Hopes are growing among Democrats. What if – maybe, just maybe – this year’s midterm elections weren’t so bad for their party after all?
The weight of history, polling numbers and the results of last November’s election all seemed to spell the end of Biden’s party midterm. But in recent months — especially since the Supreme Court ruling Dobbs decision eliminating federal protections of the right to abortion – there has been a change.
Recent special elections have been encouraging for Democrats, most recently with their election of the Alaska House seat. The lead in the generic polls that Republicans had all year disappeared last month, and current polling averages show roughly a tie. And if the Democrats win all of the Senate races where they currently lead in the polls, they will retain control of the chamber (although some of those tracks are quite small and some states haven’t been polled very often).
It is important to keep things in perspective. The polls don’t show a blue wave — instead, they suggest the Democrats are the underdogs to retain the House and the Senate could go either way (FiveThirtyEight’s forecast gives the GOP about a one-in-three chance of winning it). Current indicators now seem to point to close midterm competition rather than a resounding defeat of the type suffered by Donald Trump’s GOP in 2018, Barack Obama’s Democrats in 2014 and 2010, and George W. Bush’s GOP in 2006. .
But is this a real change of political winds – or will the Republicans end up with a solid victory after all?
There are two basic schools of thought about what’s going on here.
One theory is that the improvement for Democrats is real, largely due to an improved media environment for the party, and likely to last. In 2021, the Democratic base was demobilized, Republicans were pushed to vote, and swing voters swung to the GOP. Then the Dobbs The decision and former President Trump’s return to the headlines also energized the Democratic base, while shifting the focus of swing voters back to Republican extremism. Meanwhile, falling gasoline prices have eased some economic fears among voters. So rather than a blowout, it looks like an election where the parties are fairly evenly matched.
The second theory is that it won’t last — either the Democrats’ recent advantage will be fleeting, or it doesn’t exist at all. That is, Republican poll results could improve later, as happened in Virginia and New Jersey in October 2021, due to either typical medium-term trends or d a change in the information environment. Alternatively, the polls could simply be wrong — they could systematically underestimate the strength of the GOP, as happened in 2016 and 2020 (and in some regions in 2018 as well). As for the Democrats’ recent strong special election results, they may not be nationally representative, or they may not be matched in the relatively higher midterms.
The case the Democrats really improved
The story is clear that the president’s party usually does poorly in midterm elections, as I wrote about last year. There are different ways to measure exactly how much – change in House seats, national House voting margin, Senate seats and governorships. But in every metric, losses for the president’s party are common, and big losses are more common than even small gains.
Why does this happen so often? Midterms can be inherently demotivating for many supporters of the incumbent president precisely because he’s not on the ballot – they feel less threatened because they know he’ll still be in office no matter what. or the outcome of mid-terms, and are therefore less motivated to vote. Political scientists have also put forward the “thermostatic” model of public opinion, suggesting that swing voters tend to swing against the ruling party, believing the country has shifted too far left or right.
There were, however, notable mid-term non-eruptions. The 1998 election was held amid a booming economy and unpopular efforts by congressional Republicans to impeach President Bill Clinton, and it was essentially a draw. The 2002 midterm elections were the first since 9/11, President George W. Bush was still very popular, and the GOP did well.
So is there any reason to think that Biden’s Democrats could buck the trend and avoid a crushing midterm defeat – becoming one of those exceptions?
The Dobbs decision, that shattered a legal status quo that had existed for half a century, might just do the trick. The conservative Supreme Court justices’ elimination of federal abortion rights protections is a rare example of a sweeping policy shift that the incumbent president clearly opposes. Millions more Americans faced the possibility that if they or a family member needed an abortion, they might be blocked from getting it by the government. Perhaps he mobilized grassroots Democratic voters who would otherwise shy away from the midterm elections, and convinced swing voters that Republicans have pushed the country too far to the right.
There are other ways the information environment has improved for Democrats. The news of the second half of 2021 and the start of 2022 has been a seemingly endless parade of horrors for them: the resurgence of Covid with new variants, soaring inflation and falling real incomes, the withdrawal messy Afghanistan, a stalled legislative agenda, and the unpopular former President Trump barely makes the headlines.
