By definition, midterm elections in America occur two years into a presidential term with two years to go until the next general election.
They have no direct bearing on who is the president of the United States residing in the White House.
The midterms are about electing officials to Congress – the other, legislative, branch of the US government and to offices in each of the 50 states, the constitutional counterbalance to the centralised federal government in Washington DC.
In the excitement of poring over the many results from a massive nationwide vote involving millions of people, it is worth remembering that extrapolating from the midterms is a very unreliable way of predicting who will be the next president or even who will be the main nominees in the race.
Recent history shows how wrong snap judgments can be. Two years out from the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump was widely regarded as an unlikely joke candidate. At a similar point ahead of 2008, conventional wisdom was leaning towards Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani as nominees.
Quite different people, Barack Obama and John McCain, actually fought it out in the end. In 1994 Newt Gingrich led the “Republican Revolution” with his “contract with America” smashing the ambitions of Bill Clinton’s Democrats. He was Time magazine’s man of the year and tipped as a future president. In spite of numerous bids for the White House, he never came close.
The final results are not yet in but there are already some pointers as to the political mood in the US.
The “expected” red wave was more of a ripple. There is almost always a backlash against a first-term president’s party in the midterms but the Democrats fared much better under President Joe Biden than they did under Mr Obama or Mr Clinton.
As Dominic Waghorn has reported here, Republican candidates endorsed by Donald Trump fared significantly worse than those who steered clear of him.
Only a minority of Republican candidates were interested in campaigning on “the big steal” – the false claim that Mr Trump really won re-election in 2020, Republican analysts argue that the party is now pivoting away from Donald Trump’s obsession.
Dr Mehmet Oz the Republican senate candidate in Pennsylvania pointedly phoned Democrat John Fetterman to concede defeat. Mr Trump is said to be furious with his wife Melania for endorsing the TV doctor. Fox News played Mr Trump down on election night and Rupert Murdoch’s main US newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post, have become heavily critical of him. The Post dubbed the former President “Trumpty Dumpty” this week.
Control of the evenly-split US Senate is down to three states which also played a key role in determining the outcome of the 2020 presidential contest: Nevada, Arizona and Georgia. Given that Republicans have not polled as strongly as they would have liked, the special election run-off in Georgia on 6 December will be key. Under state law the winner has to take over 50% of the vote. In the first round the Democratic incumbent pastor Raphael Warnock had 49.2% and his Republican opponent, former football star Herschel Walker, had 48.7%.
From next January the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives, will flip from Democrat to Republican. Kevin McCarthy will replace Nancy Pelosi as Speaker, the third-highest elected office in the US. A Republican House will most likely prevent President Biden from passing any further significant legislation. The investigation into the 6 January 2021 assault on the Capitol and Mr Trump’s role in it will probably be shelved.
The stand-out winner of the night was 44-year-old Ron DeSantis, the Republican Governor of Florida who won re-election by a landslide in what is now Mr Trump’s home state. Another name to watch is the high profile and ambitious JD Vance, the best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy. He fought a poor campaign but still held the Ohio Senate seat comfortably for the Republicans.
Immediately before the election, the assumption was that the race in 2024 would be a rerun of 2020: Biden v Trump. Both men had already indicated their intention of standing again, though neither had yet made a formal declaration. If he (all men so far) put his name forward, an incumbent president such as Mr Biden would not normally be seriously challenged by his own party. The Trump machine looked to be unbeatable.
Trump vs DeSantis battle anticipated
The Democrats’ relatively mild drubbing this week would seem to cement Mr Biden in place. But there is now a question mark over Mr Trump in spite of his insistence in advance that a poor Republican showing would have nothing to do with him. A battle for the nomination between Mr Trump and Mr DeSantis is widely anticipated. Things are unlikely to be so straight forward.
Mr Trump faces a busy few days. On Monday he is under subpoena to appear before the House January 6 Inquiry – though whether he will turn up is a matter of conjecture. On Tuesday he has promised to make a “very big announcement” that he said will be “perhaps” the biggest in American history. This is widely expected to be the official launch of his bid for re-election in 2024. Win or lose, campaigning is a money maker for Trump.
Becoming president would be the best escape from the various civil and legal law suits engulfing him. But the Republican hierarchy do not want him to be their candidate and pressure is mounting on him to delay. If he pulls out, Mr DeSantis will definitely put himself forward. However, there would be bound to be a contested primary season for the Republican nomination, with no certainty that Mr DeSantis would emerge the winner. Mr DeSantis’ prospects are even more uncertain if he gets locked in a bloody contest with Mr Trump, with others putting themselves forward as compromise candidates.
The answer to the Republicans’ candidate quandary may determine whether Joe Biden, who will celebrate his 80th birthday on 20 November, really bids for the democratic nomination and a second term. Analysing the data, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz explains that Mr Biden is the only Democratic nominee likely to beat Mr Trump (he’s already done it once) but, paradoxically, any other Republican nominee would beat Mr Biden. If it is not going to be against Mr Trump, the Democrats would be wise to go with someone other than Mr Biden.
Fallibility of opinion polls
The fallibility of American opinion polls further adds to the uncertainty. The polls and the data mining aggregators who work from them, such as Nate Silver’s 538.com, had another bad night this week. John Della Volpe, the head of polling at the Kennedy School at Harvard University, did much better foreseeing the mere “red ripple”.
He points out that most of the commercial polls are commissioned by right-leaning entities and have tended to show the Republicans doing better than turns out to be the case. In particular their samples have failed to reflect the high level engagement of younger voters and their centrist tendencies, most likely boosted by the Supreme Court’s ruling against abortion.
All this means that we don’t yet know what the political battleground will be in 2024 and we can’t be sure who the “frontrunners” will be. It is unwise to read too much into the midterms or to pay much attention to the same pundits who told us that President Trump in 2024 was practically a locked-on certainty. The confusing wonders of democracy really were on the ballot this November.