American democracy has several distinctive features that are unique and different from most other democratic political systems across the world. The midterm election is a particularly American invention.
Why the midterms matter
While the President of the United States is arguably the most powerful democratically elected political executive in the world, he gets a reality check of where he currently stands with the American people midway through his four-year term. The world also gets a sense of the prevailing mood of the electorate in still the only superpower in the international system; the economic, political and social issues that concern the American people; and the new stars on the political firmament.
The midterm elections will also begin painting the political landscape for the Presidential Election of 2024. In sum, the elections are the most important contemporary measure of the political standing of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and some political commentators — perhaps exaggeratedly — describe it as verily a referendum on the presidency itself, as well as strongly signalling the direction of future politics in the United States.
More mundanely, the midterm elections will decide whether it is the Democrats or the Republicans who will control Congress — critical to pending and new legislation particularly on issues of importance to the Biden administration. In short, if the Republicans get control of Congress, they can block legislation moved by the Biden administration and almost paralyse the government, including stalling critical appointments.
Elections and current division
In less than a week from now, on November 8, known as Election Day, almost exactly in the middle of the Biden presidency, polls will be held to fill 435 House of Representative seats, 35 seats of the Senate, and 36 Governorships, as well as several local government officials, including Mayors. Twenty-four hours later, the results should be known; and it will become clear who controls the US Congress.
The Senate and the House of Representatives form the US Congress, which has always been bicameral. Of the 535 members of the US Congress, all the seats of the House of Representatives are up for grabs, as well as slightly more than one-third of the 100 seats in the Senate.
The members of the House are elected for a two-year term, while each Senator is elected for a term of six years. Two Senators are elected from each state, but their terms are staggered in a way that one-third of the seats are vacated every two years. While seats to the House are apportioned amongst states based on population, each state — irrespective of population — elects two members to the Senate.
As of now, the Democrats control Congress, with a muslin-thin majority. The House of Representatives has 224 Democrats (including 4 Delegates), 213 Republicans (including 1 Delegate and the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico), and 3 vacant seats. The formidable Nancy Pelosi, a lifelong Democrat, is the Speaker and the presiding officer of the House.
The Senate is equally divided between 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats (48 members and 2 Independents, who both caucus or align with the Democrats) and Vice President Kamala Harris is the President of the Senate and has the casting vote — thereby giving Democrats a majority in the Senate. In recent history, no other VP has used her casting vote more frequently (26 tie-breaking votes).
Main issues in elections
Apart from local subjects or those that concern a particular district or a state, there are political, economic and social issues that have a resonance with the electorate across the US.
Biden presidency and legacy (and the future) of Donald Trump
According to the website fivethirtyeight (founded by Nate Silver, arguably the most influential, insightful, and accurate pollster in the US) which also aggregates other polls, President Biden has an approval rating (as of November 2) of 42.4 per cent with 53.7 per cent disapproving of him. This is the lowest approval rating, after nearly two years in administration, of any President in recent history. Only Harry Truman, in the aftermath of the Second World War, had a lower rating.
The midterm elections could plummet Biden’s lacklustre presidency even further and cast a shadow on the rest of his term, especially if the Democrats lose control over Congress, effectively making him lame duck.
In turn, polls also reveal that Democrat voters are deeply concerned by “threats to democracy”, the January 6, 2021 Capitol riot inspired by supporters of Trump, and the prospect of the former president making a comeback.
Although Trump hasn’t yet fully revealed his cards, a poor showing by the Democrats could inspire him to run again for the Republican nomination for the 2024 election. In any case, Trump has been actively campaigning in several states and, and is personally backing at least two Republican candidates for Governorship.
Abortion, crime, immigration
No other social issue has divided the American people more intensely than the issue of abortion and the right of women over their bodies. In June this year, the Supreme Court of the United States officially reversed Roe v. Wade, declaring that the constitutional right to abortion “upheld for nearly half a century” no longer exists. Polls suggest that women voters, particularly Democrats, see this as a critical issue, especially since this has already led to abortion restrictions in a few states.
In turn, crime and illegal immigration — at a record level across the Mexican border — has a deep resonance with Republican voters.
The state of the economy
Not surprisingly, economic issues, including student loans, high interest rates, the housing crisis, escalating fuel prices, inflation and unemployment have salience with almost the entire spectrum of the electorate.
Races to watch out for
Senate seats with possibly the fiercest contests include Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and Colorado.
In Georgia, Herschel Walker, a former American football star, is contesting against Raphael Warnock, the sitting Democrat Senator and a Baptist pastor. Walker is Trump’s choice, and he has campaigned ferociously for Walker.
In Ohio where the Republican incumbent Senator is retiring, the new Republican candidate J D Vance, the author of bestseller Hillbilly Elegy (a New York Times bestseller made into a movie) and married to the Indian American Usha Chilukuri, is in a close race with the Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan. Vance too is backed by Trump.
If opinion polls are good evidence, the most likely scenario is that Republicans take control of the House, and Democrats cling on to the Senate. According to fivethiryeight, Republicans are “slightly” favoured to win the House, and Democrats “slightly” favoured to win the Senate.
NEXT: THE STAKES & THE STARS