WASHINGTON — How did Democrats stop a red wave in 2022?
The short answer: Donald Trump appears to have helped them.
In a major departure from past trends, the 2022 midterm election turned out to be nearly as much of a referendum on the defeated former president as it was on incumbent President Joe Biden, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research for NBC News and other networks.
Trump loomed large in the minds of voters and dragged down his party’s candidates — nationally and in key swing states with Senate races — despite being out of power. In many cases that blunted the impact of Biden’s unpopularity, and widespread economic pain, helping Democrats defy political gravity and hold their own.
Nationally, 32% of voters in 2022 said their vote was “to oppose Joe Biden.” But 28% said their vote was “to oppose Donald Trump,” even though Trump was out of office. That suggests Trump’s continued dominance over the GOP made the 2022 election, in the minds of voters, almost as much about a defeated former president as it was about the current president and party in power.
“It was a Trump problem,” a Republican operative involved in the 2022 election told NBC News, speaking candidly about the de facto leader of the GOP on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. “Independents didn’t vote for candidates they viewed as extreme and too closely linked with Donald J. Trump.”
Independent voters made up 31% of the electorate and they favored Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 49% to 47%, a stark break from the past four midterms in which they voted by double digits for the party out of power, according to exit polls.
In Trump’s first midterm in 2018, his party lost 40 House seats. In President Barack Obama’s first midterm in 2010, his party lost 63 House seats. Their approval ratings at the time — in the low-to-mid 40s, according to Gallup — were similar to Biden’s when voters cast their ballots in 2022. Yet Democrats are projected to hold Senate control, and their House losses have been so modest that it’s still not clear the GOP will gain the handful of seats it needs to seize the majority.
Negative views of Biden didn’t correlate with voting GOP. The 10% of voters who said they “somewhat disapprove” of Biden narrowly broke for Democrats over Republicans, 49% to 45%.
Overall, Biden’s job approval rating, which was 44% positive and 55% negative, was better than Trump’s rating in 2022, 39% favorable and 58% unfavorable, the exit polls showed. Among the 58% who had an unfavorable view of Trump, 77% supported Democrats while 20% voted for GOP candidates.
“The former president cast a very long shadow over this election,” said Ken Spain, a former Republican campaign strategist. “From the candidates he endorsed to his refusal to take himself off the national stage in the run-up to the election, Trump was omnipresent.”
In Arizona, Trump’s favorable rating was 42% positive and 57% negative; among those who viewed Trump negatively, 84% backed Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, who is projected by NBC News to win the race. Meanwhile, 38% said their vote was “to oppose Joe Biden,” and they voted 95% to 2% for Republican Blake Masters. But 35% said their motivation to vote was “to oppose Donald Trump,” and they voted 96% to 1% for Kelly.
In Pennsylvania, Trump’s favorable rating was 40% positive and 58% negative. Once again, opinions of Trump correlated to whether they supported his endorsed Republican candidate, Mehmet Oz, who lost to Democrat John Fetterman. About 30% of Pennsylvanians said their vote was to oppose Biden, while 26% said their vote was to oppose Trump. Only 6% of Biden 2020 voters supported Oz, while 8% of Trump 2020 voters backed Democrat John Fetterman.
Trump responds to his critics
Since the election, Trump has spread groundless claims about a corrupt vote count in Pennsylvania and a “tainted” election in Arizona — claims that Oz and Masters have not echoed. He has also complained that he doesn’t receive enough “congratulations or praise” for the Republican candidates who did win.
“It’s Mitch McConnell’s fault. Spending money to defeat great Republican candidates instead of backing Blake Masters and others was a big mistake,” Trump said in a social media post Sunday, attacking the GOP Senate minority leader for supporting the infrastructure law. “He blew the Midterms, and everyone despises him.”
NBC News exit polls show that Americans’ 2022 votes were closely correlated to their 2020 party preference, unlike in past midterms in which many swing voters who supported the president switched to the opposition party. In addition, Democratic enthusiasm was relatively high, attributable to a variety of factors, including the Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion in June.
Nationally, 92% of Biden voters supported Democrats, while 7% peeled off to support Republicans. And 96% of Trump voters backed Republicans, while 3% broke for Democrats, the exit polls showed.
Not all Republicans blame Trump for the losses. Senate GOP campaign chair Rick Scott said Friday night that 2022 was a “complete disappointment” because voters weren’t inspired by his party.
“I think we didn’t have enough of a positive message,” Scott said on Fox News. “We said everything about how bad the Biden agenda was — it’s bad, the Democrats are radical. But we have to have a plan of what we stand for.”
In August, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell cautioned that Republicans may fall short of gaining the one seat they needed to take the majority, citing “candidate quality” as a factor. His attempts to make his party an acceptable alternative to voters worried about rising costs and crime appear to have fallen short.
“Republicans failed to make this into a referendum campaign. In the end, the midterms became a choice between an unpopular president and an even more unpopular Trump,” Spain said. “The candidates who underperformed in battleground states and districts had one thing in common: Trump’s endorsement.”