Over the last couple of weeks, there's been a shift in opinion among many political professionals about Democrats' chances in the midterm campaign. They point in particular to improvement for Democrats in the generic ballot poll question (which party would you like to see control Congress?), as well as recent Senate polls which show incumbent Democrats significantly outpacing Biden's job approval ratings in their respective states.

The explanation for this seeming disconnect between the president's weak approval ratings and stronger showings for Democratic House and Senate candidates seem to be driven by a few factors: a post-Dobbs energizing of the Democratic base, weak and/or flawed GOP senate candidates, and the January 6th hearings. In other words, the media focus has increasingly been centered on issues that are harmful for the GOP. 

Yet, there's nothing new about a late summer 'reassessment' of midterm assumptions. In fact, like clockwork, the out-party right about now starts to fret that their advantage is slipping, while the in-party sees green shoots springing from a barren landscape. Or, as Washington Examiner's David Drucker wrote on Twitter recently: "Midterm cycles since '06 have certain rhythm: 1) Maybe POTUS' party'll avoid losses. 2) Things look good for out party. 3) Things look REALLY good for out party. 4) Hold on, maybe POTUS' party won't lose as many seats as thought. 5) Could POTUS' party avoid wipeout? 6) WIPEOUT." 

We have already cycled through numbers 1-3 and are currently in zone 4. Think of the pre-Afghanistan, pre-inflation, pre-Delta variant as #1; we moved into #2 during the late fall and winter of 2021 as inflation began to take a serious bite and hopes for a BBB plan melted down; and we've been in #3 for much of 2022. 

But, have things really improved for Democrats? The most recent polls measuring the generic preference for Congress have shown a Democratic advantage of anywhere between 4 to 6 points. Overall, the generic ballot average in RealClearPolitics is a narrow R+2.2. So, suppose you compare Biden's net job approval rating of -17 (39 percent approve minus 56 percent disapprove) to Republicans' one to two-point advantage on the generic ballot? In that case, it looks as if Democrats are outpacing the president by 15 to 16 points. But, what if you looked at Biden's overall job approval number (39 percent) and compared it with the vote share a Democrat is getting in the generic ballot (43 percent). Looking at it that way, a Democrat is outpacing Biden by a much smaller 5 points. And historically, that's about the average margin that candidates of the in-party have been able to over-perform the president. 

In an analysis of the 2010 and 2012 Senate outcomes, RealClearPolitics Sean Trende found that "the Democratic candidate has run within five points of the president's job approval in 23 of them (75 percent). Additionally, no Democratic candidate in a competitive race has run more than 10 points ahead of the president's job approval (or behind it)." An analysis of the 2014 Senate results by the Washington Post's Scott Clement found that "no Democratic Senate candidate performed more than nine percentage points better than Obama's approval rating in their state's exit poll." Most Democrats were within 2-6 points of Obama's approval rating. 

Robert Blizzard, a partner at the GOP polling firm POS, did some number crunching of his own this week of the 2010, 2014 and 2018 midterms and concluded that "on average, running 5-6 points ahead of Biden is fair game, but more than that is very unlikely." 

So, let's now apply this framing to the latest Georgia Senate poll taken for the AJC. Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock leads Republican Herschel Walker 46 percent to 43 percent in that poll. Warnock's 46 percent is a full 10 points higher than Biden's anemic 36 percent job approval rating in the state. But, compare Warnock's vote share to the generic Democratic vote in the state (41 percent). Once again, we get to 5 points. This is driven by fact Warnock has consolidated Democrats. Among Democrats in the poll, 94 percent are voting for Warnock. Biden's job approval rating among Democrats in the state is an anemic 73 percent. 

But, coalescing the Democratic base in a swing state won't be enough to win. Democratic candidates will also need a certain percentage of independent voters to support them. And, those independent voters not only deeply disapprove of Biden, but they are also more focused on the economy and inflation. 

Candidates and campaigns matter. There's no doubt that we are going to see Democrats win in states where a stronger GOP nominee would have been successful. But, let's not overlook the fundamentals. Biden's job approval rating is dismal, consumer confidence is at or near all-time lows, and most Americans think the economy will get worse, not better, over the next year. 

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