TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
After a sudden period of long-stalled legislative activity, I took a look for New York at the possible midterm election payoff:
Not that very long ago, Joe Biden’s job-approval rating seemed chronically and endlessly depressed; the Democratic-controlled Congress couldn’t get anything done; and all the indicators for the 2022 midterm elections looked terrible for the party, in part because its own voters were deeply disappointed with the lack of legislative productivity and a perceived absence of presidential leadership.
Now, in a series of legislative victories highlighted by the Schumer-Manchin budget-reconciliation agreement (now known as the Inflation Reduction Act, or IRA), Senate Democrats are suddenly walking tall, as Punchbowl News noted:
“Senate Democrats have put together an impressive resume this summer, most especially during the last two months. The CHIPS Plus Act, PACT Act, Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO, gun control and reconciliation were all passed in this period, a number of them with big bipartisan majorities. All in a 50-50 Senate.”
Assuming the House finishes action on the IRA later this week, it’s quite the late-innings home run, complete with a rebranded title that shows Democrats at least trying to address what has been the dominant issue of the midterms: inflation. Along with the Kansas abortion-rights referendum on August 2 that shows that Democrats may have an issue of competing significance to both swing and base voters, the landscape is most definitely getting brighter for Democrats. And though Biden and his party probably had little to do with it, they will get credit for falling gasoline prices if they continue to drop.
In an interview with Politico, Biden’s pollster John Anzalone used a gambling analogy for the turnaround. “We put our last silver dollar in our slot machine and came up big,” he said. “And they were sitting there with a stack of chips and are down to just one. The turnaround is unbelievable.”
Spin aside, things are clearly looking better for Democrats, but the question (other than uncertainty over the future direction of crucial economic indicators) is whether midterm losses are already baked into the cake. After all, with the exception of George W. Bush in the immediate wake of 9/11, every president going back to the 1930s has lost ground in his first-term midterm election. Even very small House and Senate net losses would flip control to Republicans. And while a yearlong downward drift in Biden’s job-approval rating has now been replaced with small gains, it’s still dreadful at the moment: 39.6 percent in the averages at both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics. At this point in 2018, Donald Trump’s RCP job-approval average was 43.4 percent, and his party was on the way to losing 41 House seats. Then, too, the “direction of the country” right-track, wrong-track ratio was 41-51. Now it’s 20-73.
Sure, Democratic base voters unhappy with earlier legislative misfires may now have a sunnier outlook on the party’s congressional candidates. That, along with the growing anger at conservative Supreme Court justices and anti-abortion Republican state officials, could certainly improve Democratic turnout. But Republicans will likely retain an advantage of core swing-voter concerns that are unlikely to go away by November 8, as Senator Marco Rubio suggested in a taunting floor speech on the IRA over the weekend:
“There isn’t a single thing in this bill that helps working people lower the prices of groceries, or the price of gasoline, or the price of housing, or the price of clothing. There isn’t a single thing in this bill that’s gonna keep criminals in jail. There isn’t a single thing in this bill that’s going to secure our border. Those happen to be things that working people in this country care about.”
That too is spin, of course, but the point is that GOP talking points really don’t have to change in light of the IRA’s passage.
The best empirical news for Democrats is the trajectory of the congressional generic ballot, the midterm indicator that has had the most predictive value in the past. As recently as June 13, Republicans had a 3.5 percent advantage in the RCP averages for this measurement of congressional voting preferences, with the expectation that the margin would widen as voting grew near. Now the generic ballot is basically tied (Republicans: 44.7 percent, Democrats: 44.6 percent). Historically, the party controlling the White House loses steam late in the midterm cycle, but at the moment, Biden’s party does seem to have some momentum. And in the national contest where Democrats have most reason to be optimistic, the battle for control of the Senate, Republicans continue to suffer from candidate-quality problems that could lose them seats they probably should win in a midterm. John Fetterman keeps maintaining a solid lead over Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania; this race is for a seat currently held by the GOP. And in Georgia, Raphael Warnock continues to run comfortably ahead of Herschel Walker even before the frequently tongue-tied former football great reluctantly faces the highly eloquent incumbent Democrat in debates.
There is no way to know, much less factor in, late-breaking real-world developments that might affect the trajectory of these and other midterm contests, whether it’s unexpected economic news, a change of direction in the Russia-Ukraine war, or an official 2024 candidacy announcement by Trump that reminds Democrats that the wolf is still at the door. Typically, voting preferences form well before Election Day, and early voting will begin in September in some states. At present, FiveThirtyEight gives Republicans an 80 percent probability of controlling the House next year and Democrats a 59 percent chance of holding the Senate. These numbers are better for Democrats than those we saw in June and July, and that’s grounds for gratitude.