The rise of inflation, supply chain shortages, a surge in illegal border crossings, the persistence of Covid, mayhem in Afghanistan and the uproar over “critical race theory” — all of these developments, individually and collectively, have taken their toll on President Biden and Democratic candidates, so much so that Democrats are now the underdogs going into 2022 and possibly 2024.
Gary Langer, director of polling at ABC News, put it this way in an essay published on the network’s website:
As things stand, if the midterm elections were today, 51 percent of registered voters say they’d support the Republican candidate in their congressional district, 41 percent say the Democrat. That’s the biggest lead for Republicans in the 110 ABC/Post polls that have asked this question since November 1981.
These and other trends have provoked a deepening pessimism about Democratic prospects in 2022 and anxiety about the 2024 presidential election.
Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia, holds similar views, but suggests that the flood tide of political trouble may be beyond Democratic control:
Biden and the Democrats have had almost all bad news: the pandemic is still going; the economy has not picked up in terms of perceptions of the expected increases in employment and economic growth not on fire; perceptions of what happened in Afghanistan; what has happened on the southern border; high crime rates, all amplified in news reports. It is all perception, and the latest is the increase in inflation and gas prices that people see/feel. The critical race theory controversy and perceptions of Democrats being too woke and extreme. The bad news is overwhelming.
Bill McInturff, a founding partner of Public Opinion Strategies, provided me with data from the October WSJ/NBC poll asking voters which party can better manage a wide range of issues. On three key issues — controlling inflation (45R-21D), dealing with crime (43R-21D) and dealing with the economy (45R-27D) — the Republican advantage was the highest in surveys dating back to the 1990s.
“Washington Democrats are spending months fighting over legislation,” McInturff wrote by email, but, during this time, voters tell us prices are soaring, the cost of living is tied for the top issue in the country, and there is a sharp increase in economic pessimism. It is these economic factors that are driving negative impressions about the direction of the country to unusually high levels, and this is hurting Democrats everywhere. No administration is going to thrive in that economic environment.
In his analysis of the Nov. 6-10 Washington Post/ABC News Poll, Langer made the case that while a year is a lifetime in politics, the Democratic Party’s difficulties are deep; they include soaring economic discontent, a president who’s fallen 12 percentage points underwater in job approval and a broad sense that the party is out of touch with the concerns of most Americans — 62 percent say so.
The numbers are even worse for Democrats in the eight states expected to have the closest Senate elections, according to Langer — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Not only is Biden’s overall job approval rating in those states 33 percent, 10 points lower than it is in the rest of the country, but registered voters in those eight states say they are more likely to vote for Republican House candidates than for Democrats by 23 points (at 58 percent to 35 percent).
On Nov. 3, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball updated the ratings for three incumbent Democratic senators — Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia and C. Cortez Masto of Nevada — from “lean Democratic” to “tossup.”
An examination of Gallup survey results on the question “As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?” reflects the damage suffered by the Democrats. From January through August, Democrats held a substantial 7.9 point advantage (48.2 percent to 41.3 percent). In September, however, Gallup reported a 2-point (47-45) Republican edge that grew to a 5-point (47-42) edge by October.
In terms of election outcomes, Republican are once again capitalizing on their domination of the congressional redistricting process to disenfranchise Democratic voters despite strong public support for reforms designed to eliminate or constrain partisan gerrymandering. On Monday, The Times reported that the Republican Party “has added enough safe House districts to capture control of the chamber based on its redistricting edge alone.” The current partisan split in the House is 221 Democratic seats and 213 Republican seats, with one vacancy.
In the meantime, uneasiness prevails. Stephen Ansolabehere, a professor of government at Harvard, noted in an email that Biden had two drops in approval ratings, one from June to August of about 6 points, and another from September to October of another 6 points. The first was a response to Afghanistan. The second was a response to Covid and weak employment growth over the summer.
Passing the infrastructure bill should help “with the sense that the administration wasn’t doing enough for the economy,” Ansolabehere continued, but “the hit from Afghanistan is going to be harder to reverse, as it was a judgment about the administration’s handling of foreign affairs.”
Micah English, a graduate student in political science at Yale who studies race, class and gender dynamics, argued in an email that Democratic leaders have, at least until now, mismanaged the task of effectively communicating their agenda and goals.
“The Democratic Party has a messaging problem that they don’t seem to have any plans to rectify,” she wrote:
The Republicans message right now is essentially “Democrats and Biden are only concerned about teaching your children critical race theory instead of focusing on the economy!” The Democrats have no unified countermessage, and until they do, they are likely to continue to suffer major losses in the midterms and beyond.
