Lloyd Omdahl: Virginia warns of off-year troubles for Democrats

The Virginia election tells the electorate that 2022 will be the normal off-year losses for the party in charge of the White House, meaning that Democrats will lose both houses.

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Lloyd Omdahl

The defeat of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race is a precursor of the 2022 election, when Democrats better expect that normal off-year shift against an incumbent president.

While Democrats have gloried in winning the House, Senate and presidency, they may have thought that Democrats would continue to ride high when President Biden rewarded all of the minorities with programs they have wanted for years.

Huge 2020 turnout

But it took the largest turnout of the present century for the Democrats to win the policy branches of government in 2020. This turnout will be the curse of 2022 for Democrats.

After researching midterm declines, Professor James Campbell, writing in the Journal of Politics, noted that “in midterm elections, the greater a party’s prior presidential vote margin…the greater the loss of congressional votes and seats.”


This is exactly what happened in North Dakota in 1964 and 1966. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson not only won North Dakota’s electoral votes but gave North Dakota Democrats a majority in the House and a strong minority of 23 in the Senate.

Following this surge of support, in 1966 the Democrats were decimated – losing 15 senators and 50 House members.

Off-year turnout drops

In the off-year, the turnout declines around 15%; the presidential party loses around four senators and 30 House seats.

The Virginia election tells the electorate that 2022 will be the normal off-year losses for the party in charge of the White House, meaning that Democrats will lose both houses.

Political scientists have offered a variety of conjectures to explain the off-year phenomenon. Because the off-year downturn has been recorded during both Republican and Democratic presidential incumbencies, the off-year decline can be attributed to the presidential candidate elected two years prior.

Supporters become no-shows

The winning presidential candidate has brought enough supporters to the polls to win but these supporters don’t show up in the off-year. This surge for the winning presidential candidate can be explained in a number of ways.


First, the presidential campaigns are highly visible so more voters become interested in the election. Second, the winning candidates make bold promises, only to find that the status quo system of government doesn’t respond to change.

President Biden ran into that. To win, he had to overpromise to every minority group making up his electorate. When the chips were down, he couldn’t deliver because his coalition was too big to hang together, with “progressives” on one side and Sen. Joe Manchin on the other.

Voters lose interest

While Joe eked out a partial victory, the failure of the Democratic Party to move swiftly made the administration look inept. His supporters have not been impressed to the point that they will come out in the same numbers as they did in 2020. It happens to both parties.

The statistics tell us that Republican and Democratic candidates both lose in a system of government guaranteed not to work or deliver on the president’s campaign promises. At the same time, the electorate doesn’t want to hear candidates tell the truth – that it is nearly impossible to get anything done short of war or natural disaster.

Get-out-the-vote drive

To get the turnout in 2022 that Democrats got in 2020 would require a stronger get-out-the-vote campaign than ever before. It isn’t going to happen.

Democrats have a practical problem building the same coalition that they had in 2020. A big chunk of their supporters are in the lower income categories that, for a variety of reasons, do not understand their stake in the social programs of the Democrats.


With the results in the Electoral College very close in 2020, Democrats have a razor-thin edge that will be easily lost in the vagaries of the 2022 election.

Unless they do a command performance during the next year, they will need a minority party strategy going into 2024.

Lloyd Omdahl is a former state lieutenant governor and professor at UND.

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