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The conventionally wise, the political pros, the pollsters were all sure that last Tuesday would be a Red Wave. The history of Midterm losses for the president’s party, the unpopularity of President Biden, high inflation, all pointed to that Red Wave. The House was supposed to flip to a 20-30 seat Republican majority. The Senate was expected to go Republican as well. Add in governorships and state legislatures, and the Grand Old Party was planning a party!

It was not to be. The Democrats held the Senate, held the GOP to the kind of minimal majority in the House that Democrats have had the last two years, held most of their governorships, and flipped several legislative chambers. Election-deniers running for Secretary of State (in charge of elections) in swing states all lost.

Objectively, it was a draw. As Robert Reich wrote, voters opted for stability. The more extreme MAGA megaphoners, like Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Bolduc in New Hampshire, and most likely Kari Lake in Arizona, all lost. The Dems netted one, maybe two Senate seats, and one governorship, but they lost the House by a narrow margin.

But because of all the expectations, it felt like a win to Democrats and a loss to Republicans. Here are some pieces of the puzzle.

After three straight elections when the polls underestimated the Republican vote, this time they underestimated the Democratic vote.

Independents swung to the Democrats. Younger (18-29) voters turned out in higher numbers than expected and went 63-29% for Democrats, while voters over 45 were for Republicans. Turnout overall was a bit behind 2018, but higher in swing states like Pennsylvania and Michigan. Both parties’ voters turned out strongly.

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In Pennsylvania (and probably in other swing states), Democrats performed better than expected in Republican counties. Josh Shapiro of course won in a landslide in the governor’s race, and actually carried some counties that usually vote Republican, like Beaver (near Pittsburgh) and Luzerne (including Wilkes-Barre). John Fetterman was in a closer race against Mehmet Oz, but he made a point of competing in every county, and got to 44 percent in Beaver, 45 percent in Luzerne, and 39 percent in strongly Republican Union.

midterms parsed

There was considerable ticket splitting, as voters opted against the more extreme MAGA candidates. In Pennsylvania, Fetterman got 2,705.531 (51 percent) against Mehmet Oz, while Shapiro got 2,986,412 (56 percent) against MAGA extremist Doug Mastriano. Similar differentials showed up in Arizona, Nevada, and of course New Hampshire (where incumbent Republican Governor Sununu is very popular, but Senator Hassan won reelection against the election-denier Bolduc).

Donald Trump is perhaps the biggest loser in this election, as his hand-picked candidates performed poorly in swing states. Previously loyal Republican politicians are openly criticizing Trump’s interventions in the campaign as counterproductive. Many of his anointed candidates lost races that a more moderate Republican might have won. His MAGA base amounts to about a third of the electorate. For Republicans to win they must appeal to a broader constituency.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans’ epic flop will convince any significant number of MAGA voters that Trump is a liability. Unless that happens, this week’s criticisms of Trump will just herald the political extinction of another cohort of Republican politicians who had the temerity to challenge Trump. If Trump continues to dominate the party, look for Republicans to lose in 2024.

President Biden’s future is also much on the minds of Democrats. He’s just turned 80, and he’s still deeply under water in the polls. Democratic gains in this election took place in spite of his personal unpopularity. When polls pit him against Trump in 2024, they are too close to call, because the two men are about equally unpopular. Most voters consider both of them too old.

We desperately need a generational transition in both parties.