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2022 Election: A divided America delivers a divided judgement

2022 Election: A divided America delivers a divided judgement

Despite the endless forecasting and hyper-intense efforts to gauge the complex psyche of the national electorate in the 2022 midterm contests, the results delivered on Election Day provided a rather straightforward verdict: A divided American public rendered a divided political judgment, setting the country on track towards a split-power government where the likely result is political gridlock in Washington

Election Day 2022 was a major underperformance for Republicans. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, national and state Republican leaders were boastful about the potential for a “red wave” of victories across the country, even expanding their campaign map to states and districts considered Democratic strongholds. The wave stayed offshore, however, and Republicans were left to agonize over the missed opportunities in both state and federal races. The party primaries that produced weak or extreme candidates who lacked experience or general election appeal—but whom Donald Trump had endorsed due to their fealty to the Trump brand and message—turned several winnable contests into major disappointments.

President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies celebrated the results with a sense of validation. With a low presidential approval rating and high anxiety about inflation and the economy framing the average voters worldview, the White House was bracing for sweeping losses in Congress and statehouses across the country. Instead, Biden was once again able to defy political gravity as he and his party out-performed the historical averages—only giving away what is expected to be a slight majority in the House of Representatives—while remaining competitive for a possible Senate majority.

Exit polling data from Election Day measuring voter sentiment on key issues contained some surprises. While, as expected, voters had heightened concerns about the economy and rising prices, the issue of abortion registered with a greater intensity than pre-election polls had indicated. The recent decision by the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade led to a spike in Democratic base voter enthusiasm over the summer, but this bump had seemingly ebbed as inflation and gas prices continued to rise. Suburban areas encircling major metropolitan areas across the country—many of them in key states and districts with close Senate and House contests—played a major role on Tuesday. Crossover support from voters in these areas who judged Republican candidates as too extreme—or the party brand under Donald Trump as too toxic—pushed just enough voters toward more moderate Democratic candidates in several close contests.

 

A new balance of power

While Republicans are expected to eventually reach a razor-thin political majority in the House of Representatives, they have fallen far short of a political mandate. Republicans may have just enough votes to control committee gavels, but the party unity required to push major policy initiatives will remain elusive. Instead, Republican leadership will be in a near constant state of mediation with an insurgent faction of hyper-conservative Republicans more focused on the political benefits of confrontation than the policy benefits of legislation. The byproduct of this pressure will be a Republican congressional strategy that is stripped down to “stopping bad things,” as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) recently explained. The GOP’s focus will be reduced to frustrating President Biden and his Democratic allies in their pursuit of spending and regulatory priorities that are at odds with Republicans.

 

The GOP’s “number one promise”: Oversight & investigations

Congressional Republicans have promised to pursue a broad oversight and investigation agenda. Prior to Election Day, House Republicans were instructing leadership offices and committee chairs to prioritize their oversight focus and hire additional staff with investigation experience. Even with Republicans expected to gain the slimmest of majorities, the collection of hyper-conservative lawmakers who make up the House Freedom Caucus are insisting Republicans must deliver on this oversight promise. The potential range of targets will include the following:

  • National Security: Examination of the Biden Administration’s decisions in Afghanistan
  • Immigration: Comprehensive examination of the current crisis at the Southern border
  • Health Care: Investigations into the origins of COVID-19, the CDC’s pandemic response, the deployment of pandemic relief funding
  • Energy: Keystone XL decision, oil/gas exploration leases, Inflation Reduction Act clean energy measures
  • Department of Justice (DOJ): Inquiries into handling of FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago
  • Big Tech, “Woke” Corporate Culture, IRS practices, Higher Education

Another potential flashpoint looming for Republican leaders with their rank-and-file and the decision over whether to pursue investigations tinged with political implications. The most active elements of the party base will insist on launching very high-profile probes of Hunter Biden as well as Dr. Anthony Fauci, former head of the NIAID and a recent White House medical advisor.

 

President Biden and congressional Democrats: A sense of relief

Despite the expected loss of unified control of Congress, President Biden and Democrats are basking in the glow of an electoral reprieve, interpreting their Election Night performance as a validation of their domestic agenda accomplishments. While this view runs the risk of over-interpreting the results, the Biden White House is realistic about the challenges presented by this new Congress and already preparing for an onslaught of investigations by staffing up its counsel’s office and congressional liaison teams accordingly.

President Biden will continue to face pressure to clarify his 2024 re-election plans in the immediate weeks and months. During his first press conference reacting to the election results, Biden stated he would not be changing either his policy or tactical approach. However, with public disapproval over his handling of the economy and inflation registering prominently among voter concerns, changes to the White House’s economic agenda and its message will likely be under consideration.

