It is a good thing that Election Day fell on the same week as Veterans Day this year.
Maybe today’s reminder about what real public service looks like—sacrifice for one’s fellow citizens—will seal in our hearts the main lesson of the 2022 midterms: Voters have had it with the selfish, power-mad political parties that have failed them for so long.
Republicans had puffed themselves up like a flotilla of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons in anticipation of what they just knew was going to be a “red wave.” Never mind that they had made no practical case for how they would govern besides abject opposition to the president in office. Never mind that they put together a slate of candidates from coast to coast that was as unserious as it was scammy. That national Republicans abetted the campaigns of candidates who ranged from tragically troubled (Herschel Walker) to chronically kooky (Don Bolduc) revealed a party so desperate for power that it was unworthy of holding it.
Republicans believed they could benefit from the same rhythms as those of the Obama era, when it was not necessary for Republicans to be serious or care deeply about candidate qualifications. It was simply enough to be a blank slate on which midterm voters could draw their own image of what change would look like. Democrats did it in 2018, so why not for the red team again in 2022?
As it turns out, the GOP finally found a vale so low voters could not even grant them the benefit of a protest vote. Kevin McCarthy may still get to be speaker of the House, but his punishment for abasing himself by sucking up to the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene in his quest for power will be to live at their beck and call every day in a narrow majority. It gives new meaning to the term “servant leadership.”
On the Senate side, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott had pooh-poohed any effort to try to tamp down the crazy in the GOP. Following the January 6 sacking of the Capitol, Scott famously awarded Donald Trump a “Champion of Freedom” trophy, even as the former president showed no contrition for a tragedy he created in a bid to steal a second term. When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell despaired at the poor quality of candidates that Scott had recruited and the party was funding, Scott made it clear that it didn’t really matter who these folks were, as long as they had the right letter next to their names. Scott’s approach, as it turned out, was as naïve as it was cynical.
While Republicans were busy inflating their own egos in anticipation of an easy victory, Democrats were wallowing in self-pity and recriminations in anticipation of what they also believed would be a shellacking. So surely when the threat of a midterm repudiation was lifted, and their losses were only stinging instead of obliterating, Democrats expressed their gratitude and turned over a new leaf in a commitment to give voters what they wanted.
President Biden has had lots of evidence, going all the way back to his reverse coattails in 2020, that voters are not particularly enthused about him and his party. And while this week’s results are less bad than expected, they are far from an endorsement.
But Biden could muster no humility, even of the false variety. At a time when statesmanship was required, Biden offered ego and arrogance. When you are given a gift like the one voters gave Biden, the correct response is to show gratitude. The president should have told Americans that he got the message and would work with the new Republican majority in Congress to address important issues and that he would be willing to change in order to make progress. Instead, he brushed off any such considerations and said that he would change nothing. Bill Clinton may have had an ego bigger than all of the Ozark mountains, but he knew enough to show contrition and take a new approach after his midterm loss in 1994.
Perhaps Biden is so insecure about his position within his party that he feels he can afford to show no humanity when it comes to Republicans. Or perhaps he really is just this prideful. But, either way, he most assuredly failed the test.
While Republicans are at least making noises to suggest that they are aware that their creepy worship of the 45th president has become a serious liability, I fear that the Democrats are going to get more out of touch and more arrogant than they have been. Rather than seeing their smaller-than-expected defeat as a message from a frustrated electorate and an opportunity to begin anew, the blue team seems likely to wrongly conclude that they were spared because of their merits.
The lack of humility in our political class has never been worse. After a 15-year period of populist outrage in which elites in both parties claimed to be crusading for forgotten Americans, it is clear that we have been stuck in an infinite loop of performative outrage.
The split decisions in the 2020 and 2022 elections should be taken as a clear message from voters that Americans have had enough of this emotional-blabber-as-politics hogwash.
There is a real opportunity here for either party, if they can find a way to demonstrate they are serious about service, government, and accountability. So far, neither has done so. But maybe on this Veterans Day, a few more hearts will become open to the possibility that public service is about more than just hoping the other guy loses.
Now, let’s look at how exactly it was that the partisans mistakenly whipped themselves into such frenzies of speculation and how you, genteel readers, avoided doing the same thing.
