We are still ten months from Election Day, but all signs point to a Democratic wipeout this fall. There’s President Biden’s weak job approval ratings, the sizable enthusiasm gap, the massive defection of independent voters, and a deep level of pessimism about the state of the country and economy. Aware of both the current and historic headwinds, 29 House Democratic incumbents are headed for the exits.
So, what’s a Democratic candidate to do? They can’t make President Biden more popular, as he’s the only who can convince the public that he’s up to the job. Many argue that Democrats need “better messaging” and a more proactive advertising campaign. But, boasting about lowered child poverty rates and strong GDP growth only goes so far at a time when Americans continue to be confronted with rising costs of everyday items like groceries and gasoline.
Even so, there are candidates who are able to swim against the tide and succeed even as their colleagues fall short. Some candidates get lucky. Sometimes the political climate improves over the year. Or, a big and unexpected event re-sets the political calculus. But, counting on luck or a sudden change in the political climate isn’t a strategy. And, wish-casting doesn’t win races.
I reached out to several seasoned Republican and Democratic political strategists to find out how they’ve advised (or would advise) a client who faces a daunting political environment like this one.
“In a wave election, some incumbents survive and win when they shouldn’t, and others lose when they could have hung on,” one GOP pollster told me, “So, if you are an incumbent in the party that is about to get swamped, you gotta scratch and claw and fight for every inch. For some people, that won’t work, but for some handful, it will. So you might as well try.”
So, what does ‘trying’ look like?
1. Take the race seriously, no matter how easily you or Pres. Biden won your state or district last time.
This should be obvious. But, plenty of incumbents fail to recognize the danger until it is too late. If you are in a state or district where Biden took anything less than 55 percent of the vote, you are in a danger zone—on top of that, redistricting means that almost every House member has to introduce themself to a bunch of new voters and new regions of the state. Don’t wait until the fall to do that.
2. Define your opponent early and often.
Midterm elections are a referendum on the party in power. When things are going well, you ride that momentum. When things aren’t going well, you have to find a way to change the topic. You can’t suddenly make people care less about inflation or COVID. But, you can try to undercut the image of your opponent. Or to force them into a fight on policy/ideological turf that is more comfortable for you than them. “You are in a constant battle to keep the campaign off of the major narrative of the election,” another strategist told me. “Obviously, the easiest way to do this is to make it a character campaign, if your opponents background allows for that.” Even then, however, voters may be willing take a risk with a flawed challenger rather than sticking with an incumbent party they feel has lost its way. I remember talking to GOP campaigns back in 2006 who were flummoxed at how challenging it was to make any of their attacks on their Democratic opponents stick. Things that would have sunk their opponent in a previous cycle didn’t move the needle.
3. Distinguish yourself from an unpopular president.
That is easier said than done. As my colleague Jessica Taylor and I have highlighted in recent weeks, past presidential results are more predictive of down-ballot performance than ever before, making it harder for a candidate to create separation from the person at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The good news for some Democrats is that they are currently more popular in their state than the president. For example, a Quinnipiac poll put Biden’s job approval rating in Georgia at just 36 percent, with 59 percent disapproving, including a jaw-dropping 66 percent of independents disapproving of the job Biden’s doing as president. Sen. Raphael Warnock has a more robust job approval rating of 47 percent, thanks to his higher standing with Democrats (net approval was 23 pts better than Biden) and independents (net approval was 42 points better). A survey for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed similar results: Warnock’s job approval was a net 32-points better than Biden’s.
Even so, Warnock’s 47 percent approval rating may be his ceiling. The bleak political climate and the unpopularity of Biden may be just too much of a drag to allow him to get much higher than this.
I asked these same strategists to give me a realistic range a candidate could expect to ‘out-perform’ opinions of the president in their state or district. One consultant puts the range at 3 - 7 points — meaning if Biden were sitting at 40 percent job approval in that state, a Democratic candidate could get between 43 and 47 percent of the vote. And, said this person, that size of that range is “dependent on the ability to penetrate the minds of the voters to drive an actual choice between the two candidates.”
4. Swing voters still matter.
These days, much of the discussion has focused on the drop in approval for Biden among his own base, especially voters of color. While an enthusiasm gap is problematic, it’s simpler to fix than trying to win back independent voters. One of the easiest ways to improve morale among Democratic voters is for Democrats in Washington to stop fighting with one another on everything from Build Back Better to the filibuster. This would have the added benefit of helping with independent voters since swing voters already think of Washington as a dysfunctional snake pit.
A successful roll-out and appointment of a Black, female Supreme Court nominee would also do a lot to help boost Biden’s standing with base voters.
But, when it comes to winning back swing voters, a Democratic candidate has to convince enough of them who are currently skeptical about Biden that they are a better and safer choice than their GOP opponent. That takes a lot of work, some luck, and an opponent who is not as quick on his/her feet as they need to be.