Earlier today, I went outside and threw a frisbee at a tree. Then I came back inside and the chyron on CNN read: “VIRGINIA MAN’S FRISBEE GAMBIT COULD BE GAME-CHANGER IN MIDTERMS.”
Yes, it is political silly season, which is to say election season, which is to say any one of the four seasons. Pundits have been hyperventilating about the 2022 midterms since approximately 1922, so what a delight that we’re finally a mere seventy-seven days out. At least this cycle isn’t being trumpeted as THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIVES, a moniker that’s been applied to every presidential contest since the delightfully sleepy Clinton/Dole showdown of 1996. Think of it: back then, MTV was actually worried about voter apathy! Don’t ever tell us ’90s kids we have nothing to be nostalgic for.
Instead what we have today is more like a manufactured horserace in which every horse is on betamethasone and the race is on its four billionth lap. The endless midterms hype initially had a consistent media narrative: inflation, gas prices, Vladimir Putin, and a rigorous Metamucil regimen were all conspiring against Joe Biden, making Republican wins in November inevitable. Then, in June, a bombshell. The Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, allowing voters a say over abortion law. Suddenly, there was a fresh issue in play, and the presumption was that it would favor pro-choice Democrats over pro-life Republicans.
A new bundle of clichés was hauled out of storage: game-changer, momentum shift, Republicans as the dog that caught the car. This impression of ascendant Democrats was reinforced by victories in GOP primary contests by Trumpist insurgents who seemed too extreme to win in their general elections. Doug Mastriano, Blake Masters, Kari Lake, and all the various Erics from Missouri were taken as proof that the GOP was overstepping. The Democrats, meanwhile, were nominating only reasonable candidates, such as a pathological liar in Florida and a woman in Michigan who once banned lawn mowing. Life for the left was looking up.
And then, without warning, another turn of the worm. Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago villa was raided by the FBI. And while the officially sanctioned home invasion raised questions about document classification, civil liberties, the neutrality of the Justice Department — the most pressing matter, of course, was how it would affect the midterms. Here, even our wisest pundits stroked their beards. At first blush, the raid seemed to benefit Democrats, given that a GOP kingmaker had been made to look like a criminal. Yet Palm Tree Waco had also fired up the right, meaning it could drive Republican turnout.
And then, soon enough, it’ll be on to the next game-changer, the next second wind, or forty-sixth. President Biden could nuke the moon tomorrow and the headline at Politico would be: “Can Dr. Oz capitalize on lunar cataclysm gaffe?” It’s certainly understandable that in an age of stark political tribalism, news stories would get siphoned into a competition between Rs and Ds. It’s also understandable that these contests would get treated as sports for ratings. But the 2022 midterms raise an important question: if a horserace takes place in the forest and no one hears it, does it really happen?
Here’s the problem: most voters don’t even begin to think about elections until October. That’s especially true of the swing voters who are expected to decide control of Congress. It’s why an October surprise isn’t just a dude in a werewolf costume jumping at you in a haunted house; candidates tend to reserve their juiciest reveals for when people are actually paying attention, which is to say at the end of the campaign. August? Your average voter is focused on getting the kids back to school, not on who will be the next chair of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.
And when voters do get around to making up their minds, they very rarely surprise anyone. Yes, there’s the occasional upset here and there. But most of the midterms in the 21st century have gone more or less as expected. In 2010, voters were supposed to punish Barack Obama for overhauling healthcare amid a devastated economy; they did just that. In 2018, they were ready to check Donald Trump with more Democrats; so they did. Ideological excesses — Tea Party candidates who may have been witches in ’10, progressive whackjobs in ’18 — were punished accordingly. Party wins were decisive without being blowouts. The only real surprise came in 2002 when Republicans under George W. Bush defied political gravity and won the Senate. It took the worst terrorist attack in American history to make that happen.
The point is that the 2022 midterms are not likely to be a twisty thriller. Expect voters to deliver an anticlimax: a rebuke to Joe Biden over inflation, with a bit of hedging on weaker GOP candidates. Fin. The end. And even if Trumpists do end up costing Republicans the Senate, the net effect will essentially be the same. The GOP will take the House, dividing government, gridlocking Biden’s agenda, sending the parties off to their respective cable news perches to squawk at each other.
That’s not to say the midterms don’t matter or don’t track with greater trends. But if you’re looking for high drama, then they probably aren’t for you. Best to wait for Hollywood’s next big over-the-top production — which is to say the 2024 presidential election.