What to look for in the upcoming midterms

Political scientist Marc Meredith of the School of Arts & Sciences shares the top five things he’ll be keeping an eye in the upcoming elections.

A man fills out his ballot at an early voting location in Alexandria Virginia.
Cornelius Whiting fills out his ballot at an early voting location in Alexandria, Virginia, on Sept. 26, 2022. In-person voting for the midterm elections has started in Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia, and Wyoming, in a landscape that has changed since the pandemic drove a shift to mail balloting in the 2020 presidential contest. (Image: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Midterm elections offer voters a chance to signal their approval or disapproval of the current administration, and the elections next month are the first opportunity Americans will have to render that verdict on Joe Biden’s presidency. Penn Today caught up with political scientist Marc Meredith of the School of Arts & Sciences. He shares the top five things he’ll be keeping an eye on during the upcoming midterm elections.

Polling reliability

The No. 1 thing I’m thinking about right now are polls, and specifically whether we are going to see the same type of systematic errors in the polls that we saw back in 2020. What we saw in 2020 was that the Democrats won but not by nearly as much as the polls suggested they would. This could have been an artifact of the weirdness that was 2020, or it could suggest that something’s more fundamentally wrong with how we’re conducting polling. And, if there is something fundamentally wrong, is it to the same degree as in 2020, or have we fixed some of those problems? My best guess is that we’ve fixed some, but not all, of the problems.

One of the problems in 2020 was that less frequent voters and less politically engaged people are underrepresented in polls, and in 2020 they disproportionately supported Donald Trump and Republican candidates more broadly. It remains to be seen, now that Trump is not on the ballot, whether that continues this time or whether less frequent voters and less politically engaged people return to be more evenly split in their support of Democratic and Republican candidates.

Split-ticket voting

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there were plenty of people who voted for one party’s candidate for governor and another party’s candidate for Senate. That has declined over time. But in several states that are having both a close Senate and governor’s race are we going to see enough people casting ballots for the Democrat in one race and the Republican in the other so that we end up with winners from two different parties? Or have we become so polarized that that’s not going to happen and we’re going to largely see the same party;s candidates winning all the statewide races in a state.

Pennsylvania is a place where we may see some split-ticket voting. Another state could be Arizona, where there are very competitive races for several statewide offices and, not unlike in Pennsylvania, there's been some cross-party endorsements. What remains to be seen, though, is if that is sufficient to inspire some people to vote both ways, or have we moved past that era and people are just voting a ticket with “D’s” or “R’s” straight up and down.

Georgia on his mind

I’m looking at Georgia specifically because of what happened in 2020, when neither candidate for Senate got 50% of the vote and it went to a runoff. It will be interesting to see if any candidate can pull 50% of the vote in the Senate race this time because if neither the Democrat nor the Republican does, like we saw in 2020, it will go to a runoff election in December. And if it’s another tight election nationally, this could mean that we don’t know which party controls the Senate until December because of the possibility that the winner of the Georgia race determines who holds a majority of seats.

Voter turnout

Both 2018 and 2020 were very high turnout elections, and that was almost certainly due to Trump and people showing up either because they loved him or they hated him. It will be interesting to see whether we maintain the same level of turnout in 2022 in a world where Trump is not president.

My guess is turnout is going to be high, and it is certainly possible that we surpass 2018’s levels. Part of the story is that Donald Trump brought a lot of people into voting who had previously sat on the sidelines, and even now that he’s no longer in office those people now have experience voting. They’ve gotten accustomed to the process of how one goes about casting a vote. Maybe they have become a little bit more politically engaged because they voted. Once you get people started voting, they’re more likely to keep voting.

I think overturning Roe v. Wade will be a contributing factor to why we might experience higher-than-normal turnout. It is going to bring out some new voters who don’t usually vote in midterm elections, or maybe didn’t even vote in the high turnout election of 2020.

Delayed election results, control of Congress, and conspiracy theorists

For people who remember 2020, we didn’t know who was going to win in Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania until a few days after the election because of the time they needed to count all the provisional and mail-in ballots. We just had an election in Alaska that went to ranked-choice voting, and that state will almost certainly go to ranked-choice voting again in the midterms. The odds are that we won’t know the outcome of elections in those places and elsewhere, like Maine and California, for a few days after the election.

I’m very concerned that the misinformation and the stolen election talk from 2020 will rear its head if these election results are delayed. 

In 2020 in Pennsylvania, Donald Trump was leading the vote count through election night and then late-counted mail ballots flipped the tally and Biden ended up winning the state. It was very predictable that this would happen in Pennsylvania because state law prevents counties from processing their mail ballots until Election Day, and this does not give some counties enough time to finish counting their mail ballots on Election Day. Given that in Pennsylvania many more Democrats are requesting mail ballots than Republicans for the upcoming election, vote margins are likely to shift in the Democratic direction again after Election Day in 2022. It’s not nefarious, but I am concerned that, especially if this causes the leader in a high-profile race to flip, it gives room for the debunked conspiracy theories that came out in 2020. 

On the positive side, maybe we’re a little bit more prepared to deal with this. I know the media is planning ways to approach these stories, and I’m sure election administrators all over the country are thinking about how they're going to deal with it. But I also think there’s a lot of people out there who learned that you can spread these bogus messages and get buy-in from a substantial number of people. I remain very concerned about how we're going to manage these situations because, while we are counting votes carefully and taking the time we need, we in a way make room for these conspiracy theories to take hold.

As someone who works on the Decision Desk at NBC, I’m just trying to think about how I’m going to get any sleep in the month of November.