The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Night for Trump

By Ben Freeman

A Good Night for Democrats

Even though many key races have not been called yet (House and Senate control have not been called), we can still read the “tea leaves” of the races that have been called and the votes that have been tallied. The main headlines and news articles in the coming weeks will say something to the effect of “the red wave fizzled.” Coming into last night, the media sentiment was that there was going to be a substantial red wave, and big conservative media personalities and Republican politicians were not shy in predicting there would be a red tsunami or a “bloodbath!” as Donald Trump Jr. put it. 

In my opinion, the 2022 midterms were a “red trickle.” Both sides are going to claim victory in their own way, just like the 2018 midterms where Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House, while Republicans gained 1 seat in the Senate. Democrats claimed victory for taking the house, and Trump bragged about retaining the Senate. Perhaps, in 2022, there will be fewer Republicans triumphantly claiming victory, but they still likely regained control of the house. Overall, because Democrats defied the expectations of a red wave by limiting their losses in the House and likely retaining their Senate majority, they are more justified in claiming victory in the 2022 midterms.

Because there are thousands of different elections happening on the local, state, and national election, there are thousands of different data points that you can analyze which will inevitably affect the conclusions that one draws from these results. Some of these takes that we see in the next week will be better than others. One example of an egregiously bad take is Donald Trump claiming “[Don Bolduc] lost tonight when he disavowed, after his big primary win, his longstanding stance on Election Fraud in the 2020 Presidential primary. Had he stayed strong and true, he would have won, easily. Lessons Learned.” While not as bad as this take, I do expect there to be bad takes coming from the more liberal-leaning media organizations as well. Here, I will try to give a balanced, nuanced, and interesting summary of key takeaways that we should take from the 2022 midterms and what this means going forward. 

Florida is a Red State

First, one story from last night that might be overlooked because of the general trend nationally that favored Democrats is what happened in Florida. Florida is officially no longer a swing state. Incumbent Republican governor Ron Desantis won this race by nearly 20% or an over 1.5 million vote margin. To put this into context, in 2018, Desantis (R) narrowly won the governor’s race by less than .5% or ~30,000 votes. Desantis’s margin of victory increased by nearly 5000%. Huge swings like this are almost unprecedented in our highly partisan environment, but Desantis was able to take a perennial swing state and turn it bright bright red even with a high profile relatively moderate Democratic candidate (who was a popular former Republican governor).

The three main reasons that Desantis was able to win in such dramatic factions were his successful handling of the COVID pandemic and Hurricane Ian, conservative immigration to Florida from other states like New York and California and other countries like Cuba and Venezuela, and establishing his own conservative brand (apart from Trump) by implementing relatively popular policies in the state. Desantis’s willingness to buck the national consensus on lockdowns likely handed him a victory in traditionally Democratic Miami-Dade and Palm Beach countries. Desantis also ran up the numbers with senior voters, probably due to his efficient rolling out of the vaccine. It is important to hedge this narrative with the fact that some Democrats in Florida stayed home because they knew they wouldn’t be voting for any competitive races, but the sheer margin that Desantis won by is incredible, and he won ~600,000 new voters than in 2018.

What does Desantis’s victory mean going forward? Every national Republican is going to try to recruit him to run in 2024, and he likely will. He refused to say that he would serve the full 4 years if re-elected to the governorship when asked at the debate by Democratic challenger Charlie Crist, and he (like most politicians) has a big ego and has appeared to be positioning himself for a Presidential run ever since 2020 with many Fox News appearances, endorsements of Republicans across the country, and media seeking actions like sending the migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. Desantis’s recent ridiculous ad where a voiceover claims that on the 8th day, God created Ron Desantis signals a 2024 Presidential run. I think Desantis wants to run, will run, and will likely win the 2024 GOP Presidential primary.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Night for Trump

Before last night, Donald Trump was the betting favorite to win the 2024 GOP Presidential primary for good reason. He has extremely high name recognition and a very loyal base. However, Desantis is now the favorite, and for good reason. Donald Trump had a horrible night, and it is not over. To start out the night, Trump cheered when Joe O’Dea, a Republican Senate candidate in Colorado, lost because Joe O’Dea, a self-described moderate, said that he would not support Trump in 2024. If Trump really wanted the GOP to take the Senate, then he would be sad, not happy, when a Republican Senate candidate lost.

Across the board, the Trump-endorsed candidates are vastly underperforming which is a referendum on Trump’s power on the electorate. While the establishment was begging Trump not to endorse Dr. Memhet Oz (R) in Pennsylvania over more mainstream Dave McCormick, Trump did anyway because he likes TV guys and Melania liked him. Oz barely came out of the primary (only because Trump endorsed him), and lost by a pretty significant margin to John Fetterman (D), who was a pretty damaged candidate. Brian Kemp (who Trump tried to primary) vastly outperformed Trump-picked Herchel Walker in Georgia who is on track to lose in the runoff. New Hampshire was winnable for Republicans if Trump hadn’t endorsed Doug Bolduc in the primary, and a similar story is true in Arizona with Blake Masters. Additionally, Trump raised tens of millions of dollars from GOP donors but kept it for himself, not helping his GOP allies during the midterms. I would not be surprised if you see some high-profile Republicans partially calling out Trump for their underperformance in the midterms.

