By this point in a typical midterm year, it’s pretty obvious which way the wind is blowing. Perceptions of the president and his party have been settled. The issue environment is also well-defined. This year, however, it feels as if both are in flux. But, are they?
Perceptions of the president have improved over the course of the summer. Since July, according to FiveThirtyEight.com tracker, President Biden’s job approval ratings have risen by almost four points. On its face, that improvement looks like a disruption of ‘normal’ midterm trends. Since 1970, no first term president has seen an improvement in his job approval ratings between January and October of a midterm year. However, Biden’s bump between July and now wasn’t an improvement from his standing earlier this year. Instead, his job approval ratings today are basically where they were in January; Biden was at 43.3 percent on January 1st and currently sits at 42.4 percent. In other words, Biden is more popular than he was in July, but he’s not anymore popular today than he was in the beginning of the year.
By October of most mid-term elections, political gravity has kicked in. Members of the president’s party have spent much of the year putting distance between themselves and an unpopular commander-in-chief. But, a month out from the election, the pull of partisanship and polarization becomes too much for the candidates to overcome. This October, however, there’s evidence to suggest that Democrat candidates continue to defy political gravity.
Even as President Biden’s job approval rating is underwater at -10 (42 percent approve to 52 percent disapprove), Democrats lead the generic congressional ballot by just over one point (45.4 to 44.3 percent). But, as I’ve written before, if you focus on vote share and not the margin, the gap between Biden and the ‘generic’ Democrat isn’t that impressive. Biden is currently at 42.4 percent job approve, while Democrats sit at 45.4 percent of the vote in generic matchup with the GOP. In other words, a generic Democrat is performing about 3 points better than Biden’s job rating. In a close race, of course, that could be a difference maker. But, it is not history defying.
One thing that may be history defying, however, is that Biden’s disapproval ratings could be overstating his unpopularity. As I wrote earlier this fall, many who ‘somewhat’ disapprove of the president are leaning Democrat in their vote preference for the fall. In other words, winning over ‘disapprovers’ may be easier for Democratic candidates this year than it has been in previous midterms when those who “somewhat” disapproved of the job the president were also overwhelmingly voting against his party in the fall.
Then, there’s the issue environment. As we know, the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision has turned a traditional ‘referendum’ election on the president, to a choice election where Democrats are able to play offense instead of just defense.
Yet, it’s also true that the economy remains the dominant issue this cycle. It may not always be front and center in media coverage, but it remains a top concern for voters — who, importantly — trust the GOP more on than Democrats. In a recent column, CNN’s Harry Enten dug into the latest Gallup data. That survey found that not only do Americans rank the economy as their most pressing issue, but when asked which party was best equipped to handle it, 48 percent of Americans picked the Republicans to just 37 percent who chose Democrats. “This 11-point Republican edge,” wrote Enten, “is one of the best they have ever had. Looking at 20 midterm elections since 1946 when this question was asked, only once has the Republican Party had a larger advantage on this question. That was in 1946 when Republicans had a 17-point lead on the Democrats.”
Even voters that lean toward Democrats, like Latino voters, see the GOP as more capable on the issue of the economy. A recent NBC/Telemundo survey showed Latino voters favored Republicans by a four-point advantage over Democrats on the issue of handling the economy.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this midterm and previous ones, however, is structural. On the Senate side, Democrats don’t have to defend any red states or any competitive open seats. Their incumbents have been voracious fundraisers, who took their races seriously from day one. Meanwhile, GOP Senate retirements, coupled with competitive and contentious primary contests to replace those incumbents, have given Democrats another critical advantage. A different map and/or different GOP nominees and the outlook for Democrats would be more dire.
On the House side, while Republicans got a small boost via redistricting, Democrats are insulated from huge swings and shifts thanks to the fact that the last few elections have resulted in a House that is pretty well-sorted politically. At the end of the day, as we’ve written about extensively this cycle, Democrats don’t hold that many vulnerable districts. What makes their hold on the majority so tenuous is that they have such a small majority.
Even so, in order to make significant gains, Republicans would need to win in districts that Biden carried by 6 points or more. Even in big “wave” years, it’s hard to flip districts that are deeply red or deeply blue. In the last three midterm elections, a majority of the seats gained by the party not holding the White House came from districts that either the president carried by less than five points or had lost in the previous election.
And, at this point at least, the traditional signs of a ‘wave’ year aren’t materializing.
In 2010, for example, NBC polling found Republicans leading on the generic ballot among independent voters by 12 points and among ‘persuadable’ voters by 13 points. In 2018, it was Democrats who had a double-digit lead among independents (+13) and a sizable 8-point advantage among persuadable voters. Today, the Republican lead among both groups is much smaller; a 6-point lead among independents and just three points among persuadable voters.
The best way to think about why things this cycle feel so different isn’t that the winds have drastically shifted directions but that they are much less intense than the ones we’ve seen in the last few midterms.
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