early and often

Is the Midterm Republican Wave Back On?

Elephants are feeling bullish again. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer. Photo: Getty Images

After quite the back-and-forth during the spring and summer months, the consensus among pollsters and political experts seems to be that the 2022 midterms will indeed be a Republican “wave election.” The New York Times says so. CNN’s Harry Enten says so. The Financial Times says so. And the betting markets say so. But are the GOP’s November prospects actually looking up again, and if so, why?

First, it’s important to note that this forecast shift isn’t just a matter of punditry. The most important poll reflecting midterm voting intentions, the generic congressional ballot, has definitely moved recently. For two weeks in September, Democrats led in the RealClearPolitics polling averages for the generic ballot. On September 26, Republicans regained the lead they’d held for most of this year, and they’re now ahead by 1.8 percent (but by 4 percent in the latest New York Times–Siena poll).

Second, when people talk about midterm outcomes, they may be focusing on the House or the Senate, and the two metrics of victory are not necessarily related. Thanks to the peculiarities of the Senate landscape in any one cycle (only one-third of Senate seats are at stake as opposed to every House seat), and to the greater susceptibility of Senate races to candidate strengths and weaknesses, it’s entirely possible for the parties to post a split decision in midterm elections. In 2018, for example, Republicans gained two net Senate seats, even though they lost the national House popular vote by 8.6 percent and lost 41 net House seats.

And third, there’s a pretty big dog that hasn’t really barked: Neither party seems to have shown a significant overall advantage in funding their campaigns or targeting their expenditures intelligently.

But in both House and Senate races, the current feeling is that Republicans are making gains, which reinforces a general sentiment that the GOP should be able to build on its lead in the final three weeks of the campaign cycle. Let’s sort through the reasons people think Republicans have turned around their midterms’ prospects.

Likely voter screens help Republicans.

One theory that may be a bit out-of-date is that once polls “switch over” from registered voters to likely voters (usually in early September), Republicans will post gains, because they have a built-in turnout advantage in midterm elections. Older, whiter voters are more likely to vote in non-presidential elections than younger, POC voters are.

These days, many pollsters deploy likely voter “screens” all the time, so there is no “switchover.” And the voting coalitions of both parties have shifted a bit in recent years — with “high propensity to vote” college-educated white voters tilting Democratic and “lower propensity to vote” noncollege-educated white and Latinx voters trending Republican. The impressive youth turnout in 2018 and 2020 has scrambled much of the conventional wisdom about the midterm electorate. In any event, the “switchover” is mostly done.

The president’s party loses ground as the midterm vote nears.

This supposition is based on selective memories of past midterms. In 2010 and 2018, the president’s party indeed lost ground as the election season matured. But that didn’t happen in 2014, and it emphatically didn’t happen in 1998 and 2002, the midterms in which the president’s party won in late-breaking upsets.

It is worth noting that the steady improvement in Joe Biden’s job-approval ratings from July to September has slowed down. But that’s not because of some iron rule of midterm elections.

Polls always underestimate Republican voting.

Another common argument for inflating GOP expectations is the theory that pollsters generally underestimate (or fail to reach) Republican voters — particularly in the Trump era. This is gospel truth for the pollsters at Trafalgar Group, which in most 2022 contests is showing better numbers for GOP candidates than the polling averages. And perhaps if the results skew Republican, as they did in 2016 or 2020, we can all agree on that hypothesis.

Trouble is, this did not happen in the last midterm election, in 2018, when Donald Trump was in the White House. So aside from the adjustments many pollsters have made to reverse past underestimation of noncollege-educated white voters, and the fact that Trump is not on the ballot this year, it remains a hypothesis rather than an established fact.

Republicans are just more enthusiastic than Democrats.

You heard this argument a lot during the spring and early summer, when absolutely nothing seemed to be going right for Democrats. But after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision raised the stakes for many abortion-rights supporters, then the Democratic Congress produced some actually significant legislation, then gasoline prices dropped, you stopped hearing about the “enthusiasm gap.” And in part because increased voter registration tends to mean increased voting, the best early estimates are that in November, we will see the second straight high-turnout midterm election. Republicans may still win but not necessarily because of favorable turnout patterns.

Economic trends are moving the issue landscape back toward the GOP.

I’ve called into question four concepts favoring a late Republican trend in 2022, but there’s one really big argument for a renewed “wave” that does make sense: economic reality.

I’m not one of those political observers who believes it’s always “the economy, stupid” that matters most. Indeed, you can make a very strong argument that cultural issues have mattered most in recent elections. But we are in an unusual economic juncture at present with a once-in-a-generation rate of inflation and terrible stock-market trends now compounded by recession fears. If the country isn’t yet in a “stagflation” crisis, it is certainly in the shadow of one. And with early voting underway, time is running out for any sunny new trend that dispels the economic jitters.

That doesn’t mean public concerns about abortion policy or GOP extremism have gone away. But Republican candidates have managed to downplay, fudge, or flat-out reverse their very unpopular positions on abortion in many campaigns. And while Trump and his election denial are still powerful factors in the GOP, the ex-president himself has managed to keep a lower profile than many expected (he has not, for example, officially announced a 2024 presidential candidacy).

If a souring and even scary economy becomes more dominant in the news during the last three weeks of the campaign, Republicans are likely to get all the breaks and win some close elections. That’s not because Republican economic policies make more sense to voters than Democratic economic policies. It’s because voters tend to react when they fear they can’t make ends meet, won’t be able to borrow money to make up for lost purchasing power, and may lose their jobs. It takes a lot of luck for the party controlling the White House (not to mention Congress) to do well in any midterm. Democrats may be running out of luck on the economic front at the worst possible time.

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Is the Midterm Republican Wave Back On?