It feels safer to bet on unpredictability than stability in this era of tremendous political and social churn and upheaval. While we know that the midterm elections favor the ‘out’ party (i.e. the party that doesn’t control the White House), many wonder if history can be a reliable guide when it feels as if history is being rewritten on a daily basis?
After all, there's plenty about 2022 that's unique. It's the first since 2002 that corresponds with redistricting; the first since at least 1998 that Democrats are not defending any Senate seats carried by the Republican presidential nominee two years earlier; and the first in memory where a defeated president is playing an outsized role.
Yet, there's more this upcoming midterm has in common with its predecessors. Or, to paraphrase Mark Twain, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
And, that's not great news for President Biden and Democrats in Congress. Here are the four ways in which 2022 "rhymes" with the last four midterm elections in which the party in the White House lost their House and/or Senate majorities.
1. One Party in Power
Democrats control the House (narrowly), the Senate (barely) and the White House. Holding onto that trifecta past the first midterm election has become almost impossible in the modern era.
The last president to hold onto both the House and Senate majorities post-midterm was Jimmy Carter in 1978. Although Democrats lost 15 seats in the House and three in the Senate that year, Democrats came into the midterm with a whopping 292 seats in the House and 61 in the Senate.
In fact, according to Pew Research, "the longest period of leadership for any one party has been eight years, when Democrats maintained one-party control from the beginning of President John F. Kennedy's term (87th Congress of 1961-1962) to the end of Lyndon B. Johnson's (90th Congress of 1967-1968). In the 27 congressional sessions following Johnson's presidency, one-party control has existed for just eight total sessions."
The last three midterm elections which featured one-party control of the White House, House and Senate were 2006, 2010, and 2018. In all three cases, the president's party lost the House. In 2010, Democrats lost seats but managed to hold the Senate. They lost Senate control in the 2014 midterms.
2. President Biden's Low Job Approval Ratings
Midterm elections, at their core, are a referendum on the party in power, or more specifically, a referendum on the sitting president. As our politics have become more and more nationalized, it's all but impossible for a candidate to escape the drag of an unpopular president of their party.
We saw that drag most recently in the race for Governor of Virginia this past November. According to exit polling, President Biden's job approval rating among Virginia voters was 46 percent to 53 percent disapprove. Democrat Terry McAuliffe took 48.6 percent of the vote - just 2 points above Biden’s job rating.
Nationally, Joe Biden's job approval rating sits at 43 percent, with 52 percent viewing him unfavorably. To put this into perspective, Biden's national approval rating in the 2020 exit polls was 52 percent to 46 percent unfavorable — or 14 points better than today.
Biden's job approval sits within the range of the previous three presidents who presided over big midterm losses. According to Gallup, Pres. George W. Bush clocked in at 38 percent in late October of 2006. Pres. Barack Obama was between 42-45 percent in the 2010 and 2014 midterms, while President Trump's showing in late October of 2018 was 43 percent.
The good news for Biden is that it's not November of 2022.
But, how much he can realistically make up between now and next fall?
Like Trump before him, Biden came into office with almost universal opposition from the other party and universal support of his own party. This means that his job approval range is very narrow; he's not going to get much above 50 percent or below 40 percent.
Even so, it doesn’t mean he can’t improve his current standing by next year. Trump was able to improve on his between the end of 2017 and the fall of 2018. For example, in December of 2017, Gallup polling showed Pres. Trump with a dismal 36 percent job approval rating. By October, Trump's approval rating was 43 percent, a seven-point improvement from 10 months earlier. That improvement wasn't enough to stave off a 40-seat loss in the House. But the electoral carnage would have been much, much worse had he still been mired in the mid-to-high 30 percent range.
A gain of just 4 or 5 points in job approval might not be enough to save the Democrats' very narrow House majority. But, it could be enough to protect the Senate.
3. Enthusiasm Gap
Motivating voters is something campaigns and strategists constantly think/study/stress about. But, while technologies and techniques change and evolve, there's a fundamental truth that’s been very consistent over the years: Angry people vote, and complacent or disappointed people don't.
