With just 11 weeks until Election Day, Democrats are trying to defy two close-to-ironclad rules of electoral politics: Parties that hold the presidency almost always perform poorly in the midterms, and their performance tracks fairly closely with the president’s approval rating. But while President Biden remains unpopular, a confluence of factors has put Democrats in a significantly better position than expected. Can it last? I spoke with Amy Walter, the publisher and editor-in-chief of the venerable Cook Political Report, to try to divine the answer.
Electorally speaking, everything suddenly seems to be breaking Democrats’ way. Among other developments: Gas prices are plummeting; inflation is coming down, albeit slowly; the party finally passed very significant parts of its agenda; and the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade seems to be galvanizing voters in Kansas and elsewhere. You’ve got all these Senate polls from key states that are very encouraging for Democrats, and last week, Mitch McConnell said “candidate quality” may prevent Republicans from gaining the one seat they need to retake the chamber. Do you agree with his assessment right now?
There is definitely a shift both in mood and momentum. I think a lot of us who do this for a living are trying to understand what’s really behind that. I think there are a number of factors. The first is where the media focus has been for about the last four to six weeks, especially compared to where it was a year ago at this time. A year ago, what were we talking about? We were talking about the withdrawal in Afghanistan and all the problems that ensued. We were talking about the rise of inflation. We were talking about the fact that the administration was struggling to get ahold of the new Delta variant. You had all of those things in the media Zeitgeist.
What have we talked about for most of this summer? The January 6th hearings. We’ve been talking and hearing a lot about the overturning of Roe v. Wade and what’s next on abortion access. We’ve been talking a lot about Donald Trump — and not just with the FBI Mar-a-Lago situation but the candidates he’s been endorsing and the folks running on platforms that rely heavily on election denial. I think this is one big reason for the shift we’re seeing. Instead of territory that’s very problematic for Democrats, we’re now on terrain that’s very problematic for Republicans. So then I get to the next piece, which is, Are Americans actually feeling better, and feeling better about the Democrats? I wrote about that, but it’s a little muddled.
You wrote that the fundamentals haven’t changed all that much.
Right. The president’s not much more popular than before. The economy is better, but it’s still not great. Are people more optimistic? What I’m really going to be watching for in these next couple of months is not whether voters think the economy has suddenly recovered or that everything’s awesome but whether Americans are more optimistic. I think it helps Democrats if there’s a sense that things are at least headed in the right direction and that they have something to sell to voters — to say, “We’re actually doing something. We’re taking this seriously. We’re focused on the things that people care about.”
At the end of 2021 and into much of 2022, if you looked at polling — Navigator polling specifically because they do this in a really smart way — people would be asked, “What do you think Congress and Democrats should be focused on?” And then “What do you think they’re focused on?” There’s been this big disconnect where voters are like, “Well, what we’d really like for them to do is deal with inflation or the economy.” And they say instead, “Well, they’re doing COVID, or they’re doing voting rights, but they’re not really focused on the stuff that matters to me.”
It seems smart, then, that Democrats named this huge bill the Inflation Reduction Act when it actually has very little to do with inflation.
Correct. It was interesting. We’ve got to be careful not to extrapolate too much, but what I thought was interesting when I listened to voters in one focus group — these are white men who either had voted for Trump in 2016 but voted Biden in 2020 or they voted for Trump but were like, Ugh, I’m not a real big fan of his — it was interesting to listen to them because it seemed as if they were agreeing that Democrats seemed to be at least doing something. One guy said, “Well, at least they don’t look like they’re sitting on their hands and saying, ‘Not our problem.’” I think that’s been very helpful to Democrats. But the question going forward is, Is it enough? Do voters need to actually believe that, because Democrats are now passing legislation called the Inflation Reduction Act, they’ve now turned the ship around? Or do they believe that Democrats are still not as good as Republicans at handling these issues?
Biden’s approval rating is in the low 40s right now, which is an improvement but also around where Trump’s was at this time in 2018. How long can the party outpace those fundamentals with a presidential rating that bad?
That’s what everybody’s scratching their head about. I think Senate Democrats have done a good job of spending these months building up their profile, and they’ve spent a whole lot of money building a positive story, a positive image for themselves. So many of them have spent millions and millions of dollars already on television. Mark Kelly, I think, is a prime example of that. So if, at the end of November or whatever, after Election Day, we come back and we say, “Wow, how did Democrats hold the Senate?” I think we’ll look to the following: One, candidate quality. Two, the ability for Democrats to define themselves outside of Biden by spending a lot of money early on and building their profile. And three, Biden improving and the economy improving just enough that those candidates can rise above what would be a big shackle around them.
Going to your original question about the Republican candidates, I do think it’s a real problem. Because what so many voters have seen from Republican Senate candidates is a focus on things that are really important to Republican base voters. Do you have Trump’s endorsement? Do you think that America’s too woke? Do you think that the transgender kids shouldn’t play sports? Whatever it is.
Culture-war stuff, with Trump at the center of it all, instead of really tackling the major issue here, which is, Do you think Democrats are doing a good job on the fundamental issues in this country? We know Republicans are going to reestablish that argument post–Labor Day, but will it be too late? And are there other problems, other baggage, that makes it harder for them to be seen as credible? If Republicans had nominated candidates who were less controversial, had less baggage, were stronger just in terms of the quality of their profile, would they be doing better?
The Senate is in play, but most people have treated it as pretty much a foregone conclusion that Republicans will win the five seats needed to retake the House. However, FiveThirtyEight now rates Democrats as having about a one-in-five chance of keeping it. That would be a true shocker with few precursors. Do you actually see a universe where it happens?
