Influences on US Midterm Elections

February 09, 2022
8 min read
Photo credit: Michele Ursi /
It is far too early to know what the outcome of the November 2022 US Congressional elections may be, when one-third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives is up for reelection.

Too much could change in the next 10 months: inflation could spiral out of control, Covid-19 could run rampant, and there are potential conflicts with China or Russia. But because the stakes are so high—both for the United States and its allies—and because the press and Washington dinner parties are already consumed by such speculation, an early assessment of the US political landscape is in order.

Democrats now control both the Senate and the House, albeit with razor-thin majorities. The Senate is evenly divided 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans, with US Vice President Kamala Harris empowered by the Constitution to break all ties. Democrats presently hold only an eight-vote majority in the House, which means just five seats would have to change hands for the Republicans to take control.

History and recent public opinion polling suggest change is likely, in part because the US political system is increasingly volatile.

In the 12 national elections between 1952 and 1974, control of the White House, the Senate and/or the House of Representatives changed party control just four times. In the most recent 11 elections, control shifted nine times. Such volatility is attributable to a pervasive sour mood, the hyper-polarization of US politics, and the public’s desire for immediate gratification from the electoral process.


of Americans say the country is headed in the wrong direction. Only 30% say right direction.

Two in three Americans (66%) say the country is headed in the wrong direction. Only 30% say right direction. Such sentiment is deeply partisan: six in ten Democrats are upbeat; more than nine in ten Republicans are downbeat. In December 2017, a similar majority of the public thought the nation was going downhill, and a year later, in the 2018 Congressional elections, the Democrats picked up 41 seats and took control of the House of Representatives.

How people vote in 2022 may depend on whether the election campaign is framed by personal or national concerns.  

Notably, the nature of public discontent depends on how the question is phrased. When asked what is the most important priority for the country, people say it is immigration (13%), inflation (10%), the economy (11%), or Covid-19 (5%). But only 1% say foreign policy and none say China or trade. Yet when queried about the biggest concern for their family, 18% say Covid-19, 14% mention inflation, but only 1% cite immigration.

So how people vote in 2022 may depend on whether the election campaign is framed by personal or national concerns.  

Four days before Christmas, President Biden spent half an hour on national television laying out his administration’s extensive plans to cope with the rapidly spreading Omicron Covid-19 variant. Such laser focus reflects Democrats’ belief that unless Covid-19 can be contained, pandemic fatigue will drive frustrated voters to seek a change in the November 2022 elections.

For their part, Republicans think a smorgasbord of national issues are their path to victory in the upcoming Congressional elections. They will hammer Democrats’ inability to contain inflation, which at 6.2% is at its highest level since 1990. They will blame higher prices on out-of-control government spending, labeling it a Socialist agenda, always a potent smear in US politics. They will contend that Biden’s efforts to contain Covid-19 are an attack on Americans’ freedom. And, drawing on the Trump playbook, they will attack rising illegal immigration.

Ominously for Democrats, when the public is asked whether they think a list of problems will be better or worse a year from now, as Americans go to the polls, a majority say inflation will be worse and a plurality think both the economy and border security will be worse.

Public disgruntlement has led voters to turn on President Joe Biden less than a year after his inauguration. Just four in ten approve of Biden’s job as President, after he received 51% of the popular vote in November 2020. And, as might be expected, the judgement on Biden is deeply partisan: 86% of Democrats approve and 90% of Republicans disapprove.


of those surveyed say Biden has accomplished “not much” or little or nothing.”

Strikingly, 63% of those surveyed say Biden has accomplished “not much” or little or nothing.” This harsh judgement comes despite 200 million Americans having been vaccinated against Covid-19, a 4.2% unemployment rate, rising wages, and 6% economic growth.

Public concern about the 6.2% inflation rate clearly explains some of the disdain for Biden’s record. But partisanship is the root cause. Nearly 9 in 10 Republicans say Biden has accomplished little or nothing. Over two-thirds of Democrats believe the President has achieved a great deal or a good amount.

The challenge for Democrats in 2022 is that about 7 in 10 independents also think Biden has done little. Partisanship can explain the differing views of Democrats and Republicans. Polling shows these two groups differ on almost everything, even including who are their friends.

Independents’ deep disappointment with Biden is harder to explain. Numerous studies show that self-described Independents in the United States are really not independent. Their views on a range of issues lean toward one of the two major parties and on Election Day they tend to vote that way. So, whatever the reason for their disgruntlement with Biden, it spells bad news for Democrats in 2022.

However, recent experience tells a contradictory story of the electoral implications of such weak support. Only a third of Americans approved of President Donald Trump at a similar point in his administration, and Republicans lost control of the House in the 2018 midterm election. But roughly half of those surveyed approved of President Barack Obama in November 2009 and Democrats still lost heavily in the House a year later.

More broadly, however, history is not on the side of the Democrats. Since 1950, in the first midterm election after a Presidential election, the party controlling the White House has lost an average of less than two Senate Seats and 26 House seats. 

So, what does this all mean for the 2022 midterm elections? Of the 18 major national polls conducted in November 2021, 10 showed the public preferred the Democratic party to control Congress, or said they would vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress, and eight sided with the Republicans. 

But all politics is local. The likely outcome in a Senate that is now evenly divided is difficult to predict. The Republicans control 20 seats up for election, the Democrats 14. Ten of the Democratic seats are considered safe, one leans Democratic, and three are rated as toss-ups. Fifteen Republican seats are considered solidly Republican, two are leaning, and three are toss-ups.

It is in the House where the Republicans have a definite electoral edge.  

Elections to the House have become less and less competitive over the years. In 1997, there were 164 swing seats in the run-up to the 1998 Congressional elections, a swing seat being a district where one party or the other had a five-percentage point or less advantage in the polls. Going into the 2021 elections, there are 78 such swing districts. So, incumbents have an advantage. And by December 2021, 19 Democrats have announced retirement, but only 12 Republicans.

And this comes before the redrawing of Congressional maps. Every 10 years, district boundaries are redrawn as some constituencies lose population and others grow. This process is called gerrymandering, named after Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 drew oddly shaped districts to preserve his party’s control of his state’s Senate. Today, aided by data on voters that was unavailable two centuries ago—what magazines people read, what TV shows they watch, where they shop—gerrymandering has become an artform capable of drawing district boundaries that stretch like an amoeba across the landscape, separating neighbor from neighbor, concentrating party voters into safe electoral districts.

With just a five-seat swing needed to hand control of the House to the Republicans, gerrymandering could prove the difference.

Map drawing is done by state legislatures or independent or bipartisan commissions. More than a third of the redistricting is complete. Among the remaining states, Republican-controlled legislatures will draw the boundaries for 187 House seats; Democrats only 75. With just a five-seat swing needed to hand control of the House to the Republicans, gerrymandering could prove the difference.

A final factor affecting the outcome will be recent changes in voting rules at the state level. Nineteen states have passed 33 laws that will make it harder for Americans to vote: restricting voting by mail and early voting, imposing tougher voter identification requirements, making it easier to purge the lists of eligible voters. All these restrictions are likely to impede voting by Democrats, who draw more of their votes from minorities, the young, and the poor, than it will deter Republicans.

Ten months is an eternity in politics, so it is perilous to forecast the US midterm election outcome in November 2022. But the current consensus among political analysts in Washington is that the Republicans will win control of the House and that the Senate outcome is too close to call. The policy implications of the Biden administration losing control on Capitol Hill remain to be seen, but they are likely to be significant, both domestically and internationally.

This piece was written for and originally published by the Japanese news magazine Foresight.