This failure, English continued, has resulted in an inability to capitalize on what should have been good news:
The Democrats have proposed legislation that contains incredibly popular policies, but if they continue to fail to communicate the benefits of this legislation to the wider public, it won’t do them any good in the midterms. Additionally, as the 2020 election demonstrated, the Democrats cannot continue to rely on the prospect of changing demographics to deliver them electoral victories.
One theme that appeared repeatedly in the comments I received in response to my questions is that even as Biden has succeeded in winning passage of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, he has struggled to maintain an aura of mastery.
Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts, argued in an email that what a lot of swing voters expected from Biden was competent leadership during a time of crisis. And many perhaps expected that a return to normal leadership would immediately solve the unprecedented problems facing the country. Of course, that was never a realistic expectation.
The crucial factors underlying Biden’s declining favorability rating, Schaffner continued, are “several things calling into question Biden’s effectiveness — the Afghanistan withdrawal, the continued impact of Covid, the struggling economy and the difficult time Democrats have had in passing their major legislative initiatives.”
I asked a range of political scientists for their projections on how the 2022 elections for control of the House are likely to turn out. Their views were preponderantly negative for Democratic prospects.
Matt Grossmann of Michigan State wrote: “Based on simple midterm loss averages, the Democrats are expected to lose 4 points of vote share and be down to ~45 percent of seats on ~48 percent of votes in 2022.” Those numbers translate into roughly a 24-seat loss, reducing Democrats to 197 seats. “There is not much under Democrats’ control that is likely to make a big difference in the extent of their losses,” Grossmann added. “They can try to avoid retirements and primary challenges in swing districts and avoid salient unpopular policies.”
Robert M. Stein of Rice University is even less optimistic:
In South Texas, Florida and parts of Arizona immigration policy is hurting Democrats with traditional-base voters. This is especially true with Hispanics in Texas border counties, where Trump did well in 2020 and Abbott (incumbent Republican governor) is making significant gains by appealing to the concerns of Hispanics over jobs and immigration.
My guess is that Republicans are poised to take the House back in 2022 with gains above the average for midterm elections. Since 1946, the average seat gain for the party not in the White House is 27 seats. The best the Democrats can do is hold at the average, but given the Republican’s advantage with redistricting, my guess is that the Republicans gain 40+ seats.
Martin Wattenberg of the University of California-Irvine wrote that “it would take a major event like 9/11 to keep the Democrats from losing the House.” He was more cautious about control of the Senate, which “really depends on the quality of the candidates. Republicans have had the misfortune of nominating candidates like Christine (“I am not a witch”) O’Donnell who have lost eminently winnable races due to their own foibles. It remains to be seen if they will nominate such candidates in 2022.”
Wattenberg cited data from the General Social Survey showing a sharp rise in the percentage of Democrats describing themselves as liberal or slightly liberal, up from 47 percent in 2016 to 62 percent this year: “The left-wing movement of the Democrats is probably going to hurt with the 2022 electorate that will likely be skewed toward older, more conservative voters.”
At the same time, Bruce Cain of Stanford suggested that a Democratic defeat in 2022 could be a potentially favorable development for the party’s long term prospects:
It is quite possible that losing in the 2022 midterm is the best path to winning the presidency in 2024. It will put the Republicans in a ‘“put up or shut up” spot vis a vis problems facing the country, and Biden meanwhile can work the middle without looking over his left shoulder.
Cain took this logic a step further to argue that it
“In retrospect the worst thing that happened to Biden was the Democrats winning the two seats in Georgia. It raised expectations among some in his party that they could go left legislatively while the political sun was shining when in reality the political math was not there for that kind of policy ambition.”
“The best hope for the Democrats is that Trump will undermine some Republicans during his vengeance tour and that the weakness of the people who want to run under his banner will create some unexpected wins for the Democrats.”
Howard Rosenthal, a political scientist at N.Y.U., added this observation:
Pundits, who have to earn a living, always want to impute causality to election losses. However, the midterm cycle is just normal. Voters tend to balance the president. Over time, they also create divided government at the state level.
A surprising number of those I contacted made the case that the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan did more lasting damage to Biden than might have been expected.
“The extended wall-to-wall media coverage of the hurried exit from Afghanistan probably served as a catalyst for some folks to ‘update’ their views on Biden’s performance and take into consideration both the foreign and domestic concerns,” Ted Brader, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, wrote in an email:
I’m skeptical that those events themselves drove the lower assessments; Americans weigh domestic events much heavier than foreign affairs. But the heightened attention and criticism can serve as an attention-getting call to re-evaluate the president: “Wait, how well is he doing his job?” As political science research has convincingly demonstrated, bipartisan criticism, as we saw with the Afghan withdrawal, in particular, opens the door to weaker support among independents and members of the president’s own party.
Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, wrote me that “things touching on competence (Afghanistan, border, congressional inaction) are probably the most important” in driving down Biden’s ratings, but “for the future, it is inflation and the general economy that will matter most, I think.”
Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke, contended in an email that the problems facing Biden and his Democratic colleagues run deeper than any single issue:
Biden was elected as a moderate to put back some sanity into government through a steady hand and incremental reforms. Instead, a wing of the Democratic Party took the 2020 election in which the Democratic Party lost a surprising number of House seats as a voter mandate to implement a pretty fundamental program of social reform and sociocultural change. While I personally might like a lot of these policy initiatives myself, I also realize that this programmatic ambition is consistent with the wishes of only a minority of core Democratic voters, and certainly not that of the centrist voters who prevented Trump from being re-elected.
The history of midterm elections suggests that substantial House losses for the party of the incumbent president are inevitable, barring such unusual circumstances as public hostility to the Republican-led impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks raising Republican support in 2002 — the only two times since that the incumbent party gained seats since World War II.
In 2010, Joseph Bafumi, Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, political scientists at Dartmouth, Columbia and the University of Texas at Austin, published “Balancing, Generic Polls and Midterm Congressional Elections,” in which they argued that “between February and Election Day, the presidential party’s vote strength almost always declines.” But, they continued,
the degree of decline is unrelated to the public’s evaluation of the president. Clearly, during the midterm election year, the electorate shifts away from the presidential party in its vote choice for reasons that have nothing to do with the electorate’s attitudes toward the president. By default, this is balancing: The electorate votes against the presidential party to give more power to the other party.
In a 1988 paper, “The Puzzle of Midterm Loss,” Erikson examined every midterm contest since 1902 and explicitly rejected the theory that such contests are a “negative referendum on presidential performance.” Instead, Erikson wrote,
A “presidential penalty” explanation fits the data nicely. By this explanation, the midterm electorate penalized the president’s party for being the party in power: Holding constant the presidential year House vote, the president’s party does much worse at midterm than it would if it did not control the presidency.
While substantial midterm losses for the incumbent president’s party are inevitable under most circumstances, that does not mean external developments have no influence on the scope of the outcome.
Kitschelt, quoting James Carville, noted in his email: “It’s the economy, stupid. And that means inflation, the supply chain troubles and the inability of the Democrats to extend the social safety net in an incremental fashion.”
The inflation rate, Dritan Nesho, the director of civic technology and engagement at Microsoft and a co-director of the Harvard-Harris Poll, wrote in an email,
is now outpacing wage growth. As a consequence close to 4 in 10 voters are saying that their personal financial situation is getting worse. This figure is up from the low 20s in May and importantly, majorities of voters are not confident in either the Biden administration keeping inflation at bay (56 percent not confident/44 percent confident) and also of the Federal Reserve (53 percent not confident/47 percent confident).
In addition, Nesho said,
“Over two-third of voters (68 percent) believe illegal monthly border crossings have increased since Biden took office, 65 percent blame Biden’s executive orders for encouraging illegal immigration, and 68 percent want stricter policies to reduce the flow of people across the border.”
In January 2021, the month Biden took office, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment index stood at 79. By Nov. 1, the index had fallen to 66.8, the lowest it has been since November 2011. Richard Curtin, director of the consumer sentiment survey, wrote in a commentary accompanying the report: “Consumer sentiment fell in early November to its lowest level in a decade due to an escalating inflation rate and the growing belief among consumers that no effective policies have yet been developed to reduce the damage from surging inflation.”
Similarly, when Biden took office in January, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the inflation rate was 1.4 percent; as of October this year, the rate had risen to 6.2 percent.
Perhaps nothing better encapsulates the problems Democrats face than the price of gas at the pump, which has risen, in the nearly 10 months Biden has been in the White House, to as high as $4.21 a gallon in California, $3.94 in Nevada and upward of $3.60 across the Mountain West.
And no one foreshadows the dangers ahead more succinctly than Larry Summers. In his Nov. 15 Washington Post column, Summers, a former secretary of the Treasury, warned: “Excessive inflation and a sense that it was not being controlled helped elect Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and risks bringing Donald Trump back to power.”