Coming into the 2022 midterm elections, the Democratic Party wasn’t sure what to do with its standard-bearer. With his poor approval rating, President Biden wasn’t a hot commodity on the campaign trail, as Democrats — facing an electoral environment that history suggested would be unfavorable — feared losing both chambers of Congress.
But after all the votes were tallied, Democrats retained control of the Senate by winning the chamber’s four most important races, holding onto seats in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada and picking up an open seat in Pennsylvania. The candidates who won these races didn’t do so by remaking the Democratic coalition in their states. In fact, county-level data suggests that their performances mostly tracked along Biden’s performance in the 2020 presidential election, which saw him carry all four states by narrow margins.
Where these Democratic candidates did gain ground suggests that they largely replicated Biden’s coalition while also making some small but specific inroads. In Pennsylvania counties with lots of white voters without a college degree, in some heavily Hispanic parts of Arizona, in the Atlanta metropolitan area in Georgia — Democrats won Senate seats by exceeding the margins Biden used to win each state in 2020. And even in Nevada, where Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s margin of victory was smaller than Biden’s, her performance in more affluent areas with larger numbers of white voters with a college degree suggests that she made up enough ground to offset her slightly smaller margins in lower-turnout and more racially diverse areas.
To examine how these various trends played out in each state, we took a look at the county-level results and how the Democratic winners’ margins compared to Biden’s in 2020. We also dug into how these changes related to demographic and population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. County-level data can’t always provide a clear picture of how different groups voted, so we also spent some time looking beneath the county level — at congressional district- or precinct-level results — to explore some of the key factors that propelled Democrats to victory.
This pattern proved vital to the result because white voters without a college degree make up a big chunk of the Keystone State’s electorate. Three in four Pennsylvanians are white, putting the state in the top half of the whitest states in the country, and almost two in three of them do not have a bachelor’s degree. Former President Trump won the state in 2016, in part due to gains among voters in this group, and came just shy of defeating Biden there in 2020.
But Fetterman’s improvement wasn’t an accident, as his campaign spent a lot of time and effort appealing to blue-collar white voters in places where Democrats have lost ground in recent years. In counties with a population that’s at least 60 percent white without a college degree — which together produced about 36 percent of the state’s 2022 vote — Fetterman’s margin was 7 points better than Biden’s, on average, compared with just 3 points better elsewhere. It’s hard to know how much Oz’s profile as a Hollywood-connected television celebrity also played into these results. Fact is, Oz may have been an especially weak candidate when it came to appealing to less affluent voters in more rural areas, where Fetterman made some of his most sizable gains compared to Biden. But overall, Fetterman’s improvement in farther-flung places mattered because it reduced the GOP’s ability to run up massive margins outside the state’s two major metropolitan areas, which Republicans need in order to have a path to victory in Pennsylvania.
This focus coupled successfully with Fetterman’s profile as a former mayor of a struggling post-industrial town in the Pittsburgh area, which produced especially strong results for Fetterman in the western part of the state. Not only is western Pennsylvania whiter than the eastern part of the state, but parts beyond Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) were once more Democratic-leaning before becoming much redder in recent years. Thanks to his campaign and background, Fetterman’s margin was 8.5 points better than Biden’s across the entire Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area, including double-digit overperformances in some of the area’s more peripheral and red-leaning counties. Now, Fetterman didn’t flip any of these counties, but he significantly reduced the Republican margin across most parts of the state’s western half. For instance, Greene County in the state’s southwest corner still went for Oz by 30 points, but Trump won it by 43 points in 2020.
At the same time, Fetterman’s winning performance didn’t necessarily involve massive engagement from every part of the Biden coalition. Fetterman ran about even with Biden’s 2020 showing in the larger Philadelphia metropolitan area, which was partly due to reduced turnout among Black voters. Philadelphia proper saw notably lower participation compared with 2018, the previous midterm, whereas the total number of votes cast was up almost everywhere else in the state. Nevertheless, Fetterman also did almost 5 points better than Biden in areas of the state outside of the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh metropolitan areas, showing the wide breadth of his outperformance.
