If last summer's theme song for Democrats was "Cruel Summer," this summer should be "Summer Breeze." By the end of the summer of 2021, the resurgence of COVID (and subsequent scramble for testing and inconsistent advice from government agencies), the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and rising inflation, not only crushed President Biden's political standing but created headwinds for down-ballot Democrats that looked all but impossible to overcome.
This summer, however, the wind has been at Democrats' back. While inflation is far from 'whipped' it looks like it has at least 'peaked.' Gas prices, which significantly influence consumers' economic mood, have dropped about a dollar since earlier this summer. Moreover, the media focus has been squarely fixed on issues that put Republicans on the defensive such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the investigation into the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, former Pres. Trump's continued presence on the campaign trail, and bruising GOP primaries for Senate and Governor. Then of course there's the fact that Congress has actually done some legislating; passing bipartisan legislation on guns and semiconductor manufacturing as well as the Inflation Reduction Act that passed with Democratic-only votes.
Even so, the data is giving us mixed signals. Despite these favorable winds, Biden's job approval rating remains mired under 40 percent. Americans remain deeply pessimistic about the economy and Biden's handling of it. The one improvement in fortunes for Democrats has been the generic ballot which shows Democrats making up significant ground over the last few weeks. And, as my colleague David Wasserman has noted, better-than-expected showings by Democratic candidates in NE-01 and MN-01 House specials mean "we're no longer living in a political environment as pro-GOP as November 2021."
At the start of the summer, Republicans had a 2 point advantage on the generic congressional ballot. Today, the two parties are basically tied (Democrats up 0.1 in the FiveThirtyEight average). But, Democrats have not recovered completely on this measurement from their 2021 summer slump. At this point in August of 2021, for example, Democrats boasted an almost 4-point lead on the generic.
Overall, the mood among political operatives on both sides of the aisle is cautious. One GOP operative, while acknowledging that it "feels like the environment is deteriorating a little," followed up by saying that "it will be interesting to see how things feel" in mid-September. A longtime Democratic Senate strategist argued that while things were looking good in the data today, "sustaining this mood for 12 weeks is a lot."
So, how will we know if this new burst in Democratic momentum is real? Or if it's just the summer breeze that will turn cold once the fall hits?
To me, the most fascinating disconnect right now is among independent voters who give President Biden low marks, but are open to supporting Democratic candidates for Congress. Democratic hopes of keeping the Senate and keeping down their losses in the House depend on running ahead of Biden among this critical demographic.
Since 2010, the sitting president entered the fall of the midterm election year with a job approval rating among independents anywhere between 38 and 45 percent. In all three of those midterm elections, the party in the White House lost independent voters by double-digits. And, of course, the party of the president lost control of the House, the Senate or both. In October of 2018, for example, President Trump's job approval rating among independent voters was 38 percent approve to 52 percent disapprove (-14). Exit polling showed Democrats winning independent voters by 12 points (54 percent to 42 percent). In other words, independent voters' low opinion of Trump translated almost identically to the vote share they gave GOP congressional candidates.
At this point, Biden's job approval rating among independents sits even lower than his predecessors. The most recent Gallup polling put his job approval ratings among independent voters at just 31 percent, and other polls have him even lower.
However, polling taken this month and last by Monmouth found a 'generic Democrat' running anywhere from 11 to 14 points better among independent voters than Biden's job approval ratings with these same voters. For example, the most recent Monmouth poll found a Democrat pulling 47 percent of the vote from independent voters — which is 14 points higher than Biden's anemic 33 percent job approval rating with these voters. A late July Quinnipiac poll, which found Republicans ahead by just one point on the generic ballot question (44 to 43 percent), also found Democrats doing 12 points better among independents than Biden's anemic 23 percent.
Overall, Democrats were winning independent voters in the most recent Monmouth survey by 6 points (47 percent to 41 percent). The July Quinnipiac poll showed Democrats losing independent voters by 9 points (35 percent to 44 percent).
We've seen the same thing in Senate polling. A July poll conducted by the University of Georgia's School of Public and International Affairs for the AJC, found freshman Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock with a 47 percent approval rating among independent voters — a full 20 points higher than Biden's. In a head-to-head match-up with Republican Herschel Walker, Warnock leads the former football star among independents by 9 points (38 percent to 27 percent). His 38 percent vote share with independents is 14 points higher than the vote share given to a "generic Democrat" in the state.
A recent poll in Arizona conducted by OH Insight found Sen. Mark Kelly with a 43 percent favorable to 42 percent unfavorable rating among independents. The poll didn't test Biden's job approval ratings, but given what we've seen in other polling in the state (and nationally), it's much lower than Kelly's +1 showing.
Both Warnock and Kelly won independent voters in 2020; Kelly by 10 points and Warnock by 4 points. Biden carried independents in both states that year by 9 points.
So, how are Democrats able to defy political gravity with independent voters? And, can they sustain it?
First, not all those who disapprove of Biden are taking out their frustration on his party. One pollster told me that his most recent polling showed "Dems winning generic Congress ballot among 'somewhat disapprove' of Biden by 17 points. That's what is keeping Dems competitive in Congressional ballot generically."
Another is that independent voters are simply fed up with both parties and, as such, aren't focusing their frustration at just the party in charge. One GOP pollster told us that a significant percentage of independent voters in his most recent poll have negative views of both Democratic and Republicans in Congress. Or, as one GOP strategist remarked to us the other day, these voters "hate us both." This is one reason why you are seeing some of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents running ads that point to their work on rooting out Washington corruption, like refusing corporate PAC funds and banning members of Congress and their families from trading stocks or becoming lobbyists. The more that Democrats can show their separation from "the swamp," the better chance they have to keep those independent voters on their side.
Overall, however, Republicans can take heart in the fact that the top issues for independent voters remain inflation and the economy — issues for which they give Biden very low marks, and say they trust the GOP more. And, while things are improving on the economic front, they still aren't great.
The Republican strategy to close the gap with Democrats is pretty obvious: do all they can to link their Democratic opponent to the unpopular Biden. That will be easier for Republicans to do this year than in 2020 when Democrats like Raphael Warnock and Mark Kelly were running as outsiders, not as incumbents with a voting record.
However, that also requires a level of discipline these first-time candidates have yet had to prove. They need to keep laser focused on the economy and Biden and not getting distracted by shiny objects that may play well on cable TV (i.e., the Mar-a-Largo FBI raid), but don’t speak to the concerns of independent voters. It also means not getting sucked into fighting Democrats on their turf, like on the issue of abortion.
Republicans are also quick to note that Democratic senators have had the airwaves to themselves for the last year while GOP candidates were mired in bruising primaries. That, of course, will be ending as Republicans start to flood the airwaves with attacks on the Democratic incumbents. However, a candidate like Dr. Oz has to rehab his own very negative image first, which some Republicans concede is not going to be easy.
Vulnerable Democratic Senate candidates have been raising gobs of money and spending it liberally to raise their bonafides with independent voters. But, at the end of the day, they can only control so much. They have been able to fly above Biden’s dismal ratings thus far, but once the GOP ad assault has been underway for a while, we’ll find out whether they can continue to defy political gravity.
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