My American Enterprise Institute colleague, Nate Moore, helpfully breaks down for us the hits and misses of polls and forecasts this cycle.
Take it away, Nate…
A POLLING POSTMORTEM
As Tuesday’s much-foretold red tsunami failed to materialize, overjoyed Democrats and dejected Republicans were quick to denounce the polls. The results, they claimed, were a searing indictment of the polls and all who trusted them. But for realists who understand that public opinion research has never—and will never—be perfect, how did pollsters really do?
Yes, low-quality outfits continued to skew perceptions with statistically comical results. But for the most part, high-quality polls were pretty darn good in 2022.
Let’s start with the generic ballot. Our final average, which included only methodologically sound, non-partisan polls, suggested Republicans would best Democrats by 3 points in all the House votes cast nationally. FiveThirtyEight, which includes lower quality polls but minimizes their weight, settled on a generic ballot with a Republican advantage of 1.2 points. As I write, Republicans hold a roughly 6-point generic ballot lead, with millions of votes on the West Coast yet to be counted. These blue-leaning mail-in ballots should boost Democrats by a few points. Once every vote has been counted, the best estimates point to an eventual generic ballot of around … R+3. One hundred million votes later, polling averages will have likely predicted the national environment to within a point. Not too shabby!
The Democratic overperformance in the House actually dovetails well with an R+3 generic ballot. Early data suggest Democrats overperformed in close races while Republicans overperformed in likely and safe seats. A few examples: Both Susan Wild in Pennsylvania’s 7th district and Yadira Caraveo in Colorado’s 8th district eked out half-point victories to hold seats that Democrats thought they would lose. On the other side, Matt Jacobs in California’s 26th district and La’Ron Singletary in New York’s 25th district each outran Trump by 12 points, but neither scored upset victories in Biden +20 districts. The Republican overperformances netted them many more votes, but no new seats. The generic ballot captures the sum national environment, not state-by-state variations. More voters will have chosen the GOP this year—just as our average predicted.
Generic ballot averages, of course, are just one element of predictions. In our October House preview, we highlighted Washington’s 3rd district as a race to watch—even though most had Republican Joe Kent as an obvious favorite in the Trump +4 seat. Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, however, is close to pulling off the upset. Kent’s full-throated embrace of Trump appears to have proved too extreme for his district. The same “MAGA Republican underperforms” story played out in Michigan’s 3rd district, Ohio’s 9th district, and New Hampshire’s 1st district—all Democratic victories. Though the generic ballot correctly predicted a Republican leaning environment, candidate quality remains an essential forecasting ingredient.
Before we dive into the Senate, a word on district-level polling. The 2020 cycle was flooded with district-level polling that promised huge Democratic gains in the House. After these surveys proved horribly wrong, many public pollsters abandoned district-level polls. Response rates were too low and margins of error too large, they decided, to warrant investment in 2022.
The New York Times was the only top-tier pollster to dive back into House district polling this time around, and its four surveys proved excellent barometers of the respective districts. In polls of three races with Democratic incumbents in hotly contested races, the Times found Matt Cartwright in Pennsylvania’s 8th district up by 4 points (he won by 2.5 points); Sharice Davids in Kansas’ 3rd district up by 14 points (she won by 12 points); and Dana Titus of Nevada’s 1st district was tied with her challenger in the Times’ survey (she is on track to win by 4 points). Democratic challenger Gabe Vasquez of New Mexico’s 2nd district was up by a point in the Times’ poll, and he won by half a point. At the time of the Times survey’s late-October release, the “vibes” suggested these districts were leaning Republican (though we had Davids at Lean D and the other three as toss-ups). The excellent results from the Times suggests that accurate district-level polling, once left for dead, remains possible from the best pollsters.
Just as we had warned in our Senate preview, the state-level polling proved more of a mixed bag. Let’s start with the ugly. The FiveThirtyEight average had Republican Mehmet Oz with a half-point advantage over Democrat John Fetterman entering Tuesday night’s election in Pennsylvania. Fetterman’s final margin of victory will settle around 5 percent. In the Granite State, Sen. Maggie Hassan was favored by just 2.2 points in the final average. She won reelection by almost 9 points. The pro-GOP error in both states is a good reminder that, even after 2016 and 2020, polling misses can indeed go both ways. Pennsylvania took on particularly outsized importance because so many Senate forecasts rested on Republicans holding the open seat.
