While not all of the Election Day 2022 races have been called, one trend is clear: It is not the big red wave that Republicans and some polls predicted. Recent history shows that the party that does not hold the presidency makes big gains in the midterms. Low approval ratings for President Biden, decades-high inflation, worries about a recession, and crime that spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic all pointed to a wipeout for Democrats.
While it’s increasingly clear that Republicans will take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, they will likely have only a very small margin. The GOP could also still take the Senate, though that, too, would be by the slimmest majority.
To a certain extent, politicos were expecting a wave because the past midterm elections had resulted in waves. But every midterm being a “wave election” is a relatively recent phenomenon, argues Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. If you look at the elections prior to ‘06, you can find a lot of muddier outcomes,” he says. “’98 [and] 2002 are good elections for the president’s party in the midterms, but ‘90, ‘86, ‘82, ‘78, those were all a little bit harder to categorize.”
Experts on the history of American elections say while this midterm election was unusual in a lot of ways, there are some similarities to past midterm elections in terms of the national factors that led to smaller Republican gains.
Voters in 2022 went to the polls following two history-making events: The U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, and a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion in June 2022, and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and subsequent bombshell hearings revealing that the aides were trying to convince President Trump that the election wasn’t stolen.
Kondik argues that the 2022 midterm elections echoed the 1978 and 1982 midterms in that inflation was a big issue at the time. In 1978, the only midterm election during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, the Republicans gained 15 House seats and three Senate seats, but the Democrats retained their majority in both chambers. In 1982, during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, the Democrats didn’t see as big a wave as they hoped for, though they gained seats because of redistricting.
Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University, says the enormity of the issues at stake in 2022 reminds him of the midterm elections that occurred in 1998 after Democratic President Bill Clinton was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That Democrats gained seats in the House in that year reflects “the real lack of public support for that impeachment, and the Democrats capitalized on that.” (Clinton was acquitted by the Senate in February 1999.)
Julia R. Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University, sees a more recent similarity, arguing that the 2022 midterms are a continuation of gains that Democrats made in the 2020 presidential election. As she puts it, “We are used to thinking about elections, especially midterm elections, as ‘mandates for change.’ But this seemed like more of a status quo election, with a slight ripple for Republicans but some notable victories for Democrats as well.”
The lack of a wave in the 2022 election doesn’t mean America is done with the era of midterm wave elections. “A lot of what happens in a midterm is just defined by the circumstances,” Kondik says. “I wouldn’t say that it necessarily means anything for the future.”