How Trump Will Frame the 2022 Midterms

Trump will likely try to claim some credit for wins in Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina, but these aren’t that impressive. There is only one argument that the Trump and his loyalists can make in their defense that holds some water. Trump can argue that one reason the Republicans underperformed is because he was not on the ballot. In the rust belt, this argument does make sense because Trump engaged some very low propensity voters. In 2016, Trump made Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin competitive and helped GOP Senators win those seats. 

However, in 2020, although Republicans exceeded expectations (especially in the House), and Trump performed better than anticipated (especially with Hispanics), Democrats still gained control of the House, Senate, and Presidency under his watch. Republicans should give credit to Trump for bringing new voters into their voter ranks, but if the “Trump effect” is only helpful to the GOP when he is on the ballot, he is not necessarily an added value to the Republican Party. Additionally, this “Trump effect” is waning. For example, I believe that Ron Desantis would have a much better opportunity of winning Wisconsin, Michigan, and/or Pennsylvania, and I am certain that Desantis would have a better opportunity of winning Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada in the 2024 Presidential race.

Overall, while the 2022 midterms were not horrible for Republicans, they were awful for Trump and Trumpism. While reporting indicated that Trump was about to announce another run for the Presidency in 2024 before the midterms, the midterm results are so damaging for Trump that he might reconsider running. If he doesn’t run, this clears an easy path for Desantis in 2024, but if he does, it will get ugly. I think Desantis will be able to pull it off in the 2024 Republican Presindetial primary because of what happened last night, but with Trump in the picture, you really never know.

How Democrats Did It

Moving on to the Democrats, they can be pretty happy with the results. They will likely retain the Senate, and they did not lose as many House races as expected. The fundamentals greatly favored the Republicans with Biden being unpopular, high inflation, and crime on the rise, but Democrats were able to fend off the tough environment and hold their own. How were they able to do this? I think there are a few reasons.

Roe Roe Roe the Vote

First, it is impossible to ignore the effect that repealing Roe v Wade had on Americans. While it is very hard to deduce exactly how Americans feel about abortion based on polling, it is clear that the majority of Americans (>60%) disapproved of the Dobbs Supreme Court decision. Americans are simply slow to change and do not like radical departures from the status quo, so this upending of 50 years of precedent definitely increased Democratic turnout and influenced some independents (and even Republicans) to vote Blue. Still, the abortion effect was muted by larger economic issues that favor Republicans and that’s part of the reason why Republicans will gain seats in the house, but on the margins, I do think you can attribute the Dobbs decision to why the Democrats did better than anticipated. 

One of the most common ads this cycle was accusations of Republicans being against or being associated with people who were against all abortions even in cases of rape and incest. Polling clearly shows this hardline stance on abortion is not popular with the general public. These abortion ads worked in many parts of the country, so Republicans are going to have to moderate some of their abortion stances or message better on this issue going forward because right now, it is clearly a winning issue for Democrats.

Dark money Democrats and Trump on the same team?

Second, the Republicans’ candidate quality (more so on the Senate level) was poor, and you can thank the Democrats and Donald Trump for this. Democrats had a risky strategy of funding (with Democratically aligned super PACs) more MAGA-aligned far-right candidates in the Republican primary with the hope that they would be easier to beat in the general election than a more moderate Republican candidate. This strategy was criticized by many on both sides, but it appeared to work very well based on the midterm results. You can attribute specific Democratic wins in Senate, House, and Governor’s races to this strategy. 

The example of this strategy working that comes to mind the quickest is Doug Mastriano, a Republican governor candidate in Pennsylvania. Democrats elevated him in the primary, and Trump gave him a boost with a last-minute endorsement propelling him to the general election. In the general election, both Democrats and Republicans knew that the governor’s race would not be competitive because Doug Mastriano was so far to the right. 

There are other countless cases where Democrats effectively invested money in the primary, and it ended up paying off in the general election. It is important to note that Republicans have done this in the past as well, but in the 2022 midterms, specifically because of the plethora of election denialism among Republicans, it was easier for Democrats (with the help of Trump) to elevate these more radical candidates. 

Furthermore, in many cases, Democrats did not have to invest any money for the Republicans to choose candidates with poor candidate quality in the primary; Trump did the job for them. In the 2022 midterm cycle, Trump had the inclination to pick the worst possible candidates. Herschel Walker in Georgia is a primary example of this. When Trump endorsed Walker, it cleared the field, and even though Mitch McConnell was skeptical at first, he ended up going along with it because Trump’s endorsements in the primary are very powerful. Although Trump does wield a lot of power in the GOP primaries, it is clear by these results that this “magic” does not apply to the general election anymore especially when he is not on the ballot. 

