There’s no point in beating around the bush: The Democrats had a good midterm. They won a Senate seat in Pennsylvania, and if they hold on to their seat in Georgia, they will end up plus one in the Senate (and if they lose Georgia, they still keep their majority with the vice president as the tie-breaker, just as they did in the 117th Congress). Democrats also gained a net of one governorship. And as for the U.S. House, that’s still in play; yes, it seems likely that Republicans will win control in the 118th Congress, but only by the narrowest of margins.
Still, we can see silver linings for Republicans, and they point to sunnier skies for the GOP in future elections, including the presidency in 2024.
The Enthusiasm Gap
In 2020, Joe Biden won the popular vote by more than seven million, garnering 81 million ballots compared to Donald Trump’s 74 million.
Yet this year, Republicans beat Democrats in the total vote for the U.S. House. GOP candidates received 52,142,213 votes (as of November 13), while Democratic candidates received just 47,127,174. That’s a gap of five million. In other words, the margin for the GOP shifted from minus seven million in 2020 to plus five million in 2022. That’s a margin-shift of 12 million votes.
We should hasten to say that it’s normal for total turnout to fall from presidential elections to midterm elections. According to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project, the drop-off in the last five decades, presidential to midterm, has been about a third. Yet the Democrats’ vote total fell by more than a third from 2020 to 2022—by 42 percent, in fact. By contrast, the Republican vote fell by just 29 percent. (Yes, it is a bit mysterious as to how Republican candidates managed to do so poorly relative to their voters’ enthusiasm.)
So even as they feast on the fruits of victory, Democrats might do well to stay humble. But that doesn’t seem to be happening.
The Victory Disease
The Japanese know, from painful experience, senshoubyou. That’s their word for “victory disease.” Japan was afflicted with this psychological ailment in the months after their sneak-attack victory on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the months that followed, Japan’s military conquered territory all over East Asia. Yet victory brought victory disease, even if they didn’t realize it. Japanese overconfidence left them heedless of gathering American strength—-and let to their catastrophic defeat at Midway in June 1942.
So now, 80 years later, we’ll see what happens to the Democrats. At the White House on November 9, the day after the elections, a reporter asked Joe Biden, “What in the next two years do you intend to do differently?” The president smiled as he answered, “Nothing, because they’re just finding out what we’re doing. The more they know about what we’re doing, the more support there is.”
So there you have it: Biden’s approval rating averages 41.5 percent, and he hasn’t been above 50 since August 2021, and yet as far as he’s concerned, everything is going fine. All he needs to do, he thinks, is more of the same.
Indeed, on November 13, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told ABC News that Biden should run again in 2024. As she put it, “He has been a great president and he has a great record to run on.”
In fact, while it’s almost certain that the Democrats will lose their House majority this year, there’s at least a chance that Pelosi, 82, will stay on as the Democratic leader—as minority leader, if not speaker. She was, after all, re-elected to her House seat, and she said on November 13 that she has no plans to resign from Congress. So the question is whether or not she would seek the post of minority leader.
Pelosi, born in 1940, has been head of the Democrats in the House, in the majority and in the minority, since 2003. So she has all the scars, as well as strengths, that come from two decades of high profile. She clearly relishes the leadership job, and yet for years now, younger House Democrats have been restive about her long tenure.
Under pressure from her juniors in 2018, she agreed to serve only two more terms as Democratic leader. And she reaffirmed that agreement in 2020. And yet now that time’s up, what will she do? Will she step down? Or break her pledge? Nobody knows. And if Pelosi, who is 82, stays, what of the other two top Democratic House leaders, Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn? They, too, are over 80.
Eighty-something. Is that the look House Democrats wish to present to the country? Or could Pelosi stay (it’s hard to see how she could be defeated in a challenge) and push one or both of her fellow octogenarians aside, getting fresh blood everywhere but at the top? And did I mention that Joe Biden will turn 80 on November 20?
The thing about the victory disease is that it clouds your judgment. You won one, and so you think you’ll win them all. Will the Democrats really go into 2024 with this elderly and stand-pat team in the House and White House? It could happen.
And if it does happen, if Democrats charge ahead, as if no warning lights are flashing, then Republicans, benefiting from stronger enthusiasm and a younger crew of candidates, have a lot to look forward to.