Graduate Center Experts Analyze the Midterm Elections
Faculty members assess the 2022 elections and their consequences for U.S. politics and policy and the future of democracy.
The midterm election votes are in, and control of Congress still hangs in the balance. We invited Graduate Center professors to weigh in on the known results, what lies ahead for the U.S., and what the election portends about hot-button issues such as immigration, abortion, and crime.
Professor Van C. Tran (Sociology, International Migration Studies) is an immigration scholar and urban sociologist who studies the integration of immigrants and their children, ethnic and racial categories, diversity and intergroup relations, neighborhood gentrification, and urban poverty and social inequality:
Let’s start with the good news. Turnout was once again at a record level for a midterm election. Despite the continuing polarization, voters are politically engaged and deeply care about the future direction of our country. This basic fact — and the belief that their votes matter— underscores the promise and premise of our democratic governance. As someone who grew up under Vietnam’s communist regime, our functioning democracy, despite its many limitations and impending perils, is the envy of many countries around the world.
At the same time, there are major cracks in our democratic foundation, and the seeds of doubt have been pervasive across the electorate. That blatant lies, denials, distortions, and half-truths have become a permanent feature of our public life points to a decline. It is astounding that over 200 candidates who are election deniers and conspiracy theorists were elected to public offices at different levels of our government yesterday. This group will further polarize the country and undermine public trust in our institutions, resulting in more discord, dissonance, and destabilization in our political system.
What do the election results mean for New York and the nation?
In the aftermath of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, several glass ceilings were shattered, with female candidates elected to high office. The wins include the first female governors in Arkansas, Massachusetts, and New York. Vermont elected a woman to the House and Alabama elected a woman to the Senate for the first time. There were historic “firsts" for other demographic groups, including the first Black governor in Maryland, the first Gen-Z House representative in California, and the first Native American senator from Oklahoma in a century. Their successes highlight a more inclusive democratic and electoral process for historically underrepresented groups in both political parties.
In New York, Kathy Hochul made history as our first female governor. Given her strong commitment to public education, especially to CUNY and SUNY, I am hopeful that her leadership will prioritize funding support for CUNY and SUNY. Substantial investments in CUNY, which the state and the city have perennially underfunded, will be critical to our mission of providing access to higher education and opportunities for social mobility for students from underprivileged and immigrant backgrounds.
Professor Michael Sharpe (GC/York, Political Science) is a scholar of comparative politics and international relations whose research focuses on the politics of migration and immigrant political incorporation:
First of all, the fact that many of the outcomes of the midterm elections are so tight and not a Republican red wave is surprising. It is unlikely that the political impasse over immigration in Congress will change. On the one hand, Democrats embrace the post-World War II rules-based system of humanitarian protections, but they do not want the Republicans’ label of favoring open borders. On the other hand, the Republicans prefer a more restrictive immigration policy with strict border enforcement.
President Biden and the Democrats came to office and introduced comprehensive immigration reform with the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, but the bill went nowhere. If the Republicans win control of Congress, President Biden could issue executive orders as President Obama did with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to give temporary protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, which he has revised and preserved via the courts.
President Biden more than likely would like issues such as caravans and “illegal border crossings” to go away as they can be politically weaponized by the Republicans as he pursues reelection in 2024.
I’ve been watching the impact of Dobbs on the 2022 midterms, both in terms of the specific measures in California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont, as well as the impact on voter turnout and the gender gap. Democratic strategists who were anticipating losing the House — the historical precedent for an incumbent with approval ratings in the mid-40s — were encouraging their candidates to avoid talking about reproductive rights and to focus instead on “kitchen table issues” (as if reproductive freedom were not such an issue!). The postmortems have just begun, but it is pretty clear that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe was a key issue in this election, perhaps especially among younger voters, turning the expected red wave into a ripple. Americans of all stripes support reproductive autonomy. Unfortunately, many of the GOP candidates who did win last night are those who signed Senator Lindsey Graham’s bill to ban abortion nationally.
The midterm election is now over … sort of. As of Wednesday morning, control of the House and Senate is still undetermined and may remain so for days and, in the case of the Senate, for as much as another month. Even that delayed resolution assumes no extended challenges about the process.
