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Americans go to the polls: 'The midterms are more than a popularity poll'

On Tuesday 8 November, Americans will go to the polls for the so-called midterm elections. 'We tend to look at this election as if it were a poll on Biden. But it’s not a presidential election,' emphasises associate professor Sara Polak.

In the midterm elections, voters can vote for various governments at local and state level. All the House of Representatives seats and a third of Senate seats are also on the ballot. 'In the Netherlands, it’s often about counting the number of seats at federal level and what the president can or can’t do as a result. That’s also a factor, of course, but then you do miss part of the story,' Polak says.

Huge consequences

For instance, she points to the gubernatorial election in Arizona. There, avid Trump supporter Kari Lake is making a bid for the governorship. 'With Trump's refusal to acknowledge his loss in 2020, not accepting an unwanted result has become a real option for Republicans,' Polak explains. Lake does not seem averse to this either. 'She has said that if she wins, she will accept the election result. In other words, she is already hinting at not accepting the result if she doesn’t win.'

Polak does not know whether Republicans actually think the voting process will be unfair, but comments: 'They now see that they have something to score with. We don't know how that will play out, of course, but you can see that there is a shift in norms within the party. At the same time, it’s also an erosion of the democratic system,' she says. 'Apparently they believe this is the only way they can win now. I hope I will be proved wrong, but I fear that this tactic will occur more often.'

Decisive result

Although Arizona's gubernatorial election is at state level, the outcome could be decisive for the rest of the country - and for the whole world. 'It’s a development that is not as readily visible to us because it takes place at state level, but that doesn’t make it any less important,' Polak explains. 'For instance, the outcome could have implications for the presidential election in 2024. In the previous presidential election in 2020, Arizona was a key swing state that ended up going to Biden. Governors are ultimately responsible for certifying the election results in their state, so when there is someone in that post who is only going to endorse a result she is happy with, it can have huge consequences for democracy.'

For now, Kari Lake is a popular candidate. 'She is similar to Trump in terms of what she stands for, but in more polished and slicker packaging for white, mostly conservative Christian Americans,' Polak concludes.

Update 9 November 2022

Sara Polak: ‘At the time of writing the midterm election results in the US are still so unclear that they are difficult to interpret in any meaningful way, but what is clear is that the ‘red wave’ that the Republicans were hoping for doesn’t seem to be coming.  It could well be that the Democrats hold the Senate and lose fewer seats in the House of Representatives than the polls indicated. But if the Democrats lose their majority in the House this would have major consequences for Biden’s political clout.

‘What is also clear is that, while there will undoubtedly be contested results – that is the new strategy for some Republicans if they lose – there have been few major irregularities. One notable win is that of Ron DeSantis, who, as the new governor of Florida, is looking increasingly likely to be a potential alternative to Trump in the battle for the Republican nomination for the 2024 presidential election.

‘The result of the Arizona governor’s race is not yet known. Hobbs, Kari Lake’s Democratic opponent, seems to have a narrow lead, but that could easily change as the votes are counted. This means that the situation I described earlier (that Lake loses but refuses to acknowledge it) is still a possible scenario.’

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