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Midterms 2022: What to watch for ahead of election night

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

We're just two days away from Election Day, though voters have been casting ballots for weeks. Still, this is the final chance candidates have to pitch themselves to voters, hoping to gain any and every advantage going into Tuesday night, including pulling out some political heavyweights. Here to help us understand what to expect going into Tuesday and what maybe not to expect is NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Domenico, thanks for being here.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Adrian, good to be with you.

FLORIDO: It's a busy weekend for the campaigns. Former Presidents Obama and Trump have been on the campaign trail. So has President Joe Biden. They all converged on Pennsylvania yesterday.

MONTANARO: Yeah. This is probably one of the most critical states to the election, if not the most critical state to the election. You know, there are four big Senate races that both sides are kind of watching - Pennsylvania and Georgia on the East Coast and Nevada and Arizona in the West. And the only target there that's a Democratic potential pickup is Pennsylvania, so winning there really shrinks Republicans' path to control of the Senate if Democrats can pick it up. And let's take a listen to some of what we heard and what we've been hearing from these big surrogates in these closing days.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Your right to vote is on the ballot. Social Security and Medicare is on the ballot. There's something else on the ballot - character. Character's on the ballot.

BARACK OBAMA: Truth and facts and logic and reason and basic decency are on the ballot. Democracy itself is on the ballot. The stakes are high.

DONALD TRUMP: I promise you, in the very next, very, very, very short period of time, you're going to be so happy, OK? And one of the reasons I don't want to do that right now - 'cause I'd like to do it - but you know what? - and I really mean this - I want to have the focus tonight be on Dr. Oz and on Doug Mastriano because we have to vote.

MONTANARO: And you heard President Biden and former Presidents Obama and Trump, and Trump alluding very strongly there to a potential 2024 run for the White House once again, which he's been doing for a year or more. But there's a lot of people who are going to point fingers at Trump if Republicans don't pick up Pennsylvania because, you know, appearing with Mastriano and putting him on the same stage or platform with Dr. Oz is potentially problematic for the party because Mastriano is much further behind in his run for the gubernatorial race there and is seen much more as a hard-line candidate.

FLORIDO: President Biden and former President Trump are also very unpopular. Isn't there a risk in some of these congressional candidates campaigning with them?

MONTANARO: Yeah, there certainly is. It's been a bit of a mystery in some respects. And again, Trump's brand is going to be tested because he is widely unpopular with independents and, of course, Democrats. A majority of people in the country, according to polls, say that they have an unfavorable rating of Trump. In fact, in our last survey, though, Trump and Biden had the exact same number, you know, when it came to unfavorable ratings. So it's really going to be a test of both of their brands.

FLORIDO: Domenico, what do we know right now about the electorate - about who's voted so far and about who is leaving their votes on the table?

MONTANARO: We've seen tens of millions of votes already be cast. So we really shouldn't be talking about Tuesday as Election Day but kind of the start of the next phase of election season, perhaps, because we've had quite a bit of activity already - lots of enthusiasm across the board, the levels on all sides really pointing to record midterm turnout. You know, Republicans are slightly more enthusiastic than Democrats are. Democrats have been using abortion rights as a key motivating issue, especially for white women with college degrees and younger voters who say that's their top issue - really hoping to drive them out to the polls. I would be very cautious with - for people to not overread early voting data because Democrats are so heavily voting early, much more so than Republicans.

FLORIDO: And what are the issues that are pushing people to the polls in this final stretch of the campaigns? And have those issues been changing over the course of this cycle?

MONTANARO: Inflation continues to be the top concern for voters across the country - independents, Republicans, of course. And people are saying overwhelmingly that they would trust Republicans to handle inflation more so than Democrats. So that's a really big warning sign for Democrats. Crime is also an issue that's not necessarily the top issue. But for Republicans and independents, it is a key motivating issue. If you were to do sort of second-ranked issues, crime is right up there for them. So, you know, those are the two big issues that we're seeing really motivate voters on the right as Democrats are trying to push abortion rights and preserving democracy, as we heard from former President Obama.

FLORIDO: What are you watching most closely in the final hours of this campaign? And what would you tell people who are wondering whether they're going to be able to go to bed on Tuesday knowing who took control of Congress?

MONTANARO: It's going to be highly unlikely, if not impossible, to know who controls the Senate. I think we've got to be prepared for this to go on for days, if not weeks. That's perfectly within the rules - understandable, legal, all of that - doesn't mean that there's fraud because counting takes a while, especially in close races. The House is a different story - Republicans widely expected to retake control. They only need five seats to do that, and they're favored to do so. We probably won't know the extent or the height of a GOP wave if there is one on election night, especially because there are so many races in the West and in California that take much longer to count. And their polls close 11 p.m. Eastern time. So, you know, this is going to go on a bit, and I think people are just going to have to gird themselves for that.

FLORIDO: Domenico, we mentioned former President Trump, and there have been reports that he could announce another run for president soon. He has been hinting very heavily at that. He's certainly played heavily in these elections. What are you hearing?

MONTANARO: He seems very eager to announce that he's going to run in 2024. Let's take a listen to a little bit of sound of him from that same rally, talking about what the polls are showing for him in a Republican primary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Let's see. There it is - Trump at 71, Ron DeSanctimonious (ph) at 10%, Mike Pence at 7. Oh, Mike's doing better than I thought.

MONTANARO: And if you weren't listening closely, your ears probably perked up when you just heard what Trump said there about Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He called him Ron DeSanctimonious. So already with a new nickname for the person who's widely seen as the biggest threat to Trump to win a potential presidential nomination - so clearly, DeSantis is very much on Trump's mind.

FLORIDO: Midterm voting hasn't even finished, and we're already looking ahead to 2024, it seems. Domenico Montanaro is NPR senior political editor and correspondent. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.