For much of this cycle, the question has been whether Democrats would be able to defy the traditional midterm fundamentals and make the 2022 election a 'choice' instead of a 'referendum' on the president and his party.
This summer, the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision forced a once-in-a-generation reset of the abortion debate, putting Republicans on the defensive as many were on record supporting the most restrictive/least popular positions on the issue. That decision, combined with the re-emergence of Donald Trump, and a summer of bruising GOP Senate primaries, produced a significant uptick in Democratic enthusiasm and energy. It also meant that Democrats were no longer forced to duck and cover, but could instead go on offense against their GOP opponents.
But, with less than two weeks until Election Day, it looks as if the fundamentals — an unpopular president, deep frustration with the status quo, and stubborn inflation — are ultimately going to define this midterm.
For Democrats, voter opinions about the economy are the most challenging to overcome. Not only are voters expressing frustration and pessimism with the state of the economy, but they give Biden low marks on his handling of the issue and see Republicans as better able to tackle inflation. The recent CNBC All-America Economic survey found that while voters were slightly less negative than they were earlier this summer in their perceptions of both the president and the economy, a significant majority (61 percent), remain pessimistic about the current state of the economy and doubt it will improve over the next year. Regarding who voters trusted to "bring down inflation," Republicans had a 15-point advantage (42-27 percent). Moreover, the CNBC poll found that while "threats to democracy" is the No. 1 issue for Democrats, and "immigration and border security" is top for Republicans, "for independents, inflation is the leading concern, and little else registers."
In other words, Democrats may be mobilizing their voters with calls to protect democracy and abortion rights, but independent voters are much more focused on their cost of living concerns. There's little that Democrats can do between now and Election Day to make that economic squeeze feel less significant.
At the same time, we also know that our deeply polarized electorate has limited the shape and the scope of the political playing field. Getting a huge 'wave' is harder when there are few partisan defectors and even fewer swing districts.
In other words, one Democratic pollster told me the other day; things look merely "dire" for Democrats instead of "catastrophic." Dire, this person told me, means a GOP gain of up to 20 House seats, but continued Democratic control of the Senate.
Another Democratic strategist I spoke with over the weekend told me that early vote data in key battleground states shows a more engaged and energized Democratic electorate than we saw back in the fall of 2021 when Democrats lost the Virginia gubernatorial race and narrowly won in New Jersey.
As my colleague Dave Wasserman has pointed out, the 'wave' may be more regionalized than nationalized. Democrats are struggling in states like New York, Oregon and California where they are hit with what he calls a "double incumbent penalty." Not only are Democrats in charge in DC, but they're also in power in these deep blue states, which are having their own challenges with issues like crime and homelessness.
The Senate remains a toss-up thanks to three major factors: 1) A favorable Democratic map: Democrats only need to hold/win in states that Biden carried in 2020; 2) Republican retirements: If Sens. Portman (OH), Toomey (PA) and Burr (NC) had opted to run for re-election instead of retiring, all three would be considered safe holds for the GOP instead of at risk; 3) weak GOP candidates with significant baggage that has allowed Democrats to play offense.
But, just who is ahead — and who has the momentum — in these key senate races is not as obvious as it may seem. One way to assess the competitiveness of these contests is to go to a poll aggregating site like FiveThirtyEight.com and look at the margin separating one candidate from the other. Of the seven most competitive Senate races, three have the Democrat ahead by anywhere from 3 to 4.5 points (Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona), and three have the Republican ahead by anywhere from 1 point (Ohio) to 3 points (North Carolina and Wisconsin). Nevada is even.
But, as I've written maybe one hundred times before, it's better to look at vote share than the margin when assessing the competitiveness of any these statewide contests.
Take Ohio. For much of the summer, Democrat Tim Ryan was ahead of Republican J.D. Vance by anywhere from one to 4 points. Over the fall, the race tightened. Today, Vance leads by almost 2 points. But, when you look just at vote share (the percent of voters who say they'll vote for Ryan), the Democratic congressman has never averaged more than 45 percent, even when he was 'leading' Vance.
Or, look at Georgia. Sen. Warnock has led Herschel Walker since July, but the Democrat has been averaging 46-47 percent of the vote for much of the fall, which is why most insiders expect to see this contest headed for a run-off on December 6th.
Pennsylvania is a place where the trend has been Dr. Oz's friend, but the question now is how much runway Oz has left. Since August, Oz has improved his vote share by 8 points (from 37 percent to 45 percent). Meanwhile, Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has seen his average vote share drop 3 points (from 50 percent to 47 percent). If the election were held today, Fetterman would likely win. But, with days still to go, Oz may be able to eke this thing out.
Another thing helping Republicans is that the spotlight is no longer shining as brightly on Donald Trump as earlier this summer. Gone is the daily media coverage of the January 6th committee or the classified documents stored in Trump's Mar-A-Lago residence. More important, however, is that Trump is no longer inserting himself into the midterm conversation. A recent Washington Post story reported that advisers to the former president are "asking Republican campaigns if they want rallies in the final stretch to Election Day," with a recognition that "there are limits to where Trump can be beneficial." It's easier for Democrats to make the case that congressional Republicans represent an "existential threat" when Trump is soaking up the media coverage.
The roller coaster ride of a 2022 midterm is about to round its last turn. And, while there's still a lot of fluidity as to the final results, the momentum and the issue environment favor the GOP.
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