Tuesday night could have been the beginning of the end for Joe Biden. Forecasters said the US midterm election would deliver a red wave — a “tsunami” even. In the event, it was an average ripple by the standards of past midterms. Whatever the final tally, which could take days to verify, Biden has avoided the shellacking that befell both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, his two Democratic predecessors. In today’s bleakly polarised America, that qualifies as a win.
What is good for Biden is bad for Donald Trump, whose continued grip on the Republican Party explains its failure to close the sale with voters. By all other measures — Biden’s low approval ratings and voter angst about galloping inflation and rising crime — Republicans should have swept both chambers of Congress and many more state governorships. Prior to Tuesday, incumbent presidents’ parties have lost ground in 36 of the 39 midterm elections to have been held since the American civil war.
Biden’s Democrats will still lose control — the House of Representatives will probably change hands, while the Senate remains a toss up. But his party’s ability to stem the losses puts Biden’s midterm performance in the upper ranks among American presidents. He has Trump and the defeats of a series of extreme Trumpian candidates to thank for that. As we have seen before, the anger of America’s voters does not always equate to recklessness.
For Biden, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving. Senior Republicans somehow persuaded the former president to postpone his 2024 campaign launch until after the midterms in the well-grounded fear that he would steal the headlines and damage their prospects. He nevertheless inserted himself into the swing state campaigns, especially in Pennsylvania, with no success. Shortly before polling stations closed on Tuesday Trump said: “Well, I think if they [Republicans] win, I should get all the credit. If they lose, I should not be blamed at all.”
In reality the more extreme candidates that Trump endorsed fared worse than the average Republican. These include Doug Mastriano, his 2020 election-denying favourite for Pennsylvania’s governor; Dr Mehmet Oz, the celebrity TV doctor, who lost his Pennsylvania Senate race to John Fetterman; Daniel Cox, who lost his bid for Maryland governor to Wes Moore, who becomes America’s third black governor; and Don Bolduc, who was challenging the incumbent senator in New Hampshire. Among Trump’s endorsed candidates who won, including JD Vance for an Ohio Senate seat, most distanced themselves from Trump’s more extreme stances, as did Blake Masters, who looks set to lose his race for an Arizona Senate seat.
Most ominous for Trump, however, was the thumping re-election of Ron DeSantis as governor of his home state of Florida. DeSantis, whom Trump has nicknamed “DeSanctimonious”, is the most plausible rival for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Though he is untested outside Florida, DeSantis has become a champion of conservative “anti-woke” politics through his attacks on liberal teachers’ unions and his disdain for federal Covid regulations.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of DeSantis’s conservative potency is the trademark menace with which Trump now talks about him: “I would tell you things about him [DeSantis] that won’t be very flattering,” said Trump on Monday. “I know more about him than anybody — other than, perhaps, his wife.”
Biden can anticipate some collateral benefit from the political fratricide that looks likely to be unleashed between the author of the Maga movement and its increasingly impatient heir. Now that he is Trump’s enemy number one, it will be hard for DeSantis to resist the presidential temptation. His muscular showing will embolden senior Republicans, such as Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader and a frequent butt of Trump’s jibes, to test the waters further. Trump is poised to launch his 2024 campaign next week.
Meanwhile Biden keeps beating low expectations. In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, the consensus was that he is waning as president and fading as a campaigner. The former is hard to substantiate, since his legislative record in two years is considerably better than Clinton’s after eight and arguably Obama’s too. Biden’s hustings performance has looked fumbling. But that has been true for most of his career. America’s pundit class often overrates the salience of soaring oratory. It also serially overrates Trump’s popularity. Until Tuesday, 2024 looked likely to be a rerun between Trump and Biden. That unedifying prospect should no longer be assumed.