Democrats could be on pace for a historic rout in November

Three recent developments indicate that Democrats’ already shaky political prospects are deteriorating further, and suggest that the party could be on track to experience a historic rout — worse than 1994 or 2010 — in the midterm elections.

First, the president’s approval rating — which has historically been a harbinger of his party’s midterm performance — hit a new low this week: just one-third (35 percent) of registered voters approve of President Biden’s overall performance, while a majority (56 percent) disapprove, according to Quinnipiac polling

Importantly, Democrats have lost ground with two key segments of their 2020 coalition — independents and Hispanics — as only one-quarter of adults in each group approve of President Biden, while majorities disapprove.

Republicans also have an advantage in terms of preference for party control of Congress. Nearly one-half (46 percent) of registered voters prefer Republican control, while 41 percent prefer Democratic control. GOP control is also preferred by independents (40 percent-38 percent) and Hispanics (41 percent-38 percent).

To be sure, Democrats’ declining ratings can be attributed in large part to widespread economic pessimism, which is on par with 2009 levels by most assessments.

Relatedly, the second development that bodes poorly for Democrats in November is the release of fresh economic data: inflation has hit a 41-year high of 8.6 percent annually, the average price for a gallon of gas is $5, and the stock market is tanking. Now, many economists are warning of an impending recession.

Of course, the stock market is not the economy and, notwithstanding inflationary pressures, the American economy is in fact strong in many respects, which Biden has repeatedly tried to underscore to the public.

But despite the administration’s best efforts to highlight positive macroeconomic trends — such as increased wages and historically low unemployment — everyday Americans, who are witnessing significant market declines and struggling with rising costs, are not convinced.

Indeed, Biden’s approval rating on his handling of the economy reached the lowest level of his presidency this week: only 28 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of the economy, including just one-fifth of independents (21 percent) and Hispanics (20 percent). 

While Democrats are working to shift the national conversation away from the economy and towards hot-button social issues that they have the upper hand on vis-à-vis public opinion — namely, abortion rights in light of the Supreme Court’s intention to overturn Roe v. Wade, and gun control following a string of mass shootings — it is difficult to envision a scenario where these issues supplant the economy as the top midterm issue.

Nearly one-half (48 percent) of Americans cite economic issues — including inflation (21 percent), the economy generally (19 percent) and gas prices (8 percent) — as the single most important issue to their midterm vote, according to recent ABC News polling.

Comparatively, the same poll — which was conducted following the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, and thus after the news broke about Roe v. Wade — showed that gun violence (17 percent) and abortion (12 percent) are prioritized by a much smaller share of voters.

Though Democrats are hoping that the national focus on women’s choice and gun control will help the party galvanize their base and make up ground in the midterms, polling unfortunately doesn’t bear that out. Republicans currently maintain a 12-point voter enthusiasm advantage over Democrats, 43 percent to 31 percent, per a recent Economist/YouGov poll.

Moreover, though the Democratic stance on gun control is more aligned with the general public’s views, the renewed national focus on gun violence could end up hurting Democrats in the midterms, given the party’s electoral vulnerabilities on the issue of crime.

While polling consistently shows that most voters are supportive of stricter gun laws, there is prevalent public concern about rising crime as well as broad dissatisfaction with Biden’s and Democrats’ handling of crime, and even more specifically, of gun violence.

Only 38 percent of Americans approve of the president’s handling of rising crime, while a majority (61 percent) disapprove. Further, just one-third (33 percent) of the public approves of how Biden is addressing gun violence, versus 59 percent who disapprove.

This widespread discontent with Democrats’ approach to crime brings us to the third key development of the week: the results of California’s primary elections held Tuesday, which saw a decisive rejection of progressive policies — especially on criminal justice — in one of the most liberal states in the country.

The recall of San Francisco’s progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin, was the strongest rebuke of progressive crime policies to date and underscores the challenges Democrats face with messaging on this issue going forward.

The results of the Los Angeles mayoral primary are also somewhat troubling for Democrats. Democratic Rep. Karen Bass and billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso, who was formerly a Republican, finished neck-and-neck, and are headed to a runoff election.

Though Bass has worked to moderate her positioning on crime by calling for a greater police presence in the city, Caruso’s stance runs decisively to the right of Bass’s. The closeness of this race ultimately indicates that Democrats will have a difficult time reframing the public narrative — which ties their policies to rising crime rates — ahead of the midterms, despite Biden’s efforts to vocalize the Democratic establishment’s opposition to the defund the police movement.

Taken together, the American public’s growing dissatisfaction with the Biden administration, increasing economic pessimism, and rejection of progressivism indicate that the Democratic Party could be on track to endure one of the most considerable midterm seat losses of any part in recent history.

Douglas E. Schoen is a political consultant who served as an adviser to former President Clinton and to the 2020 presidential campaign of Michael Bloomberg. He is the author of “The End of Democracy? Russia and China on the Rise and America in Retreat.” Zoe Young is vice president of Schoen Cooperman Research. 

Campaign