2022 midterms

Are Democrats Turning Around Their Dire Midterm Prospects?

Maybe not the disaster Democrats have feared? Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

All of a sudden, Democrats who have been depressed or even panicked about their prospects of surviving the 2022 midterm elections without a major shellacking are having second, happier thoughts. There are a number of reasons for the sudden spring in the party’s step. The big psychological boost has been the zombie reappearance of a FY 2022 budget-reconciliation bill (now optimistically dubbed the Inflation Reduction Act) that includes swing-voter-pleasing Medicare prescription-drug negotiation powers along with base-voter-gratifying climate-change provisions. My colleague Jonathan Chait reflected the views of many left-of-center observers when he said the deal brokered by Chuck Schumer and Joe Manchin could mean “the once-moribund Biden presidency will suddenly be very alive.”

Other encouraging indicators are less subjective. The generic congressional ballot, a polling question simply asking voters which party they want to control Congress, and the most predictive data point for actual midterm results in the past, is now showing a modest Republican lead all but disappearing (the GOP lead is at 0.2 percent in the FiveThirtyEight averages and 0.9 percent at RealClearPolitics). There’s even been a very recent slight upward bounce in Joe Biden’s job-approval rating, which has been sinking slowly but inexorably throughout 2022.

Meta-trends aside, there are developments in individual midterm contests that together suggest a better trajectory for Democrats than appeared likely in the very recent past. U.S. House wizard David Wasserman has clearly seen the signs:

And in Senate races, it’s been clear for a good while that problematic Republican nominees are giving Democrats a shot at seats that should be out of their reach in a Republican wave election. There’s a litany of regular bad news for some of these candidates, particularly those who won primaries thanks to the backing of Donald Trump. J.D. Vance is an incompetent fundraiser. Herschel Walker can’t string together two coherent sentences. Mehmet Oz has disappeared. Blake Masters (who is favored to win Arizona’s Senate nomination on August 2) is a creepy dude who gives off a fascist vibe and may be dumb enough to attack Social Security in a senior-heavy state. FiveThirtyEight is now giving Democrats 56 percent odds of hanging onto control of the Senate. And though there has been less national attention given to gubernatorial races, Republicans have some dubious candidates for those offices too, notably Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano and (if she wins on August 2, as she is now favored to do) Arizona’s Kari Lake.

The big imponderable, though, is whether the current moment of sunshine for Democrats can last. Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter looks at some history and concludes that Joe Biden’s popularity needs to improve significantly to give his party’s candidates the requisite lift:

Robert Blizzard, a partner at the GOP polling firm POS, did some number crunching of his own this week of the 2010, 2014 and 2018 midterms and concluded that “on average, running 5-6 points ahead of Biden is fair game, but more than that is very unlikely.” 

There has been a feeling this year, though, that Biden’s job-approval numbers have been weighed down by disappointed Democratic voters (particularly young voters) who aren’t going to vote Republican in any foreseeable scenario. The problem, though, is getting them to vote, particularly given the historic “midterm falloff” problem wherein Democratic-leaning segments of the electorate tend to under-participate in non-presidential elections regardless of what else is going on. And that’s why Democratic prospects for November may depend on a changed issue profile that gives the party base — particularly young voters and progressive women — supercharged motivation to turn out even if they’re still less than enthused about the 46th president. The two game-changers, in that scenario, are a strong backlash against the Republican drive to kill abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision reversing Roe v. Wade, and the reemergence of Donald Trump as a symbol of his party and a putative 2024 presidential nominee, which for some voters could make the midterms less of a referendum on Biden than a renewal of the choice they made in 2020.

It is, however, extremely difficult to calculate how all these factors intersect and weigh against each other, particularly without knowing what the many news cycles between now and November 8 will place into the consciousness of voters. (Or even later: It’s possible that control of the Senate will again depend on a general-election runoff in Georgia, though the Republican legislature did move the date of such an event up from January to December.) Democrats hope that both the reconciliation bill and the abortion/Trump factors will boost “base” turnout significantly. But what they most need is better news on the economic front. The current downward drift in gasoline prices is helpful, but we don’t know if it will last, or if other prices will come down before voting decisions are made.

Democrats should beware any premature positive conclusions. In past midterms the generic congressional ballot has moved strongly against the party controlling the White House late in the cycle. And those with long memories will agree with this assessment:

The 2014 election, the midterm most often compared to the one just ahead, was a case in point. The final Cook Political Report analysis of Senate races that year showed nine tossup contests. Republicans won eight of them. Maybe 2022 will be different. But Democrats would be wise to make their own good luck.

Are Democrats Turning Around Their Dire Midterm Prospects?