Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, senior elections analyst): The 2022 midterms just ended a couple weeks ago,1 but the 2024 election has already begun: Just a week after Election Day, former President Donald Trump announced he would run for president again. Given how little of a break we’re getting between the two campaigns, it raises the question: How could the results of the 2022 election influence the results of 2024’s?
To answer that, I’ve convened a meeting of FiveThirtyEight’s brightest political minds. How’s everyone feeling about the campaign whiplash??
alex (Alex Samuels, politics reporter): Haha, our jobs are never boring — that’s for sure! 😅
kaleigh (Kaleigh Rogers, technology and politics reporter): People often comment that my job is only busy every other year and I laugh and laugh.
Monica Potts (Monica Potts, senior politics reporter): It seemed like Trump was forever promising an announcement “tomorrow,” so by the time it happened it felt like it had already happened. But yes, it is a never-ending campaign season.
nrakich: OK, let’s get one thing out of the way. Democrats had a surprisingly strong showing in 2022, especially by historical standards: They kept the Senate, and they lost fewer than 10 seats in the House despite the president’s party losing over two dozen House seats in the typical midterm. Is this reason for Democrats to be optimistic about 2024 as well?
alex: I’m hesitant to make sweeping generalizations about 2024 based off Democrats’ performance in 2022. Sure, Democratic victories give President Biden something to brag about in the meantime, but historically, we haven’t been able to predict presidential results based on midterm elections. And I don’t see why this year would be the exception.
geoffrey.skelley: I mean, they might take it as a reason to be optimistic. But as Alex said, historically, there’s been little relationship between the result in a midterm election and the result of the next presidential contest. So what happened in November 2022 probably has little bearing on how November 2024 will pan out, at least in terms of votes.
And that’s understandable: We don’t know who the candidates will be in 2024, we don’t know what the political environment will be like and the electorate will be different! Right now, the U.S. Election Project’s preliminary turnout figure for this year is around 46 percent of the voting-eligible population. With California still counting a lot of ballots, that’ll probably hit 47 percent. But in 2020, almost 67 percent of the VEP cast a ballot for president! So a lot of people who didn’t participate in 2022 will probably participate in 2024.
kaleigh: Yeah, I mean midterms generally have very little correlation with presidential elections. In addition to the changes in the electorate, people just think differently about voting for president compared to voting for governor or senator. It’s the highest office, and so much depends on what happens in the months leading up to the actual election. I wouldn’t use the midterms to make any predictions about 2024, personally, other than perhaps who else might run.
Monica Potts: Two of the biggest issues motivating voters this year seemed to be inflation/the economy and abortion rights, and it’s just so hard to say what conditions will be like in two years. I can see red states continuing to push abortion bans or enforce the ones that already exist, but I can also see purple states moderating and blue states working to protect abortion rights. Who knows what the economy will do, but I think it’s safe to say it won’t be in the same place. I think so much depends on those conditions, who’s at the top of the tickets and what happens in the swing states where Democrats won this year, like Pennsylvania and Michigan.
alex: And the issues that motivated voters this fall could be way different than the issues that motivate voters in presidential election years. You might also see, for example, a Democratic backlash toward Trump if he ends up being the GOP’s presidential nominee, similar to what we saw in 2020.
nrakich: Great points all!
Yeah, for every midterm-presidential pairing like 2018-20 (when Democrats had a great midterm and then defeated Trump), there’s one like 2010-12 (when Republicans had a great midterm and then failed to unseat then-President Barack Obama).
geoffrey.skelley: Seriously, Nathaniel. Speaking of whiplash, one of the best examples is 1946-48, when Republicans swamped Democrats in the 1946 midterms to take back the Senate and House, but then former President Harry Truman surprised by winning reelection in 1948, bringing with him sweeping majorities for Democrats in the Senate and House.
nrakich: In fairness, though, 2022 is a different case — the rare example of a midterm where the president’s party did relatively well. What has happened in presidential elections after those midterms?
kaleigh: Ooh, that’s a good question … for Geoff!
(My brain holds very different esoteric knowledge.)
geoffrey.skelley: Nathaniel, a couple examples that come to mind are 1970-72 and 1998-2000. In 1970, Republicans actually gained a seat in the Senate and lost only nine seats in the House, but Democrats retained clear majorities in both chambers. Then in 1972, then-President Richard Nixon won one of the greatest landslide reelections in U.S. history.
In 1998, Democrats gained five seats in the House and preserved the status quo in the Senate amid a backlash over GOP attempts to impeach then-President Bill Clinton, but then Republican George W. Bush captured the White House in 2000.
Obviously these are two fairly different circumstances when it comes to an incumbent president running or not, which candidates were running (George McGovern was not the strongest contender for Democrats in ’72), and the events surrounding the election. But that speaks to how hard it is to know what’ll happen next!
nrakich: Yeah, and there’s also 2002-04, when Republicans had a good midterm in the wake of Sept. 11 and then Bush won a narrow reelection. But of course, we’re dealing with a very small sample size here.
