During the weeks leading up to the 2022 midterms, mainstream election coverage appeared to be guided by the presumption that President Joe Biden's pleas to save democracy were largely being ignored by American voters, that high inflation and gas prices would instead drive them to punish the incumbent party at the polls and hand Republicans dramatic victories. This wasn't just conjecture, either. New York Times polling showed that, while voters did say democracy was under threat, they did not rate saving democracy as a voting priority.
The much-predicted "red wave" did not happen. Straightaway, there were early indicators that Americans would end up putting a higher value on democracy than they had told pollsters they would. Republican candidates who made a big show of supporting Trump's Big Lie, hinting they were open to interfering with the 2024 election, lost their elections at a much higher rate than almost anyone predicted. Aligning a Republican campaign with Trump meant performing an average of five points below non-Trumpy GOP candidates. Most importantly, Democrats won crucial races for governor and senator in states like Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania, shutting down Trump's likeliest path to interfering with the 2024 election.
There are strong signs the trend will continue in Georgia's runoff Senate election between incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock and Trump-backed Republican challenger Herschel Walker. Georgia voters have been in long lines to vote, setting daily record turnouts, exceeding not only previous runoff elections but also any early voting day in the state's history. More than a quarter of Georgia voters have already shown up at the polls.
Part of that is due to Georgia Republicans passing a law to truncate the early voting calendar, which prominent Democrats like Stacy Abrams have criticized as voter suppression. People have fewer days to vote early now, concentrating early voters into longer lines and higher per-day averages.
Still, these numbers also suggest that the same democracy-protecting urge that shaped the midterm elections is likely in play. It's hard to argue that the runoff between Walker and Warnock will have much impact on those much-ballyhooed "kitchen table" issues. Democrats already have a 50-vote majority in the Senate. A Warnock win would help protect that, but it isn't likely to make a huge difference in the daily operations of the Senate. Democrats are still short one vote to overturn the filibuster. Plus, Republicans now control the House, which presents a significant roadblock for passing meaningful legislation with or without Warnock.
That said, voting in this election also has great symbolic value to many people, with Georgia's recently-passed sweeping voter restriction law compared by critics to Jim Crow-era voter suppression.
"Voter suppression is one of the surest cures for apathy," Charles Blow, a New York Times opinion writer who recently relocated to Georgia, wrote last week. "Nothing makes you value a thing like someone trying to steal it from you."
He describes the long lines to vote as "a poll tax paid in time," but notes that "voters are simply responding with defiance to the efforts to suppress."
This enthusiasm to show up for democracy may not have been evident in pre-election polls, but it's showing up in post-election data. On Monday, the progressive strategy group Way to Win released an exit polling report that shows, contrary to pre-election assumptions, protecting democracy was ranked a number two priority by voters, only behind the economy.
"Pundit predictions about what would move voters were wrong – the loss of abortion rights and other freedoms, including attacks on our democracy, drove a winning pro-freedom, anti-MAGA majority in the midterms," Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the vice president of Way to Win, told Salon. "These issues helped us buck historic trends and avoid a red wave – and the same issues are particularly salient in Georgia."
Last week, research from Impact Research, a Democratic polling firm, showed similar trends. "Six in 10 voters cited protecting democracy as an extremely important reason that they decided to vote in November. This put the issue ahead of inflation (53%), abortion (47%) and crime (45%)," HuffPost reports. Not only did the issue motivate turnout, but it helped independent voters decide to back the Democrats.
To be clear, the high early turnout in Georgia doesn't mean that Warnock is guaranteed to win. As Blow notes, "all of the obstacles placed in voters' way" do cause a lot of voters to give up, even if it stiffens the spines of others. In addition, as a New York Times analysis from the weekend reminds us, "Georgia is still fundamentally a right-leaning state." Yes, it's hard to imagine Republican voters will be moved to stand in line to back someone as demonstrably unfit as Walker. Even Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan, a Republican, confessed that, after waiting in line for an hour to vote, "I walked out of that ballot box showing up to vote but not voting for either one of them." But after a disappointing overall midterm election for Republicans, it is possible that many will show up to vote for Walker in hopes of carving out a victory.
Still, the high voter turnout plus this post-midterm polling shows that, despite warnings to the contrary, voters do put a premium on protecting democracy. As Brian Beutler of Crooked Media argued in a pre-midterm newsletter, Americans downplayed their concerns about democracy to pollsters and focus groups because of a "common human distaste for conflict." Most people "wish politics could be a kinder sport" and tend to react negatively to both the increasingly authoritarian rhetoric coming from Republican politicians and the dire warnings about fascism coming from Democrats. If Warnock wins in Georgia, it will be continuing evidence that, as uncomfortable as Americans may be with talking about these issues, they are still motivated to save the American experiment.