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A Midterm Premortem
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A Midterm Premortem

Tomorrow’s takes today.

President Joe Biden speaks at a rally for New York incumbent Gov. Kathy Hochul in Yonkers, New York. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images.)

The day after a national election is the best day and the worst day in the life of a political junkie. It’s the best day because there’s so much stuff to read!

It’s the worst day because … there’s so much stuff to read.

Lots of “takes.” Oh, the takes.

So very many takes.

But what if I told you that, through the magic of pundit hackery, we could fast-forward 24 hours and cover those takes now? That, instead of chaining yourself to the computer tomorrow, you could speed through the conventional wisdom right here, before the votes are even counted?

I know I tend to run long in my newsletters but I’m about to make it up to you by saving you an entire day’s worth of news consumption.

What follows is based on a single very safe assumption, that the results tonight will land somewhere between a red wave and a red tsunami. That’s what the polls are pointing to. It’s also what experts like Amy Walter at Cook Political Report believe.

If it doesn’t happen and Democrats overperform, we can dispense with tomorrow’s conventional wisdom in a few sentences. Dobbs mattered after all. Candidate quality mattered, too. By nightfall, the news cycle will be hip-deep in Republicans screaming that only systemic fraud could have delivered a result that defied the laws of political gravity so outlandishly.

But that’s unlikely. Democrats are almost certainly about to get schlonged, to borrow a phrase.

So put on your sneakers. Let’s race through the buzz to come.

1. Democrats have a serious problem, bordering on a crisis, with black and Hispanic voters

This is, by far, the topic that’ll dominate political chatter tomorrow—if it bears out.

For the left, the most alarming result from the 2020 election was Republicans gaining among Hispanics, especially in southwest Texas. The Democratic coalition depends on landslides among nonwhite voters to offset the GOP’s skyrocketing margins with working-class whites. If working-class nonwhite voters begin to drift right as well, suddenly Dems have a vacuum that can’t easily be filled. Unless they’re piling up Saddam Hussein margins with college educated whites, they’re in grave trouble.coh

Being chronically unpopular with blue-collar voters of all races in a country where fewer than 40 percent of people age 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree is a bad place to be.

There’s ample reason to think Republicans will do surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) well with nonwhite voters tonight. Some recent polls, including one from a progressive pollster, have the GOP winning upward of 20 percent of African American voters on the generic ballot. Those same polls have Democrats’ lead among Hispanics, whom Biden won by 33 points in 2020, down to anywhere from 5 to 12 points. One recent Quinnipiac poll of registered voters had Republicans ahead among Hispanics.

If you want to see a political party in the grip of outright panic tomorrow, hope for a further shift toward the GOP among nonwhites this evening.

2. Democrats focused too much on abortion and not enough on inflation and crime

There’s truth to this, and that truth will be glaring if blacks and Latinos end up trending right. Centrist liberals like Ruy Teixeira have spent months urging Democrats to pay more attention to bottom-line working-class concerns like the cost of living and personal safety. You know that belief is starting to break through when even progressives like the host of The Young Turks are starting to worry about it.

Still, I’m not sold on the idea that Democrats emphasized abortion too much. That they did so will be instant conventional wisdom tomorrow, but as I noted a few days ago, there just isn’t much Democrats could have said at this point about crime or inflation, particularly the latter. After 18 months of trying and failing to address the problem, replete with foolish happy talk about rising prices being transitory, they’re out of rhetorical ammunition. Under the circumstances, it wasn’t crazy for them to have gone all in on a seismic cultural change like the end of Roe, knowing that most voters share their dislike for the Dobbs ruling.

It may still pay off for them. Abortion could motivate enough pro-choicers to turn out to make the difference for John Fetterman in Pennsylvania or Mark Kelly in Arizona. Just because it didn’t turn a red wave into a blue wave doesn’t mean it didn’t turn a red tsunami into a more modest red wave. It might have been the left’s best play.

But the fact that Republicans will have done so well nationally, that “Roevember” never arrived, will make that possibility hard to grasp. Never mind that if Democrats had talked more about inflation and crime and got crushed anyway due to midterm fundamentals, the conventional wisdom afterward assuredly would have been, “Why didn’t they talk more about abortion?!”

3. Candidate quality doesn’t matter much in an age of hyperpolarization

I touched on this in yesterday’s newsletter. If Arizona’s Republican gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake or, God forbid, the candidates running for secretary of state on “Stop the Steal” platforms pull out victories tonight, inescapably many Americans will conclude that nominating strong-form MAGA conspiracy cranks isn’t much of a liability even in swing states. Assuming it’s a liability at all.

Ominous lessons about the viability of election deniers and assorted other kooks will be drawn from that by Republican voters in future party primaries.

As my colleagues note in today’s edition of The Sweep, the flip side may be true too, that Democrats gained nothing by nominating moderates in red states. The most depressing result tonight is likely to come from Ohio, where Democrat Tim Ryan ran one of the shrewdest campaigns in the country this year against lackluster fascist-curious MAGA chud J.D. Vance. I won’t give you my speech about Vance and Ryan again; you can read it here if you missed it last week. Suffice it to say, Ryan did everything a liberal might plausibly do to make himself competitive in a Trump +8 state.