Kaleigh, you mentioned that the midterms could influence who jumps into the race for president. Do you guys think the midterms change Biden’s reelection calculus at all?
kaleigh: I don’t know about change, but certainly influence. Biden has a lot of factors to consider and recently said he was going to discuss with family over the holidays. But he’s got to be feeling emboldened after such a strong showing in the midterms.
Another influential factor has to be Trump’s announcement. Biden won against Trump once before, so there’s this underlying narrative of “he beat him once, he could beat him again,” if Trump wins the nomination.
alex: If Democrats had succumbed to the midterm curse that’s typical for the party in the White House, Biden may have faced outsized pressure to not run in 2024 (as he did before the midterms). But I think, to Kaleigh’s point, you could make the argument that the results of this year’s races, coupled with Trump’s presidential announcement, clear up any doubts over whether Biden is running for reelection.
geoffrey.skelley: Kaleigh, I think that’s right. I’ve said before that Biden’s chances of running again depended in part on whether Trump would run again, and now Trump is running. So I do think Biden may be somewhat more likely to run.
At the same time, it’s also possible that Biden could decide this is a moment where the Democratic bench of potential candidates is stronger after the success of many big names in the midterms, especially governors of potentially competitive states like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan or Jared Polis of Colorado.
Monica Potts: I still think it’s worth remembering that Biden remains pretty unpopular (his approval rating is currently below 42 percent), and voters chose their Democratic candidates in House and Senate races for many reasons. I think it would be reading too much into the results to say it boosts Biden’s chances.
nrakich: Geoffrey, that’s a great point about Whitmer and Polis. Both have been talked about as future presidential contenders, and both absolutely crushed it in their reelection bids: Whitmer won by 11 percentage points, and Polis won by 19! I don’t think they would ever primary Biden, but if Biden doesn’t run, their theories of the case seem stronger than ever, especially if Democratic primary voters are concerned about electability again.
alex: Do we really think Whitmer or Polis stands a chance against Trump, though?
I think winning statewide office is one thing, but winning a presidential election against Trump is another story entirely. Biden already proved that he can beat him in 2020 and can campaign on Democrats’ success during the midterm elections, so I don’t see why he wouldn’t be seen as the strongest Democratic presidential contender (at least at this point in time).
And if Whitmer thought Biden was a particularly weak president, she wouldn’t have campaigned with him earlier this year.
Monica Potts: Right, I think the really big question for Democrats is who should they nominate if not Biden? A rising star like Whitmer could be risky. Voters don’t really have a favorable opinion of Vice President Kamala Harris, for lots of reasons that include sexism and racism, but she hasn’t been a super visible VP. I’m having flashbacks to the crowded Democratic field in the 2020 presidential election, which didn’t have a clear favorite until House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn endorsed Biden.
kaleigh: I think Whitmer or Polis could absolutely beat Trump. I think a lot of Biden’s win in 2020 was simply based on him being the “not Trump” candidate. Trump is basically just as unpopular now as he was before the 2020 election, and even some of his supporters are saying they don’t want him to run. There are many capable Democrats who could fill the “not Trump” role and defeat him in 2024 if Biden were to opt against running.
geoffrey.skelley: As Nathaniel said, I don’t think these candidates run if Biden does. But if he doesn’t seek reelection, they’d certainly have a decent shot of defeating Trump in a general election. For one thing, both Whitmer and Polis have put together impressive electoral track records in states that are either real swingy or at least not deep blue. Whitmer could make abortion a major issue, as she did in her reelection campaign, while Polis has a bit of a libertarian streak in him that could expand his appeal in a general election context. Plus, Trump is one of the great unifiers in history — for Democrats, anyway. So that would help the eventual Democratic nominee to some extent. Moreover, the country is starkly divided and close presidential elections are just sort of a matter of course these days, so barring a real catastrophe for one party, we should expect another highly competitive contest in 2024.
Monica Potts: Yes, I think so much depends on whether Trump is the nominee.
alex: I’m not totally convinced by the “not Trump” argument, Kaleigh. I think most of the Democratic field in 2020 campaigned on being the “not Trump” or “I’m best positioned to beat Trump” candidate. But there’s a reason why Biden was the victor in the end.
But I largely agree with your point, Geoff. I think Biden running will stop other Democrats from jumping in, so there’s not a split Democratic field. The flip side, though, is that I don’t think a Trump announcement will stop other prominent Republicans from throwing their hat in the ring.
kaleigh: 🎵 The name on everybody’s lips is gonna be … Ronny! 🎵
nrakich: Haha, indeed, Kaleigh. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was another governor who turned in a really impressive reelection performance earlier this month. He won by 19 points in a state that, until recently at least, was considered the quintessential swing state! Do we think this strengthens his hand ahead of his widely expected presidential bid?
alex: That’s a good point, Nathaniel! With his landslide election in Florida, DeSantis was easily the biggest GOP storyline to come out of the 2022 election. I won’t cite exit poll data directly, but reporting suggests that he performed well with Latino voters and flipped Miami-Dade County, which is historically Democratic. I think his performance this year might convince Republicans that he’s the strongest alternative to Trump — if they’re looking for one. Plus, DeSantis has long been viewed as a rising star within the GOP, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he takes on the challenge.
kaleigh: There’s no doubt: The results in Florida solidified DeSantis’s role as a popular Republican rising star, and at least some polls are now showing him ahead of Trump. An Economist/YouGov poll conducted just after the election found 46 percent of Republicans said they’d prefer to see DeSantis as the GOP nominee in 2024, compared to 39 percent who said they’d prefer Trump.
