make the economy a central issue in the midterms, often accusing Biden of seeking to distract from soaring inflation.
Such criticism of the Democrats’ failure to make the economy a central plank of the election is not only a Republican preserve, though it would seem.
In a very recent interview with The Guardian newspaper, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist who ran for president in 2016 and 2020, criticised Democrats for not doing enough to motivate voters around the economic issues that have an impact on everyday life.
“People are hurting. You got 60% of our people living paycheck to paycheck, and for many workers, they are falling further behind as a result of inflation. Oil company profits are soaring, food company profits are soaring, drug company profits are soaring. Corporate profits are at an all-time high. The rich are getting much richer, and Democrats have got to make that message,” Sanders said, warning that Tuesday’s midterms are the most “consequential” in modern American history.
The economy, abortion, crime and even the future of US democracy itself are all on the ballot this week. How Americans will vote we can only wait and see, but few would be surprised if the country took a sharp turn to the right.
As Tim Kaine, Democratic senator from Virginia, once observed: “Midterm elections for first-term presidents are notoriously difficult.” And so it could well be for Biden this week.
Whatever the results on Tuesday, the focus is almost certain to rapidly shift to the question of whether Biden and Trump will run again in what would be the almost surreal prospect of a rematch of 2020. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.