Commentary: The best word for this US midterm election is ‘normal’
Even against the context of Donald Trump’s stubborn lies about the 2020 election, the basic underlying patterns of US politics and policymaking have been extremely normal, says Matthew Yglesias for Bloomberg Opinion.
WASHINGTON: It’s not really in my interest to tell you this, but this week’s mid-term elections are shaping up to be extremely normal, to the point of almost being boring.
The incumbent president is mildly unpopular, as incumbent presidents midway through their terms often are. His co-partisans in Congress are expected to lose seats, which is also not unusual in an off-year election. You can read all the punditry you want – I hope you do, there’s a lot of good stuff out there – but any worthwhile analysis should acknowledge this baseline scenario.
That said, there are some idiosyncrasies to this year’s election. Republicans have harmed their odds by nominating kooky characters in some races, and those characters do seem to be polling somewhat worse than more conventional nominees. Democrats are struggling with Hispanic voters, and there are signs the party is also slipping with Black voters.
Most voters are solid partisans. But elections are decided by the voters who aren’t solid partisans – they agree with Democrats about some things and with Republicans about others.
When Democrats control Congress and the White House, they inevitably do some things that some of these cross-pressured voters don’t like, and they turn to Republicans to counterbalance. When Republicans control Congress and the White House, the opposite happens.
Even the limited historical exceptions to the midterm backlash, in 1998 and 2002, occurred amid not only extraordinary events (impeachment and 9/11) but at a time when the president’s party didn’t control Congress.
It’s certainly conceivable that President Joe Biden could have avoided the mid-term curse of almost all the presidents before him (and it’s possible he could still, I suppose, though it is extremely unlikely). If so, that would be a truly extraordinary outcome that cries out for explanation.
WHAT’S HAPPENING IS EXTREMELY ROUTINE
What appears to be happening instead is extremely routine. So routine, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook the dogs that aren’t barking. There’s no equivalent to the 2010 US Senate race in Illinois, for example, in which Republicans poached what should have been a safe blue seat thanks to a candidate plagued by scandal.
The closest thing there is to a potential stunner this year is a Republican victory in the Oregon governor’s race. That would certainly be unusual – Oregon last elected a Republican governor in 1978, before the majority of Americans were born.
On the other hand, the GOP is also set to give back governor’s mansions in the solidly blue states of Maryland and Massachusetts. Gubernatorial races are just different, and the occasional mismatched winner (Democrats are currently running the show in Kansas and Kentucky) is the exception that proves the rule.
Nor have there been any dramatic surprises on the order of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor losing a Republican primary in 2014, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeating Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in the 2018 primary.
And amid all this normalcy, the dominant issue on voters’ minds is the quintessential normal issue: The economy.
THE MESSAGE MATTERS
We pundits make our living with words, so we like to focus on the differences in the way the candidates talk about the issues. And the message does matter. The Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Roe v Wade last summer generated backlash and good polling for Democrats.
Republicans responded by denying any aspiration to enact big changes in federal abortion policy, which wound up reducing the issue’s salience and muting the backlash.
But that just underscores that what matters most is reality. Which is to say: If Republicans try to ban abortions, there will be a backlash. Their successful “message” has been a promise to abandon their policy commitment, while also telling their anti-abortion base that they aren’t giving up.
For Democrats, meanwhile, there’s no message that can change the reality that prices have been rising faster than incomes. The main reason is Americans were given a lot of money, both under Donald Trump and in Biden’s first year in office, at a time when most of them had reduced their spending because of the pandemic.
Now the spending constraints are off, so people are drawing down the savings they built up during the pandemic.
One can debate the wisdom of the decision to send out that extra round of money in early 2021. But for better or worse, it’s a choice Democrats made a long time ago. At the time it happened, the American people were really enthusiastic about it.
MYOPIC VOTING TO BE EXPECTED
Unfortunately, voters are not always fair in their judgments, or willing to admit that they bear some responsibility for the downsides of policies they themselves asked for.
This tendency toward myopic voting is – you guessed it – extremely normal. So is the pattern for a president to follow a mid-term loss by regaining his footing, counterbalancing the extremists on the other side and securing re-election.
These are, of course, not entirely normal times. They couldn’t possibly be, given the context of Trump’s stubborn lies about the 2020 election and the horrors of Jan 6. But the basic underlying patterns of US politics and policymaking have been extremely normal – up to and including Biden’s ability to work with Republicans on several significant pieces of bipartisan legislation.
To the extent that anything has really gone wrong for Democrats over the past two years, it’s that in spending so much time worrying about the possibility of election subversion, they have not worried quite enough about the risk of losing elections the normal way.