Menu Close

Is democracy really ‘on the ballot’ in the US midterm elections?

People in Trump t-shirts and caps praying during an election rally
Republican supporters pray before a Donald Trump “Save America” rally on September 23, 2022, in Wilmington, North Carolina. \ Allison Joyce/AFP

Ahead of the midterm elections in November, US president Joe Biden gave a controversial speech that accused MAGA Republicans (an acronym for “Make America Great Again”) of “destroying American democracy” and posing “a threat to this country” and to the “very foundations of our republic.” Days earlier, he described the philosophy of these pro-Trump Republicans as “almost semi-fascism”.

Such strong words represent a real break from a president who had placed national reconciliation at the core of his campaign, tirelessly repeating his desire to unify and not divide the people since his victory speech and inaugural address. However, he is hardly the first president to denounce other Americans as an existential threat to the nation. His predecessor, Donald Trump, referred to the press that criticized him as the “enemy of the people”.

Trump was quick to respond to Biden’s attacks by calling him an “enemy of the state”. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy agreed with Biden that “democracy is on the ballot in November”, but said it was “Joe Biden and the radical left in Washington [who] are dismantling it.”

Is this talk a mere electoral strategy to motivate voters to turn out or could both parties have a point?

Public opinion is concerned but divided on the issue of democracy

A majority of Americans (69%), Republicans and Democrats alike, do consider that democracy is “in danger of collapse,” according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. For the first time in U.S. history, an incumbent president has still not conceded defeat, instead claiming a “landslide victory,” and inciting his supporters to storm the Capitol to block the certification of the results of the Electoral College vote.

The nation’s unifying concern about democracy, however, does not necessarily translate into votes as Americans tend to focus more on short-term, pressing issues. It also hides deep divisions: while a majority of respondents cite “people trying to overturn the election” as a major threat, among Republicans it is “people voting illegally” who are seen as a threat (CBS poll).

This belief continues even though all the studies on this issue, including the Commission on Election Integrity established by Trump himself, have concluded again and again that there is no evidence of voter fraud that could have changed the outcome of the 2020 elections. Despite this, poll after poll shows that a large majority of Republicans (70%) continue to believe that Joe Biden is not the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.

T-shirts on sale at Republican rallies often claim that Joe Biden is not the ‘real’ president of the United States. Jeff Swensen/AFP

Questioning a president’s legitimacy is not entirely new: in 2016, 72% of Republican voters still doubted President Obama’s citizenship (in 2000, Democrats were skeptical of George W. Bush’s election, but the situation was quite different, and, Al Gore had admitted defeat).

Rather, what is unusual is the scale of the doubts. On the very day following the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, nearly two-thirds of Republican representatives and a few senators refused to validate the results of the presidential election. Some conservatives, including the most powerful American conservative think tank, support minority rule by making the dangerous claim that the United States is a republic, and not a democracy.

Voting: a very local matter

While midterm elections are traditionally about the record – especially on the economic front – of the administration in power, the 2022 campaign has taken a different turn.

First of all, never before has a former president dominated the primaries of a midterm election as Donald Trump has. He has endorsed more than 200 candidates, not only at the federal level but also at the local level. On top of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and one third of the 100 seats in the Senate on the ballot at the federal level, there are also hundreds of local elections from governors to state secretaries of state, local attorneys general, and state legislative chambers. These elections are suddenly crucial because in the U.S. federal system the states are responsible for the elections and for establishing voting rights, not the federal government.

Depending on each state’s constitution, governors and secretaries of state may have varying degrees of control over elections, although they cannot, on their own, overturn the results of an election. This is why Donald Trump asked Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes” in order to change the final outcome in his favor in 2020, thus instantly transforming a low-level, non-partisan, administrative position into a high-profile, partisan, political office.

During the midterm primaries, Trump made the denial of the 2020 presidential election results a key loyalty test within the Republican Party. The results of the primaries confirm its hold: 60 percent of elections will have election deniers on the ballot this fall. For Trump, the point is not just about making November 8 a rematch of the 2020 presidential election but also to prepare for the 2024 presidential election. And in the event of defeat, he could potentially block the electoral machinery.

Extremism is a risky strategy that doesn’t necessarily pay off

Historically, the most extreme candidates who win primaries diminish their party’s chances of winning the general election. Some Democrats have relied on this idea to support a risky and somewhat cynical strategy: funding ad campaigns for the most extreme Republican candidates in the primaries – tying them to Donald Trump, for example – in the hope of defeating them more easily in the general election.

People holding up ‘Save America’ signs
For Republicans, as here at a rally on August 17, 2022, in Youngstown, Ohio, the upcoming elections are about ‘saving America’ from the danger supposedly posed by Democrats. Jeff Swensen/AFP

While this strategy has worked in the past, it could backfire in a highly polarized environment where party affiliation gets increasingly mixed up with personal identity.

The other hope for Democrats is that the issue of abortion moves to front and centre. It is now up to the states to decide whether to ban, limit or guarantee abortion rights after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. If the test vote in Kansas this summer is any indication, even voters in a very conservative state remain broadly supportive of maintaining a constitutional guarantee on abortion. An increase in the number of women registered to vote in this election may also indicate that this might be a mobilizing issue.

The irony, of course, is that now the Democrats are waging the so-called “culture war” on the Republicans by focusing on moral and societal issues first while the Republicans shift to economic issues, such as inflation. That economic focus could help them secure a landslide victory, especially with immigration and crime still on their agenda.

Thus, the transformation of the midterm elections into a possible “rematch” of the 2020 presidential election (between a relatively unpopular president and a former president who is even more unpopular and radicalized), could make the prognosis uncertain. That being said, most models (here, here and here) have the Republicans winning the House while the Senate has only a slight chance of remaining Democrat.

If the Republicans take control of one chamber of Congress – or both, it will close any chance for the Democrats to accomplish anything for the next two years. The new majority could also use its power to obstruct, open investigations into the Biden administration, and upset the current balance in international affairs, including by questioning American support for Ukraine. In the meantime, the results of local elections could well decide the future of democracy in the most powerful country in the world.

This article was originally published in French

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,400 academics and researchers from 5,001 institutions.

Register now