Control of Congress was still hanging in the balance Nov. 9 as the University of Chicago gathered panelists to debate polarization, policy, and election trends at a hot-off-the-presses post-midterms event.

Sponsored by the Harris School of Public Policy and the Institute of Politics (IOP), “The 2022 Midterms: What Happened and What Lies Ahead” drew more than 100 people to Chicago's iconic Old Post Office. There they heard from Professor Anthony Fowler, IOP Pritzker Fellow and former Democratic U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez; Stomping Ground Strategies co-founder Isabelle Dienstag, MPP'17; and BallotReady co-founder Aviva Rosman, AB’10, MPP’16, who moderated the panel. 

“I think democracy won yesterday,” Gutiérrez said as panelists examined the first national election since the Jan. 6 insurrection. Votes were still being counted, but Democrats had held off a predicted Republican “red wave.”

Luis Gutiérrez, a Pritzker Fellow with the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, served as a member of Congress from 1993 to 2019.

Gutiérrez’s fellow panelists, however, said democracy also suffered what they saw as wounds in this election cycle, including nationally when President Joe Biden said that “MAGA Republicans” were a threat to democracy. And in Illinois where Gov. JB Pritzker and the Democratic Governors Association spent $30 million on ads targeting a more moderate candidate — Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin — in the Republican primary in an effort to prop up a more extreme candidate, Donald Trump-backed Darren Bailey, who Pritzker ended up facing and defeating on Nov. 8.

 “I don't have any direct evidence on this, but my gut tells me that of course all of the Trump supporters who explicitly deny the outcome of the election are bad for democracy,” said Fowler, an elections and voter-turnout expert and cohost of Not Another Politics Podcast. But for President Biden “to say, ‘Anyone who supports my opponent, they're against democracy,’ that's also an undemocratic thing to do. And all of this makes me very uncomfortable.

“I think there has to be a little bit more empathy for the other side,” Fowler continued. “There are reasons people might have voted for Donald Trump other than that they're just crazy people who are racist and don't believe in democracy. And I don't think you're winning over a lot of people with that kind of overly-charged rhetoric.”

In a local example, Dienstag raised what she called the “very controversial” move by Pritzker to “put money behind Darren Bailey because he was the more extreme candidate.”

“It turned out to be the right gamble,” she said, but “doesn't that just increase the polarization? And what if Bailey won?” 

Fowler called the move part of a relatively new and “horrifying trend” that’s “obviously bad for democracy.” 

“Is it smart politics? I don't know,” he said. “It could easily backfire: in the obvious way that you could end up losing to the extremist and that would've been a huge miscalculation. It could also backfire in the more subtle way, which is the voters see that you're doing this, and they think ‘JB Pritzker is a bad guy who's not actually looking out for our best interest, but who is trying to maximize his chances of winning.’” 

Are extremist candidates good strategy for either side, Rosman asked Fowler, and will that trend continue? 

Parties slating more extreme candidates “is getting worse over time,” Fowler said, even though “voters by and large are pretty moderate.” Fowler is the author of a 2022 paper examining the role of moderates in American elections.

Isabelle Dienstag, MPP'17, and Professor Anthony Fowler discuss political strategy, political messaging, and good policy.

“There's all this rhetoric about hyper-partisanship and polarization. And certainly, if you watch cable news or if you go on Twitter, you'll get the sense that everyone is a crazed partisan,” he said. “But that's just not what the data looks like. The voters strongly prefer the moderate candidate, but they just almost never have a moderate option.”

What about partisan primaries? Primaries play a small role in polarization, Fowler said, “but I think it's a very small role.” “On average, extreme candidates do not perform better in primaries and they perform way worse in general elections. So, I don't think primaries contribute a lot.

“The bigger challenge is how do we even get moderates to get on the ballot and run?” Fowler asked.

Along with a limited number of moderate options, voters also did not have a lot of middle ground in the midterms, the panel noted. Democrats largely focused on the future of democracy and abortion rights in wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade and Republicans largely emphasized inflation, crime, and immigration. 

“I started second-guessing myself in the last few days before the election,” said Dienstag, who works with Democratic candidates at her communications and public affairs consulting group. She thought, she added, “‘OK, maybe I'm all wrong about this and we're going to lose because we didn't talk about jobs and the economy.’ But neither side has a persuasive message about inflation or jobs. I don't think that Democrats are providing jobs, but I know that Republicans aren't either.” 

Plus, she added, “it's not as if Republicans had this great answer on inflation and the Democrats just walked away from it. So, I think maybe we could win if we actually had real policy to talk about there, but we don't have it. And so, we have the abortion issue.”

And democracy, which Gutiérrez, who has retired from public office but now leads Our Nation’s Future, an organization dedicated to helping immigrants become U.S. citizens, said “Biden was actually right to focus on.” 

The panel discussing the 2022 midterms included a former congressman, a Harris professor, and two Harris alums.

Gutiérrez, who looked at election trends through the lens of growing up in Chicago and spending nearly three decades in Congress and six years on the Chicago City Council, noted, however, that “Democrats can do a better job,” whether that’s getting out the vote or winning over Hispanic voters.

“I want to knock on that voter’s door and tell them why I'm there to make their lives better and why I'm there to make their lives safer,” he said. “Why I'm there to guarantee that their child has a decent education and isn't going to get shot in the head by some gangbanger.”

Democrats, he added, need to have effective messages on gun control and education. “Education is the best way to reduce crime and to make for a more civil and more educated society and a safer democracy,” he said. 

As the panel explored the power of messaging, Fowler noted that a “message is no good if you don't actually have good policies.”

“Take abortion as an example,” he said. “I don't think there's a way to say Democrats just could have somehow said ‘abortion’ more on the campaign trail and won more votes. I think the way to win more votes is to actually put forward sensible policies that people like.”

Getting there will not be easy, Fowler said, “and I don't have all the solutions. There are obviously institutional changes we can think about. … I think public funding of elections would be a great idea.”

Any path to ensure that members of Congress and other elected officials aren't spending all their time raising money would be an improvement, he added.

“Better people would run for office and the job would be better,” he said, and once elected, legislators “would spend more time on policy and less on politics.”