While Democratic leadership in the Senate will not experience much disruption, current House Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will likely be handing over the gavel to House Republicans and could begin to piece together a new leadership structure among House Democrats. As Democrats have come to terms with potentially losing their majority in the House, plans were initiated to position younger Democratic leaders like Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) for greater responsibility leading the caucus. Current Democratic leaders such as Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) still represent the old guard, and the leadership team will continue to be pressured by younger progressive leaders like Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) who hold sway with liberal voters and advocacy groups.

 

The potential to misread the environment remains significant

Both major parties run the risk of misreading the results of the 2022 election, and some of the instinctive reactions indicate a potential for flawed reasoning to inform the strategies being developed for 2023:

  • When asked what he might do differently over the next two years based on the election results, President Biden responded: “Nothing.”
  • House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) tied the Republican underperformance on Election Day to an unwillingness to pursue a more aggressive agenda and tactical plan in countering the White House and congressional Democrats.

Biden and his Democratic allies run the risk of over-interpreting a historical mid-term underperformance as an endorsement of their more optimistic outlook on the country’s mood and the state of the economy. Election Day exit polls and public research have consistently indicated the Americans are worried about the direction of the country, have concern about inflation and the potential for a recession—and they judge President Biden’s performance on these issues quite harshly.

Republicans face a very similar risk. Their pursuit of a confrontational investigation agenda while the public’s core concerns are rooted in economic anxieties could invite a public backlash, with voters becoming frustrated with any loss of focus on “kitchen table” issues. A party base animated by cultural issues during a time of economic upheaval could lead Republicans to embrace an agenda and message that is incongruent with public sentiment.

 

The 2024 campaign has already started

The 2024 campaign cycle has already started. President Biden was already asked to interpret the midterm results and how it would impact his reelection plans, while former President Donald Trump is moving toward a late 2022 announcement of his intention to seek the Republican nomination and a rematch with Biden. The 2024 campaign planning extends to Congress as well. With the House majority likely to only be a single-digit advantage to Republicans, the race is already on to shift the balance of power back towards Democrats once again. The 2024 Senate map is a daunting one for Democrats and could include anywhere from eight to 10 Senate seats that may be in play—presenting a unique opportunity for Republicans looking to regain a majority and atone for the missed opportunities of 2022.

As a result, the legislative and political environments will be incredibly competitive, with every policy debate and oversight inquiry taking place against the backdrop of a hyper-political fight for the balance of power in Congress.

 

Three lessons for organizations

 

  1. Don’t wait for events to unfold: Proactively engage stakeholders

There’s no doubt the political environment remains volatile. Volatility can often prompt organizations and leaders to waver or wait out the uncertainty. However, now is not the time to hesitate. Engagement across the stakeholder universe is critical because organizations that hesitate or cede the field to their critics or competition could get left behind. Some key stakeholder engagement steps to consider:

  • Run your own campaign: A legendary World Cup coach once coined the phrase, “after the game is before the next game.” Members of Congress are conditioned to respond to a continual campaign cycle. Organizations must build and execute effective campaigns that showcase the political incentives of their goals and priority issues.
  • Define your most immediate threats and opportunities. With an intense oversight and investigation environment taking shape, organizations must quickly assess which inquiries will affect them the most directly, then build integrated teams of policy leaders, communicators, and legal teams. Task this integrated team to promote the most positive vision and capabilities of the organization and relentlessly counter organization critics and opponents.

 

  1. Position Your organization and leadership as a resource

Power may change hands in the nation’s capital, but wielding power effectively requires policymakers to build trusting relationships with outside organizations and industry leaders. Policymakers across the political spectrum look to business and non-profit sector leaders for expertise, insight, and perspective to inform their legislative actions. Organizations with a proven ability to serve as ambassadors for their issue—who are capable of mobilizing networks of stakeholders—will be in the best position.

  • Showcase your expertise: The most influential players—ranging from policymakers, regulators, their professional staff, and the media—should have access to a deeper understanding of your organization and its role in local, regional, and national economies. When your organization is positioned as a premier resource—when you’re a policymaker’s first call—you’re in a better position to develop a mutually shared understanding of legislative goals.
  • Localize your issue and impact: Policymakers are intensely motivated by how each issue plays “back home.” So, if lawmakers run their campaigns with a focus on what matters in the state and district, so should you. Every organization needs to ensure they compile the data and research showcasing their impact in every state and every district in the country, along with the stakeholder networks ready to be mobilized to support it.

 

  1. Public Sentiment is a Process, Not an Event

Every electoral outcome is paired with declarations of permanent majorities and enduring revolutions. The reality, however, is that public opinion remains constantly in motion. Organizations that succeed in the current environment are constantly measuring and gauging sentiment in real time—staying one step ahead of the trends and shifts in public opinion. Make sure your organization is well-resourced with the most up-to-date data and research, along with a well-honed ability to process this information effectively so that your organization is the industry leader with the vision to anticipate he next shift in public sentiment.

 

For more on how Penta keeps organizations one step ahead: