Democrats face congressional rout amid historically terrible headwinds
Midterm election years are almost never good for a president’s party. Even before the calamitous events of the past 10 months, Democrats knew the first midterm election of President Biden’s tenure in office would be a challenge.
But the cascade of catastrophe that has so dented what little American optimism remained in the waning days of the pandemic and the associated economic recovery has even the most optimistic Democratic Party strategists and pollsters staring into an unprecedented abyss. Their standing, about five months before voters head to the polls, is worse than it has been for any president in modern times, by almost any indicator.
A new study compiled by Gallup comparing widely used barometers of midterm attitudes since 1974, which has made the rounds widely in Democratic circles this week, underscores just how bad the atmosphere has become.
Biden’s approval rating stands at an average of just 41 percent in Gallup surveys, tied with former President Trump before the 2018 midterms and lower than any president except George W. Bush in 2006.
Just 18 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, the lowest figure for a midterm year and 3 points lower than its rating in both 2018, when Republicans lost control of Congress, and 2010, when Democrats surrendered control.
Only 16 percent of Americans are satisfied with the direction of the country, another nadir. And the gap between those who see an economy headed in a negative direction and those who see economic conditions heading the right way is 32 percentage points, on par with the depths of the great recession ahead of the 2010 midterms.
“Today’s polls indicate a tsunami,” said David Paleologos, who heads polling at Suffolk University.
Interviews with half a dozen Democratic strategists and pollsters — most of whom declined to put their anxiety on the record — show a party clinging to hopes that voter anger can be spread across the aisle. They point to numbers that show that while Democrats aren’t popular, neither are Republicans, and that several major events still to play out before the midterm elections will underscore the GOP’s chief weaknesses.
“Abortion, guns and Jan. 6 are causing them real problems taking advantage of the political environment,” said John Anzalone, who conducted polling for Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. “Voters may not be happy with the party in power, but they sure aren’t excited about the alternative.”
A spate of recent polls underscore the point that, while national indicators hint at a GOP rout, that hasn’t translated into huge leads for Republican candidates.
In Pennsylvania, a survey out this week and last shows Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) leading celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz (R) by a 9-point margin in the race for an open Senate seat and Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) leading state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) by 4 points in the race for governor. In Georgia, Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) and former NFL running back Herschel Walker (R) are tied.
One survey this week of voters in North Carolina showed former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D) leading Rep. Ted Budd (R) in the race for Senate, while three polls last month showed Budd with leads. And in Ohio, a state Trump carried by a wide margin, an initial survey showed Trump-backed author J.D. Vance (R) outpacing Rep. Tim Ryan (D) by only 3 percentage points, with nearly 20 percent undecided.
“It is a challenging environment, one that we could have predicted years ago because it follows historic trends. It’s very difficult to break those historic trends at the national level. But there certainly is an opportunity, race by race, for Democrats to chart a different course,” said Matt Canter, a Democratic pollster. “A lot can change. Things can get worse, but there’s no question that things can get better as well.”
Under the hood of those promising — or at least not disastrous — results are more warning signs for the Democratic incumbents. Biden’s approval ratings are even worse in those swing states than they are nationally. They stand at 38 percent in Georgia, a state he won by just 11,000 votes, and 39 percent in Pennsylvania, a state Biden carried by 80,000 votes.
History is not a source of hope for Democrats, especially those relying on pro-Biden sentiment for their own chances. Only twice since 1974 has a president’s party gained seats in midterm elections: In 1998, when Bill Clinton’s approval rating stood at 66 percent and Americans had a positive impression of economic conditions by a 60 point margin, and in 2004, when 63 percent approved of George W. Bush’s handling of the presidency and Congress’s approval rating stood at 50 percent, a margin unmatched since.
Some Democratic pollsters point to partisanship as another cause for concern. Today, 45 percent of Americans say they are Democrats or lean toward the party, and the same number say they are Republicans or lean that way. In the last three midterm elections in which the two parties were at parity or within one point of even, Democrats have lost seats — including in 2010 and 1994, the two years when Republicans reclaimed 63 and 53 U.S. House seats, respectively.
Paleologos, the Suffolk University pollster, said the Democrats who are doing relatively well in his surveys — Ryan in Ohio and Fetterman in Pennsylvania — are running as outsiders.
“These Democrats are threading the needle into the current political fabric by being populists, winning among independents and talking about solving bread-and-butter issues county by county while distancing themselves from Biden and D.C.,” he said.
Canter, the Democratic pollster, said his party has routinely failed to create a national brand. And while the GOP’s national brand may not be popular in a vacuum, it still creates an affinity among millions of voters who backed Trump in 2020.
“Their brand today is the party of Trump. That’s what we have to work with, and it’s not perfect. Trump got 72 million votes, so just being the party of Trump in this environment is not enough to lose. What we have to do is build a brand for them that uplifts the most offensive and egregious and concerning aspects of Trumpism,” he said in an interview. “That’s what the MAGA messaging is about, developing a message and narrative that both mobilizes our base and communicates something that at a minimum is not unhelpful to swing voters.”
The most optimistic Democrats cautioned that there are still variables to consider before voters go to the polls: a Supreme Court ruling expected to overturn a national right to an abortion, the Jan 6 committee hearings that will shed light on the GOP’s complicity in Trump’s efforts to overturn a national election, gas prices that could come down and inflation that could ease as the Federal Reserve acts to raise interest rates.
But the reverse is also possible, and potentially more likely. The summer driving season has not yet fully begun. Russia’s war on Ukraine shows no sign of slowing. The Fed’s move to raise interest rates by as much as three-quarters of a percent, if it does stem inflation, may also tip the economy into recession. Biden’s numbers, low as they are, may not yet have hit bottom.
“If there is a market crash or if we go from recession to deep recession (or depression) come November, it’s over for Democrats,” Paleologos said.
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