A question I’m getting asked a lot these days is: “What does President Biden need to do to turn this midterm election around?” To many, it seems like a political version of a Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle ready and waiting to be solved with the right approach. Don’t be so sure.
Surely, some Democrats have been buoyed by a bit of good news lately. Reports over the last few days from Cook Political Report with Amy Walter redistricting guru David Wasserman and others have argued that Democrats have fared better than expected in the redistricting process.
There are a variety of reasons why: In some cases, Republicans opted to shore up some of their softer districts rather than maximize potential gains. In other cases where they did get very aggressive, state courts may send them back to the drawing board. And finally, Democrats gerrymandered just as shamelessly as Republicans in a few states, most notably New York.
While it is true that Democrats do seem to have escaped a tsunami in reapportionment and redistricting, their fundamental political troubles heading into the midterm elections have little to do with either reapportionment or redistricting.
The overall political environment, including Biden’s low job-approval ratings and a big disparity in enthusiasm levels between more-energized Republicans and more-lethargic Democrats, continue to be much greater threats. The potential for a wave election has nothing to do with ink on a map and everything to do with voters’ broader concerns.
If the new congressional maps result in a much smaller number of competitive congressional districts, does that reduce the variability of the outcome? That is, if more districts are much more blue or red in their tint, does it narrow the band of potential outcomes and minimize the number of losses that a party can have? Logically and theoretically, that should be the case—and it might. But my experience has been that in wave years, the number of losses for the disadvantaged party almost always ends up larger than if one simply takes a pencil to paper and counts up which seats may flip.
This cascading effect has happened time and time again. Heading into the 1994 midterm election, for example, there didn’t appear to be 40 Democratic-held seats that could fall to the other side and deliver the House to the GOP. But it wound up to be a 54-seat swing that night, as some GOP challengers who didn’t get a dime from the National Republican Congressional Committee suddenly found themselves going to Congress.
So what needs to happen to save Democrats’ skin? As Doug Sosnik, who was a senior political aide in the Clinton White House, told Politico’s "Playbook," the administration needs to control the coronavirus and inflation, return the supply chain to normal, dodge a global crisis, and hope Biden’s job approvals return to the “high 40s by summer.” Meanwhile, the GOP needs to “nominate unelectable general-election candidates and run lousy campaigns,” and “Trump and Republicans need to keep talking about the 2020 election.”
It stands to reason that between now and Election Day, we may have emerged from the coronavirus and started feeling normal again. If the Republican National Committee’s censure of Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger this weekend for their participation on the Jan. 6 committee is any indication, Republicans may indeed give Democrats a helping hand.
But beyond those, the items on the rest of Sosnik’s list start to get tricky for Democrats—such as maintaining the robust gross-domestic-product and stock-market growth while the Fed is aggressively raising interest rates to put a brake on mounting inflation. Supply-chain disruptions don’t look to get much better soon. Labor shortages might well lead to still more inflation. Reconciling all of these economic trouble spots before November makes a three- or four-cushion shot in pool look pretty easy. This still looks to be a very difficult year for Democrats, as this column has noted before. Democratic hopes, particularly in the House, may be contingent upon divine intervention or Republican self-destruction. Or perhaps both.
Our subscribers have first access to individual race pages for each House, Senate and Governors race, which will include race ratings (each race is rated on a seven-point scale) and a narrative analysis pertaining to that race.