Similar to Fetterman, Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona won his race by holding together most of Biden’s coalition while also making small gains elsewhere. His 5-point victory over Republican Blake Masters came in part because he won a high level of support among Latino voters, a Democratic-leaning group that shifted somewhat toward Republicans in the 2020 presidential election — a trend the GOP had hoped to build on in 2022. As the chart below shows, Kelly improved on Biden’s margins most everywhere, but there was no relationship between the share of a county’s Latino population and how much Kelly outperformed Biden. Take the two counties that have majority-Hispanic populations: Kelly performed 3 points better than Biden in Santa Cruz (which is 83 percent Hispanic) and ran about even with Biden in Yuma (65 percent).
But about three-fourths of the state’s voters live in Maricopa County (Phoenix) and Pima County (Tucson), so the topline numbers in those counties may not tell us much about the Latino vote specifically (the counties are 32 and 38 percent Latino, respectively). So we have to look within those counties to get a clearer understanding of how the state’s Latino population voted. For instance, in the Maricopa-based 3rd Congressional District — Arizona’s most heavily Latino seat (58 percent by voting-age population) — Kelly did about 4 points better than Biden did in 2020, according to Daily Kos Elections. This suggests that, at the very least, Kelly probably didn’t lose much — if any — ground among Latino voters.
This takeaway is confirmed by Equis Research, a Latino-focused political firm that compared their modeled race and ethnicity voter data to precinct-level results in Maricopa. Equis found that as the share of the Latino population in a precinct grew, Kelly’s performance improved at about the same rate as Biden’s had in 2020. And across majority Latino precincts in Maricopa, Equis calculated that Kelly did about 1 point better than Biden.
Kelly also made further inroads in competitive or red-leaning areas in Phoenix with larger white populations. Within Maricopa County, Kelly did 5 to 7 points better than Biden in the 1st, 4th, 5th and 8th congressional districts (all but the 5th are entirely in Maricopa). These districts vary quite a bit in terms of partisanship, too, as the 1st and 4th are both highly competitive and the 5th and 8th districts are both solidly red. Considering registered Republicans in Maricopa turned out at a slightly higher rate than registered Democrats, Kelly’s performance suggests he may have won over some right-leaning (or formerly right-leaning) voters to outperform Biden’s 2020 showing.
Staying in the Southwest, Nevada also provided another key hold for Democrats in the Senate. Unlike the Democratic winners in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, Cortez Masto didn’t outperform Biden’s 2020 numbers statewide, but she did just enough to come out on top against Republican Adam Laxalt by 0.8 points statewide after Biden carried the state by 2.4 points in 2020. She did this by holding onto similar levels of support in places with large Latino populations and by performing on par (or slightly better) in areas with more college-educated white voters, who have been moving toward Democrats nationally.
But as always, Nevada came down to the vote tallies in Clark County (Las Vegas) and Washoe County (Reno), and in the end, Cortez Masto managed to lose a little ground in the former while staying even with Biden in the latter. And because Clark and Washoe contributed the vast majority of the statewide vote, Cortez Masto didn’t benefit much — but also didn’t hurt her chances — by running a tad better than Biden in the rest of the state.
|Locality||% 2022 state vote||2022 Margin||2020 Margin||Diff.|
|→ Las Vegas||19||D+9.7||D+10.6||R+0.9|
|→ North Las Vegas||7||D+28.4||D+30.7||R+2.3|
|→ Rest of Clark||28||D+7.5||D+9.7||R+2.2|
|Rest of Nevada||14||R+37.2||R+38.0||D+0.8|
Nevada has very few counties with sizable populations, so analyzing the state’s vote means moving below the county level to some extent. The three largest cities in Nevada — Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas — are all based in Clark County, and using precinct-level data, we can see that Cortez Masto did a tad better than Biden in wealthier and whiter Henderson while losing a little ground in the more racially and ethnically diverse Las Vegas and North Las Vegas. While she lost Henderson, a more well-educated GOP-leaning city that’s 60 percent white, Cortez Masto actually did 1 point better than Biden. And though she easily carried Las Vegas (42 percent white) and North Las Vegas (just 24 percent), Cortez Masto’s margin of victory was 1 point lower than Biden in the former and 2 points lower in the latter.
