The Dangers of a MAGA Wave Election

If polls are to be trusted, Democrats are on the verge of defying history by blunting the normal loss of congressional seats during a midterm election when they hold the presidency. Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010 both oversaw major losses for the Democrats in backlash midterms that severely curtailed their ability to pursue a legislative agenda. Earlier this year, it looked like Joe Biden was destined for the same fate, with the rocky economy and plummeting presidential approval ratings threatening to create a third red wave. But right now, thanks to the new salience of abortion, an array of inept GOP candidates, and improved economic conditions, things look better for the Democrat.

At the end of September, respected pollster Stan Greenberg, who founded Democracy Corps, argued in The American Prospect, “Democrats have the momentum in the 2022 midterm election, our new Democracy Corps survey shows. Democrats have pulled into a 3-point lead with registered voters and 2 points in the likely electorate. Amazingly, Democratic partisans are no longer less enthusiastic and engaged.” If Greenberg and other pollsters are reading the political mood accurately, Democrats have a good shot at keeping the Senate and losing the House only by a handful of seats.

But can the polls be trusted? In recent years, polls in both the United States and internationally have become less reliable, particularly underestimating the strength of right-wing populists. Voters who embrace conspiracy theories about a corrupt system tend to be wary of talking to pollsters, which explains why Donald Trump overperformed polls in 2016 and 2020 and Jair Bolsonaro did much better than expected (although still coming in second) in the first round of this year’s Brazilian presidential election.

Given such recurring polling failures, the inevitable question is: What if there are hidden reserves of shy Trump supporters who hang up on pollsters but are ready to speak loudly on voting day? There are enough close elections that a pattern of quite small polling errors could still mean the difference between a modest Democratic victory and a decisive rout. Even if a GOP victory falls short of the scale of the Gingrich revolution of 1994 or the Tea Party triumph of 2010, it could still be large enough to derail Biden’s presidency and endanger American democracy.

Electoral waves have a way of littering the shore with all sorts of odd political beasts. The 1994 election is a case in point, with the conquering GOP caucus including a hefty faction of conspiracy theorists and anti-government fanatics well to the right of the newly minted House speaker, Newt Gingrich, himself no moderate. Notably, there was an entire crew of Congress members who aligned themselves with right-wing militias and helped to mainstream lurid fantasies of UN conspiracies and mysterious black helicopters: figures like Helen Chenoweth of Idaho, Linda Smith of Washington, Jack Metcalf of Washington, and Steve Stockman of Texas.

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