What Happened to the Red Wave?

John Fetterman rally
Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman won a key victory Tuesday helping Democrats defy expectations when many were anticipating a red wave.
Marcello Sgarlato/Shutterstock

Before Election Day, the narrative for Democrats was dire – big losses were predicted in the midterms and Republicans were poised for a historic red wave.

Then the results started coming in and the red wave never materialized. Several key races that will determine control of the U.S. House and Senate remain too close to call.

Ashley Koning, an assistant research professor and director of Rutgers’ Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling, talks about why election night forecasts were wrong and the red wave was barely a trickle.  

What are some of the reasons why you think the red wave didn't materialize? What can we learn from the results?

Call it a ripple – a splash – whatever you call it, election night was certainly not the red wave that was expected.  This stemmed from a highly polarized electorate, unprecedented events like January 6th, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision this past summer effectively overturning Roe v. Wade, and a slew of extremist candidates on the right who did not seem to appeal to voters in a number of races.

President Biden, with underwater approval ratings, is looking like he will pull off a better first term midterm election than either Trump or Obama, who both saw high double-digit losses for their respective parties despite better conditions in 2010 and 2018.  These results imply perhaps a not so favorable night for Trump as a Kingmaker of candidates – especially days away from a possible 2024 run announcement – and instead potential good news for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, if he decides to launch a presidential run for 2024.  The results also indicate, even in the midst of rising inflation and concerns over the economy, the issue of abortion is nevertheless a powerful motivator – especially for key voting blocs like women.  At the end of the day, after the most expensive midterm to date, what happened last night tells us a lot about who turns out and for what reasons and what money can do to influence that.

Did the polls predict a red wave or was that the pundits interpreting the polls?

Polling never predicted a red wave - certainly not in the Senate and with a wide range of uncertainty focused mostly on more moderate GOP gains in the House. Last night was a win for traditional pollsters as opposed to more partisan pollsters with less transparent and/or questionable methodologies, whose results received a lot of hype before election day.

The biggest failure here once again stems from not understanding what polls can and can’t – and should and shouldn’t – do. This has been the failure in every recent election cycle. Polling provides a systematic, quantifiable way to assess the public. Media narratives add color add depth through anecdotal evidence and reporting, but the truest way of capturing public opinion that is representative of the population is through polling.

Vibes or moods have too often influenced media narratives in recent elections, from what was thought to be a surefire win for Clinton, despite tight polling, and a landslide for Biden despite the margin of error inherent in his lead.

Let’s recognize that polls are not meant to be prediction tools and that they should not be influenced by outside agendas or story lenses. In fact, they should be the complete opposite: an objective, science-based, systematic accounting that estimates what people are thinking and feeling in that moment, explaining the how and why behind their vote bounded by some type of margin of error given the inability to talk to everyone in a population. Let’s take the narrative thumb off the scale that influences how we interpret and view polls both pre and post election.

Several key races are still too close to call. Is there still a chance the GOP will make significant gains?

As of now, it looks like the House will likely go for the GOP.  While it is not out of the realm of possibility for Democrats to keep it, it looks like Republicans have a pretty good shot for a GOP majority given the races that are left.  The Senate is a different story, with some predicting it will remain a 50/50 split – especially after a Democratic win in the Senate in Pennsylvania – depending on how key races in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada go. Whatever happens, GOP gains will not be significant, the GOP may not be able to capture both chambers, and some sort of divided government will undoubtedly impact the second half of Biden’s first term.

Divided government, which has been more and more common in recent decades, means bipartisanship and compromise are key to getting anything done and can potentially lead to meaningful, broad legislation, but of course, in today’s polarized climate, it can also lead to gridlock and the accomplishment of nothing.  This could compromise serious issues Congress will face in the near future, like the debt ceiling. A split Congress would at least allow the Biden administration to get nominations passed in the Senate, but a GOP House would still wield plenty of power in areas like hearings and even impeachment proceedings.

There were other key races around the country last night including governor's races and election deniers on the ballot seeking office to run to oversee future elections. What are some other key takeaways from Tuesday?

This was quite literally an election about the future of our democracy and how it is conducted. We saw some key Republican losses for election deniers in positions of power to impact state election regulations – as well as a win for Republican Raffensperger in Georgia, who famously refused Trump’s demands over the Georgia results in 2020.  Crucial Secretary of State elections in Arizona and Nevada are still too close to call. Wins in states like Wisconsin for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who faces a Republican-dominated state government, can also be viewed as providing a firewall against Republicans when it comes to election denying and legislation on issues like abortion.

Hear more from Ashley Konig and other experts from the Eagleton Institute of Polics during the “Friday Morning After’’ post-election virtual panel.