The American Mid-Term Election Outcome and Its Implications

Date November 16, 2022
Speaker Bruce STOKES (Visiting Senior Fellow, German Marshall Fund of the United States)
Moderator SABURI Masataka (Director, PR Strategy, RIETI / Special Advisor to the Minister, METI)

The American voters have spoken and established control of the U.S. Congress for the next two years. What are the implications for U.S. foreign and domestic policy, partisanship in American politics and the future of American democracy, and the 2024 Presidential election? And what may all this mean for Japan's relationship with the United States?


The US 2022 midterm elections surprised pundits, pollsters, and the Republican Party, resulting from strong messaging on women’s rights and the protection of democracy. Biden came out of the election strong despite low approval ratings leading to a leveraged position geopolitically and discussion on his second term. The Democratic Party received strong support from women and minorities, gaining control of the Senate but losing control of the House of Representatives. With the upper and lower houses split, questions surround the administration’s ability to pass legislature without executive order, the stability and perception of the United States’ foreign policy by its allies and partners, military and humanitarian support for Ukraine, the United States’ global hegemony, the path of China as a hegemonic power, and the fundamental foundations of US democracy and the transfer of power.

The message of the vote and the preference for change

In advance of the US midterm election, polls showed that voters who intended to vote Republican were focused primarily on fixing the economy and curbing inflation, and on making America great again, whereas voters who intended to vote Democrat were interested in messages on women's rights, namely abortion, and on messages of protecting American democracy. One of the takeaways from this election is that pollsters and political pundits underestimated what people were telling them, especially on women's rights and protecting democracy.

Another reason that it was thought that this would be a bad election for the Democrats was that over half of voters said that they wanted a great deal of change in Washington. So, the assumption was that this was going to be an election of change. The president's approval ratings were low at around 45%, also indicating that the incumbent's party would lose. When the president's approval rating is that low, his party loses an average of 37 seats in midterm elections. The sentiments on Election Day as gathered by pollsters showing that inflation was the biggest concern of voters, with 32% saying that it was the most important issue, closely followed by abortion, at 27%.

The issue of abortion

Six in ten voters felt that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. This certainly was driving a lot of the votes. People were very convinced that the Supreme Court decision last June making abortion an issue that would be dealt with only at the state level was something they did not agree with. And abortion was also a very highly partisan issue. Democrats overwhelmingly believed that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And Republicans even more strongly thought it should be illegal in most or all cases.

Low presidential approval ratings

Biden was not that popular on Election Day; 45% approved of him. And this is probably one of the most important results of these exit polls. People expressed a dislike for Biden, but half of them said that their attitude towards Biden was not a factor in the election and how they voted. And I think what is interesting in this election outcome is that even people who said they somewhat disapproved of Biden's performance in office were more likely to vote Democratic. This was not anticipated by the Republicans or by the pollsters.

So, the big winner in this election was Biden. There were assumptions that he was an unpopular president, he was going to bring his party down, and that there would be calls for him not to run again. But in fact, he has come out much stronger. His strength can be measured in the strong position he held bilaterally at COP 27 and in meeting with Xi Jinping. If he had lost, America would have been weak in those situations.

How demography affected the midterm elections

We know from the exit polling data who voted for whom. White people voted overwhelmingly for the Republicans. Blacks, Latinos, and Asians voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Whites outnumber blacks in America, therefore, Republicans received 5 million more votes than Democrats. But since votes are counted by district, and not nationwide, those extra 5 million votes were wasted.

While the Republicans did very well among whites, Democrats did even better among minorities. This is a sign, I think, of the importance of abortion in this election. While white women voted with a slight majority for the Republicans, black women, Latino women, and women under 30 voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats. Young people voted overwhelmingly Democratic in key battleground states. However, in US elections, voter participation by the youth is low at well below 40%.

The future of the democracy

But notice that the future of democracy in this country was the single most important factor for 59% of people who voted Democratic in this election. President Biden gave two major speeches in the run up to the election, arguing that the American democracy was at risk. I, personally, thought that it was too abstract of an issue. But these results would suggest that, in fact, people are concerned about democracy.

Now, I would caution you that those 39%, for example, who voted Republican because they were worried about the future of the democracy, their worry about democracy is different than the worries regarding the Democrats. Democrats are worried about voter suppression. Republicans’ worries about democracy are that the wrong people vote or that there is some kind of trickery or chicanery around the counting of these votes.

Control of the houses

As per the results of the election, the Democrats control the Senate now, because there are 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, and in that case, our Constitution says that the vice president, who is a Democrat, gets to cast the tie-breaking vote. After the runoff in Georgia, we will know who will win this election in the first week of December. If the Democrats win, and they control the Senate, 51 to 49, it means they also control the committees in the Congress. They are not split down the middle. This will enable the president to move more judicial and ambassadorial appointments compared to the quagmire in the first two years of the Biden administration.

But the control of the Senate will be impacted by what is happening in the House of Representatives. The Republicans lead in the House is 217 seats to 204 seats. All they need is 218 seats to gain control of the House of Representatives. And everyone assumes that they will gain these. But the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is likely to be held by five or six seats at most, and the Republicans may have trouble controlling their majority. So, expect a lot of political turmoil around this in the new year.

Rocky foundations of the democracy

The US democracy is increasingly unstable. In the 12 elections between 1952 and 1974, control of the House, the Senate, and or the White House changed party hands four times. In the last 12 elections including this one, the change of power has been ten out of twelve. This is a degree of instability that is reminiscent of Italy, not the United States. Because the political philosophies of the Democrats and the Republicans are so dramatically disparate, it leads to a yo-yoing of policies, which must be unnerving for our allies. The second issue with control of the House of Representatives and the Senate split is that very little major legislation will get passed for the next two years, except the budget, defense spending, aid for Ukraine, and some tough measures against China. Because Democrats and Republicans are both pretty bellicose about China.

As a result, Biden will have to resort to executive action to get things done. He already has, in the first two years, issued more executive actions, on an annual basis, than either Trump or Obama. And the problem with executive actions is twofold, they are undemocratic and can be undone by a successor.

An unstable United States

This raises the question of instability and unreliability of the United States going forward. For example, Biden’s commitment at COP 27 on methane emissions can be overturned by a Republican president.

Another issue is that the Republican majority in the House has threatened to investigate the pullout from Afghanistan, and the handling of immigration, and Hunter Biden's business dealings, which will be a way of raising doubts about supporting Ukraine.

And the Republicans in the House have promised to raise issues about the threat posed by China. Those who have to worry about China and American attitudes towards China, such as Japan, need to be concerned about this. In that regard, also, Kevin McCarthy, the incoming speaker of the House, has promised to visit Taiwan as Nancy Pelosi did, which could be another flashpoint.

Biden's reelection

The chances of Biden running for reelection have gone up in the wake of the Democratic success. Biden stated his intentions in that regard. Obviously, his age will become an issue. But frankly, it is not at all clear who the Democrats could win with if Biden does not run. And I think Biden appreciates that, as he said he ran in 2020 because he thought he was the only one who could beat Trump.

On the Republican side, Trump announced tonight that he is running again. That is no surprise. The outcome of the election and the fact the Republicans did not do as well as expected I think has hurt Trump a bit. But we should also realize that his core supporters seem to never be dissuaded by anything that happens to him. And so, he has maybe a good 30-35% or so of the Republican voter base that will be with him to the end.

And while there are other candidates , like Governor DeSantis of Florida, would actually beat Trump in some of the primaries in some key states, that remains to be seen. But I think most people think he would be the strongest candidate to run against Trump and actually might be a stronger candidate against Joe Biden. But bear in mind that Donald Trump won the nomination in 2016 because the Republican primaries are largely winner-take-all primaries. If there are multiple Republicans running in any given state, all they need to get is about 30 or 35% of the vote to get all of the delegates. And that is exactly how Donald Trump won the nomination in 2016.

So, I think the Republican Party is going to have to decide if they, again, have six or seven people running. If they do, then that would enhance the likelihood that Trump will be renominated. If the Republicans can all coalesce around some other candidate beside Trump, then, conceivably, the party will nominate someone else. But there are a lot of things that could happen between now and then.


Do you see any major problem for Japan posed by the fact that the Democrats have secured the Senate whilst the Republicans control the House of Representatives?

Even though there is a grave distraction because of Ukraine, Japan need not worry about the Biden administration's commitment to Asia, as the US foreign policy pivot to Asia has only slowed and will inevitably resume. And, of course, there is the issue of Taiwan, which is largely dictated by Beijing's actions. The American public has little interest in supplying Taiwan with arms or sending troops. However, a large portion of Europeans were willing to support greater economic sanctions against China if they invaded Taiwan. I would say I have been very appreciative of how forward leaning the Japanese government has been on the Taiwan issue. And with Japan's leading role in the G7 next year, I think it is important that Japan be very clear to China about the unified consequences of an invasion, blockade, or boycott.

Are there any signs among Republicans in terms of reviewing the attitudes to the abortion issues in light of the election results?

I think there is no evidence to say it has changed the views of very conservative Republicans who believe that abortion is a sin. Those conservatives who have concerns about abortion have been agitating against the Roe v. Wade decision for 50 years, and only now have enough conservative justices on the Supreme Court. Now, it is up to the states to decide this issue. And some states have enacted very stringent laws against the will of their people, despite the peril of lawmakers losing their jobs. Referenda in conservative states show support for pro-choice. But I do not think we should discount the fact that a staunch anti-abortion person who has been fighting for 50 years to remove this right to abortion will not be dissuaded by one election.