We have readjusted our range for Republican pickup downward. We’re seeing that the red wave does not look as big today as it did a few months back. We were talking about somewhere in the range of 25 to 30 or 35 seats. Now it’s 15 to 20-something seats as the range. So we’re paring down the expectations. But the House is a different beast than the Senate. With the amount of money going into Senate races now, they’re almost mini-presidential campaigns in every state. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.
They’re so nationalized now in a way that they weren’t even a few years ago.
Exactly. That’s what makes this really fascinating. We have a country that is as polarized as ever and fewer and fewer people flipping their allegiance or splitting their tickets. In some ways, that should mean that the party out of power benefits, the theory being it’s less about persuasion and it’s more about turnout. But I think what’s been clear even before the Roe decision, though I think the Roe decision definitely pumped this up, is that we’re not seeing the drop-off that we may traditionally see in midterm elections for the party in power. The intensity is usually on the out-party’s side. I just don’t think that’s going to be there this time.
It reminds me of what we saw in 2018. Democrats did well that year — especially on the House side — not necessarily because they turned out at levels that were so much higher than Republicans. They had better turnout, for sure. But what they also did was win over independent voters by double digits. That’s the other thing to watch as we go into this next 80 days. It’s not so much just whether Democrats are going to turn out their voters because they’re all fired up. It’s about independent voters. That’s going to come into focus, I think, once we get into September.
Yeah, in the post-2016 world, we’re living suddenly in a universe of high turnout all the time even for off-year elections. In the 2014 midterms, Democrats were completely unenthusiastic, and Republicans rode their wave of Obama disapproval. It’s hard to imagine that happening again in our current climate.
Both sides are really turning out. What makes for a 2014-like scenario — or maybe even, if you go back in time to the quote-unquote “olden days,” the pre-2008 era — is depressed turnout. Two thousand six, I think, was a really good example of this.
With everybody turning out, it’s hard to win in a red state if you’re a Democrat. It’s hard to win in a blue state if you’re a Republican. You win in those purple places. Part of the way you win in the purple places is you get your side out, they get their side out, but you get those not-as-attached partisans — we can call them soft partisans or independents — to come to your side. Again, if you look just at the fundamentals, you’d say, “Well, what are those folks going to be interested in?” Where are they in terms of the way they are thinking about this upcoming election? Who do they think is going to handle the economy better? Who do they think is going to help focus on the issues that matter to them, their day-to-day concerns? On those issues, Republicans have continued to have a pretty significant advantage with independent voters. But those voters are also probably feeling somewhat cross-pressured when they see Roe v. Wade being overturned and they think Republicans are more interested in fighting the ghosts of 2020 than for me.
As a polling obsessive, I’ve learned to be wary of some of these surveys, particularly in certain states — like in Wisconsin, where we have polls showing Mandela Barnes beating Ron Johnson. In 2016 and 2010, Johnson was supposed to be totally dead in the water according to polling. Then he won easily. We’ve seen that pattern repeat a lot in recent years in states, particularly in the Midwest but not only there: North Carolina, Florida, Maine. Then you have other states where polls have been dead on, like Georgia. As a forecaster, how do you account for these enormous misses?
You have to have a healthy dose of … I don’t know if skepticism is the right word, but you just have to be realistic. I think I am doing a couple of things. One is that I am not taking each and every poll and saying, “Well, that’s absolutely wrong” or “That’s absolutely right.” I’m marrying it with other things we’re seeing and appreciating and understanding about what is going on in that state beyond the individual race. Again, we’re all scratching our heads on this. It’s not just that those polls have been off; it’s that in every one of those polls, we see that the Democratic Senate candidate is ahead of Biden and is ahead of, in many cases, a Democrat running for governor. I go, Hmmm.
I’m looking at the president’s approval rating as a key indicator, not the only indicator. I do think you’re right that we do have to be cautious not to be so attached to each and every one of these polls. I’m trying to do a couple of things. One, just see where the mood is in that state overall. That’s the qualitative work with focus groups and others, trying to get at what people are grappling with. And then trying to just be sure we’re really appreciating the underlying dynamics in these races that go beyond the head-to-head numbers.
Back in ancient history, a few weeks ago, Democrats were struggling so badly that some officials were openly hoping Donald Trump would announce a reelection campaign before the midterms to boost turnout. That was the party’s last best hope. But now that things have turned around, to what extent does Trump’s ubiquity in the news — which would obviously go into overdrive if he declared his candidacy — affect midterm races?
I think it’s definitely affected things in that it has turned the midterms away from just a pure referendum on Biden into a choice between two unpopular politicians. That is certainly a better situation if you’re in a state that is purple and a Democrat. It’s a great situation in a state that’s blue and that went for Biden by bigger numbers. Virginia gave us a great road map here. I think part of why the Terry McAuliffe “hair on fire about Donald Trump” didn’t work in Virginia is that it seemed just out of nowhere. He was just crying wolf. It’s not as much of a cry at this moment. But you’re not going to see Democrats put Donald Trump in their ads — that’s not how this is going to work. And much like in 2018, you don’t see candidates talking about Donald Trump. Voters are very well aware.
He’s ambient. He’s in the atmosphere.
He’s ambient. That’s a good way to say that. So if what you’re hearing from voters isn’t, “Oh my gosh, I’m so frustrated about how terrible the Biden administration’s doing. Why aren’t they fixing the economy? Why did Biden screw up Afghanistan? How come Democrats can’t get their act together in Congress?” Instead of that coming out of voters’ mouths, what it is now is more like “Gosh, things are still pretty messy. I hate that we’re still so divided.” You hear things like that. They’re more upset at the political system than at one political party. That’s a much better place to be if you are the party that’s completely in charge than where we were two months ago.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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