2022 midterms

Democrats’ Midterm Comeback Could Be Too Little, Too Late

It could still happen. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Michael Smith/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I entertained the unlikely but very real possibility that Democrats could actually emerge triumphant this fall, becoming the third party of the president since the early New Deal to make general gains in a midterm election. After all, Democrats had experienced a major turn of fortune (and of enthusiasm) thanks to some important legislative victories, a bit of better economic news, and the powerful backlash against the outrageous Supreme Court decision abolishing constitutional abortion rights.

But now is an appropriate time to weigh the evidence suggesting that the Democratic comeback may fall short of its goals — and to consider the consequences if Republicans make the gains nearly everyone expected back in the spring. Because there are currently some straws in the wind that bode ill for Dems.

Republicans have led in new-voter registrations

All those great Democratic voter-registration gains — especially among women — we’ve heard about in reaction to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision are real. Trouble is, net registration gains still favor the GOP, as Politico reports:

Democrats have been on a voter registration tear since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. There’s just one problem for them — they are digging out from under major Republican gains in the previous 18 months.

For most of the two years leading up to the midterm election, Republicans rather than Democrats were making voter registration gains in key states, a POLITICO analysis of state voter data shows — a signal of GOP momentum heading into a classic backlash election against Democratic control of Washington.

It’s also important to remember that registering voters is not the same as turning them out to vote, and Democrats looking at short-term registration gains need to remember Republican-leaning voters are historically more likely to show up at the polls in midterms than their Democratic counterparts.

Republican primary turnout was higher than Democratic primary turnout

As the Washington Post’s David Byler points out, the party whose voters participated more in primary elections has won the past four midterms. Why? Presumably because it is an indicator of superior enthusiasm and thus of likelihood to vote. In other words, voting is the best evidence we have of a voter being willing to turn out again. So it’s worth noting that according to the one estimate we have in hand (by pollster John Couvillon), 52 percent of 2022 primary voters cast ballots in Republican primaries, while 48 percent voted in Democratic primaries.

Arguably, some of that higher participation could be a result of the competitive primaries caused by intraparty Republican divisions (particularly those fed by Trump’s endorsement campaign), which may not bode well for November. But it remains a pro-Republican data point.

Abortion hasn’t really replaced inflation and crime as a top voter concern

Democrats are encouraged by the fact that abortion policy — an issue on which they have about a two-to-one advantage over Republicans, with arguably an even greater advantage in terms of enthusiasm to do something about it by voting — had been regularly moving up the list of important voter concerns, previously dominated by inflation, general economic problems, and crime.

That is indeed good for Democratic candidates in November, but let’s don’t get carried away with it: Issues favoring Republicans are still quite salient. A September 2022 NBC News poll bluntly asked voters whether a candidate’s position on “dealing with the cost of living” or on “the abortion issue” would most affect their choice. “Cost of living” was deemed more important by a 59-37 margin. And in rankings of the most important issue, NBC found that crime barely trails abortion as a voter concern (both ranking well below “jobs and the economy” and “cost of living”). The poll gave Republicans a 23-point advantage on crime and a 19-point advantage on the economy. Democrats do have a 22-point advantage on abortion policy, but it’s all in the mix.

Republicans are holding their own in polls of likely midterm results

There is a natural tendency for partisans to cherry-pick the polls that look good for their candidates and ignore or discount less positive data, which is why polling averages are typically more reliable. In the RealClearPolitics averages at present, Republican candidates lead in Senate races in Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin and are tied for the lead in Georgia. They also lead in gubernatorial contests in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, and Ohio.

If you consider the polls from the outlets that were most accurate in 2020, the mixed prospects for the GOP look even better. Of the pollsters doing abundant 2022 public-survey work, Trafalgar Group was the most accurate in 2020 per FiveThirtyEight. Yes, Trafalgar has a well-deserved reputation for serving up results that please Republicans. But what if they are as right this year as they were two years ago? They show a lot of the GOP candidates already written off by most analysts as being still viable. Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters? Down by just two points, according to Trafalgar Group. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania? Ditto. The wildly extremist Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastrioni? Him too. All three of these alleged “losers” are within the margin of error in Trafalgar Group polls, which also show half-forgotten Minnesota Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Jensen within three points of incumbent Tim Walz, left-for-dead Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon within four points of incumbent Gretchen Whitmer, and little-discussed Colorado Republican Senate candidate Joe O’Dea within five points of incumbent Michael Bennett.

Oh … and Trafalgar Group also shows Republicans with a six-point advantage in the generic congressional ballot.

If Trafalgar is again quite accurate and particularly if it turns out to be a bad year for incumbents, look out!

Joe Biden is still an unpopular president

There’s no question Joe Biden’s job-approval rating has been steadily improving since it hit rock bottom in July. But he’s still not popular. His approval-to-disapproval ratio is currently at 42 to 53 at RealClearPolitics and at 43 to 53 at FiveThirtyEight. The two presidents since 1934 whose parties made midterm gains both had job approval ratings in the 60s. And there are signs that those disapproving of Biden’s job performance do so with greater intensity. The aforementioned recent NBC News survey gave Biden a relatively robust 45-to-52 job approval ratio. But only 19 percent of voters “strongly approved” of the job Biden is doing, while 43 percent “strongly disapproved.

The Consequences of a Republican win remain dire

Lest we forget, Republicans need a net gain of only five House seats to flip that chamber and kill off the Democratic governing trifecta that has made some legislative progress possible since January of 2021. And if Republicans defy the current odds to flip the Senate, you can forget about easy confirmation of Biden executive and judicial appointments. Republican election deniers like Kari Lake of Arizona, Tudor Dixon of Michigan, Adam Laxalt of Nevada, and Doug Mastriano of Pennsylvania squatting in battleground states in 2024 could be disastrous for democracy, not just for Democrats. And precisely because early excitement about a Republican “wave election” in 2022 has subsided to a murmur, if the GOP does a lot better than expected in November, the excitement could flare back up to a dangerous extent, particularly if candidates boosted by Donald Trump pull off a few key upsets.

Democrats really do need to kick out the jams in the time remaining to them before voters vote. Perhaps they are on the brink of making history with midterm gains. But these are chickens best left uncounted before they have hatched.

Democrats’ Midterm Comeback Could Be Too Little, Too Late