A voter enters the polls on Portland's Munjoy Hill on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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The heralded red wave – an overwhelming Republican election victory – obviously didn’t hit the shore. But there was a strong undertow – a powerful countercurrent just below the surface.

The polls and the pundits, both merely skimming the surface as usual, missed the blue undertow.  

A fading Donald Trump is reported to have cost the Republicans at the polls. In fact, he had a major impact, because in 2020 his big turnout allowed the Democrats only a small margin in the U.S. House of Representatives. That left them vulnerable to the usual mid-term losses of a party holding the presidency. Their loss was the smallest in 20 years, but they began with only a small lead.

President Joe Biden’s reported unpopularity was supposed to drag the Democrats to defeat. No poll found whether his relatively low standing was more personal than political. Biden lacks charisma, political sex appeal, in a country where bombast (see Trump or Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis) catches the public’s attention.

Biden’s occasional oratorical miscues may not communicate the kind of strength that voters want. His calm demeanor obscures his generally positive record. He may suffer because voters want both good policies and a flashy personality that shoots from the lip. But his drawbacks didn’t harm the Democrats.

Biden talked a lot about the threat to democracy. His message was that, if the GOP won, election deniers and dishonest vote counts would undermine free and fair elections. The Democrats adopted extreme moves to block the election of Republicans who would reverse election results. His warnings and Democratic moves worked.

The results may have been a rejection of candidates falsely finding election fraud, but also reflected a deeper concern about democracy. The January 6 insurrection at the Capitol left sentiments that short survey questionnaires cannot measure.

The Republicans had been concerned that the findings of the House committee investigating the insurrection would be used against them in the election campaign, and the committee’s hearings were likely part of the undertow. Public concern about democracy may have resulted from Trump’s brand of political expression having gone too far.

The GOP succeeded in dumping Rep. Liz Cheney, one of their most loyal members, for expressing her concerns about Trump’s threat to democracy. But the sacrifice of her seat in Congress for a larger cause caught national attention. No survey asked about her influence on voters’ decisions.

By the way, Liz Cheney is a woman. Next year, 12 governors will be women. Polls report that most men vote Republican and most women vote Democratic. That overlooks the increased political activism of women. The abortion issue was in sharp focus in male-dominated GOP states mistakenly rushing decisions that only directly affect women.

Pollsters warn that the Democrats may only be able to count on 60 percent of Hispanic voters, while ignoring that they may be able to count on 60 percent of women voters.

Inflation was seen as the big issue that would swing voters toward the Republicans. That strategy assumed that people would hold Biden and hence the Democrats responsible for higher gasoline and food prices. But it also assumed that people were dim enough to believe that voting for the GOP would promptly lower the price at the pump.

Inflation was probably less of an issue than expected, because people were aware of the effects of the pandemic, Ukraine war and possibly even Saudi Arabia’s oil cuts. Voters worried about high prices and believed the GOP is good at managing the economy, but that did not translate into blaming the Democrats for inflation. The polls simply did not read the issue well.

Another barely mentioned demographic influence is the split between urban and rural areas. In many key elections, the Democrats won big in the biggest municipalities, while Republican candidates carried many small towns. There can be more voters in a few big cities than in all the small towns. In Maine, Gov. Janet Mills won all of the leading vote-producing towns and cities.

The Democrats did well in U.S. Senate, governors and state house races. They might have done better in the House, except for gerrymandering of district lines by Republican state legislatures, which had been largely left intact by GOP-appointed judges.The U.S. Supreme Court, mostly Republican appointees, still smiles on political gerrymandering.

In New York, the majority on its highest court, all Democratic appointees, turned down the Democrats’ redistricting plan. By default, the Republicans got their favored plan and flipped four House seats, which could be nearly the gap between the two parties in the House.  

The Democrats’ surprisingly good showing, freeing Biden of responsibility for a setback, may make it easier for him to decide against running again. Perhaps he never intended to seek a second term and now the way is clear, free from embarrassment.

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Gordon Weil, Opinion contributor

Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.