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The day young voters lined up to keep the American republic for 2 more years

As pundits and pollsters were getting it wrong, young Americans lined up to defend their rights and defeat the Big Lie on a historic night.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling center in the South Valley area of Albuquerque, N.M., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.
Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at a polling center in the South Valley area of Albuquerque, N.M., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022.Read moreAndres Leighton / AP

What a difference a day makes: 24 little hours. As the darkness descended across America on Tuesday, editors at the New York Times locked in their doom-for-Democrats front page while 3,000 miles west in Arizona, the extremist femme fatale Kari Lake was boasting to reporters that “I’m going to be your worst frickin’ nightmare” as Arizona’s next governor. Inside the Beltway, the pundits who’d issued a political tsunami watch gazed out on the waters with their binoculars, waiting for a “red wave” to roll ashore.

Hardly anyone was paying attention to what was happening on college campuses from Tempe, Ariz., to Champaign, Ill., where teens and 20-somethings stood and waited for hours to cast their ballots in the 2022 midterms, patiently scrolling through their iPhones or even sneaking in some homework. At the University of Michigan, in a state where abortion rights were on the ballot through both a referendum and a pro-choice governor, hundreds of students — some draped in blankets as the mercury plunged — stood on a line for two to three hours to cast their ballot. It was a new twist on the save-America battle cry of “Wolverines!” from the 1984 movie Red Dawn.

“I was voting based on women’s rights in terms of candidates who were supporting women’s choice,” said Lauren Snyder, who endured Tuesday’s massive line at the University of Illinois. She added: “It’s important — as a student — as a young person to come out and vote for issues that I care about.”

As bright sunshine broke across America on Wednesday morning, the outlines of an epic and truly historic election were starting to come into clear focus. If democracy was on the ballot in 2022, as President Joe Biden and so many others had warned, then it was young Americans — especially those under 30, including women like Snyder — who just saved it. Shocked into action by the loss of their reproductive rights and repulsed by candidates who threatened not to count their votes going forward, Millennials and Gen Z put down their books (or their beers) to make sure any “red wave” was subsumed by the deep blue sea.

Here’s the situation, less than 12 hours after the nation’s last polling place closed: Control of Congress is very much up in the air, defying predictions that Republicans were on track for double-digit gains in the House and possibly tipping the currently 50-50 Senate. The situation remains fluid but it looks as if Democrats could have 50 or even 51 Senate seats; network projections show the GOP with maybe a five- to seven-seat House majority, but that could be undone by late vote-counting out West. Scores of Republican election deniers fell Tuesday, led by a landslide defeat for Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano. Arizona’s gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake is currently behind in that state’s slow count — meaning future harassment of the press may have to come in a cranky letter to the editor, not from the governor’s mansion.

We got here through a Democratic surge among voters under age 45, but especially in the 18-to-29 bracket, and a female electorate that was clearly energized by the Supreme Court’s reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision that had guaranteed abortion rights for nearly a half century. That was especially true here in Pennsylvania, where a preliminary CBS exit poll showed the No. 1 voter concern was not inflation, as experts predicted, but abortion rights, cited by 36%. CNN’s national exit poll showed the GOP won over-45 voters, while Democrats, who narrowly won the 30-to-44 bracket, gained from a whopping 28% win among voters aged 18 to 29.

“I think young people realize that this election cycle is so much about the issues,” Victor Shi of the group Voters of Tomorrow presciently told the radio host Dean Obeidallah shortly before the election. “Because the other side, Republicans, really have no issue that they can offer young people in terms of how they’re going to support our lives and how they’re going to improve it.”

The determination of young voters to be counted in 2022 clearly flummoxed a political establishment and a punditry that looked like a cadre of baffled generals fighting the last wars. Certainly in the past, midterm elections have tended to be disastrous for the party in the White House, especially with exacerbating factors like high inflation. The New York Times, in particular, struggled to turn the “Dems-in-disarray” battleship around, finally landing on a front page that read “GOP GAINS EDGE, BUT ITS EXPECTATIONS DIM.” Not quite “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN,” but not great. Remember, Politico had commissioned a poll that picked up the late Democratic surge on the congressional ballot, but dismissed it as “an outlier.”

