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To understand the 2022 midterm vote, look at the state races

Election results didn’t provide clarity about the message of the national electorate. But at the state level, the turnout data offers some clues.

As soon as election results are in, analysts scramble to look for large-scale trends and lessons in the vote — but analyzing the 2022 vote is proving to be a complicated task. In some ways, it was a very uneven election.

Was turnout up or down? Did the results follow long-term trends or not? The answer was yes or, perhaps more correctly, it depends.

Democrats had a good election night. They held the Senate, came close to holding the House and did well in important governor’s races. But the results didn’t seem to provide definitive answers about what message the national electorate was sending. At the state level, the turnout data offers some clues.

Overall, fewer voters turned out in 2022 than in the last midterms in 2018.

About 109.5 million votes were cast this year in the top-of-the-ticket votes in each state, compared to more than 115 million in 2018, according to an NBC News accounting of the numbers. The figures may change slightly when the tallies are finalized, but the point will hold.

To be fair, that’s not a bad vote count. The 2018 election produced the highest midterms turnout in more than a century, and this year’s figure suggests high midterms turnout could be a trend. But it wasn’t a record, and the results look different from state to state.

Some states had big declines in turnout this year, and the states with the largest declines were all in the negative-20% or more range.

Some of those numbers may not be big surprises. Mississippi, New Jersey and West Virginia didn’t have Senate or governor’s races this year (each had Senate races in 2018).

But North Dakota had a Senate race this year, and Tennessee featured a fight for the governor’s mansion — and voters still didn’t come out. Why? One possible reason: The races weren’t close. Republicans won both contests by more than 30 percentage points. Voters might have felt their ballots wouldn’t make much difference.

One of the biggest drivers of the national decline was drops in the four largest states: California, Florida, New York and Texas.

Combined, 1.4 million fewer votes were cast in those four states this year compared to 2018, representing about 25% of the total decline. Each had a governor’s race, and three of them — California, Florida and New York — had Senate races.

None of the races was especially close. Even the New York governor’s race, which polls suggested was tightening, wound up as a nearly 6-point win for incumbent Kathy Hochul.

But the declines weren’t universal. A set of states had increases in vote production, many of them “battleground states,” and they produced good results for Democrats. 

The 2022 votes cast in top-of-the-ticket races were up over the 2018 numbers in New Hampshire, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Hawaii and Michigan, by 5% or more.

One result: Democrats had a lot of good news out of those states. The party held on to Senate seats in New Hampshire and Arizona, flipped the Senate seat in Pennsylvania and won the governor’s race in Arizona. In Michigan, Democrats held the Governor’s Mansion while flipping both houses of the Legislature, giving them complete control of the state capital for the first time in 40 years.

Different factors were at play. Election deniers seeking statewide offices in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania probably played roles. And a ballot proposal to make abortion a constitutional right, which passed, most likely juiced turnout in Michigan.

But there was one other noteworthy finding in the data in Michigan and Pennsylvania: The big turnouts and the positive results came even as the biggest cities in each state — Detroit and Philadelphia — produced fewer votes than they did in 2018. 

In Michigan, Wayne County (which includes Detroit) produced 2% fewer votes than it did in 2018. In Pennsylvania, Philadelphia produced nearly 10% fewer votes. Traditionally, Democrats win in those states only when their urban cores turn out.

The numbers suggest that the Democratic coalition in those states may be shifting, leaning more heavily on college-educated voters and suburbanites, as their rural areas turn more Republican. In the governor’s elections in both states, exit polls showed the Democratic candidates won college-educated voters and white college-educated voters by more than 20 percentage points.

Again, these aren’t universally applicable lessons. There are any number of reasons the 2022 election was an outlier — from former President Donald Trump’s refusing to leave the stage to the Supreme Court’s pushing itself onto the stage when it overturned Roe v. Wade this summer. But state-level turnout numbers suggested a few points.

First, even in a politically charged environment, voters needed reasons to turn out. And second, in the states where voters turned out in big numbers, they seemed to favor the Democrats.