In the Senate contests in Wisconsin, Georgia, and Nevada, the polls proved predictive. FiveThirtyEight’s final averages will be within a few points of the final results. Though Nevada Republican Adam Laxalt narrowly led polls, his advantage was far from prohibitive—a slim victory for incumbent Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto would be well within the margin of error. If Maricopa County’s final ballots break as we expect and Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly holds on, Arizona’s Senate race will join the list of predictive polling above. Even in the Senate race in Ohio—a state with some catastrophic polling misses over the past six years—the final averages were right on the dot. FiveThirtyEight had Republican J.D. Vance up 6.2 points. Vance won by 6.6 points.
Polls were worse in less competitive states (see Florida and Michigan), but in more instances than not, they proved a valuable tool for assessing the state of play. Polling success in 2022 does not guarantee the same two years from now. Bad polls will continue to flood the political landscape. After a few months in hiding, those who predicted a 6-point race in Vermont (hint: it was actually 40) or a double-digit Tim Ryan victory over Vance in Ohio will once again come crawling out of the woodwork.
Our task as journalists and citizens is to sift through the garbage to find—and effectively use—the high-quality polls. This was a truly weird midterm year, but if you trusted the good polls and discarded the junk, your predictions probably weren’t too far off.
Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.
TIME OUT: JINGLE BELLS, BATMAN SMELLS
The Atlantic: “You might not think of typing ‘BOOBS’ on a calculator as cultural heritage, but it is. The custom has been shared, preserved, and passed down through generations of children sniggering in math class. This sacred communal knowledge, along with other ephemera of youth—the blueprints for a cootie catcher, the words to a jump-rope rhyme, the rhythm of a clapping game—is central to the experience of being a kid. … These things were almost like analog memes, micro-bits of culture that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere. … When kids latch on to something, boy, do they latch on. Talking with [author Steve Roud] and reading his book, I was amazed at how many shared references we had despite being from different generations and different countries. … The rebellious thrill, the intense comradery, the urge to pass the knowledge along (and pretend you came up with it yourself)—all of these things fade with time. But that’s okay. The kids will keep the tradition alive.”
“I saw [you placed Indiana’s 1st congressional district] in a toss-up category and was wondering if you have some greater insight that you can share before Tuesday. Someone must think that the incumbent Democrat, Frank Mrvan, is vulnerable because his Republican challenger, Jennifer-Ruth Green, has spent far more than Republicans have normally spent in this heavily Democratic corner of Northwest Indiana. The mail ads both campaigns have sent are too numerous to count. Green’s website is well done if not particularly informative. Mrvan’s is far more basic. His principal issue has been abortion, in which he claims Green is a flat prohibitionist, although her website describes her support of restrictions as occurring after the first trimester. I have been puzzled about why Mrvan thinks abortion is a winning issue in a district that is predominantly ethnic, heavily Catholic, and with a significant minority of African American and Hispanic voters. I may be wrong, but abortion does not seem to be an issue that works in his favor. If he wins re-election, it will be a tribute to the local Democratic party in Lake County that comprises about 65 percent of the voters. If he loses, it may be a signal that the GOP gains in the House will be on the high side of the ranges you have identified.” — Blair Gardner, Valparaiso, Indiana
It was easy to put Mrvan on the list of the vulnerable because the district has been trending more Republican. Longtime incumbent Democratic Rep. Pete Visclosky retired after cruising to reelection by 30 points in 2018. In 2020, Mrvan kept the seat blue, but saw his margin of victory slip to 17 points running against the same Republican challenger his predecessor defeated. In a better climate for Republicans and with a better candidate in Green, the district that has been in Democratic hands since before Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency looked like it might really be in play. And Green certainly did better than the Republicans who came before her, winning, as of this writing, more than 47 percent of the vote, losing by 6 points—a dramatic improvement over the Republican showings two and four years prior. Visclosky was one of the last pro-life Democrats in the House when he retired (the last one standing is now Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar). As you observed, Mrvan’s staunch embrace of pro-choice principles is not a perfect fit for the district, but is probably a necessity for his party’s primary. I would imagine that as populations continue to decline in Gary and Hammond, the district will continue to trend more Republican.
