By Bernd Debusmann Jr in Washington & Natalie Sherman in New York City
With inflation at 8% and poor approval ratings for the Democratic president, Republicans were hoping to make big strides in retaking Congress. Why hasn’t that happened?
Pollsters and pundits for weeks warned of an impending “red wave” – an electoral Republican rout which would deliver a harsh rebuke of Joe Biden and the Democrats.
As the sun rose across the US on Wednesday, however, it became clear that the “tsunami” Republicans had hoped for never materialised.
While the party has made modest gains and remains favoured to win the House of Representatives, the Senate remained hotly contested and the Democrats have performed better than expected. Why?
It wasn’t all about the economy
Inflation and the economy – while top of the list of voter concerns – proved not to be as damaging to Democrats as they had feared.
Analysts said that may reflect the fact that the economy, while slowing, has remained relatively healthy. Though the cost of living is rising, growth has continued and unemployment remains low.
“People don’t love the economy, but they’re not getting laid off, which allowed other issues like abortion, like immigration, like the ‘Big Lie’ on the right to instead dominate the closing weeks of the election,” said pollster Chris Jackson, senior vice president at Ipsos.
Concerns about the economy also reflect the country’s polarisation.
While Democrats’ views have darkened this year, they tend to remain more positive than Republicans and independents, ranking such economic concerns behind other issues, such as climate change, racism and abortion.
The spectre of Donald Trump kept those issues alive and helped to keep the Democratic base motivated to vote.
“What we can say is that this election cycle Republicans – and particularly Trump Republicans – couldn’t get out of their own way and let things like inflation or the economy dominate the discussion, which probably would have propelled Republicans to bigger gains,” Mr Jackson said.
“Republicans essentially gave Democrats something to run on other than the issues they were losing on, which was the economy.”
An energised Democratic base
Initial voter data suggests that turnout was at a historic high for a midterm in many parts of the country – a fact that some attribute, in part, to a Democratic base that was driven by young people motivated by issues like reproductive rights.
“Generation Z voters actually did turn out,” Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas – San Antonio told the BBC.
“Had the Supreme Court not overturned Roe v Wade back in June, the Democrats wouldn’t have had that to energise voters, given the dynamics of issues related to crime, immigration or inflation. It actually helped the Democrats stave off that Red Wave.”
Among the young people that felt compelled to turn out on Tuesday was Jack Pribble, a 19-year-old student who said he feared that the overturn of the constitutional right to abortions could call other rights into question.
“I’m a gay man and the abortion ruling is indicative of how repressive American policies are getting,” said Mr Pribble.
Some Republicans, on the other hand, have explicitly said that their party’s failure to turn out their vote in adequate numbers led to them falling short of expectations.
“Republicans and Independents stayed home,” tweeted Mayra Flores, a Republican representative in Texas who was unseated by her Democratic opponent, Vicente Gonzalez just months after winning a special election in June. “Do not complain about the results if you did not try to do your part.”
Bucking a midterms trend
Historically, the party of the incumbent president – in this case, the Democrats – takes a drubbing in the midterms. Data from the University of California Santa Barbara suggests that a president’s party has, on average, lost 28 House seats and four Senate seats in every midterm between 1934 and 2018.
Justin Buchler, a professor of political science at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio, said that previous midterm results may have created a “default” and “baseline” expectation that the Republican victory would be greater than it was.
“I think a lot of people got ahead of themselves with their predictions,” Mr Buchler said.
“Generally people make statements that are not backed up by data, and each side sort of has incentives for a little bit of cheerleading. I think one of the lessons from past elections was to be a little more cautious about these kinds of predictions. People have not learned that lesson.”
A referendum on Donald Trump
This year’s midterms were also widely seen as a litmus test on Donald Trump’s legacy and his continued influence over the Republican Party.
The University of Texas’ Jon Taylor suggested that many voters who were on the fence may have decided to cast their ballots in an effort to undermine Mr Trump’s influence over the party.
“There’s an argument to be made here that this was as much a referendum on Donald Trump as it was anything else,” he said. “And if you look at the candidates that he supported, particularly the election deniers running for governor, Senate or secretary of state positions, many of them lost. Even if he got a couple of wins, it’s not like he expanded any sort of Republican base or majority.”
Mr Taylor’s assessment was echoed by Alex Heide, a previously undecided 31-year-old voter in Georgia who said he was “really turned off” by Mr Trump’s endorsement, in his case of Republican candidate Herschel Walker.
“I don’t agree with Democrats on everything,” he told the BBC before voting. “But I feel it’s significantly more stable than the Republican platform.”
With additional reporting from Chloe Kim