One of the few absolute constants of American politics is that every election cycle brings its own surprises. Which, like good drama, makes elections interesting and entertaining—and, often, real nail-biters.
Inevitably, no matter how much analysis or how many polls are conducted, the results prove the experts wrong. In fact, arguably—despite advances in knowledge, data, and technology—we’ve been getting it more wrong than ever before. How does that happen?
Well, this election was a good example of how we become seduced by convenient narratives. One of the obvious tools we use is history. We look back at the accumulated experience of past elections to project what might happen in the future. But this can be extremely misleading and misguided. Because it leads to the kind of thinking I hear all the time from political insiders: “X won’t happen because X has never happened before.”
Then you have a Black man elected president. And a real estate huckster from New York City. And a peanut farmer from Georgia. And an actor from California. All things never thought possible. Until they happened. So, the only real rule here is: Things aren’t possible in politics—until they are.
Let’s look back at the Big Blue Surprise of November 2022. In this election, by using history as a guide, a red wave was predicted. In only two midterms since 1934 has the president’s party not lost seats in the House, and one of those was simply due to a post–9/11 blush of support for the incumbent.
Also, over the last decade, Republicans had won most redistricting fights and were therefore expected to pick up seats simply as a result of more GOP-favorable electoral maps.
On top of that, the Republicans seemed on the offensive on three key issues that were plaguing the Democrats: the troubled state of the economy, crime, and immigration.
Reporters are often criticized for reporting and writing analysis and predictions from their offices in places like Washington, DC, and never getting their boots on the ground around the country.
But, wait a moment. I can testify to how misleading this sort of anecdotal canvassing can be. For the work I do for the weekly political series The Circus, on Showtime, I spent most of the fall traveling all over America, going to coffee shops, truck stops, bus tours, house parties, and small-town rallies. In fact, since 2016, I have adopted a sort of “momentum test” based on what I see on the ground in the last two weeks leading up to an election. My fieldwork out on the hustings six years ago, for example, told me something tangible during that Hillary Clinton–Donald Trump face-off. Yes, I certainly believed, along with 99% of the rest of the country, that Clinton was likely to win. But about seven days before voters went to the polls, I made the assertion on Megyn Kelly’s show, on Fox News, that a person out in the heartland—in the political thick of things during the last week of a campaign—usually gets a sense which direction the momentum is headed. And I said that Trump seemed to have some winds at his back.
This past November, as well, those winds were all blowing in a seemingly discernable direction. Our team from The Circus put on a full-scale blitz and went to 17 states in the final few days of the campaign. And if you judged what the outcome might be—simply by the size and enthusiasm of crowds—you’d likely have guessed: red wave.
New Hampshire was a good example. Democratic senator Maggie Hassan had seemed in solid shape until the final weeks when polls showed the race tightening. I went to an event at her campaign headquarters, which by any objective standards was modest. A small group of supporters appeared earnest, committed, and dutiful, but hardly excited. On the other hand, Hassan’s MAGA-leaning, Trump-endorsed opponent, retired Army general Don Bolduc, held one of his many town hall meetings and he drew an SRO crowd of supporters who were enthusiastic, committed, and energized.