And, per the latest polling, he’s on track to lose by exactly 8 points anyway. He’s never touched 46 percent in the RealClearPolitics polling average. Few expected him to win, but he ran a strong enough race that it was assumed he’d improve significantly on Joe Biden’s share of the vote in 2020. As it is, he looks set to underperform Biden.

It’s the “LOL nothing matters” election. And it portends Democrats being uncompetitive in Senate races in red states in 2024 no matter how moderate their candidates end up being.

4. Candidate quality might matter at the top of the ticket

Two names you’re apt to hear compared tomorrow: Brian Kemp and Kathy Hochul.

Granted, the Democratic governor of New York is sailing into national headwinds while the Republican governor of Georgia has the wind at his back. But Kemp is a strong campaigner, sufficiently so to have crushed an effort led by none other than Donald J. Trump to oust him in a primary. Now he’s poised to crush Democratic heartthrob Stacey Abrams. And if he does, his coattails may well be long enough to drag Herschel Walker over the finish line in Georgia’s Senate race.

Hochul is a weak campaigner, to put it mildly. Imagine running in this national environment and answering a Republican attack about crime with “I don’t know why that’s so important to you.” She’s also saddled with scandals having to do with petty corruption, making her a poor transition figure from the Andrew Cuomo era. Enthusiasm for her among New York’s Democratic majority is so weak that the president had to make time on his schedule this week to try to get out the vote for her. In a D+22 state.

Hochul’s coattails are short enough that Democrats have already begun to blame her for expected losses down ballot. Even the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Sean Patrick Maloney of New York’s 18th District, isn’t safe.

The lesson? If you’re going to worry about candidate quality, worry about it at the top of the ticket. Even Kari Lake’s impending victory arguably fits that mold, as her Democratic opponent this year ran a notoriously dismal campaign.

5. The polling industry can no longer be counted on to forecast results even semi-reliably

This is a wild card, of course. The polls could be broadly correct. Or they could be wrong in an unexpected way, like if they end up underestimating Democratic performance.

There’s reason to believe they might. The New York TimesNate Cohn has written recently about the prevalence of polling this year by Republican-leaning firms like Trafalgar, which tend to produce more encouraging numbers for GOP candidates than traditional polls like Quinnipiac do.* Trafalgar has gained a mystique over the last few election cycles by seemingly being able to detect “hidden” Republican voters that go overlooked by better-known firms, producing more accurate forecasts.

The fact that so many GOP-friendly firms are driving polling averages this cycle could/should mean that the averages themselves are more accurate than they’ve been in the last few cycles, Cohn has said.

But if it turns out tonight that the averages again systematically underestimated Republicans as they did in 2016 and 2020, the polling industry will be in crisis. Pollsters have tinkered with their methodologies to try and capture the true strength of GOP support across the electorate. If they fail again, whether because polling surveys are too long (Trafalgar’s theory) or because Republicans simply won’t talk to pollsters anymore on principle, then what’s the use of polling?

An industry that’s forced to rely on guesswork to “unskew” its own results going forward is an industry that can’t survive. At least, not apart from Republican-whisperers like Trafalgar.

6. Kari Lake is the new queen of MAGA

The hype machine for Lake as the GOP’s new superstar is already in full swing, and not without reason. She isn’t just breaking away from her Democratic opponent, Katie Hobbs, in the home stretch of the Arizona gubernatorial race. She’s running ahead of Blake Masters and may end up turning out enough Republican voters to help carry him to victory.

In other words, a candidate who was supposed to be a liability for her party as gubernatorial nominee may end up having coattails.

If she wins, especially comfortably, the commentariat will conclude that she’s the hottest national prospect in right-wing populism, possibly even outshining Ron DeSantis. MAGA will have a new model for recruiting candidates, someone who holds the correct crank beliefs but presents them via a polished, media-savvy personal style that takes the edge off the extremism and soothes swing voters. The fact that Lake received the endorsement of figures like Republican Govs. Doug Ducey of Arizona and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia will further cement her image as a political unicorn who can sell radical populism to normies.

Chatter that she’s the favorite to be Trump’s running mate in 2024 will become cacophonous.

If you want to know which conservative commentators you can and can’t trust to place the good of the country over the good party, watch to see how they react tomorrow to Kari Lake’s victory. Celebrating the elevation of an outspoken election denier for brainless partisan reasons is what I expect from most.

7. Ron DeSantis is the new prince of MAGA

DeSantis is already the prince of MAGA, of course. What tonight’s results in Florida will do is raise the possibility that the prince is ready and able to overthrow the king.

I won’t bore you again with my lecture about how important his margin in the gubernatorial race is. Pure and simple, he wants a blowout over Charlie Crist so that, if he challenges Trump, he can cite their relative margins of victory in Florida as proof that he’d be a stronger national candidate than Trump would.

