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Why the midterms are so hard to predict

Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP
Residents fill out ballots while voting in a primary election Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at the Zion St. Joe United Church of Christ in St. Joseph, Mich. (Don Campbell/The Herald-Palladium via AP)

In 1993, the Buffalo Bills were down 32 points to the Houston Oilers in the third quarter of an NFL playoff game. In one of the most astounding comebacks in sports history, the Bills ended up defeating the Oilers by a score of 41-38. 

Welcome, political fans, to the final quarter of the 2022 midterm House elections. Over the past several weeks, the punditry has morphed from digging the Democrats’ graves to hyping expectations of their over-performing. 

Going into the summer, some forecasts had Democrats losing as many three-dozen seats. Coming out of summer, David Wasserman, the unusually prescient analyst from the Cook Political Report, wrote (correctly, in my view): “GOP Control No Longer a Foregone Conclusion.” 

Except.  

It’s still too early to tell. We are in a world of contradictions. Predictable and volatile at the same time. Settled one day, unsettled the next. 

Most midterm cycles are easily defined by the political winds. This one is all about wind shears. As Wasserman notes, the climate has been changed by a variety of influences: the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling undermining Roe v. Wade, falling gas prices, GOP primaries that produced Trumpian candidates in moderate electorates, legislative victories like the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS bill.

At the center of this particular playoff are two quarterbacks, the chairmen of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), and the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC), Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.).   

As one who held the DCCC chair from 2011 to 2016, I’ve watched both manage the environment with fascination. I can tell you that the job places you in a schizophrenic world. You’re simultaneously praised and pilloried; your reputation is celebrated and cremated. 

But this cycle is particularly difficult to manage. Here’s why. 

First, both campaign committees basically plan as political meteorologists, making decisions by those prevailing winds. I used to call it a “flip-flop” scenario. A favorable wind at your back dictates a strategy of offense, and the battlefield is expanded to flip more seats. In a “flop” environment, with strong headwinds, you hunker down to save as many incumbents as you can. The battlefield is consolidated, resources triaged to minimize losses.

Second, the winds can change. A candidate’s utterances can turn safe districts into more competitive ones. For example, I remember sitting with Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) when he chaired the DCCC in the miserable 2010 cycle. He’d just learned that Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who represented a reliably blue district, had endorsed a boycott of his home state to protest a state law that harmed immigrants. Grijalva’s position was noble, courageous. But the electoral blowback at the time looked serious. I’ll always remember the incredulity in Van Hollen’s voice: “Now we have to defend Raul Grijalva’s district?”

Third, there is the infatuation some have with the “congressional generic ballot,” which measures whether voters want Republicans or Democrats in Congress. Consider the fluctuation of that measure since the beginning of the year, according to Five Thirty Eight: On Jan. 1, Republicans were up by nearly a point; drifting into summer, in May, they expanded to 2.5 points; on Aug. 1, they were tied with Democrats; by mid-August, Democrats had taken the lead; and last Monday, Democrats were up by a point.  

Don’t be misled. The generic ballot reflects vague preferences at a particular moment, not turn out at the polls. And a midterm election strongly rests on turnout.  

I remember watching the congressional generic ballot in 2014, the midterm following President Obama’s reelection. In the first six months of the year, our lead in the generic was between two and seven points. It began to decline in summer. Between August and September, the Republicans surged ahead by as many as seven points. Then, in the closing weeks, we’d battled back to a one-point lead. We felt good. We knew we’d lose seats, but the generic suggested it wouldn’t be calamitous. 

The day after the midterms, the actual vote reflected a 5.7-point advantage for Republicans. 

That was in a fairly routine environment, with easier to predict trends and wind directions and more reliable rules of engagement.  

I revise my analogy to the Bills comeback triumph. Actually, this isn’t an NFL game. This is hockey. Offense and defense shifting constantly. Bursts of propulsion. Skirmishes and random eruptions. And the majority for both parties seem as thin as ice.  

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael. 

Tags 2022 midterms 2022 midterms Chris Van Hollen Chris Van Hollen Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee generic ballot Obama Raul Grijalva Sean Patrick Maloney Steve Israel Tom Emmer

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