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The best word for this election is… normal


It’s not really in my interest to tell you this, but this week’s midterm elections are shaping up to be extremely normal, to the point of being almost boring.

The incumbent is slightly unpopular, as midterm incumbents often are. His fellow congressmen are expected to lose seats, which is also not unusual in an off-year election. You can read all the experts you want – I hope you do, there’s a lot of good stuff out there! – but any valid analysis should recognize this basic scenario.

That said, there are some idiosyncrasies in this year’s election. Republicans have hurt their chances by nominating goofy characters in some races, and those characters seem to be polling a bit worse than the more conventional nominees. Democrats are struggling with Hispanic voters, and there are signs the party is slipping with black voters as well.

Most voters are strong supporters. But elections are decided by voters who aren’t strong supporters — they agree with Democrats on some things and with Republicans on others.

When Democrats control Congress and the White House, they inevitably do things that some of these cross-pressured voters don’t like, and they look to Republicans for counterbalance. When Republicans control Congress and the White House, the opposite happens. Even the historic exceptions limited to the midterm backlash, in 1998 and 2002, occurred not only in the midst of extraordinary events (impeachment and 9/11), but at a time when the president’s party did not control Congress.

It’s certainly conceivable that President Joe Biden could have avoided the midterm curse of nearly every president before him (and it’s possible he still could, I suppose, though extremely unlikely). If so, that would be a truly extraordinary result that calls for an explanation. What seems to be happening instead is extremely routine.

So routine, in fact, that it’s easy to forget about non-barking dogs. There is no equivalent to the 2010 US Senate race in Illinois, for example, in which Republicans poached what should have been a safe blue seat thanks to a candidate plagued by a scandal. The closest thing to a potential stunner this year is a Republican victory in the Oregon governor’s race. That would certainly be unusual — Oregon last elected a Republican governor in 1978, before majority Americans were born.

On the other hand, the GOP is also set to return the governor’s mansions in the solidly blue states of Maryland and Massachusetts. Governor races are just different, and the occasional mismatched winner (Democrats currently run the show in Kansas and Kentucky) is the exception that proves the rule.

Nor were there any dramatic surprises on the order of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor losing a Republican primary in 2014, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeating Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley during the 2018 primary.

And amidst all this normality, the dominant issue in the minds of voters is the quintessential normal issue: the economy.

We experts make a living with words, so we like to focus on the differences in how candidates talk about issues. And the message counts. The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade last summer generated backlash and good polls for Democrats. Republicans reacted by denying any aspiration to enact major changes in federal abortion policy, which eventually reduced the importance of the issue and dampened the backlash.

But that only underscores that what matters most is reality. That is: if Republicans try to ban abortions, there will be a backlash. Their successful “message” was a promise to abandon their political involvement, while telling their anti-abortion base that they are not giving up.

For Democrats, meanwhile, there is no message that can change the reality that prices have risen faster than incomes. The main reason is that Americans received a lot of money, both under Trump and in Biden’s first year in office, at a time when most of them had cut spending because of the pandemic. Now that spending constraints are lifted, people are tapping into the savings they accumulated during the pandemic.

The wisdom of the decision to send that extra money in early 2021 is debatable. But for better or worse, it’s a choice Democrats made a long time ago. At the time it happened, the American people were really excited about it. Unfortunately, voters are not always fair in their judgments, or willing to admit that they bear some responsibility for the downsides of the policies they themselves have requested.

This tendency to myopic voting is – you guessed it – extremely normal. The same goes for a president who follows a midterm defeat by regaining his footing, countering the extremists on the other side and securing re-election.

These are of course not completely normal times. They couldn’t be, given the context of Trump’s stubborn lies about the 2020 election and the horrors of January 6. But the basic underlying patterns of American politics and policymaking have been extremely normal — up to and including Biden’s ability to work with Republicans on several important pieces of bipartisan legislation. Insofar as anything has really gone wrong for Democrats over the past two years, it’s that by spending so much time worrying about the possibility of election subversion, they haven’t cared enough. the risk of losing the elections in the normal way.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Do Americans really want politics back to normal? :Robert A.George

• Fighting inflation is just normal policy: Jonathan Bernstein

• American politics is now the democrats against the authoritarians: Francis Wilkinson

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Co-founder and former columnist of Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is the author, most recently, of “One Billion Americans”.

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