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  • Writer's pictureSeth Masket

Tomorrow’s Narratives Today!

We’re just a few days from the 2022 midterm elections, and according to the polls, they’re close enough that any of several scenarios could realistically happen. And for a number of reasons, there’s more uncertainty than usual about this year. But while we don’t know what will happen, we have a pretty good idea how it will be described. What follows is a few narratives that journalists and pundits will likely generate based on different outcomes.

Scenario 1: Republicans Win House and Senate

If Democrats lose control of both chambers of Congress, the most likely scapegoat will be the progressive left. Democrats in swing districts and states, we’ll hear, lost because they were tied to a “woke” party which would rather defund police than fight crime. We’ll hear that Democrats just can’t win nationally unless they distance themselves from the socialists in their ranks and stop promoting critical race theory in the schools. Former President Trump, whose choices in various Republican nomination races looked shaky at one point, will be hailed once again as a kingmaker within his party. Democrats will be advised to moderate.

Scenario 2: Split Congressional Control

It’s reasonably likely that Republicans take the House while Democrats maintain their narrow margin in the Senate. Some will view this as a substantial loss for Democrats, who were too in the thrall of the “woke” and socialist left and thus lost the confidence of Americans concerned about inflation and crime. Republicans will be advised to recruit better Senate candidates. Others will call this a split decision, describing it as evidence that the American people want the parties to find common ground and work together on the problems facing the country. Democrats will be advised to moderate.

Scenario 3: Democrats Hold the House and Senate

Judging from forecast models, this outcome seems pretty unlikely, but it’s not impossible. This would be seen as something of a political miracle. Some credit would be given to President Biden, who steered a moderate course away from the “woke” left and toward several policy successes. And some blame would be assigned to former President Trump, who has managed to keep his name in the news pretty much every day for the past year by committing (alleged) crimes, endorsing unfit candidates, and telling Republican voters that elections are rigged and their votes won't count. He will almost certainly claim electoral fraud in a handful of close races. Some prominent Republicans will initially say the party needs to move on but after a few days will amplify Trump’s baseless claims. Democrats will be advised to moderate.

There may be a surprise or two. For example, an exit poll may show a surprising level of salience for an unexpected issue, such as education or drug addiction, and the losing party will be advised to pay more attention to that. But for the most part, we can expect the narratives to look something like the above.

The reality is somewhat different. Often pundits go into elections with unrealistic benchmarks. Just what should our baseline expectation be for this election? Recently, John Sides helpfully went through the various political science forecasts – based on things like history and economic performance and presidential popularity, and setting aside current polling and all we know about the various candidates running for office – and found that Democrats could be expected to lose around 40 to 45 seats in the House and 1 to 3 seats in the Senate. That is, given that the president’s party tends to lose seats in midterms, that Biden is fairly unpopular with a 43 percent approval rating, and the economy has been mixed with relatively high inflation, we should expect the president’s party to lose roughly that many seats. This should be our benchmark – if the Democrats lose fewer than 40 seats then they’ve outperformed history.

Why are the polls so much more optimistic about Democrats’ chances? There are a number of reasons, including a lingering effect of the Dobbs abortion decision, some unpopular Republican nominees, and the fact that Democrats have been trying to signal moderation while Republicans have largely tried to excite their base, even to the point of mocking the Pelosis after an attempted attack on the House Speaker left her 82-year old husband hospitalized with a fractured skull.

It also may be that the polls are systematically biased in one direction or another, as has been the case in several recent election cycles. It’s possible they’re underestimating Republican enthusiasm about this election, or overestimating it. We won’t know until after the election. For what it’s worth, my own experience tells me to trust the political science models over the polling forecasts, but your mileage may vary.

I don’t mean to dismiss the narratives that will follow the election results. In some ways, these are very valuable, even if they’re not 100% correct. They can give a frustrated party some direction to go as they prepare for the next election, potentially uniting a fractious group under a common purpose. They can affect how voters perceive the election and prepare for the next one. And there may be some truth to them.

But many of these narratives are also recycled election after election, with pundits rarely learning anything new. Once a while, a political observer will announce that they’d changed their mind about something following an unexpected election result, but that’s pretty rare. Hopefully, the candidates and parties will learn from the narratives that are the most rooted in empirical reality. Hopefully.

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