These are small differences, to be sure, but given the closeness of the race, every little shift mattered. Moreover, Cortez Masto performed almost identically to Biden in Washoe County as a whole, which looks similar to Henderson, another sign that whiter, wealthier and more educated areas in the two major metropolitan centers of the state didn’t break for the GOP but instead helped Cortez Masto stay in office. Turnout was also part of the story, however, as Clark had the sharpest drop in vote share amongst all Nevada counties compared with 2020’s vote totals, and more diverse places like Las Vegas and North Las Vegas saw steeper declines than whiter and more affluent areas like Henderson.
Still, this doesn’t mean Latino voters, who make up close to 30 percent of the state’s population, weren’t vital to Cortez Masto’s reelection. Equis Research examined the precinct-level vote in Clark and found that, crucially, Cortez Masto’s support in heavily Latino precincts was almost identical to Biden’s backing in the same places. As we saw throughout the country in 2020, Biden underperformed 2018 and 2016 Democratic numbers among Hispanics in Clark, but Cortez Masto avoided letting things slip further, which could have cost her reelection.
In Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker by nearly 3 points after neither candidate won an outright majority in November. While the urban and suburban counties in Arizona, Nevada and Pennsylvania were crucial to the Democratic wins in those states, Georgia may have provided the best demonstration for how a Democratic candidate’s strong performance in such places led to victory.
Using FiveThirtyEight’s urbanization index, we can see that the more densely populated a county, the better Warnock tended to do compared to Biden’s 2020 margin. Most notably, Warnock increased Democratic vote share across the Atlanta metro area, including running up margins in the city’s increasingly diverse suburbs — a national trend we’ve seen in major population centers and one that helped Biden win the presidency two years ago.
Warnock’s improvement speaks to the proliferation of parts of the Democratic coalition in the Atlanta area, including a growing base of Black voters and a shift among white college-educated voters toward the party, but also meaningfully large Latino and Asian communities in parts of the region, too. The results also demonstrate how increased diversity in formerly lily-white suburban counties like Cobb and Fayette has changed the politics of such places dramatically.
Warnock’s most impressive showing was in the 11 counties of the Atlanta Regional Commission, which constituted almost half of Georgia’s vote in the 2022 runoff. Warnock won this region by almost 34 points, a 6-point improvement on Biden’s performance. Most of the region’s vote came from four principal counties: DeKalb and Fulton, which contain the city of Atlanta, and Cobb and Gwinnett, which are big suburban counties that sit north of Atlanta. Warnock outperformed Biden’s marks in each county by 5 to 7 points, despite a fair bit of variation in the racial and ethnic makeup of these places: DeKalb and Fulton have majority and plurality Black populations, respectively; Gwinnett’s population is roughly one-third white, one-quarter Black and one-fifth Latino; and Cobb’s population is half white and a quarter Black.
But his improvement over Biden showed up elsewhere in the Atlanta metro area, too. This included strong performances in two fairly different counties just south of the city: Warnock outperformed Biden by 7 points in Clayton County, which is 69 percent Black, but he also outdid Biden by 6 points in Fayette, a majority white and increasingly competitive county next door.
Outside of Atlanta and its environs, Warnock’s improvement over Biden was spottier, but he still tended to do better in counties surrounding other smaller cities in the state, such as Augusta, Columbus, Macon and Savannah, which are also comparatively more urban or suburban than much of the state. For his part, Walker did better than Trump in many places, but as the chart conveys, most of them were rural and less populous, which together couldn’t remotely make up for Walker’s losses in the more populous parts of the state.
The political environment will shift and change before we get to the 2024 election, but these performances show how Democrats can win if they maintain backing from the party base, gain support in increasingly diverse suburbs and campaign even in more rural and whiter places that have moved toward the GOP. It’s of course not all up to Democrats, as Republicans will need to pick stronger statewide candidates who can challenge Democrats’ ability to make inroads among more GOP-leaning constituencies. But at least in 2022, these four Democrats largely retained most of Biden’s coalition and at times added to it, which ensured Democrats continued control of the Senate in the next Congress.