Over the past few months, things have been different. Covid has receded from headlines and mask mandates have been lifted even in blue zones. Gas prices have come down considerably since the peak of the summer (although inflation may not have stopped yet). Biden and Democrats passed the Cut Inflation Act, a scaled-down bill that nonetheless delivered on some of their campaign promises. And the January 6 hearings and FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago sent Trump and his troubles with the law back to the headlines.
Of course, it’s not all looking rosy — President Joe Biden’s approval rating has improved about 5 points since July, but it’s still below 43%, which is historically pretty low. But as Amy Walter writes in the Cook Political Report, there is one case where this is not the right metric to focus on. Some polls show that a significant portion of Biden disapprovers still dislike Republicans any more and say they plan to vote Democratic in November. Additionally, the post-Trump Democratic coalition, which relies heavily on college-educated voters who are more likely to run, may now be well-optimized for the midterm elections.
The argument is that it all shows in the improved polls of the Democrats and, more tellingly, in the results of the special elections. A Kansas referendum on abortion rights in August resulted in a landslide victory for the pro-choice side. Job-Dobbs Special House elections in Nebraska, Minnesota, New York and Alaska have all shown marked strength for Democrats as well. All of which explains why the midterms may well be something closer to a draw, or a tight, close contest, than a GOP wave.
The case or cases where the Republicans will emerge triumphant
But there are also reasons why the above theory (and current polls) could turn out to be wrong come Election Day.
On the one hand, there could be a late move in favor of the Republicans. So maybe the current polls are accurate enough, but they will change later, and the GOP will gain an advantage in the final weeks of the campaign. The late poll movement is a real phenomenon, as Hillary Clinton could tell you – it led solidly until October, then slumped after James Comey’s infamous announcement that the FBI had reopened the investigation into his emails.
We don’t have to go back too far in time for other examples. In 2021, Terry McAuliffe (D) led Glenn Youngkin (R) in public polls on the Virginia gubernatorial race until the last week of October, when Youngkin took the lead. It’s hard to disentangle why, exactly, Youngkin pounced late. This could have been due to contingent factors (like a McAuliffe campaign gaffe) or broader factors (like a tendency for these elections to crash late against the incumbent president’s party). But it happened. The polls at the end were pretty accurate in Virginia; it’s just that they had changed from where they were even in mid-October.
As mentioned above, Democrats have enjoyed a particularly supportive media environment over the past few months, in stark contrast to how 2021 ended and 2022 began for them. We don’t know what the remaining weeks of the campaign have in store for us, but adverse developments in the economy (such as Tuesday’s worst-than-expected inflation announcement) or on any number of topics could certainly hurt them. In a vacuum, it’s possible a late move could benefit Democrats or Republicans, but the weight of midterm history could be interpreted to suggest it’s more likely to hurt the incumbent president’s party.
Also, much has been written about the ad spend advantage of Democrats in major Senate races so far, but one of the reasons is that Republicans have saved their relatively more limited resources for the later spend on advertising. So it’s possible that once Republicans launch their negative ads, the narrow leads that some Democratic candidates currently have will disappear with a late move.
This is how the polls could change. But they could also be wrong – again.
Nate Cohn of The New York Times raised that possibility on Monday, writing that a “warning sign” is flashing in Senate polls. Specifically, in states where polls significantly underestimated Republicans in 2020 — such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida — polls show the 2022 Democratic candidates doing surprisingly well. It is therefore possible that these polls are mirages.
This happened in the 2016 and 2020 presidential years, but even mid-term in 2018 this issue happened in many states (but not everywhere). Since Trump’s realignment, pollsters have often grappled with the problem of underreporting GOP support. Initially, some speculated that the polls underweight voters without a college education, but the problem persisted despite efforts to correct it.
It is possible that this time will be really different. It’s worth keeping in mind polling problems from the past, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll happen again this year. Still, Democrats have been burned enough by pink polls to warrant some caution. The probability of a red wave may have decreased, but it cannot be counted yet.