“I’ve always enjoyed your work, but quoting Townes Van Zandt has placed you in my personal pundit pantheon. Thanks for illuminating ‘the false and the fair!’” — George Valenta, San Antonio, Texas
As would be fitting, I happen to be listening to For the Sake of the Song as I write you, Mr. Valenta! What an album. Especially when I remember that he was just 23 at the time. But be careful. I have many, many unpopular opinions.
“I hope that this email finds you well, albeit busy in light of Election Day. I’m grateful for your contributions to The Dispatch. You’re one of my favorite guests on The Remnant. I do have two Minnesota-related items for you—a question and a defense. First, I’ve heard you state, on multiple podcasts now, your sense that Minnesota is turning redder, and will possibly go Republican in the next decade. What factors are contributing to this assertion? Could you show your work on this? Ilhan Omar looks to be keeping her seat as one of the most progressive members of Congress because enough Minneapolis voters thought her primary challenger wasn’t progressive enough. I also wish that the Minnesota GOP wasn’t such a dumpster fire (see exhibit A, Scott Jensen). That being said, I guess we are the state that elected Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura as governor, so there isn’t much that actually surprises me anymore. That being said, I do feel the need to stand up for my fair state of Minnesota. On The Remnant, you said that Minnesota has ‘ONE city.’ Good sir. While Minneapolis has some beautiful lakes and bike trails, it’s definitely the hot mess that national media makes it out to be. St. Paul is a much better city in its own right. Next time you’re in town, let me know and I’ll buy you a beer at Waldmann and show you around.” — Daniel Nimlos, Coon Rapids, Minnesota
Now, Mr. Nimlos, I gave St. Paul it’s due! Even the greatest enthusiast to Minneapolis’ smaller neighbor would have to admit that while the two municipalities have distinct characters, they are in the same metropolitan area. Minnesota’s 8-seat House delegation will be evenly split between the two parties in the next Congress. The mostly rural 7th congressional district looks like it will probably stay red now that Republicans have finally flipped it. At the start of this century, the delegation was split 6-2 in favor of the Democrats. Minneapolis and its environs (sorry) will not just remain Democratic, but likely get more so and more radical in their politics. The same thing will happen in rural areas and small towns, but in the Republican direction. Minnesota was an outlier compared to other states in the region because of the liberal bent of its Scandinavian agrarian past. I don’t think that will persist.
You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the prolific Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!
CUTLINE CONTEST: VULCANIZED
There were LOTS of great submissions this week for our picture of now Ohio Senator-elect, J.D. Vance, so it was hard to choose. It was especially difficult for me because our first runner-up took a joke from what I think is probably the funniest movie ever made, Blazing Saddles. But I strove to be statesmanlike and think of the greater comedic good in choosing a winner who packed tons of humor into just four words and with broader cultural salience than the “rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves … and Methodists” who attacked the town of Rock Ridge.
“Live long and posture.” — Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania
Winner, ‘That’s HEDLEY’ Division:
“‘I, state your name, solemnly swear that I am up to no good.’… ‘I state your name…’” — Michael Joosten, Ashland, Massachusetts
Winner, Planet Yolkus Division:
“Hi! I’m Paul.” — Jonathan Mahlum, Orting, Washington
Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the top entrants and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!
TURDUCKEN À LA FLORIDIENNE
The Guardian: “The US Transportation Security Administration has caught an air traveler who had allegedly stashed a firearm inside a raw chicken in a bid to get the weapon through security at a Florida airport. In a pun-laden post to its Instagram account, the TSA said the bizarre attempt had been foiled at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood international airport when eagle-eyed agents spied the handgun wrapped in tape and placed inside the bird’s cavity. The chicken was then hidden inside the traveler’s carry-on luggage. ‘We hate to beak it to you here, but stuffing a firearm in your holiday bird for travel is just a baste of time,’ the agency said in the jokey post. It added: ‘This idea wasn’t even half-baked; it was raw, greasy and obviously unsupervised. The only roast happening here is this poor packing choice!’”
Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of Broken News, a new book on media and politics. Nate Moore and Lily Nelson contributed to this report.