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With just under six months to go until the November elections, the political environment looks as bleak as ever for Democrats. The President's job approval ratings remain mired in the low 40s, inflation has proven to be stubborn and persistent, and Americans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about the country's direction, with a whopping 75 percent saying they think the country is heading on the "wrong track."
Do Democrats have any chance to turn things around in the time they have left?
Earlier this cycle, we posited that there were a few things that could help boost Democrats' prospects:
- An improving political/economic climate
- Unexpected gains from redistricting
- A big event that would shift the focus of the election onto topics more favorable to Democrats.
- Contentious Republican primaries that produced flawed and bruised nominees
Already we know that option two is a no-go. Earlier this spring, it looked as if Democrats might come out of the decennial process with a gain of up to 4 seats. That rosy scenario has since been dashed by the courts in states like New York and Kansas. Instead, as my colleague David Wasserman has expertly documented, Republicans are poised to pick up two seats from redistricting.
So, what about the other three possibilities? As of now, they aren't looking all that promising either.
Economy/Inflation pressures improve before the fall
In the last week or so, there's been some discussion about whether inflation has 'peaked' (i.e., it won't worsen from here on out). But, the bigger challenge for the Biden White House and Democrats is whether they can do anything to ease inflationary pressures.
That doesn't look realistic.
To be fair, when it comes to reducing inflation, it's up to the Fed, not Congress or the White House, to solve it.
Moreover, the sorts of things the White House and Congress could do to fight inflation — like lifting tariffs on China — are politically perilous. And, things that may be politically popular with the base — like forgiving student loan debt — will actually make things worse. As columnist Matt Yglesias writes, "resuming payments fights inflation, and outright forgiveness fuels it."
There's also no easy cure for stubbornly high gasoline prices. Releasing more oil from the strategic reserves, jawboning oil companies about ‘gouging’, and allowing for biofuel use in the summer, as the administration has done and says it will continue to do, isn't going to make much of a dent in the cost of filling up the gas tank.
More important, Americans are incredibly pessimistic that things will improve much. In his memo analyzing the results of the April CNBC All-America Economic Survey, pollster Jay Campbell, wrote that "61% of the public say the economy is only fair or poor right now and say they do not expect it to improve in the next year—the highest number we've registered since the post-Great Recession recovery period. At this point in 2021, only 37% of the public was this pessimistic."
Abortion alters midterm dynamic
There are some signs that the issue has become more salient since the Justice Alito memo was leaked a couple weeks ago.
The NBC poll released last week showed the issue of abortion jumped 16 points in importance for voters. In the March survey, just 6 percent of voters picked abortion as the 'most important issue facing the country; today it's at 20 percent. The poll also showed evidence that the issue is animating Democratic voters, with abortion now ranked as their second most important issue (after climate change and just slightly ahead of the cost of living). The likelihood of Roe v. Wade being overturned may also be responsible for narrowing the "enthusiasm gap" between Democrats and Republicans. In the March NBC survey, Republican voters' interest in the election was 17 points higher than that of Democrats. This month, that gap shrank by 9 points, to a GOP advantage of just eight points.
In listening to two focus groups of Democratic-leaning voters the other week, it's clear that Roe v. Wade being dismantled is an animating issue for them. "It's a motivator," said one woman. "I hope we can remove the people trying to turn these states red and ban abortion completely."
However, the issue still ranks far behind economic issues among swing voters and independents. The NBC poll found that issues like the cost of living were 17 to 18 points were more salient to independent and swing-state voters than the issue of abortion. In other words, abortion may be an energizing force for Democratic base voters, but it's not eclipsed concerns about the economy among every other group of voters. One GOP pollster doing a bunch of work in suburban areas told me the other day: "I have seen no evidence of abortion breaking through. Economy, inflation, gas prices, border, Ukraine all more important topics. Hell, even baby formula is more newsy than abortion.
Ultimately, I think abortion could impact individual races, especially in blue or purple/blue states or districts where a GOP candidate takes positions on the issue that are portrayed as well-outside the mainstream opinion. But, abortion isn't going to change the overall trajectory of the midterm elections.
GOP Primaries Produce Weak Candidates.
In Pennsylvania, Republicans dodged a worst-case scenario as the most controversial candidate in the field, commentator Kathy Barnette, failed to win the primary. Even so, the bruising primary campaign has taken a toll on Republicans Dr. Oz and David McCormick. This is especially true for the Trump-endorsed Oz who polls showed with very high negatives among GOP voters. A drawn-out (and potentially contentious) recount process between Oz and McCormick could also delay the healing process. Meanwhile, Democratic nominee John Fetterman cruised through his primary without anyone laying a glove to him.
But, while Fetterman may have had an easier road to the nomination, the next few months are likely to be quite bumpy for the Lt. Governor as we should expect to see a bunch of negative ads against him start to fill the airwaves.
With the wind at their backs, the biggest risk to GOP candidates is themselves. This is especially true for first-time candidates who are unaccustomed to the glare and pressure of the national spotlight. Over-confident candidates also tend to make unforced errors. We've got a long way to go before primary season is over, but thus far, there hasn't been a "Todd Akin" or "I'm not a witch" moment from GOP Senate candidates.