WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden tried to shape the midterm elections not as a verdict on his time in office, but rather on the contrast between Democrats and Republicans on American democracy.
“We’ll have our difference of opinion. And that’s how it’s supposed to be,” Biden said in remarks days before the Nov. 8 elections. “But there is something else at stake: democracy itself.”
The election results reveal both the potential and the problems with Biden’s argument for motivating voters. In states such as Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania, voters could look at their ballots and see a clear contrast between Democrats and Republican candidates who falsely claimed the 2020 presidential race was rigged.
And yet, the notion of democracy is open to interpretation, one that encompasses feelings about one’s own identity, political rivals, the news media and broader social changes. Democrats held the Senate, while Republicans won control of the House Wednesday.
Biden’s message resonated with many Democratic voters, AP VoteCast shows, and maybe even helped Democrats to defy gravity in key states in the midterms, which historically have resulted in major losses for the party that holds the White House.
But the nationwide survey of more than 90,000 voters also shows many Republicans similarly considered the future of democracy to be their motivating factor this year, and Democratic candidates didn’t exclusively win the democracy vote.
Overall, VoteCast reveals Democratic voters were much more likely than Republicans to call the future of democracy their “single most important” factor in voting, with more than half of Democrats saying so. Still, about a third of Republicans identified democracy as their top consideration.
Across the country, Democratic congressional candidates won roughly 6 in 10 voters who said the future of democracy was their “single most important” factor, while about 4 in 10 backed Republican candidates.
That gap appears to have been critical in some of the most competitive races for U.S. Senate and governor this year, setting up a stronger than expected performance by Democrats.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro appeared to outperform Democratic House candidates nationwide, earning about two-thirds of the “democracy vote.”
Shapiro bested for governor Republican Doug Mastriano, who commissioned buses for people to attend the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol. Fetterman flipped an open Senate seat against Republican Mehmet Oz, who won a rough GOP primary in large part because of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement.
Biden made Pennsylvania the epicenter of his midterms push, going there 11 times this year, more than any state other than his home of Delaware.
The president gave a Sept. 1 speech in front of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall where he said “equality and democracy were under assault.” He said the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters “put a dagger to the throat of our democracy” by trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power.
Also getting about two-thirds of the “democracy vote” were Democrats Mark Kelly and Katie Hobbs in Arizona. Running for governor, Hobbs beat Republican Kari Lake, a former local TV news anchor who embraced Trump’s denial that he lost his reelection bid two years ago.
Arizona Republican Senate candidate Blake Masters had language on his website that claimed the 2020 election was stolen, but he removed it after winning the primary and lost to the incumbent Kelly.
In Michigan, too, where Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outpaced Republican Tudor Dixon by about two to one among those who considered democracy their chief consideration.
The democratic issue also dovetailed with the Supreme Court decisions that overturned Roe v. Wade and returned the issue to the states. In his speeches about democracy, Biden specifically cited abortion bans as a policy goal of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” movement.
Michigan had a ballot issue to preserve access to abortions. About 3 in 4 voters called the Roe reversal an important factor in their vote. Of that group, two-thirds supported Whitmer.
But in other battleground states where Republican candidates edged out Democrats and in solidly red states the democracy vote wasn’t as clearly a Democratic vote. GOP candidates were able to draw about even with — or even edge ahead of — Democratic ones among those voters who said democracy was their top consideration.
In red-state Kansas, where Republican Sen. Jerry Moran and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly both won reelection bids, the democracy vote responded differently to the two candidates. In the Senate race, voters who singularly prioritized democracy slightly preferred Moran over his Democratic challenger Mark Holland. But Kelly won about 6 in 10 of them in the governor’s race.
Meanwhile, Republicans had a strong showing in both Florida and in Texas, and VoteCast shows they earned
more of the democracy vote than GOP congressional candidates nationwide. Close to half of voters who said the future of democracy was their top factor voted for Sen. Marco Rubio and Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida, and for Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas.
In Ohio, democracy voters clearly favored Gov. Mike DeWine, who won his reelection by a wider margin than JD Vance, the Republican winner in the race for Senate. In the Senate race, those who said democracy was their chief consideration went for the Democratic candidate, Rep. Tim Ryan.
Candidates on both sides of the aisle earned the backing of these voters because Republicans and Democrats have very different things in mind when they said the future of the nation’s democracy was their single most important factor.
Compared with other Republicans and with democracy Democrats, democracy Republicans nationwide were especially likely to be “angry” with the way the federal government is working and to say their vote was intended to express support for Trump; about half of democracy Republicans said each.
About 7 in 10 democracy Republicans identify as supporters of the MAGA, movement, and about as many said Biden was not legitimately elected president in 2020. About half said they were not confident that midterm votes would be counted accurately.
Meanwhile, about two-thirds of democracy Democrats said the Supreme Court overturning Roe made them “angry,” more than the percentage of other Democrats or democracy Republicans who said that.
About three-quarters of democracy Democrats said they meant their vote as an expression of opposition to Trump; about 6 in 10 said their vote was intended to support Biden.
Many Democratic voters didn’t let their reservations about Biden keep them from supporting the president’s party, a sign that the issues at stake might have mattered as much as who was in the White House.
Just 43% of voters approved of Biden’s leadership, while 57% disapproved. Among voters who backed Democratic House candidates, 18% disapproved of the president.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the 2022 midterm elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections. Find more details about AP VoteCast’s methodology at https://www.ap.org/votecast.