The Messaging Battle

Lastly, the Republicans never defined a clear message besides being anti-Biden and anti-Democrats on a national level. In Florida, Desantis was able to do this with the message of freedom, being COVID-19 lockdowns, but on a national level, the Republicans did not have clear messaging. In an attempt to replicate Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” in 1994, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy released the “Commitment to America,” but they didn’t really market this, and no one knew about it. Head of the NRSC Rick Scott’s competing plan only got media attention because he wanted every single American to pay income tax, raising taxes on many Americans who pay zero income tax; this plan is not a winning strategy to say the least. 

While pointing to inflation, gas prices, and crime was effective in turning out Republican votes to a degree, part of the reason why we didn’t see a red wave was due to the Republicans’ lack of a coherent plan. While all the Democrats were on the same message on abortion for example, only some Republicans supported Lindsey Graham’s national abortion restrictions. Different Republican candidates holding different views on election denialism, Trump, abortion, and other key issues made it more difficult for Republicans to establish themselves as a common-sense alternative to the Democrats. 

Even though most GOP candidate pivoted after their primary, most of these candidates plainly stated that the 2020 Presidential was rigged for Joe Biden, which is a clear falsehood. While having this belief is not a turn off for a good portion of the electorate as many voters agree with these beliefs and others don’t care about election denialism as much as other issues, overall, not only is election denialism a threat to democracy it also is not popular writ large with the voters. Even with the post-primary pivots, these beliefs (with January 6th still in the back of people’s minds) hurt Republican candidates (despite Trump wrongly claiming that leaning into “election integrity” issues is a winning formula). 

On a messaging front, the Democrats were not great either. It is hard to govern with high inflation and crime, and Democrats were not effective in countering these attacks from Republicans. However, hammering home the abortion issue worked to a degree. All the Democrats were on the same message about codifying Roe. Also, the Democrats were able to lean into passing the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure bill. While forgiving student loan debt and pardoning the marijuana offenders might not have been popular overall, and it is hard to determine the impact (if any) this had on the voters, it likely increased turnout among Democrats, helping them on election day. Whether you agreed with these actions or not, you could no longer call them the “Do Nothing Democrats.”

Ok… But what does this mean?

Going forward, what do the 2022 midterms mean for the future? I don’t think these midterms gave us any clear insight into which party will win in 2024. Some pundits have been quick to say that because this is a good night for Democrats, this means that Biden will definitely run in 2024. While the midterms definitely strengthen Biden, I am still bearish on the idea that Biden will run for a second term for many reasons. Even if he does run again, I do expect there to be a Democratic primary challenger.

With a likely divided congress (a likely Republican House and a likely Democratic Senate) and partisanship at very high levels, there is likely not going to be much legislation passed before the 2024 elections. It will be interesting how both parties react to these midterm results. Are Democrats going to feel emboldened by last night’s results and try to implement a more progressive agenda, or will Biden and the Democrats try to come back to the middle and work with a Republican Congress? I think the former is probably more likely even though strategically the latter is probably better.

How are the Republicans going to react? Will Kevin McCarthy be an effective House leader (assuming the GOP takes the House)? This is hard to know. It is likely the Republican establishment will not try to pass anything too radical because they underperformed expectations, but with the insurgent newcomers, it is hard to know what the Republican caucus will look like and where their priorities will be. 

The 100-pound gorilla in the room is Donald Trump. How are Republicans going to deal with Donald Trump? In my opinion, Donald Trump helped the Democrats do as well as they did in the midterms more than any other person including Barack Obama or Joe Biden. Whether it was hand-picking bad candidates that handed the races to the Democrats, taking money from GOP donors and then not spending it on the competitive races, or trashing Republican candidates, Donald Trump undercut Republicans.

While Trump’s standing with his loyal base of supporters has probably not eroded too much, I do expect Republican leadership to start criticizing him more. Ben Shapiro is becoming more vocal against Trump and blamed him for the Republican’s underperformance in the midterms. It is unclear to what extent Donald Trump will be in influence in 2024 and beyond, but I do not see him gaining influence. Trump’s influence will only wane from here, but at what rate his decline will be is still unclear.

Bonus: A note on the polls, models, and prediction markets

Lastly, I want to say that overall, the mainstream polls were pretty accurate in the 2022 midterms. While these polls were heavily criticized in 2016 and 2020 because they undercounted GOP support, they did pretty well in the 2022 midterms. The Republican-leaning partisan pollsters like Trafalgar and Rasmussen did very poorly and will likely not be given as much attention as they did this cycle. I do not want to trash Trafalgar too much because they did do very well in 2016 and 2020, but they were so off base in 2022 that it is hard to take them seriously. The Real Clear Politics polling average which does not have a clear standard of which polls it aggregates and biases towards Republicans did not perform well, while Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight forecast performed relatively well. 

Overall, the future of the election prediction industry is unclear. The appetite for politics and election-related content only seems to be on the rise as more and more people become obsessed with politics (Note: people’s obsession with politics isn’t necessarily a good thing considering the high partisanship levels and incidence of political violence). Additionally, another surprise election outcome demonstrates that these political events are still uncertain despite technology, GOTV, and polling innovations. The regulatory environment around prediction markets in the US is still uncertain, but I hope they remain because they provide useful information even if they aren’t perfect. 

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