Why the conventional wisdom about 2022 has been so wrong

Throw in a pandemic, an insurrection and an abortion decision, and anything can happen

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi could well have the last laugh, Shapiro suggests. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi could well have the last laugh, Shapiro suggests. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 13, 2022 at 6:00am

About the only thing more dramatic than the upsurge in Democratic fortunes heading into November has been the stunning Ukrainian military gains in the Kharkiv region. 

While political forecasts are still suspect eight weeks before the elections, the polling website FiveThirtyEight now gives Democrats a 69 percent chance of holding the Senate and surprisingly high 26 percent odds of hanging on to the House

Remember that not too long ago smart political handicappers were prophesizing a Republican tsunami. 

Amy Walter, the editor-in-chief of the Cook Political Report and one of the best analysts around, summed up the political mood in early April: “Every metric we use to analyze the political environment — the president’s approval rating, the mood of the electorate, the enthusiasm gap — all point to huge gains for the GOP this fall.” 

Similarly, a Washington Post analysis by Philip Bump in July was headlined, “A likely 2022 red wave may sweep Trump apologists into office.”

I cite these articles solely as markers of the now-outmoded conventional wisdom. But it is revealing to look back and try to decipher why the best and the brightest of politics were convinced of the high likelihood of an epic GOP landslide.

The biggest mistake was probably getting too caught up with historical precedents. As everyone who follows politics had heard again and again, the party that controls the White House invariably loses House seats, and usually Senate seats, in off-year elections. 

On the House side, there have been only three exceptions in more than a century: 1934, at the depths of the Depression; 1998, as Republicans overreached in impeaching Bill Clinton; and 2002, when the nation was still reeling from 9/11. 

But election analysis is not physics — and political arithmetic is not higher mathematics. 

The mistake was to fail to recognize how unprecedented the politics of 2022 are. Even before the Supreme Court jettisoned Roe v. Wade, this was the only election year in history shaped by a pandemic and an insurrection. 

Another conceptual error was to assume that inflation could not be tamed before Election Day. Instead, average gas prices are $1.25 less than they were in June, and other indicators are stable. Partly as a result, consumer sentiment has jumped sharply, even though it is still low by historic standards. 

The political mood is usually shaped by the direction of the economy rather than aggregate numbers. When Ronald Reagan won his landslide “Morning in America” election in 1984, the unemployment rate was still over 7 percent. But the economy had grown at a nearly unprecedented pace in 1984, creating a sense of buoyant optimism. 

A third wrong-headed factor was to underestimate how impervious the Trump-created Supreme Court would be to political reality. 

Had Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. prevailed, the court would have written an abortion decision further eviscerating Roe v. Wade but keeping its structure. Abortion rights groups would have grumbled, but the issue would have faded by now. 

Even after a draft of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s earth-shaking opinion was leaked in early May, many political analysts failed to grasp the degree to which abortion would become the dominant campaign issue. And now, in Michigan, the issue will be on the November ballot, almost certainly galvanizing Democratic turnout in that swing state.

Many election analysts also fell into the trap of believing that Joe Biden had fallen and could never get up. The assumption was that Biden’s political fate had been permanently determined once his poll numbers had collapsed in the summer of 2021 after the Afghan debacle and the upsurge in COVID-19. 

Instead, Biden’s approval rating (43 percent) has jumped 6 points since late July, according to averages at RealClearPolitics. Even though the president is still in negative territory, legislative victories and the sharp drop in gasoline prices have had a tonic effect on Biden’s image. 

Perhaps the largest factor that makes 2022 different from all other modern off-year elections is the former president who just won’t go away. What is difficult to calculate is which aspect of Trumpism is worse for Republicans — the never-ending scandals or the election-denying loyalists who have won key GOP primaries. 

It has been just a month since the FBI exercised a legal search of Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago to recover classified documents that the former president had retained despite determined efforts to recover pilfered government property. 

Over the next eight weeks, Trump’s callous disregard for the safety of national secrets will almost certainly prompt new headlines. And as realistic Republicans know, even if they won’t admit it publicly, none of those headlines is likely to read, “Trump Vindicated. FBI Apologizes.”

Meanwhile, New Hampshire GOP voters, in one of the final primaries of the season, are poised to anoint weak candidates for the Senate and the House on Tuesday because of their loyalty to Trump. In particular, the nomination of the Senate favorite, MAGA-devotee Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general, would strengthen the odds on the reelection of once-vulnerable Democrat Maggie Hassan

In this unusually volatile political environment, no one should rule out the chances that the Republicans make a bit of a late comeback. But, if it occurs, it will be because of a changed mood among the electorate rather than the historical portents that once pointed to a seeming GOP sweep. 

The hardest thing in politics to remember is that there are exceptions to every ironclad rule. And 2022 is looking like one of them. 

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.