Let us begin with a fable. In 1974, as Richard Nixon struggled with the continuing fallout from the Watergate scandal, accompanied by plunging poll support, the White House looked at how best to recover. The south was usually generous to Nixon, so a remedy was sought in that geography.
The Nixon camp decided the president would pay a visit to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of American country and western music, with a touch of gospel and blues. It attracted and continues to attract a massive audience on television and radio, particularly across the south.
The night Nixon visited the Opry coincided with the birthday of his wife, Pat. Nixon played Happy Birthday on the piano as the cast came on to the stage at the end of the evening, and everyone sang along. This touched Pat Nixon deeply. When the president finished playing, he strode across the stage to the cheers of all. The first lady walked towards her husband with arms outstretched. Nixon went straight past his wife to his travelling presidential party, declaring: “That wraps up Tennessee. Let’s get out of here.”
The tale may be apocryphal, but Nixon was characterised as a tough campaigner, which is virtually acknowledged by the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. The story cannot be dismissed.
American opinion polls still matter but they are struggling for accuracy. The midterm balloting this week for the US Senate, House of Representatives and 36 gubernatorial mansions emphasised this reality. The anticipated red wave was hardly a swell off the beach.
While domestic issues were decisive in these elections, a handful of foreign issues did intrude. Extensive polling for the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney driven by Jared Mondschein and Victoria Cooper identified the principal concerns of American voters.
Its most disquieting statistic was that both Democratic and Republican voters expressed concerns about the state of US democracy.
Obviously, this is subject to differing interpretations. But, nonetheless, issues that were sleepers in this campaign were identified by the Democratic Party for its base and have helped mobilise its constituency in a multiplicity of contests.
The US Supreme Court, at its most conservative since the 1930s era of chief justice Charles Evans Hughes Sr, furnished a catalyst for the Democrats in overturning Roe v Wade on abortion rights.
Add to that the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 last year, and concerned Democrats and others flocked to the ballot boxes.
Ironically, the indicator of what would happen on Tuesday, US time, was hiding in plain sight. In August this year, the deeply red state of Kansas voted resoundingly to affirm a woman’s right to choose her own healthcare.
All this means that the Democratic Party of Joe Biden secured the best midterm result since that won by Jack Kennedy in November 1962 at the end of the Cuban missile crisis. It is absolutely remarkable.
Despite Donald Trump’s best attempts to trash American allies during his presidency, and ingratiate himself with dictators from St Petersburg to Pyongyang, the US Studies Centre research maintains that Americans have a robust view of foreign relations.
The most positive statistic from the polling (involving more than 1000 respondents in each of Australia, Japan and the US) was a considerable lift in US support for the ANZUS alliance. Americans are concluding the US is more secure because of the alliance. The relevant figure has risen from 44 per cent last year to 58 per cent today.
Moreover, there is a convergence of views that China is more harmful than helpful in Asia. Fifty-five per cent of Americans hold this view. The Australian figure stands at 52 per cent.
The vexed question of Taiwan brings forth similar responses from Australia and the US. Both publics see economic isolation of China as being the appropriate response were there to be an invasion by Beijing. Sixty-one per cent of Australian respondents and 65 per cent of Americans favour this action, and most in each country believe supplying Taiwan with weapons is a supportable step. In neither country is the dispatch of military force to Taiwan backed by a majority. One fascinating statistic is that more than 72 per cent of Americans and Australians say they are prepared to spend up to $500 more on a mobile phone not made in China. This is despite record cost-of-living pressures in both countries.
Midterm elections are normally a referendum on the party in power in the White House. This certainly has been true in the US since the post-war presidency of Harry Truman.
In more recent times, Bill Clinton was rebuffed in the midterms of 1994 and Barack Obama suffered a similar fate in 2010. On the other hand, Trump’s Republicans were rejected in the midterms of 2018. The Democrats this year have demonstrated far greater resilience than anyone believed possible.
Robert Gates, a distinguished defence secretary under George W. Bush and Obama, was chillingly insightful when he said US national security was threatened far less by external foes than by the “two square miles that encompass the White House and the Capitol”. Extreme polarisation is the curse and Americans simply seem tired of it.
Trump bears particular responsibility for Republican defeat. His endorsement of Trumpanzee candidates, while failing to fund them, had self-evident consequences at the ballot box.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) saw this coming several weeks ago and will hold Trump to account in the inner council of the party. But McConnell himself carries more than passing responsibility for this debacle. After all, the Supreme Court is his handiwork.
Since 2017, Trump has endorsed Republican candidates so flawed that they routinely lost races they should have won easily. These midterms will come to be viewed as a referendum on Trump himself. The verdict will shift US politics.