Leaving aside the final counts, the bigger picture is clear: Democrats overperformed and Republicans underperformed — except Ron DeSantis, whose star rose further in the Republican firmament with his blowout victory in the Florida governor’s race.
Two names are crucial to explain what has happened: Dobbs and Trump. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade impelled abortion rights supporters to defend them at the ballot box. Meanwhile, Trump’s involvement motivated moderate voters to vote against his brand of creative divisiveness. In that sense, the midterms were a “little 2020,” another vote against Trumpiness.
It didn’t hurt that the Republicans declared that they would cut Social Security and Medicare if they got control — positions about as unpopular as Republicans’ stand on abortion.
Whatever the outcome of the races to control Congress, Republican underperformance sets the stage for an internal struggle over the party’s future direction — disciplined culture wars with DeSantis or more Trumpian chaos.
Professor Candace McCoy (Criminal Justice) is a scholar of criminal justice trained in law who previously served as the Director of Policy Analysis for the Inspector General of the New York Police Department:
In narrowly winning the governorship of New York, Kathy Hochul defeated a hardline anti-crime candidate whose campaign was “singularly focused on crime.” Public safety has long been an Achilles heel for Democrats. Republicans paint them as bleeding hearts who are out of touch with crime victims and a fearful public. Often, such claims have racial undertones as if all criminals are people of color.
Hochul was having none of it and steadfastly responded by citing her own non-racist anti-crime approach, which has focused on finding and removing illegal guns from high-homicide neighborhoods and supporting gun control measures in the state legislature.
She also refused to abandon bail reform, which Republican demagogues statewide incorrectly insisted was responsible for the rise in crime. Zeldin screamed about the crime increase and especially pointed to crimes on public transit, somewhat successfully attracting many New York City voters to his side by playing on their fears. But more voters correctly saw the recent rise in crime and homelessness as an outcome of post-pandemic social fraying. Hochul pointed out that homicides dropped dramatically under her watch, perhaps as a result of the anti-gun measures, to which Zeldin's campaign had no response. What could they say? "Uh, we don't mean homicide when we talk about crime?"
Hochul played this one smart. Democrats across the county can learn from her as crime has risen everywhere and public officials look to community-based responses to it.
Professor David Jones (GC/Baruch, Political Science), author of Americans, Congress, and Democratic Responsiveness: Public Evaluations of Congress and Electoral Consequences and Political Parties and Policy Gridlock in American Government. He has served as an exit poll analyst for The New York Times and CBS News:
Democrats seem to have managed to avoid traditional levels of midterm losses for the president’s party. Midterm elections often serve as a referendum on the perceived performance of the president in office. In the post-World War II era, when the president’s approval rating is below 50%, his party has lost an average of 37 seats in the House and five in the Senate. Although Biden’s approval rating sat at about 40% prior to the election, current projections suggest his party will lose only about a dozen seats in the House and maybe none in the Senate. You’d rather win than lose, but Democrats have done better than expected.
The Supreme Court’s abortion ruling helped Democrats counteract concerns about Biden and the economy. Although most voters did not think the economy was doing well under Biden’s watch, less than a third picked inflation as the most important issue to their vote. Almost an equal number of voters picked abortion, and three-quarters of them voted for the Democrat in their House race. It appears that the abortion issue was a key factor helping limit Democratic losses in the midterms.
The country continues to be narrowly divided heading into the 2024 elections. The close midterm results in key swing states from the 2020 presidential election — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona — demonstrate that these states will continue to be battlegrounds where both parties are competitive. Other states that have until recently been thought to be swing states may be becoming less competitive. For example, a big night for Florida Republicans suggests that the Sunshine State is becoming more solidly red, while Democratic wins in Michigan hint that it may now be a safer bet to stay blue. Expect these voting patterns to affect the strategies of the parties’ nominees for president in 2024.
Spending in Congressional elections this year smashed all previous records, at an estimated $9 billion. But despite all that spending, in the end, it seems likely that the net party change in seats will be less than 3% of all seats in the House and 0% in the Senate. We remain a closely divided nation.
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