In light of Biden's uncertain health issues, who could be other possible Democratic presidential candidates?

If Biden decides not to run, then one likely candidate is Vice President Harris. It would be very hard for the party to deny her the nomination because she is a black woman, and blacks and women are two of the strongest voting groups of the Democratic Party. But frankly, there are doubts about her capabilities after her chaotic and unsuccessful 2020 campaign. However, a number of other people want the job, including those who showed more capabilities in 2020 or in the recent election and those with better support in Washington, namely Gavin Newsom, Pete Buttigieg, Gretchen Whitmer, and Gina Raimondo.

You stated that people wanted to change the mechanisms of both Democratic and Republican parties which tend to advantage traditional candidates, and so, could this indicate increased viability of independent candidates?

There has, periodically, been interest in independent candidates or third-party candidates in the United States. However, they have had little success. I think the two-party system will remain, in part, because the two parties control the election laws at the state level, making it much more difficult for third-party movements. Also, in the United States, I think identification as an independent can be deceptive. About a third of people identify as independent, but, in fact, their beliefs, values, and voting record place them as either Republican or Democrat. So, I think the actual portion of the population that is truly independent is probably in the single digits.

What is your take on so-called election deniers? And has US democracy shown resiliency against them?

Donald Trump bragged about how many hundreds of deniers had gotten elected. While this is true, some of the very prominent election deniers lost, such as Kari Lake and Doug Mastriano. I think the jury is out. If very prominent election deniers had been elected in some of the swing states, they could have had a big influence on the 2024 election. And the fact that they all lost is probably a sign that election denial can hurt you when you run. On the other hand, election deniers were elected, and I think anyone who believes in democracy should be worried about that.

What could be supporting mechanisms for South America or Africa where US presence appears to have weakened in the recent decades?

In spite of its own demography, the United States has not fostered positive public sentiment for Africa nor Latin America. I think that for reasons I cannot fully explain few Americans care about either Latin America or Africa. Concerns usually focus on negative reasons, and it is not seen as portion of the world where we should be more engaged. Despite a free trade agreement with Mexico and Central America, the region has basically been an afterthought.

Could you tell us more about this election's implications for US-China relations and if we should expect more hawkish US policy toward China?

It was good that Biden and Xi Jinping met at the G20 summit. It is my understanding that we have agreed to relaunch or re-initiate the conversations that we have been having about climate change, which is an area where cooperation is terribly important. But on the other side, as long as China continues to threaten Taiwan, I think the Biden administration will be limited in its friendly relations with China. Bear in mind that the Biden administration has not undone the Trump administration's tariffs on China and has imposed the most severe restrictions on microchip production ever seen. The Chinese likewise have not lessened trade restrictions. The Biden administration is quite willing to be very tough on China going forward, to the consternation of our Japanese, Korean, and Dutch allies, all of whom have a stake in the microchip export controls.

So, my sense is that that the Biden administration is trying to maintain the status quo with China. I think that the West has to accept that the Chinese will not acquiesce to become more integrated with the rest of the world. Under Xi Jinping they have become more authoritarian and deglobalized. It is also worth noting that economists believe that Chinese growth will slow over the next few years. If the Chinese economy slows down dramatically, it may bring about domestic instability. Despite this, there is evidence that America is in relative decline compared to China, as seen by China's rise as a principal trading partner for more than half the world's countries. And so even in the face of China's slow economic growth, we all have to adjust our assumptions about how the world is going to be run, what the issues are that are going to arise, and how we deal with them.

Is there a possibility that Biden would be forced to reduce US support for Ukraine?

It was announced today that the administration will be asking Congress to pass more support and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Congress has been very generous in agreeing to support Ukraine due to Democratic control of House and the Senate. The bigger question will be next year, where Kevin McCarthy as well as other prominent Republicans will question how much longer the United States can continue this support during domestic economic pressure and growing public dissatisfaction. There is a deep-seated American view that the United States should no longer bear the burdens of the world. So, I think that it would be useful for Japan, Australia, South Korea, and India to step up with aid to Ukraine.

But bear in mind, the biggest issue is the cost of rebuilding of Ukraine, with estimates ranging from 300 to 400 billion US dollars. The funding is going to have to come from allies in the West, in the G7, in the G20, and the private sector. And one of the challenges is getting the private sector to go back into Ukraine but there is no precedent for insurance against a future war. Hopefully the Japanese G7 presidency can begin to debate that and discuss this, because we need a new vehicle that will be able to share some of the risk with the private sector.

*This summary was compiled by RIETI Editorial staff.