Trump won Florida by 3 points in 2020. DeSantis is on track to win tonight by 12. He’s led by double digits in the last eight polls tracked by RealClearPolitics. There’s a solid chance that he’ll win Miami-Dade County, with its large population of Hispanic voters, outright. Florida, a swing state prone to delivering razor-thin victories to its elected officials, will have turned blood red.

“Nominate me for president and I’ll do that to the rest of the country too,” DeSantis could say.

And he probably will say it. It’s surpassingly difficult for me to believe a guy with that kind of national credential will pass on the 2024 race and shoot for 2028, by which time he’ll have been lapped as a national hopeful by Kari Lake, J.D. Vance, Cthulhu, or God knows what other Lovecraftian ogres who are yet to emerge.

8. An election (or two) is being rigged!

This won’t be tomorrow’s conventional wisdom among respectable commentators, of course. But it’s a cinch to be the conventional wisdom in much of conservative media, even if Republicans are en route to a national wave by the close of business this evening.

At a minimum, the Fetterman/Oz race in Pennsylvania looks close enough in polling that it probably won’t be called tonight. Instead we’ll have a reprise of 2020 in which the Republican candidate races out to a strong lead thanks to in-person same-day voting and then has to watch that lead shrink as the heavily Democratic mail ballots are counted over a span of days. Trump is already preparing to scream about chicanery in Philadelphia for definitely-not-racial reasons.

And, unfortunately, city officials in Philly are going to make that easier for him by insisting on slowing down the vote-counting process over silly procedural concerns.

With Oz destined to be ahead by morning and Pennsylvania officials still slogging through mail votes, MAGA hysteria that cheating is afoot will be in full swing. And if, against all odds, Katie Hobbs upsets Kari Lake in Arizona, the populist hysteria will become turbo-charged. I don’t know whether Mehmet Oz would participate in a narrative alleging fraud without evidence. But Kari Lake assuredly will.

And if Democrats end up overperforming nationally and winning races they were expected to lose, hoo boy.

9. Trump could upend yet another Georgia Senate election

Rumors circulated all day Monday that Trump was planning to surprise the country by announcing his 2024 candidacy at his rally for Republican Senate candidate J.D. Vance in Ohio. With the GOP poised for a wave election, the narcissist-in-chief naturally wanted to race to the head of the coming victory parade so that he could try to take credit for his party’s performance in the aftermath.

Nervous Republican officials must have prevailed upon him behind the scenes not to do it, fearing how a last-second Trump announcement might drive Democratic turnout. He ended up not announcing his candidacy—but he did announce a forthcoming announcement. The circus is coming back to town.

November 15, huh? Coincidentally, that happens to be the same day that potential 2024 challenger Mike Pence’s book is being published. And the day before Pence will get some rare primetime national television exposure with a live town hall on CNN.

It’s interesting timing for another reason, though. Chances are fair that Georgia’s Senate race between Herschel Walker and Raphael Warnock will come down to a runoff on December 6. Walker leads in polling and has reached 48.8 percent in the RealClearPolitics average but has touched 50 percent only once in any survey taken this year.

If he fails to win a majority tonight, he and Warnock will face each other again in a month, possibly with control of the Senate on the line. And, per last night’s announcement, evidently with a third Donald Trump candidacy fresh in the minds of voters everywhere, including Georgia.

The last time Georgians cast ballots with Trump on their minds, it didn’t go well for the GOP. The party will have to contend with the prospect of rerunning that nightmare starting tomorrow if Walker can’t get across the line tonight.

10. In hindsight, the midterms were predictable

There’s no outcome this evening that can’t, and won’t, be explained as normal political midterm gravity asserting itself in the end.

Democrats overperforming wouldn’t be explainable in gravity terms, granted. But let’s stick to realistic outcomes here.

If I told you two years ago that in November 2022 the U.S. would be struggling with the highest inflation in decades, public anxiety about crime, and well-founded fears of a looming recession as interest rates continue to rise, which way would you have guessed today’s vote would go?

If I had further told you that Joe Biden would be rocking a 42 percent job approval rating and that candidates from a president’s party seldom run more than a few points ahead of him down-ballot, how would that have grabbed you?

And if I told you that late deciders tend to break against the in-party in midterms, how would the recent trend in, say, the Vance/Ryan race in Ohio have you feeling about the national picture?

The outcome tonight will seem almost perfectly predictable in hindsight. Dobbs was the lone confounding factor and even “Roevember” will look like silly wishcasting at a moment when the electorate is exasperated by the cost of living.

Liberals will assure themselves that everything’s fine, that their deteriorating standing with blacks and Latinos will reverse itself just as soon as inflation and crime begin to ease and thus there’s nothing they need to do to tweak their approach to working-class voters.

And then we’ll get to test that theory in 2024, with the highest of high stakes—a second Trump presidency—on the table. Sleep tight.

*Correction, November 8, 2022: Because of an editing error, a previous version of this story misidentified Nate Cohn’s publication. He writes for the New York Times.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.