WashU Experts: Midterm elections have widespread ramifications

Voters in this year’s midterm elections, to be held nationwide Nov. 8, will be motivated by a number of hot-button issues, including abortion, climate change, voting rights, the economy and more.

Here, Washington University in St. Louis faculty experts weigh in on some of the issues that will be top of voters’ minds as they head to the polls.

Most important elections in recent memory


“As long as democracy is in crisis, as long as one of the two major political parties stands actively opposed to democratic values and practices, the next election will always be the most important election in recent memory,” said Gregory Magarian, the Thomas and Karole Green Professor of Law.

“These midterms present a range of possibilities at the level of practical governance. If the Democrats somehow hold both houses of Congress, then the Biden administration will have two more years to advance its agenda. If the Republicans take either house, as seems highly likely, then the federal government will be in gridlock. The outcome in the Senate carries special weight for the future of the federal judiciary. If the Republicans take the Senate, President Biden will have great difficulty getting judges and other nominees confirmed. Republican control of either house would also likely mean hearings and investigations targeted at Democrats.

“What’s harder to pin down is the effect of numerous state and local races. Trumpist election deniers in presidential battleground states — Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and more — are running for offices that would let them control election procedures. Any of those candidates who prevail could steal the next presidential election for the Republican candidate, as Trump sought in 2020. Also difficult to measure is the effect of adding more right-wing extremists to office at the federal and state levels. While Democrats have nominated very conventional candidates, the Republican Party continues to lurch further right. We will almost certainly see a new crop of Madison Cawthorns and Marjorie Taylor Greenes.”

Biden’s climate agenda depends on midterms


“President Biden has already made good on many of the items in the nine-point energy plan that he pitched during the last election cycle. That’s largely thanks to the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA),” said Michael Wysession, a professor of earth and planetary sciences in Arts & Sciences.

“The IRA is not likely to do much in the way of reducing inflation, but it is revolutionary in its impacts on U.S. industries concerning green energy and, in the process, efforts to reduce the climate impacts of burning fossil fuels,” Wysession said. Investments and incentives in the IRA put the U.S. on target to reduce greenhouse emissions about 40% below 2005 levels by 2030 (compared with 30% without it). 

“We are not even two years into Biden’s term, and his accomplishments in the areas of clean energy and climate have been extraordinary,” Wysession said. “And this is with a 50/50 split Senate, an antagonistic Supreme Court and an extremely well-funded misinformation and disinformation campaign from factions on the right. How much more Biden gets done depends on the outcome of the midterm elections, but his approval rating should be much higher than it is.”

Will Dobbs crush the red wave? 

One of the biggest questions heading into the midterms is how the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision will influence voters. The decision was widely unpopular, with 62% of Americans disapproving of it, but will that be enough to stop a potential red wave in November?


A working paper by Olin Business School’s Raphael Thomadsen and Song Yao, along with Robert Zeithammer at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests the decision may not have meaningfully changed general attitudes about abortion as a policy issue, nor its impact on voter preference. 

However, there is one big exception to this finding: The researchers found that women and independent voters became markedly less supportive of an anti-abortion candidate who is also against any exceptions in cases of rape, incest or the mother’s health. With dozens of states already restricting abortion without exceptions and others considering similar bans, this has the potential to be a deciding factor for races in these states, said Thomadsen, a professor of marketing.


The researchers asked study participants to weigh two hypothetical Senate candidates based on each candidate’s position on key issues, including abortion, taxes, illegal immigration, climate change, health insurance and poverty. Their findings show that among women, support of anti-abortion/no exception candidates dropped 7 percentage points post-Dobbs. Independent voters’ support for anti-abortion candidates also dropped 5.3 percentage points with the decision. Only men prioritized other issues in their decision, with support for Republican candidates rising nearly 7 percentage points.

While other factors like candidate personalities will affect actual races, the findings suggest Republicans would be better off avoiding hardline stances, while Democrats would benefit from amplifying this weakness in campaign messages, said Yao, an associate professor of marketing. 

Thomadsen predicted that, given the closeness of the election polls now, control for the Senate depends on how much Democrats emphasize the issue of exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health in the last few weeks of the campaign. So far, those ads have been relegated to the back burner of most key elections. Read the full working paper on the SSRN website.

Why a ‘red wave’ is not guaranteed


The national media has been fixated on an impending “red wave,” or a sweeping victory by Republican candidates in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. While conventional political wisdom supports this idea, a Republican victory is not guaranteed, according to Steven S. Smith, the Kate M. Gregg Distinguished Professor of Social Science in Arts & Sciences.

Smith, a leading congressional politics scholar, discusses the factors making 2022 midterms difficult to predict, what’s ahead for the second half of President Joe Biden’s term and the impact the midterm election could have on the future of the GOP.

Read a Q&A with Smith on how conventional wisdom may play out this year.