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t an outlier.

One reason that the TV talking heads got it so wrong may have been a misunderstanding of voter attitudes around a critical issue in 2022: inflation. Polls this fall had shown that high prices at the gas pump and in the supermarket aisle were the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds. But GOP candidates never offered a coherent policy to fight inflation, and some folks mad about high prices saw Democrats as the better party to deal with them.

“The president is doing what he could,” retired steelworker Helysel Gonzalez, 55, of Northeast Philadelphia, told my Inquirer colleagues as he voted Tuesday. “You can’t blame him — companies are making big profits. Oil, gas, they make so much money.” Likewise, retired Philadelphia nurse Diana Santiago complained to a reporter that “everything is so expensive now” — before pulling the lever for Democrats who she thought had a better plan.

» READ MORE: What Supreme Court leak confirmed: This is no longer the America we grew up in

Abortion rights proved different, as a hot-button issue that clearly helped the Democrats. Arguably, the battle for Pennsylvania that resulted in victories for Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro and Sen.-elect John Fetterman was not won on Election Day but over the summer, when women began registering to vote in the Keystone State at higher rates than men, and in a 4-1 ratio for the Democratic Party. The aftermath of the Supreme Court’s undoing abortion rights provided an enthusiasm edge that GOP nominee Mehmet Oz proved unable to overcome, even after he and his dark-money allies spent millions of dollars on a fear-mongering campaign around crime.

To be sure, there were a couple of notable wins for Republicans nationwide — none more so than the landslide victory for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In particular, DeSantis’ success in wooing Latino voters — not just Cuban Americans, who have a long history of supporting Republicans, but non-Cuban voters, who had gone for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in recent elections — could offer a national road map for his party to win the Hispanic working class in 2024. Clearly, DeSantis’ good night has him hoping he will be that 2024 White House candidate.

But nationally, the abortion-ruling anger allowed the Democrats to reassemble the same coalition that narrowly elected Biden in 2020. The young voters and supposedly apathetic or overworked urban and suburban dwellers whom the experts expected to stay home for a midterm election instead showed up. Indeed, the over-the-top Christian nationalism of a Mastriano or the election denial of candidates like Arizona’s Lake — or scores of others like her — made it feel as if Trump was still on the ballot.

Trump clearly had the worst night of anyone who was not an active candidate. A number of candidates who rose with his endorsement — most notably Oz and Mastriano here in Pennsylvania, Arizona’s Lake, or Herschel Walker in the Georgia Senate race — either lost or were trailing in early returns. As the fortunes of DeSantis — or “Ron DeSanctimonious” as an increasingly jealous Trump called him — rise, and as Trump’s tarnished star continues to fall, prosecutors probing his 2020 election tampering and his attempted Jan. 6, 2021, coup are sure to notice. Suddenly, it looks more likely that Trump will wake up on Jan. 21, 2025, in a prison cell than in the White House.

Instead, it’s the most-often underestimated U.S. politician of the last half-century — Joe Biden — who yet again has surprised Americans on the upside. His recent moves to cancel an estimated $400 to $500 billion of student debt, and his legislative wins on climate change and gun safety, are looking better and better in light of the energized youth turnout. Most pundits dismissed Biden’s last-minute pitch for voters to save democracy as underwhelming. But it turns out that millions of everyday people were listening.

That fight for democracy is far from over, but now the forecast for 2024 suddenly looks a lot better — with Big Lie election believers denied influence over that election in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Congress — even if the GOP’s Kevin McCarthy becomes House speaker — apparently won’t have the votes to impeach Biden, end Ukraine aid, or provoke a debt crisis.

The flame of the American Experiment was not extinguished in the 2022 midterms. Instead, the torch was passed to a new generation.