Three things to know about the fall midterms

Political scientist Marc Meredith shares his thoughts on redistricting, turnout, and races to watch.

Man in sunglasses with earbuds walks throught a field covered in campaign posters
A voter walks through a field of signs alongside Park Lane to participate in the primary election at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Dallas, Texas on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. (Image: AP Photo/Emil Lippe)

It might only be spring, but fall is looming large for Republicans and Democrats angling to control Congress after the midterm elections. Rising inflation, skyrocketing gas prices, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are just a few of the factors that can trickle down to the ballot box come November.

“The polling question that I follow most closely to get a sense of what is likely to happen in the midterms is known as the generic ballot test,” says political scientist Marc Meredith. “This question is asked using some variant of ‘if the elections for U.S. Congress were held today, would you vote for the Republican Party’s candidate or the Democratic Party’s candidate in your district?’”

Currently the website FiveThirtyEight gives the Republicans an edge of about 2 percentage points over Democrats on this question when aggregating over all of the different polls that have recently asked a generic ballot test question. That is consistent with historical patterns that show the party that controls the presidency tends to lose seats in Congress during midterm elections, Meredith says.

But those losses aren’t a sure thing. Meredith shared three things he’s keeping in mind, and keeping an eye on, ahead of the midterms.

Redrawn boundaries could help Democrats

One thing that might help Democrats fight against historical trends and retain the House are the new House district boundaries that have been redrawn following the 2020 Census. Throughout the 2010s, partisan gerrymandering made it so that Republicans would almost certainly win more House seats than Democrats if the two parties won an equal number of votes nationally. However, it appears like we are going to have a similar number of districts in 2022 in which Biden and Trump won more votes.

Note this is not because partisan gerrymandering went away. Rather it is because partisan gerrymandering that makes it so that Republicans are likely to win a substantial share of the House seats in states like Florida and Texas is offset by partisan gerrymandering states like Illinois and New York that make it so that Democrats are likely to win a substantial share of the House seats in these states.

Nominees have a lot of say

Ultimately, the candidates that get nominated can have a lot to say about who wins individual elections, especially in gubernatorial and senate elections. We had our first primary election to select candidates in Texas on March 1. A few things stood out to me about this primary.

First, Republican turnout was up relative to the 2018 primary, while Democratic turnout was down relative to the 2018 primary. This is consistent with Republicans generally being more enthusiastic to vote than Democrats right now.

Second, the turnout observed in South Texas suggests that one of the marquee House races in the fall is going to be TX-28. One of the big surprises of 2020 was the increase in Republican support in highly Hispanic areas along the Mexican border, and the turnout patterns observed in the primary suggest that this area is going to be competitive again in 2022.

Third, we got some initial evidence that Texas’ controversial new law putting additional requirements on mail ballot voters is going to have the disenfranchising consequences that many of us worried about when it was passed last year. The Associated Press estimated that nearly 17% of mail ballots cast initially didn’t satisfy the new identification requirement in the subset of counties for which they were able to get data. If voters didn’t fix the problem, this would eventually cause these mail ballots to be rejected.

Primary elections could be key

Five of the states that I am following the closest right now are Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. All of the states have both a governor and Senate race coming up in November, and I expect them both to be hotly contested in all five states. Biden narrowly defeated Trump in all five states, and Democrats currently hold three of the governorships and five of the Senate seats up in November. Who controls these five Senate seats coming out of November could shape who controls the Senate majority for years to come.

And who wins the governorship—and in some of these states the secretary of state’s office—could have a massive effect on the voting rules used in the upcoming 2024 presidential election in these key states. I’ll be watching the primary elections in these states particularly closely, because these are the specific races where the individual candidates particularly matter for determining which party wins the seat.