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The GOP at 100 days

The GOP at 100 days
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While President BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE confidently nears the 100-day mark, political analysts have begun to offer warnings about the Democratic Party’s precarious position ahead of the midterms. But for partisan fortunes to reverse in 2022, opportunities in the political environment must both exist and be realized by those out of power.

Even though Republicans have the historical advantage of being the out-party in the midterm cycle and only need a few seats to secure the majority in each chamber, they are neither as well-situated nor as unified as they were in 2009 or as were the Democrats in 2017 — the years before each of these party’s respective midterm triumphs (2010 and 2018).

For example, when we consider party affiliation, today’s Republicans appear disadvantaged. The long-term polling trend shows that in 2009, the gap between Republican and Democratic identifiers was rapidly shrinking, whereas in 2017, the gap, which traditionally favors Democrats, was slowly growing. While much of the movement over the past dozen years or so comes from partisans choosing to identify as independents, and then independents moving toward the out-party, it is notable that since the 2020 election, the percentage of Democratic identifiers has mostly remained stable (at about 30 percent), whereas Republicans have lost about 5 percent (from 30 percent to 25 percent). 

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As Gallup noted, “The GOP is facing its smallest share of Republican identifiers since 2018 and its largest deficit to Democrats on party identification and leaning in nearly nine years.”  

Unsurprisingly, these changes in partisan self-identification align with the shifts in each party’s favorability rating. As Gallup’s chart displaying the partisan gap suggests and the full trends show, the Democrats lost much of their double-digit favorability advantage over the course of 2009, whereas their advantage grew in 2017. In contrast, 2021 Republicans haven’t experienced an out-party image boost. Instead they lost favor — down 7 points since the election and behind Democratic favorability by 11 points. The issue appears to be a divided GOP. As Gallup explained, “With much of the decline in Republican Party favorability coming from Republicans themselves, the GOP faces a crossroads, as it decides whether to continue to be loyal to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' MORE, his political style and his favored policy positions or break with him.”

Although most parties after losing the White House wander into the wilderness for a time, looking for a new approach or a new issue through which to connect with the public, both 2009 and 2017 were rather unique in how quickly the out-party unified in its opposition to the then-president’s agenda and partisan control of Congress.  

In February 2009, conservative frustration over government intervention in the economy found its national voice in Rick Santelli’s rant on CNBC. Within days the Tea Party was launched and over the course of the next 18 months, these populist conservatives dedicated themselves to disrupting traditional politics and organizing to win the midterms. Their rage-against-the-machine enthusiasm throughout the summer of 2009 was undeniable. Whereas the Tea Party was mostly composed of white men over 45, women and younger voters formed the backbone of the Trump backlash in 2017. The first Women’s March, held the day after Trump’s Inaugural, energized hundreds of thousands of women across the country. A little over a year later, a record number of them had decided to run for office. This progressive movement gained more energy as young people organized against gun violence and people of color organized against racist hate groups and unjust police practices

The issue for today’s Republicans is none of this “overflowing outrage” energy seems to exist. Indeed, most Americans seem tired of politics and emotionally exhausted from a decade of fighting. One of the respondents in NBC’s latest poll expressed this sentiment well: “The best thing about Joe Biden is I don’t have to think about Joe Biden.” 

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Somewhat ironically, the only “outrage” that seems to exist is based on a lie — “The Big Lie”—and it is precisely these false accounts promoted by the former president and his loyal base that are rending, rather than unifying, the Republican Party. Said another way, the myth that most excites the Trumpists turns off traditional conservatives and right-leaning independents, making the GOP weaker, not stronger. This definitional belief is not a controversy that exists only in the rear view mirror. Republicans are fighting this intra-party battle daily and may still be arguing about this issue during next year’s primaries. 

Further, congressional Democrats seem to be faring better than congressional Republicans. Pew Research found that “half of Americans say they approve of the job Democratic leaders are doing today, while about a third (32 percent) say the same about Republican congressional leaders. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) say they disapprove of the job Republicans have done in Congress, while 47 percent say that about Democratic leaders.” The NBC poll also found that on the generic ballot (congressional preference) question, Democrats led Republicans by 5 points.

Still, Republicans have some clear advantages. Despite the smaller than expected shift of congressional seats owing to reapportionment, the Republicans have the upper hand in the coming redistricting process. Out of the 262 seats where analysts expect one party to largely control the redistricting process, Republicans will oversee 187 seats, whereas Democrats will only oversee 75. (In the other 173 seats, there is not a clear advantage for either party.)

And of course, the Democratic majorities in each congressional chamber are razor thin. A small shift in the number of seats could result in substantial change. The Senate is divided 50-50, and owing to a few vacancies, House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Job openings jump to record high of 8.1 million | Wyden opposes gas tax hike | Airlines feel fuel crunch Pelosi: House Democrats want to make child tax credit expansion permanent Pelosi announces change to House floor mask rules MORE (D-Calif.) presides over a 218 (soon to be 219) to 212 split. As Kyle Kondik pointed out, with Republicans likely needing to net only about five congressional seats in 2022, “Republicans winning the House next year would be an outcome easily foreseeable based on familiar American political patterns.”

While Democrats are thought to have a better chance of retaining (or extending) their majority in the Senate because of the senatorial class up for election (14 Democrats and 20 Republicans) and the number of Republican retirements (five), as Nathan Gonzales has rightly pointed out, there are a “dearth of takeover options.” Further, this issue is not isolated to the Senate. As the Cook Report noted last week, there are the fewest “crossover” districts (16) ever. Nine House Republicans are sitting in seats that Biden won and seven Democrats are sitting in seats Trump won. In short, given partisan sorting, Republicans have few evident “pick-up” opportunities aside from those they attempt to create through the redistricting process.

None of this is to say that Democrats should be expected to retain their House majority and extend their Senate majority, but these data do suggest that historical tides that should favor Republicans as the out-party are far weaker at present than Republican rhetoric suggests.

Overall, the only thing we know for sure is that majority control of both chambers of Congress will be on the ballot, even if neither Biden nor Trump is.

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and the author of “Amateur Hour: Presidential Character and the Question of Leadership.” Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.