If it seems like Joe Biden is in a big hurry to get things done, there’s a very clear reason, aside from the poor shape in which his predecessor left the country. His party has a five-seat majority in the House and only controls the Senate by the tie-breaking vote of Vice-President Kamala Harris. The odds of Democrats maintaining a trifecta after November 8, 2022, are not good. In the last century, there have been 25 midterm elections. The president’s party lost House seats in 22 of them (the exceptions were in 1934, the very beginning of the New Deal; in 1998, when Republicans were trying to impeach Bill Clinton; and in 2002, the first election after 9/11). The Senate is a bit iffier, thanks to the variability of the landscape in any given election. But even there, the president’s party has lost seats in 20 of 25 elections.
The reason for these midterm blues for the president’s party are obvious enough. There’s a natural cooling-off period of affection for the party lifted to executive power, with all the afflictions and disappointments over the direction of the country becoming attached to the people controlling the White House.
Midterms when the president’s party holds a governing trifecta (controlling the White House and both Houses of Congress) have been especially difficult; in the last century, no party in that circumstance has gained House seats, and only two gained Senate seats (under JFK in 1962, and believe it or not, Trump in 2018). There’s a strong consensus among political scientists that midterms typically serve as a referendum on the incumbent president and his record. Since World War II, presidents with a Gallup job-approval rating under 50 percent going into the midterms (Truman in 1946, Truman in 1950, Johnson in 1966, Carter in 1978, Reagan in 1982, Clinton in 1994, Obama in 2010, Obama in 2014, and Trump in 2018) have lost an average of 37 House seats. Biden’s job-approval-rating average at FiveThirtyEight right now is 53.2 percent, which is pretty low for a newly elected president (albeit better than Trump’s at any point in his presidency).
Adding to the obstacles facing Democrats in hanging on to the House in 2022 is the decennial redistricting just ahead, in which Republicans have a clear advantage. As David Wasserman put it recently: “[Republicans] could gain all six seats they need for House control from reapportionment and redistricting alone.”
It’s possible, of course, that the COVID-19 pandemic is an event like the Great Depression or 9/11, one that scrambles all normal political expectations. If the Biden administration confidently leads the country to a public-health and economic recovery, a referendum on the first two years of the presidency could turn out well. But there’s another possibility, too, that Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter describes:
Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere. Unlike previous presidents — especially those who lost re-election, he isn’t interested in retreating from public view. He — and those who support his brand of politics — are going to play a much more significant role than we’ve seen in modern times …
Democrats [may] want to make Trump the centerpiece of their midterm strategy. Do they want to keep up the pressure on Republicans to answer for the events on January 6th or for its most controversial members like freshman firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene? Or, once the impeachment trial is finished, will they try to put Trump — and those attacks — in the rearview mirror?
In other words, Trump’s unique character and his continued domination of the GOP could make 2022 at least in part a referendum on him rather than Biden, particularly if the 45th president tries to make the midterms a vindication of his thwarted 2020 campaign. Indeed, this could be the silver lining for Democrats of an impeachment trial expected to acquit Trump and leave him eligible to run for president again. If the Senate doesn’t kill a 2024 Trump comeback, some voters might feel compelled to do so in 2022. And that could provide Biden’s party with a crucial margin of victory.