WE keep using words of war to talk about politics. For America, especially, this is starting to get awkward. 

A little over a year ago a mob of extremists, high on a cocktail of lies about a “stolen election”, stormed the Capitol, home of the United States Congress. Five people died as a result. 

So it feels uncomfortable to write about a “battle” for control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, respectively the lower and upper houses of America’s legislature.   

But one is nevertheless about to ensue, and the stakes could not be higher, not just for the United States. 

Later this year, in November to be exact, all 435 seats in the House and 34 of the100 in the Senate are up for grabs. So too are swathes of state and local positions.  

Republicans are aiming to “retake” Congress. By ballot, this time, not force. The once traditionally conservative party is, effectively, still led by former president Donald Trump, the populist whose disinformation sparked the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021. 

They are up against the Democrats of Joe Biden, the liberal who replaced Mr Trump in the White House.  


President Joe Biden 

The left-of-centre party currently has a narrow majority of 10 in the House and razor-thin control of the Senate thanks to Mr Biden’s Vice President, Kamala Harris, who has a constitutional casting vote over a 50-50 split. 

Many of us traditionally overlook America’s midterms, the elections, often with low turnouts, between the big  

four-yearly presidential votes. We should not. This time round they may make or break the Biden presidency – and, some say, the country.   

Nine months out it is hard to make predictions. There is, however, a long tradition of the party with the presidency losing or loosening its grip on Congress at Midterms. Nerds call this the “thermostatic model”, when voters, if you like, adjust the heat. 

Republicans certainly look more positive. Mr Biden’s approval ratings have dived since he took power.  Democrats, many muttering about gerrymandering, feel they could lose ground in November.  

One potential signal of this lack of confidence: retirements. At last count, 29 Dems say they will not run for re-election, compared with 14 Republicans. 

Voters are facing a cost of living crisis, some of the highest inflation in decades – more than six per cent a year. The pandemic is not over.  More than 40% of Americans are not double vaccinated.  

Mr Biden, say his critics, is failing to inspire, even his own support base. 


Former President Donald Trump

America, from the outside, appears polarised and traumatised. The Midterms can look like two tribes going to war (there is that ugly word again). 

The November vote can be – and often is – seen as part of a giant cultural stand-off between liberal democracy personified by Mr Biden and the authoritarian populism of Mr Trump. But it is more complicated than that.  

Democrats and Republicans have always been loose coalitions, subtly shifting alliances and many Americans fit into neither camp. Some may feel disenfranchised by a two-party system.  

People at the two poles of US politics shout loudest – but they represent smallish factions. Over the last three decades Democrats and Republicans have drifted further and further apart.  

Bradley Jones, of polling giant Pew Research Center, know this better than most. He has been working to dissect the left and right of US politics, to look at the anatomy of the Democratic and Republican coalitions. 

There are lots of ways to sift and categorise Americans, by race, age, gender, education or religiosity. And so people of colour and women might be a little more liberal than conservative; or regular churchgoers tend to be more right than left.  

The differences between Republicans and Democrats used to be quite small. Not any more. Now they barely overlap on values at all.  

“There has been a real sorting of the two parties where Republicans have adopted positions on the political right and Democrats have adopted positions on the political left,” Mr Bradley said last week in a Zoom briefing organised by the US State Department’s Foreign Press Centers.  

“Across the board, we see big political differences between Republicans and Democrats in basically every policy area, and those differences dwarf differences by any other demographic category.

"So again, when we look at differences by race, religious attendance, or gender or age, partisan stands apart as the single most important cleavage in American politics.” 

And yet there is sizeable middle ground in America – and significant ideological ranges among supporters of the two parties. 

There are, of course, different ways to slice up both parties. Pew uses a quiz to plot voters on an ideological map. Last year it charted nine subsections of American opinion, in what it calls political typology. These go a long way to explaining American politics, especially intra-partisan tensions.  

It is worth looking at these in detail, roughly from left to right. 

Faith and Flag Conservatives  

These are the bedrock of the hard right. Largely white and Christian, they make up 10% of the population and, calculates Pew, around 23% of the Republican coalition. They love Donald Trump and are vulnerable to disinformation about his having won the 2020 election. “They have a deep connection with Donald Trump,” Mr Bradley explained. “They’re extremely enthusiastic about him remaining a  part of politics and are happy with the things that he did during his presidency. 

Populist Right 

This is the other bastion of Trumpism and accounts for another 11% of the US electorate. These are not exactly traditional conservatives. “They have very hardline views when it comes to immigration,” said Mr Bradley. “But they endorse some broader skepticism of the economic system, which is unusual for Republican groups.  So they tend to think the economy is unfair, they’re okay with taxes on the wealthy.” 

Committed Conservatives 

This dwindling group, or so Mr Bradley said, are “maybe what some people think of as more traditional Republicans before the age of Trump”. They might like Ronald Reagan more than Mr Trump and be  

more relaxed about immigration while championing small government and strong defence. They account, however, for only 7% of Americans. 

Ambivalent Right  

This is the largest section of right-wing opinion in America, accounting for 12% of the overall population. These are younger Americans who may “depart from some of the more traditional conservative groups in terms of their views about race and gender and some other social issues, but they still lean towards the Republican Party in most of their views,” said Mr Bradley. 

Stressed Sideliners 

Some 15% of Americans belong to neither the broad left nor the right. 

Outsider Left 

This 10% of Americans are left but not entirely happy with the Democrats. “They tend to be a little bit less likely to turn out and vote,” Mr Bradley said. “In the primaries, they were much more enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders [than Mr Biden], they are on the political left but are sort of discontented with the party.” 

Establishment Liberals 

This is another big chunk of US opinion, around 13%. These are loyal to Mr Biden and prepared to compromise. 

Democratic Mainstays 

This is the single biggest segment of American politics, according to Pew, with 16% of the electorate. It is an older group and accounts for most black democrats.

They can be hawkish on foreign policy, and, Mr Bradley suggested, “less enthusiastic about immigration and have a maybe more moderate stance there, and on some social issues take more traditional positions reflecting their age and demographics a little bit”. 

Progressive Left 

For Mr Bradley, this group of 6% of Americans “kind of has a mirror in that faith and flag conservative on the right”. This is the only majority white segment of left opinion and is predominately made up of college educated people. Europeans would recognise the progressive left and social democrats or socialists. 

The breakdown above might suggest Mr Biden and the Democrats have little to worry about. The left, after all, outnumbers the right on this count by about 45% to 40%.  

But that demographic advantage does not mean the left wins wither the presidency or Congress. Why? Because of the way politics works in the federal United States. There is a structural lean to the right, thanks to the sheer number of “red” states. And this may be about to get more obvious. 

A huge process of “redistricting” is currently being completed for the House to take account, in theory at least, of the last census.  

State authorities, who are responsible for such things, are drawing new lines on electoral maps, creating new districts, what we would call constituencies. In a few places, this is an independent, non-partisan job. In most states, it is left to legislators. Republicans – in particular – have control of key states. Electoral districts can now look twisted out of any coherent shape. These are the battle lines that really count in the war for America. 

So come November, as always, it does not just matter who votes for whom, but who votes where.