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Surprisingly, a choice, not a referendum

The historical aberration of a president’s party exceeding midterm expectations

President Joe Biden conducts a news conference on the midterm elections and other issues at the White House on Wednesday.
President Joe Biden conducts a news conference on the midterm elections and other issues at the White House on Wednesday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Well, now we know. President Joe Biden was right when he said at the Democratic National Committee’s Grassroots Rally on Nov. 7, just one day before Election Day, “Let’s be clear: This election is not a referendum.  It’s a choice.  It’s a choice between two very different visions of America.”

Apparently, most Americans agreed with that view.

And that was lucky for Democrats, who would have not performed as well as they did if the midterms had been nothing more than a referendum on the incumbent president.

Only 44 percent of respondents in the 2022 National Election Pool exit poll said that they “strongly” or “somewhat” approved of Biden’s performance as president, while 55 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” disapproved.

Moreover, when asked which party they thought they could trust on many of the top issues of the day — such as inflation, crime, foreign policy and immigration — a majority of those polled picked the GOP. Only on one key issue, abortion, did most respondents pick the Democratic Party.

In the past, presidents who had numbers like those saw their party losing three or four dozen (or more) House seats, as well as a handful of Senate seats.

Clearly, midterm voters were disappointed in Biden’s job performance, but they were more worried about what a more muscular Republican Party in Congress would do.

Crucially, more than two in three respondents in the exit poll (68 percent) said that democracy was “threatened,” while only 30 percent said that it was “secure.” And 52 percent of those who thought it was secure preferred the GOP, while those who thought it was threatened preferred Democratic candidates by a couple of points, 50 percent to 48 percent. 

Apparently, Democrats did a good job painting the GOP as the party of extremism, autocracy and Donald Trump. Of course, they had plenty of help from the Republican officeholders and aspirants, including a long list of Republican nominees for secretary of state who made clear that in their view the ends justified the means.

As Chuck Todd noted on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday, respondents who “somewhat disapproved” of Biden’s job performance voted Democratic, 49 percent to 45 percent. Think about that for a moment; let it sink in. That’s a stunning outcome considering that midterms are often an opportunity for the disappointed to send a message to the president’s party.

Indeed, four years ago, the 8 percent of respondents in the 2018 exit poll who “somewhat” disapproved of then-President Trump’s performance preferred Democratic candidates by 29 points, 63 percent to 34 percent.

Democrats undoubtedly benefited from the quality of the GOP candidates, both in House and Senate races. 

Republican talking heads and consultants spent the past few years calling the Democrats extreme and out of touch with most Americans, especially on issues like crime, the southern border and taxes. They’d cite the views of the most progressive Democrats as evidence, even though Democratic leaders like Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi emphasized more measured approaches. 

In fact, it was GOP nominees like Don Bolduc of New Hampshire, Mehmet Oz of Pennsylvania and Arizona’s Blake Masters who repelled many crucial swing voters. (We may be able to add Georgia Senate hopeful Herschel Walker to that list after the runoff.)

Interestingly, media talking heads didn’t hesitate to whine about Democratic groups that spent money to increase the profile of GOP hopefuls who would be weaker nominees in the fall elections.

In particular, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was criticized for running ads to boost the primary prospects of Michigan Republican John Gibbs, a relatively weak general election candidate who appealed to his party’s more extreme voters.

Critics of the DCCC repeatedly noted that incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer was one of the few Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and said that spending money to defeat him was somehow unethical. 

But those same talking heads never mentioned that Meijer, who likely would have won reelection had he survived the primary, would have been a loyal Republican when it came to organizing the House and supporting GOP legislation.

Given the closeness of the fight for control of the House, the DCCC would have been derelict if the committee had not looked for districts where it could have played in Republican primaries to help nominate weaker GOP hopefuls.

Given trends established over the past century, the 2022 midterm elections should be viewed as an aberration. Midterms of the future are still likely to be referendums on the incumbent president. But the advantage of the party out of power can no longer be regarded as inevitable when its values and principles seem to be at odds with the nation’s.

Let’s hope the Republicans come to their senses and return to normalcy.

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