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The lead-up to the US midterms was marked by months of polling, punditry and prognosticating. Two weeks after the election, and after several days and nights of vote-counting, a clear picture has emerged.

It has been nearly two weeks since the US midterm elections. After months of polling, punditry and prognosticating, and several days and nights of vote-counting, a clear picture has emerged.

Confounding expectations, the Democrats have retained the Senate. If they win the Georgia runoff election in December (as predicted), they will gain another seat in the upper chamber.

As expected, the Republicans have taken the House, but by an unexpectedly narrow margin. Their majority will be slim, dysfunctional and difficult to control.

In a further upset for the Republicans, the Democrats held on to each of their state governships and added several others. President Biden’s party did not lose control of a single state legislature across the country – a first for the party that holds the office of the President.

Given the results, this was clearly an “asterisk election”.

In a usual midterm election, the opposition party’s supporters vote in much greater numbers, using their ballot to protest the sitting president. In 2006, then President George Bush’s party lost control of both houses of Congress, in what Bush described as a “thumping”. Four years later, the Democrats lost 63 seats in the House. President Obama called it a “shellacking”.

This year, with Biden’s approval rating around 41 per cent, and with inflation the highest in nearly 30 years, Republicans were eagerly anticipating a “red wave”; some were even predicting that a “red tsunami” would crash down on blue legislatures across the country. The New York Times’ opinion columnist Brett Stephens wrote: “Democrats will wake up on Wednesday morning with a powerful impulse to move to Canada or Belgium to take advantage of their permissive assisted-suicide programs.”

And yet, as the sun rose on the Wednesday morning, it was Democrats who were celebrating and Republicans who were despairing, having experienced little more than a “red trickle”.

So what happened?

Four key factors influenced the outcome.

Affirming a woman’s right to choose

Support for abortion rights drove women to the polls.

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, eliminating the long-entrenched constitutional right to an abortion, women registered to vote in record numbers as abortion emerged as the most important issue for the greatest number of voters.

Four months later, with Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization out of the headlines, most pundits and political operatives from both sides believed that abortion was no longer at the top of voters’ minds.

It is clear now that they were wrong.

According to the exit polls, abortion was the most important issue for voters in several key swing states, ahead even of the economy. In all five states where abortion was explicitly on the ballot, voters affirmed abortion rights, approving ballot measures in California, Michigan and Vermont to protect women’s right to choose, and rejecting measures to restrict abortion rights in conservative Kentucky and Montana. In each of those states, the Democrats performed well above expectations.

According to the exit polls, abortion was the most important issue for voters in several key swing states, ahead even of the economy.

Candidate quality matters

In key swing states Nevada, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Georgia and New Hampshire, Democratic Senate candidates faced Republicans backed by Donald Trump. These were candidates who had supported Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was “stolen”, who proposed extreme abortion bans with limited, if any, exceptions for rape and incest, and who were largely more conservative than most Americans on most issues. The Republican establishment had put forward more experienced candidates, but Trump still holds sway with a majority of Republican voters, and his chosen candidates comfortably succeeded in the primaries. Each of them lost in their general election (with Georgia’s Herschel Walker heading to a runoff), costing the Republicans the Senate.

The ‘Biden (non) effect’

Joe Biden doesn’t excite people. But neither does he particularly infuriate them, at least not enough to drive them to vote against him. According to the exit polls, voters who “somewhat disapprove” of Joe Biden actually voted for Democrats by a four-point majority. This was a complete reversal of previous elections, where voters who “somewhat disapproved” of Trump and Obama voted for the opposition party with a double digit lead. Many independents and even some Democrats might not be fans of the President, but that didn’t deter them from voting for his party against an increasingly extreme opposition.

Young voters emerging as a political force

According to exit polls, the figures for voters aged between 18 and 29 were 63 per cent for Democrats and 35 per cent for Republicans. While young voters vote in lower numbers than all other age groups, they are by far the most partisan voters (favouring Democrats by a greater margin than for any other age-group’s preference favours either party), and their unexpectedly high turnout in several swing states may have turned the election. Today’s young people are more politically engaged, more progressive and less likely to vote for the candidates their parents voted for than were the youth of any previous generation. In Australia, the Greens’ recent strength is largely due to young voters, and in America, where Millennials and Gen Z voters are expected to outnumber voters who are Baby Boomers and older by a significant margin in 2024, the Democrats are reaping the benefit.

Today’s young people are more politically engaged, more progressive and less likely to vote for the candidates their parents voted for than were the youth of any previous generation.

Looking ahead

The Democrats’ unexpected Senate victory will enable them to continue to confirm progressive and diverse judges for the federal courts, including the Supreme Court, should a vacancy arise.

The Republicans had planned to use their House majority to investigate Biden’s and his son’s business dealings, and to stymie the Democrats’ plans. With such a slim majority, and a rejection by the country of extremist politics, Republicans might feel some pressure to be less obstructionist and more cooperative. Regardless, they remain likely to block most, if not all, of Joe Biden’s proposed policies.

Meanwhile, in a move that surprised no one, Donald Trump has once again announced his candidacy for president. The former commander in chief is under investigation by the US Justice Department and the New York Attorney General, and a grand jury in Atlanta is looking at his attempts to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory in Georgia. Some speculate that Trump announced his candidacy so early in order to stop, or hinder the progress of, the investigations, which risk being perceived as politically motivated if they proceed against a presidential candidate.

While Trump still commands a loyal following, many of his donors and high-profile supporters – including the Murdoch empire – are reportedly abandoning him, concerned that he continues to put off moderate suburban voters who are so crucial for the Republican party. Ron DeSantis – the popular, ultraconservative and slick Florida Governor – has emerged as a potential frontrunner.

And so, in an abrupt turnaround, the momentum is with the Democrats, who have reason to be bullish ahead of 2024. But both sides have hard questions to answer in the coming year.

Biden turned 80 on Sunday, a birthday the White House was not inclined to celebrate. Though the President has proven he can defeat Republicans and achieve significant reform, the prospect of an octogenarian running for the highest office is risky enough to make some Democrats to look elsewhere.

For Republicans, Trump owns the base but is a major deterrent to those beyond his devotees, who are likely to resume their fight with the party establishment. This far ahead, and without the presence of convincing presumptive candidates on either side, the race is wide open for 2024.