This, more than anything else, is why the 'out' party has an advantage in midterm elections. Their voters are confronted with the consequences of losing the last election every day. That keeps them frustrated, angry and engaged (think, #resistance or #letsgobrandon movements). It's much harder for the winning side to keep their voters engaged. This is especially true for someone like Biden, whose appeal to many voters wasn't as much who he was as who he wasn't.
Moreover, sitting in focus groups this year, I've been struck by the number of Biden voters who say they've disconnected from watching or following the news post-2020 election. They were exhausted by the Trump presidency and are happy to drop out of the daily/hourly news cycle.
President Trump successfully kept his base consistently stoked with his tweets and attacks on Democrats and the media. A polarizing Supreme Court battle helped supercharge his base in late October. Yet, even that wasn't enough to overcome Democrats' enthusiasm advantage in 2018.
A validated voter survey of 2018 voters by Pew Research found that the electorate contained more Clinton 2016 voters than those who had voted for Trump that year. For example, while 78 percent of 2016 Clinton voters turned out in that mid-term election, only 74 percent of Trump voters did as well. More important, Democrats succeeded in winning over new voters. Of the 11 percent of 2018 voters who didn't vote in 2016, 68 percent voted for a Democratic candidate.
There are multiple ways to explore the enthusiasm gap for the upcoming midterm.
First, we can look at the intensity of support/opposition to Biden from 2020 voters. In this case, I looked at a cross-tab in Marist polling taken this year that asks respondents to say if they voted for Trump or Biden in 2020. Between April and June, those who voted for Biden and those for Trump felt equally supportive/unfavorably about Biden. For example, in June, Biden's job approval rating among those who said they voted for him last year was +86, while those who voted for Trump disapproved of Biden by a similar margin -86.
But, starting in August, opposition to Biden rose among Trump voters (-92), while support among Biden voters dropped (+67). In the most recent polling, the gap between support of Biden voters and the opposition by Trump voters is 19 points (+74 to -93).
We can also look to qualitative research. Focus groups of Democratic-leaning younger and so-called 'surge' voters (those who showed up in 2020 but not in a previous election year), show decided drop in enthusiasm for the president and the party.
And then there are election results. An analysis of the recent New Jersey governors election by Tom Bonier of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, found that while turnout among Democrats was up by 65,000 voters from 2017, turnout among Republicans was up a whopping 195,000. As such, the overall share of the electorate in New Jersey was 4.2 percent less Democratic and 3 points more Republican.
What can get Democrats more engaged in 2022? Many Democrats argue that passage of the Build Back Better Act will be a prime factor. But, proactive policy rarely results in benefits for the party in power in a midterm. As the Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein noted “it is extremely difficult for presidents to translate legislative success in their first year into political success in the midterm elections of their second year. Those early achievements can boost presidents in their reelection bids, but in almost all cases they have not proved an antidote to the other midterm factors that cause the president’s party to lose ground in Congress.”
Instead, Democrats need to rally their voters *against* something. Which is why you are seeing so much attention focused on Pres. Trump and the events of January 6th. Republicans tried a similar strategy in 2018 by trying to link every Democratic candidate with Nancy Pelosi or Bernie Sanders. This counter-attack only works if the other side falls into the trap. In 2018, Democrats worked hard to side-step controversial issues like abolishing ICE. Others promised to vote against Pelosi for speaker. We’ll have to see how well Republicans avoid nominating controversial candidates or engaging in unpopular behavior.
4. Independent Voters
With Democrats feeling less enthusiastic, and Republicans united in opposition, Democrats can ill-afford to lose support from independent-leaning voters. Unfortunately, that's exactly what's happening. And, is similar to what happened in the previous midterms.
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.
The most recent Gallup polling puts Biden's job approval ratings among independents at 40 percent, not much better than President Trump's 38 percent rating in October of 2018.
The good news for Biden is that, unlike Trump, he began his presidency with some goodwill among independent voters. From February until June, opinions of Biden among independent voters ranged from 50 percent to 58 percent. Meanwhile, opinions of Trump among independents were always more negative than positive. Trump's approval ratings among independent voters never broke out of the mid-to-high 30 percent range for all of 2017 and 2018.
In other words, the opinions of Trump, even among these 'swing' voters were hardened, and nothing good or bad moved them very much. Biden, however, has been seen both positively and negatively by independent voters. This suggests that he can also gain with these voters just as he has slipped with them.