Opinion

Can Democrats Avoid a Midterm Wipeout?

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It is one of the most enduring trends in American politics that the president’s party tends to fare poorly during midterm elections. And in 2022, that trend was supposed to reassert itself with a vengeance: As inflation climbs at its fastest pace in four decades, Joe Biden’s approval rating has plunged to the lowest of any elected president at this point in his presidency since the end of World War II, according to FiveThirtyEight.

But despite those grim conditions, the midterms could be surprisingly competitive: In a July poll conducted by The New York Times and Siena College, 41 percent of registered voters said they preferred Democrats to control Congress, compared with 40 percent who preferred Republicans.

Here’s what people are saying about the state of the races, whether Democrats stand a chance of keeping one or both of their majorities in Congress, and what could change the forecast between now and November.

Why the races look closer than expected

If the Times/Siena polling made one thing clear, it’s that voters are not pleased with the way the country is being run. Even as the unemployment rate hovers around a 50-year low, Americans are deeply anxious about the economy: Just 10 percent of registered voters rated it as “good” or “excellent.” More broadly, political malaise seems the order of the day: A majority of respondents said the nation was too divided to solve its challenges, and just 13 percent said the country was heading in the right direction.

But there are a few factors insulating Democrats from all this negative sentiment.

  • As The Times’s chief political analyst, Nate Cohn, explains, recent news is actually helping Democrats in some ways: This summer, the Supreme Court has handed the right significant victories on abortion, climate policy, religious rights and gun laws, galvanizing voters who lean Democratic on those issues and shifting the national political discourse away from the Republican Party’s preferred turf of immigration, crime and school curriculums. Recent mass shootings have also played a role in this shift.

  • In the past several years, the Republican Party has made inroads with less affluent, less educated voters while shedding support among higher-income, higher-educated voters. As a result, the electoral playing field has become less tilted toward Republicans, according to Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at Harvard who focuses on redistricting and demographic trends. While “the conventional wisdom has it that Democrats are disadvantaged in redistricting because of their inefficient over-concentration in cities,” he told Thomas B. Edsall, a contributing writer for Times Opinion, “the Trump era seems to have changed the country’s political geography in ways that are beneficial to Democrats.”

  • Republicans are also reconfiguring their relationship with Donald Trump, whose grip on the party isn’t as strong as it once was, particularly as the fallout from the House Jan. 6 investigation compounds. According to the Times/Siena College poll, nearly half of Republican primary voters would prefer someone other than Trump for president in 2024. As Jake Lahut reports for Insider, that fault line has created potential pitfalls for Trump-backed Senate candidates, like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia, who have won their primaries but have struggled to break away in general election matchups against their Democratic opponents.

The odds: According to Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Republicans have roughly the same chance of reclaiming a Senate majority as Democrats do of retaining theirs. In the House, though, Republicans are still heavily favored. Why? House candidates are both more numerous and more anonymous than Senate candidates, Silver explains, so voters’ feelings about the national political environment tend to be determinative.

As The Times’s David Leonhardt wrote this month, “If Democrats keep the Senate without the House, they still would not be able to pass legislation without Republican support.” But, he added: “Senate control nonetheless matters. It would allow President Biden to appoint judges, Cabinet secretaries and other top officials without any Republican support, because only the Senate needs to confirm nominees.”

The abortion factor

Because the Supreme Court returned the power to regulate abortions to the states last month, abortion will be a live issue this midterm season in a way it hasn’t been for many decades. Five states will have ballot measures asking voters whether to amend their constitutions to either enshrine or proscribe the right to abortion. And in other states, the issue has raised the stakes in competitive races for the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

There are two ways abortion’s centrality could help Democrats in November, Ed Kilgore argues in New York magazine. “The first and most obvious is that it could keep in the Democratic ranks a significant number of suburban swing voters who voted for the Donkey Party in 2018 and 2020 but who might swing back to the G.O.P. without Trump totally dominating the landscape and with economic issues in the forefront,” he writes. “The second possible effect is to boost the turnout rates of certain pro-Democratic groups of voters who often skip non-presidential elections.”

Mainstream Democrats have historically treated abortion as a divisive issue best left on the periphery of their campaign strategy. (Biden himself did not utter the word “abortion” until more than a year into his presidency.) But this election season, some Democrats are actively campaigning on the issue, wagering that the Supreme Court’s abrogation of the constitutional right to abortion could prompt a backlash from voters. In Georgia, for example, Stacey Abrams, the state’s Democratic nominee for governor, has started making direct appeals to swing voters and portraying her opponent, the incumbent governor, Brian Kemp, as the mind behind one of the nation’s most extreme abortion laws, which bans abortion after the sixth week of pregnancy.

Similarly, Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who is up for re-election in “notoriously swingy” New Hampshire, has leaned into the issue. “I will fight and never back down,” she said in a June television ad raising the possibility of a national abortion ban. “Protecting our personal freedoms isn’t just what’s right for New Hampshire. It’s what makes us New Hampshire.”

Whether this strategy will end up redounding to the Democrats’ benefit remains an open question. Since the court overruled Roe v. Wade, most polls have shown approximately a three-point shift in the Democrats’ direction on the generic ballot, which asks whether voters would prefer Democrats or Republicans to control Congress, compared with surveys by the same pollsters before the decision came down.

But some are skeptical that the shift will endure through November or prove significant enough to turn the electoral tide. “Does it have an effect? Absolutely,” Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist, told The Times. “Does it fundamentally change the landscape? No. Not in an off-year election, when your president’s approval rating is below 40 percent and gas is $5 a gallon.”

What to watch

Inflation: According to the Times/Siena College poll, 78 percent of voters say inflation will be “extremely important” when they head to the polls. “It’s a very negative thing politically for the Democrats,” said Jason Furman, an economist at Harvard University and a former economic adviser for the Obama administration. “My guess is that the negative views about inflation are so deeply baked in that nothing can change in the next few months to change them.”

Unless, of course, they get worse: Republicans are seizing on fears of rising prices in campaign ads, which economists warn could push prices even higher by entrenching inflationary expectations.

A surprise announcement from Trump: “Should former President Trump decide, against the advice of nearly every Republican strategist alive, to announce his candidacy before the midterm elections in November, he might energize Democratic voters enough to minimize their losses at the margins,” Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report writes. “I am not sure it would save one or both majorities, but it certainly has the potential to have a greater impact than abortion, guns, and Jan. 6 combined.”

Another polling failure: As this newsletter has explored, the polling profession has been in something of a state of crisis since the 2016 election. Pollsters are having a harder and harder time reaching working-class voters, who have been trending Republican, and so polls have routinely overestimated Democratic support. As Cohn writes, “It’s hard not to wonder whether the good news for Democrats might simply be a harbinger of yet another high-profile misfire.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at debatable@nytimes.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


READ MORE

“This election could answer the biggest midterm question: Abortion or the economy?” [Politico]

“Where the Midterms Could Most Affect Abortion Access” [FiveThirtyEight]

“Could the Midterms Be Tighter Than Expected?” [The New York Times]

“Democrats’ Risky Bet: Aid G.O.P. Extremists in Spring, Hoping to Beat Them in Fall” [The New York Times]

“Sorry, Democrats. Don’t get your hopes up for the midterms.” [The Washington Post]

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