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Professors Talk Unexpected Democratic Voter Turnout in 2022 Midterm Election

The 2022 midterm elections took an unexpected turn on Tuesday, working in the Democratic Party’s favor, Boston College political science professor David Hopkins said.

“Usually, the president’s party gets sort of a bad night on midterm night,” Hopkins said. “Here we are with this historically unusual outcome.”

Hopkins and J. Joseph Moakley Endowed Professor of Political Science Kay Schlozman discussed the implications of this year’s midterm elections in an event held by the Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy on Thursday afternoon.

With the growing division between political parties, Schlozman said the stakes are rising—the majority ruling can now significantly impact laws put in place in the United States.

“The parties are doubling down, which means the level of competition [is going] up,” she said.

Issues such as gun control and abortion have contributed to partisan polarization, according to Schlozman and Hopkins, encouraging a high voter turnout in the Democratic Party. While the Democratic Party was amped up, the two said the Republican Party had a lot to lose.

“The Republicans had 24 seats to be defended,” Schlozman said. “The Democrats [had] only 14, which is a somewhat disadvantage for Republicans because they have more to lose and fewer people.”

Given previous midterm elections, Schlozman said many expected a differential turnout—when voters in the president’s party are less likely to vote. But she said Democrats actively showed up at polls, while Republicans failed to do so.

There are four main factors that played a critical role in this year’s midterm elections and likely increased Democratic voter turnout, according to Hopkins.

“The first one, which I think the media has decided already is the biggest story, is lousy Republican candidates,” Hopkins said. “There were a number of Republican nominees, especially in the top Senate races, that even before the election were sort of seen as flawed.”

Not only are the candidates portrayed as “flawed,” but they also get “a bad rap” from former President Donald Trump, Hopkins said.

“[There is] this more general idea that Trump is still the face of the Republican Party,” he said. “So the election, rather than becoming just a referendum on [Joe] Biden, became a referendum on Biden versus Trump, and that sort of nullified the Republican advantage.”

The reputation of the Republican Party itself is yet another factor in this year’s midterm elections, Hopkins said. Though the party is trying to rebuild itself around business, growth, and economic management, Hopkins said these core values have weakened.

“Republicans were not in a position to benefit from the favorable underlying climate because people didn’t trust them or see them as doing any better than the Democrats,” he said.

The fourth impact on midterm elections was the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, according to Hopkins. This decision particularly energized Democrats and increased their voter turnout, he said.

High Democratic voter turnout made the midterm election results highly unusual, Schlozman said, because many anticipated the Republican Party to show up at the polls out of anger.

“[Biden’s] presidential popularity, depending on which of the various polls about [his] approval ratings … are roughly at 43 percent,” Schlozman said. “That’s kind of an amber light going into the midterm election, and it is below the usual threshold of comfort we peg at 50 percent.”

After this midterm election, attendee and BC psychology professor Brooke Magnus said she is more hopeful.

“After general feelings of existential dread for the last six years, this is the first time I’ve really felt like, you know, maybe we’re going to be okay,” Magnus said.

Another attendee, however, said he worried that the strength of political division was going to hurt the country in the long run.

“I really hope that there is a stable political environment in the United States,” said physics Ph.D student Kewen Huang. “It’s better for the people of the United States and also better for the world. Everything in the United States has a great impact on the whole world.”

These midterm elections presented politicians with the difficult task of reigniting democratic engagement in the country, Hopkins said, while voters had to take a stance on social issues in a time of intense political polarization.

“We’re convinced this was an important election,” Hopkins said. “I don’t doubt that [voters] believe that democracy was at stake.”

November 13, 2022