Tuesday was a great night for the Republicans. The GOP flipped the office of governor in Virginia, a race that is often viewed as a harbinger of the following year’s mid-term elections (although this may be an overreaction). But that was not all. The Republicans were even more impressive remarkably close to winning the New Jersey governor’s racethat wasn’t nearly as competitive.
Looking ahead to midterms 2022, the better omen for the GOP could be how consistently it exceeded expectations across the board on Tuesday evening.
Republicans not only won the governorship in Virginia, they won the Vice-Governor’s Office and Attorney General. You appear to have won a seat on the Net in the New Jersey State Senate and have won at least four (maybe up to eight) at the New Jersey General Assembly. And they won several polling stations that didn’t get as much attention, such as Seat of the State Supreme Court in Pennsylvania and Municipal offices in New York. But the icing on the cake is that they are the majority in the Virginia House of Representativeswhich puts them just one vote in the state Senate away from full control of the state government.
And those general elections in the states can tell us the most about the political environment in 2022. As we wrote earlier, for both Congress and state parliaments, special elections can predict the mid-term elections they will lead to – as long as you look at them in their entirety and look at their margins of victory, not just who won.
So far, none of the parties has consistently beaten over their weight in the special elections held in Congress in 2021. Perhaps this was partly because most of the special elections were held at the beginning of the year, when Biden was still popular. Since then, however, his approval ratings have dropped (43 percent agree, 51 percent disagree), and this week we got the results of 100 Virginia House elections and 40 New Jersey Senate elections that took place in this anti-democratic environment – and she showed one clear pattern of Republican over-performance.
On average, the current margins in these state legislative elections for Republicans are 7 percentage points better than the FiveThirtyEight Partisans in their districts. Specifically, the Republicans in the Virginia House of Delegates outperformed by an average of 7 points:
And they outperformed by an average of 6 points in the New Jersey Senate:
This over-performance was consistent – Republicans surpassed partisan thinness in almost every district. It was also the biggest outperformance we’ve seen in the three-time analysis for parliamentary elections in odd years – although, in fairness, that’s still a pretty small sample size. In 2017, the Democrats outperformed in the Virginia House of Representatives by 2 points and in the New Jersey Senate by 5 points; In 2019, the Democrats outperformed the Virginia Senate by 4 points and the Virginia House by 3 points.
Since partisan bias is our best estimate of how a district would vote in a neutral political environment, it means the nation is currently leaning 6 or 7 points against the Republicans. If that’s true a year from now, midterms 2022 would be a veritable red wave.
Of course, we don’t yet know all of the electoral districts that will be eligible for election next year, because most of them have not yet been drawn. But just to illustrate, if the Republicans won every district on the current House of Representatives map that has a partisan lean color redder than D + 7, they would flip 47 seats en route to a 260-175 majority. And if every state with an independent speaker as D + 7 elects Republicans to the Senate next year, the GOP would flip five seats: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Colorado. (This obviously ignores other potentially important factors like candidate quality; it’s just meant to illustrate how impressive the Republicans’ performance was on Tuesday.)
To be clear, that’s probably the one worst case Scenario for the Democrats, just as this 7-point over-performance by the Republicans in the 2021 general election is the worst of the few medium-term indicators we currently have for the Democrats. The most obvious counter-evidence: the Democrats are still leading with an average of 2.3 points in polls on the general Congressional ballot.
But if I were the Democratic Party, that number would make me feel less comforted after Tuesday. While polls are usually in the right stadium, they are still subject to a margin of error, as the Democrats themselves discovered in 2020 when the polls using generic ballot papers overestimated their margin by 4.2 points. In addition, there were already good reasons to believe that general ballot Democrats are currently being overestimated: Almost all of them have polled registered voters and unlikely voters who tend to be a more Republican group, especially in a mid-term election when the president is president a democrat.
Nothing is set in stone beyond 2022, and there are no guarantees that a Red Wave election will come about. But the historical expectation of a Democratic president has always been that Republicans would have a good election cycle, and the evidence of this is mounting. The Republicans’ over-performing in the 2021 election is just a reminder of how bad it could get for the Democrats.