Fourteen months ago, even before President Biden’s approval numbers started their mid-summer plunge, this column focused on a key question: What would the election be about, and specifically what role would the state and direction of the economy play? At the time, Biden’s approval rating was averaging 53 percent, a dozen points higher than today—and it’s still a good question now.
Many Democrats today are celebrating what they see as a major turnaround in a midterm campaign that looked horrific for them as recently as 90 days ago. Losing their House majority was a foregone conclusion, and the odds of holding the Senate were seen as very long, too. Their hope is that because of a confluence of accomplishments and developments, Biden and congressional Democrats have turned a corner. The belief is that a very recent string of legislative accomplishments, some decent economic news including dropping (but still high) gasoline prices, and one neutralized al-Qaida leader will rehabilitate the president and congressional majority’s standing with voters.
They also hope that the stream of news coming out of the Jan. 6 hearings and the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Florida home for top-secret documents will both stir up Democrats and increase any level of Trump fatigue that may have already existed among independents and Republicans. Most of all, they believe the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade and some pretty draconian antiabortion restrictions put in place will goose voter turnout, salvage their Senate majority and, most optimistically, maybe even save the House.
My colleague Amy Walter has asked, “But is all of this just a vibe shift? Or has there been real movement toward Democrats?” Walter joked with The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser that there was nothing wrong with Democrats “taking a hit of the hopium,” but more seriously added that, “All the fundamentals are telling us not that much has changed.”
“There is not a blue wave, no," she said. "The question is: How big is the red wave?”
Hope springs eternal. Some of this is optimism, some confirmation bias—seeing what one wants to see or interpret, ignoring everything else.
But as Economist data journalist G. Elliott Morris wrote recently in his Substack column, “One constant feature of political analysis is the tendency for both pundits and prognosticators to overstate changes in the political environment.”
Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest, but for me, much of this Sunday was spent perusing the just-released NBC News poll and analysis conducted by the bipartisan team of Hart Research (D) and Public Opinion Strategies (R). Neither party will be delighted with the results.
Democrats will not appreciate that the poll failed to find any significant jump in Biden’s job-approval rating, the generic congressional ballot test, or Americans' views about the “direction of the country.” But the GOP will not find it comforting that the advantage that it had held on the question of which party's voters were more interested in the midterm election and thus, more likely to vote, has all but evaporated.
One of the primary reasons the president’s party has suffered a net loss of House seats in 36 of the 39 midterm elections since the start of the Civil War is that those in the opposition party are almost always more motivated to vote than those in the president’s party. This had been the case for much of this cycle, but the Dobbs Supreme Court decision, as well as some of the other developments previously mentioned, seemed to put a bit more starch in Democrats' shorts, all but completely closing the gap,
As NBC News Senior Political Editor Mark Murray wrote, “68% of Republicans express a high level of interest in the upcoming election—registering either a “9” or “10” on a 10-point scale—versus 66% for Democrats. That 2-point GOP advantage is down from 17 points in March and 8 points in May.” This is a key yardstick, though not the only one, that pollsters use to look at the likely level of voter turnout within each base. Only 21 percent of respondents said the country is headed in the right direction, but that is 5 points more optimistic than in the May NBC survey, while 74 percent said the U.S. is off on the wrong track, a decrease of just 1 point from the previous survey. The new numbers aren’t much different from those in the three previous polls conducted in October of last year and January and March of this year.
Among independents, just 36 percent said the country was headed in the right direction, while 59 percent felt it was on the wrong track. The numbers were almost identical among Democrats: 35 and 59 percent, respectively. With the notable exception of the period right after the September 11 attacks, Americans have been stuck in a persistent state of pessimism, but over the last 10 years it’s averaged about 30 percent "right direction" and 61 percent "wrong track." So today, while Americans are not quite as downbeat as in May, they are still much more dour than usual for the last decade. So we can say they feel “a little better but still very bad.”
Those hoping that the change in atmospherics would trigger a reevaluation of President Biden’s performance will be disappointed by this survey. His overall job-approval rating was 42 percent, exactly the same as in May and only a point better than in March. His disapproval of 55 percent was 1 point higher than it had been in both the March and May surveys. Among Democrats, Biden’s approval was 79 percent (with 17 percent disapproving), among independents it was 43 percent (with 51 percent disapproving), and among Republicans, only 7 percent approved (92 percent disapproved), according to Murray.
On the generic congressional ballot test, 47 percent of voters preferred Republicans control Congress, while 45 percent wanted Democrats. Each of these percentages are within 2 points of what was found in the five previous NBC polls over the last 12 months. Neither party had many defections: Democrats preferred Democrats by 90 to 6 percent, Republicans preferred Republicans by 94 to 4 percent, and independents were split down the middle—40 percent for Democrats, 39 percent for Republicans.
There are two ways to look at congressional elections. One is to use a “macro” approach, from the top down, focused more on the national political climate and the headwinds or tailwinds that each party may be encountering. The other is more of a “micro” method, from the ground up, focusing on candidates, campaigns, and voting patterns in each state and district. In the House—with its much larger number of races and individual candidates being less known and defined, making it more of a party approach—the macro approach usually works best. In the Senate, while the macro trends do matter, with only a half-dozen or dozen races really in play, what goes on in individual races, including candidate quality, as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted this week, matters, too, making the results far more idiosyncratic. The smaller number of competitive races is why the tendency for a president's party to lose seats in the Senate—as has happened 19 out of 26 times (73 percent) since we started directly electing senators in 1914—is so much lower than the 92 percent rate in the House.
My interpretation of the data is that the macro-political situation has changed much less than many believe, except that the enthusiasm gap between the two parties has closed.
While voters are not suddenly reevaluating Biden or the Democratic Congress—both still find their numbers pretty low—the focal point in many voters’ minds has shifted some from being unimpressed with Democrats in Washington. Then add in Trump, the houseguest who will not leave, and fears that Republicans are over-reaching when it comes to abortion. The changes that have taken place make a difference because when the GOP was enjoying a 50- or 75-mile-per-hour tailwind, with their base far more likely to vote than Democrats, even some of their most suboptimal candidates were in a position to win. But with that advantage severely diminished, the tailwind cut to 10 or 20 mph, some of the more exotic and problematic nominees may not make it over the finish line first.
All of this means that Republicans are still very likely to win control of the House, though their seat gain might be shaved off by a half-dozen or dozen seats. But the coin is definitely in the air for the Senate. That chamber could remain 50-50, or either party gain a seat or two with very small numbers of votes making the difference. Keep in mind that Democrats control the Senate now by virtue of Raphael Warnock’s 93,272-vote victory over incumbent Kelly Loeffler in one of the Georgia runoff contests, and Jon Ossoff’s 55,354-vote margin in the other, out of 4.5 million votes cast.
The article was originally published for the National Journal on August 22, 2022.
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