Today’s midterm elections in the US will be remarkable, irrespective of the outcome.
Much will be made of how they’ll steer the political direction of the United States, but they will also give us a better sense of what anybody actually knows about politics. If the Democrats do poorly, losing the House and perhaps the Senate, it will be a vindication of the polls that have been trending towards Republican gains in recent weeks. It will also be to the credit of the many talking heads populating the US networks these past few months claiming a special kind of insight into Democrat weakness.
If, however, the Democrats do better than forecast, it will be more proof that, in terms of US politics, nobody knows anything. Pollsters will be again left to rue their failings and consider if they’re engaged in an activity no more helpful than counting tea leaves.
The problem for pollsters is that US elections have become notoriously difficult to call. They got 2016 badly wrong – 2018 too. Even 2020 was closer than they’d predicted. Turnout is simply too mercurial, often shaped by local issues, and can vary from state to state. Gerrymandering plays a notorious if inconsistent part. Then there’s the issue of prediction having itself become partisan. Politico this week reported on the number of “fake” Republican polls that have recently skewed national averages back in favour of the GOP. Whether this has any merit is another matter. Democrats have plenty of their own narratives around voter suppression, all of which means that the prism of polling is not quite as clear as we would hope or expect.
It explains why, if you head over to social media, you can come away with whatever optimistic outcome you hoped to find. Eager for Republican gains? There are plenty of pundits talking up a huge red wave. Eager to see two years of Biden affirmed at the ballot box? Take your pick of the pundits claiming to have evidence of a progressive groundswell missed by the pollsters.
The evidence of a red wave is the most conventional belief. History shows that the ruling party usually does poorly in their midterms, especially during an economic crunch. That much said: the actual Democrat vote seems to have been holding up quite well. Democrat Pat Ryan surprised many when he won New York’s 19th District in a Special Election back in August. He has to run again in these midterms, but his example might point to Democratic enthusiasm being undercounted.
These midterms are also unique in that they are the first nationwide test of the public’s mood after the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs Wade. Nobody knows how big an impact the abortion issue will have. Back in July, the website, FiveThirtyEight, conducted a poll in Kansas on the proposed amendment to their Abortion Bill. “Looks Like It’s Going To Be Close” was their conclusion, with a split of 47 per cent (against the ban) against 43 per cent voting for the ban. The split in August’s ballot was 59 per cent vs 41 per cent and nowhere near the predicted close result.
The point to underscore is that nobody has a clue, which is why tonight’s results should make for compulsive viewing. It should also caution us against reaching any quick verdict. It’s likely the networks will be keen to avoid their mistake of 2018 when they announced a wipe-out for Democrats only for the “slow blue wave” to overtake them. It’s also part of the Republican/Trumpian game plan to declare victory on the night before the entire vote is counted. Democrats will, conversely, claim that it’s not over until the postal ballots come in.
Add to the mix that a few races might be extremely tight and might well involve recounts. That includes the race for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat, where the 6’ 9” John Fetterman is up against TV doctor Mehmet Oz. This has been a peculiar race, not least because Fetterman is one of those rare people who looks better when dressed in his grungy rags rather than a suit. He looks more like a former wrestler than a man who emerged from the insurance sector to become the state’s Lieutenant Governor. His elevation to the Senate looked all but certain until Fetterman suffered a stroke back in May. His campaign has worked hard to limit the public’s awareness of his reduced capacity such as his difficulty answering verbal questions that aren’t also written down for him. Oz, conversely, is the sharp-talking TV quack from New Jersey who has made some big missteps in trying to endear himself to Pennsylvania voters. The early campaign was dominated by Fetterman’s attack ads, humorously mocking Oz. Even Joe Biden got in on the act this week, declaring that “I’ve lived in Pennsylvania longer than Oz has lived in Pennsylvania. And I moved out when I was 10 years old.” Now, however, Fetterman’s health has become a key campaign issue. How on earth do you call a race like that? Simply: you can’t. Nobody knows anything.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s race is US politics at its most absurd. There was a point when it seemed that the Republicans could have earned an easy win had they nominated anybody but Herschel Walker, a former NFL running back who has suffered multiple personalities, been accused of domestic violence, and has had numerous girlfriends come out and accuse him of trying to get them to have abortions. On the campaign trail, he has lacked anything that passes for articulate reasoning. He should be a certainty to lose. Yet, never deny the Democrats an opportunity to pull a loss from a winning position. Raphael Warnock, the incumbent senator, has not ensured his re-election, looking particularly benign in his one televised debate with Walker. Walker might yet become Georgia’s senator which would again prove that if nobody knows anything then knowing nothing might well qualify for one of the highest positions in the US government.
These two races have pretty much dominated the media, but each is so peculiar that it’s difficult to read much into it. There are other more sober races which might tell us a bit more, such as that for New York 17th’s District, where popular Democrat Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney is fighting a surprisingly buoyant challenge from Mike Lawler, a GOP state Assemblyman. Then there’s Arizona, where former NASA astronaut and incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Kelly faces Republican Blake Masters. Kelly was precisely the kind of nominee Democrats were encouraged to run and proved the point by turning the Republican safe seat red in a special election just two years ago. Now the seat is returning to its normal place in the electoral cycle, Kelly is struggling to hold on, something that seemed unlikely just a few weeks ago.
Tomorrow everything will begin to shake out and will seem so obvious in retrospect, but don’t let that fool you. Right here and now, nobody has a clue, and that is still a pretty good measure of how democracy functions. Despite all we know about our herd mentalities and how advanced our computer models may be, in the privacy of the voting booth, we are still an unpredictable animal. The only question now is: how unpredictable?
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