There are probably three possible outcomes from next week’s midterm elections.
The first is a broad Republican wave, one in which candidates currently even in the polls win easily, establishing a clear majority for the GOP in Congress and unquestionable victories at the state level.
The second is Democratic overperformance. Democratic candidates in Senate and House races romp, beating expectations in the way that California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) did in last year’s recall vote, neutralizing his Republican opponent’s plan to allege fraud if the results were close.
Then there’s the third possibility. In a number of places, results may be close, tipping narrowly to one party or the other. If recent history is any guide, that would trigger tumult. Republican candidates who in a pre-2020 universe would have grudgingly conceded will instead insist that the vote was somehow tainted. Vote-counting that unfolds over multiple days will be leveraged to boost those allegations. On the flip side, Democrats losing close races might allege voter suppression, especially in states where Republican legislatures have restricted voting access.
We’ve seen both candidates in still-unsettled races converge on Washington at the start of a new Congress in the past; after this year’s midterms, we may see the majority of the 118th Congress resolving close contests in favor of their own party.
None of these options is exclusive, of course. This isn’t 2020, with a marquee race in which the losing candidate elevated false claims of fraud in an effort to retain power. We might see clear victories in some Senate, House or gubernatorial races for one party or the other — and tooth-and-nail battles centered on baseless fraud claims in others. We might also see clear victories for candidates who have pledged to inject uncertainty into elections systems or to scale back voting access, tainting elections moving forward.
In a speech at D.C.’s Union Station on Wednesday, President Biden tried — once again — to raise the alarm about the extent to which American democracy may depend on next week’s results.
“We the people must decide whether we will have fair and free elections, and every vote counts,” Biden said. “We the people must decide whether we’re going to sustain a republic where reality is accepted, the law is obeyed and your vote is truly sacred.” He contrasted defense of election results with the “thirst for power” that lies at the center of false claims of election fraud.
“Recent polls have shown that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe our democracy is at risk, that our democracy is under threat,” Biden said at another point. “They, too, see that democracy is on the ballot this year, and they’re deeply concerned about it.”
But, of course, Americans don’t agree on the nature of that risk. Democrats agree with Biden that it is rooted in baseless challenges to election results past and future. Republicans, though, believe the threat comes from the left, including that elections actually have been tainted by illegality or other unfounded nefariousness.
Biden’s been making a pitch about the need to defend democracy against the threat of autocracy since his first minutes as president. It’s understandable that he would, given the riot that unfolded at the Capitol two weeks before he was inaugurated. But because the rejection of elections is inextricably intertwined with partisanship, it’s largely Democrats (and Democrat-leaning independents) who accept Biden’s framework.
One thing we see in midterm election polling is that pollsters often don’t ask specifically about the threat democracy faces as a campaign issue. When they do, however, there’s a clear partisan divide.
Here, for example, is how CNN asked about issue importance in a recent poll conducted by SSRS. Challenges to election results fall into the “voting rights and election integrity” bucket, presumably, something that very few Americans cite as the critical trigger for their vote. Even among Democrats, inflation is twice as commonly cited as the most important issue.
Notice, by the way, that crime is identified by almost no one as the most important issue. In recent polling from Quinnipiac University, the percentage of people identifying crime as the “most important issue” facing the country was in the single digits.
This despite the outsize focus on crime in campaign ads. It makes for compelling, visceral TV spots, though even Republicans don’t really seem to think it’s a central issue.
A new poll from NPR, PBS NewsHour and Marist asked one of the most direct versions of the question: Is “preserving democracy” at “top of mind” in casting your vote this November? When asked like that, a plurality of Democrats said it was.
Biden gave his speech on the subject less than a week before polls closed. He noted that millions of people had already voted. This was a speech, in other words, aimed not at persuading people that democracy was at risk but, instead, at getting those already concerned about that risk to actually vote. This was a get-out-the-vote pitch, a call to action, not an effort to convince skeptical Republicans that the point he’s been making for two years was something they needed to heed.
Part of the problem Biden faces in making this pitch is specifically that this argument is intertwined with partisanship. Biden making this argument again, now, is about winning elections. It must be, of course, if one takes at face value the anti-democratic rhetoric of some Republicans on the ballot. But that makes it dismissible as simply a tool for getting Democrats elected.
The Catch-22 here is that if Biden is successful in boosting Democratic enthusiasm about voting next week, he might increase the number of places where the results are close — and, therefore, where they are challenged. For the sake of democracy, a Republican rout is likely to yield fewer efforts to cast doubt on the results this year, though it will likely increase the risk of biasing elections moving forward. For the sake of Democrats, of course, such a rout is untenable.
There is no reason to think that Biden is insincere in his concerns about democracy. It is also probably good politics to remind Democratic voters that they can address their concerns about democracy by coming out to vote. But the fight for democracy as articulated by Biden is almost entirely inextricable from the fight for Democratic candidates — and therefore a pitch that is treated solely as political by Republicans.
Therefore reinforcing the problem.