The midterm elections in the United States last week upended the political scene. The Republicans had expected to ride a wave of discontent to take control of both houses of the US Congress, but, after more than a week of counting votes, the Democrats remain in control of the Senate. The Republicans will end up with a paper-thin majority in the House of Representatives, not the large margin they had expected.
What happened? Historically, the president’s party loses seats in both houses in accordance with his popularity. If the president is popular, the losses are less and may be limited to one of the two houses. If the president is unpopular, like President Joe Biden is now, losses in both houses are typically large.
Over the past 100 years, the president’s party has gained seats in both houses during first-term midterm elections only twice: 1934 and 2002. In these cases, the country rallied around presidents during times of crisis. Gains in the Senate only happened twice more.
Presidents with low popularity, however, typically lose 40 to 60 seats in the House and eight to 12 seats in the Senate. Two-term presidents experience heavier loses in the second-term midterms as they move toward lame-duck status, but first-term presidents, particularly in recent years, have suffered substantial loses.
With worries about inflation and crime running high amid President Biden’s low approval ratings, the Democrats should have suffered substantial loses. But they held their ground, which suggests that worries over the future of democracy and a desire for stability motivated more voters than expected. Anger over the Supreme Court’s decision allowing states to curtail abortion rights also motivated women and Generation Z voters.
At the center of the story, of course, is Donald Trump. A Republican sweep would have boosted his control over the party and improved his position for a third run for president in 2024. The Republican failure has done the opposite and has emboldened potential challengers to run for the Republican nomination.
The problem for Republicans, of course, is that Trump will not go away. If he manages to get the nomination, independent voters will move toward the Democratic nominee, giving him or her a decisive victory. An independent run by Liz Cheney would siphon off Never Trump Republican votes, which would expand the margin of victory. If Trump loses the nomination, he will bolt the party and take his core supporters with him, which would result in a Democratic landslide. For Trump, losing control of the Republican Party is not an option and he would rather burn it down out of revenge than support the nominee.
With the likelihood of a Republican split high, Democrats are in a strong position to win the White House in 2024, with or without Biden, and solidify their position in the US Congress. By the next midterm election in 2026, Trump will no longer be a factor and voters will be ready to move toward the Republicans. This will set the stage for the first post-Trump presidential election in 2028, which will mark a return to normal competition between the two major political parties.
Historians will look back on the period from 2016 to 2024 as one of acute political instability the reached its height with the attack by Trump supporters on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Fearing a slide into the abyss and longing for a return to normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic, the silent center began to assert itself. Fringe candidates with weak records of public service lost across the board. Republican candidates running for statewide office who denied the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election all lost.
What does this mean for South Korea? After Biden’s popularity sunk in the fall of 2021, most US-watchers in South Korea and elsewhere assumed that he would lose in a 2024 rematch with the Trump. That prospect weighted on Biden’s attempts to show the world that the US had become interested in world affairs. It also weighed on efforts to keep anti-democratic extremists at bay.
But with Trump fading fast, the prospects for a return to "America First" isolationism have also faded. For South Korea and Japan this is reassuring, as China exerts its influence in the region. For Europeans, it means a continued commitment to NATO in face of Russian aggression. Above all, it means a return to a broad bipartisan commitment to engagement in world affairs that will provide continuity through future changes in the political winds.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.