And while a majority — 60 percent — of Republicans said they wanted to see Trump run in 2024 when asked before the election, just 47 percent did when asked after the election (but before Trump announced his candidacy).
nrakich: I’d be careful about those polls, though, Kaleigh. We often warn people to wait a while to interpret polls after major news events like debates, and the midterms definitely qualify.
kaleigh: That’s true! We’ll have to wait to see if any of these turn into actual trends.
Monica Potts: I can absolutely see Republican party leaders coalescing around DeSantis because they know Trump motivates Democrats to vote against them. DeSantis’s policies and positions are very similar to Trump’s, and he plays to the base on issues like immigration, education and voter fraud (which, as we know, is not a significant concern). Republican voters seem to like him — even before the midterms, 64 percent of registered Republican voters told Morning Consult they had a favorable opinion of him. And this is anecdotal, but Republican voters where I live seem to know who he is and also like him.
In 2016, Trump didn’t really have any opponents who could get enough support to really challenge him. Many voters thought of him as a businessman and what he would do as a politician was unknown. Now he’s a known quantity, his successful run is six years in the past and there are alternatives like DeSantis.
geoffrey.skelley: DeSantis might be in a position to make himself almost a co-favorite, assuming he does what everyone expects and runs. Granted, Trump has been ahead in pretty much all national polls that aren’t testing him and DeSantis head-to-head.
And remember, if other candidates get into the field, they won’t be going mano-a-mano, at least not initially. The size of the eventual field is not a minor consideration either, considering Trump won with just a plurality in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. It remains to be seen if the many bigwig donors and influencers within the GOP who oppose Trump will rally behind one candidate or not. And it’s not like Trump had their backing early in 2016, so even if they are unified, that isn’t certain to stop him either.
nrakich: Trump has not emerged from the midterms covered in glory, though. Many of the candidates he endorsed in the primary lost the general election; in fact, The New York Times and Washington Post both calculated they performed 5 points worse than expected. And his intervention may have directly cost the GOP multiple seats. For example, he endorsed far-right Republican Joe Kent in the primary for Washington’s 3rd District over incumbent Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler because Herrera Beutler voted to impeach him. Kent won the primary but ended up losing the general election — which was a big shock, because this seat is pretty red. Now, many Republican elites are grumbling about him costing the party seats, or at least not embracing his presidential campaign.
On the other hand, recent history is littered with examples of Republicans appearing to break with Trump, only to fall back in line later. Do you guys think that will happen again, or is this time really different?
geoffrey.skelley: I tend to see this as half a 2016 circumstance, if you will. Many party elites don’t want to get behind Trump and will look to DeSantis as a principal alternative. But depending on the contours of the GOP presidential primary, they could definitely come flooding back to Trump if DeSantis struggles against him for some reason. And Trump will start out with far more institutional support than he had previously. You already see various Republicans announcing their support for him, like Sen.-elect J.D. Vance.
alex: Agreed, Geoff. I think if voters largely continue to back Trump, it’ll be hard for the party to step in and knock him down. To be honest, Trumpism is so ingrained within the GOP today that I almost forgot about all the intraparty grumbling during his 2016 run!
Monica Potts: Yes, this is tricky because people underestimated Trump in 2016 and then kept declaring his campaign over — but it never was. But I do think this time is really different. Jan. 6 was a real turning point people haven’t forgotten. And as Kaleigh has written, the election denial that drove the insurrection did not win seats for Republican newcomers this cycle. Voters often have short memories, but I think voters remember that and want to move away from that.
geoffrey.skelley: Monica, I think Jan. 6 might make Trump a weaker general election nominee, but how much it hurts him in the presidential primary on the GOP side is less clear. After all, for months, even years now, a consistent 60-ish percent of Republicans have said in polling that Biden didn’t legitimately win the 2020 election. If Trump didn’t lose in their eyes, they’re not necessarily going to view him as weaker.
Monica Potts: Geoffrey, that’s fair. I just wonder how much this year’s midterms quieted down those beliefs. I was prepared to see losing candidates claiming election fraud or refusing to concede, and that didn’t really happen. I just wonder if the midterm results might weaken those beliefs in all but the true believers, as voters move on to other issues.
kaleigh: There are Republican voters who love Trump but fear he can’t win, and they want the White House more than they want Trump to be the nominee. The question is how big of a contingent those voters are.