Cognitive psychology teaches that most people expect change to be incremental and that past patterns usually repeat themselves. With historical voting patterns favoring the Republicans, gerrymandering likely to increase their representation in the House, and inflation and high gas prices eroding support for President Biden, almost every political pundit is predicting the Republican Party will take control of the House and the Senate in the November 2022 midterm elections. But What If? the electoral results defy all predictions (as happened in 2016 when Donald Trump won the presidency) and the Democrats retain control? How could we explain how everyone totally missed this call?
The focus of this article is to think outside the box and explore how such an unlikely scenario could come about. What are the key drivers that could spur a dramatically different election outcome with the Democrats retaining power? What are the indicators that would signal that such an unlikely scenario is beginning to unfold?
Hindsight analysis following the midterm elections might posit that most Americans decided that allowing an increasingly radical right movement to take power posed an existential threat to democratic rule in the United States. They saw the danger in returning power to those who previously undermined democratic institutions and tried to block a peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president.
A more compelling argument might be that Democrat candidates mobilized voters around three themes perceived as posing existential threats to American life. In 2016, Trump’s victory has been attributed to voters who saw their way of life as under threat; could this dynamic repeat itself but with a different set of voters?
Three Key Drivers
If Democrats should retain control of the House and the Senate, they probably succeeded by shifting the national narrative to three foundational, and for some existential, concerns:
Voting Rights. The U.S. decennial census has opened the door to reconfiguring congressional districts. In 2022, many people of color will see their voices subdued if not muted by redistricting schemes now being implemented in the red states. For example, in Texas most of the state’s population growth is attributable to persons of color living in Democratic-leaning communities, but the Republicans redrew the map to give themselves both new congressional seats while reducing the number of competitive seats from six to one. In addition, perceived voter suppression legislation in many red states and what promises to be an intense debate surrounding passage of two landmark voter rights bills in Congress could spur democratic turnout. The rallying cry would be to overturn what was increasingly perceived as efforts by Republican office holders to continue the Jim Crow legacy and suppress the rights of minorities.
Income Redistribution. If Build Back Better is defeated in the Senate or only parts of the package are passed into law, this could spur an increase in Democratic representation to allow the Senate to pass the full package of benefits. Programs for subsidized child and elder care, Medicare expansion, the containment of prescription drug costs, and universal prekindergarten have majority support in the country. In this scenario, the rallying call would be that the rich should pay their fair share, fully funding these programs through increased taxes on those earning more than $400,000 and modestly raising the corporate tax rate. The need for income redistribution would become a front-burner issue as popular anger mounted to rectify past payouts to the rich. The need to reinstate the childcare tax credit would become paramount.
Climate Change. In 2021, 30 percent of America has been significantly impacted by devasting and often unprecedented tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, drought, and wildfires. People have lost their houses, jobs, and have been forced to relocate or must consider it. Over 60 percent of Americans believe that action is needed to address the challenge climate change increasingly poses to their own lives, and those of their children and grandchildren. There is growing distaste for those who do not believe humans are primary contributors to climate change and refuse to recognize the consequences they have, or may soon, suffer. Anger is building over congressional inaction, and people are looking to the Democrats to provide strategic vision and deliver much needed legislation.
In addition to the three perceived existential threats listed above, a Democratic surge at the polls could be bolstered by a Supreme Court decision invalidating Roe v. Wade, the “conquering” of COVID, a major upswing in economic performance, Republican calls for stricter immigration laws putting the Dreamers at risk, and indictments of those who orchestrated the January 6 insurrection (potentially including Republican members of Congress, associates of the former president, and even the former president himself).
Indicators for Anticipating the Unanticipated
Key indicators that would suggest the Democrats are headed for a surprising win in November include:
- Large demonstrations and a proliferation of court cases targeting voter suppression laws and gerrymandering plans
- Moderates on both sides of the political spectrum focusing on the threat posed by the far right to democratic institutions and the rule of law
- Growing threats of – and the actual use of – violence by those associated with the far right to attack government officials and “establishment” politicians
- Opinion polls reflecting a growing demand that the rich and large corporations pay their fair share
- Democratic grassroots organizations raising substantial sums to support “bring out the vote” efforts
- The promotion by Democratic candidates of specific and popular Build Back Better programs as key campaign themes
- Inflation neutralized as a concern because it comes to be seen as the byproduct of a growing economy and is offset by wage increases
- Campaigns to elect Democrats who will vote for legislation that reverses the impact of the Supreme Court’s nullification of Roe v. Wade
- Sharp decline in oil prices
- President Biden’s handling of COVID-19 being perceived as a success as COVID infections wane
- Reinstatement of the childcare tax credit in response to a strong public outcry following its termination in January 2022
- Criminal indictments of the former president and his close associates
You can learn more about generating and validating Indicators in the Analyst’s Guide to Indicators, Randolph H. Pherson and John Pyrik, 2021.
Pherson is pleased to announce the next running of its online Critical Thinking Fundamentals workshop. Join us on 28 February-11 March for this asynchronous learning experience, which is part of our IAFIE-accredited Intelligence Analysis Professional certification.