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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

A Peek at Some Midterm Indicators

Since there were no major surprises in the President’s State of the Union address or the Texas primary results, I’ll go with some insights from Charlie Cook’s “Foreign Policy Unlikely To Save Democrats in the Fall” at The Cook Political Report:

Given how monolithic partisans are in their approval ratings and actual voting, it is always useful to look only at independents, the ‘jump ball’ Americans. Biden’s overall rating among them was 35 percent (5 points below his approval among all adults). His best marks were on dealing with the coronavirus (45 percent approval), followed by foreign policy (37 percent), Russia (35 percent), and the economy (30 percent). It is pretty clear the president and his administration’s denial of the threat of inflation and slow reaction to it was exceedingly damaging to him. (While we are on the subject, it is fascinating to see Senate Democrats, after so passionately advocating for more infrastructure spending this past year, propose suspending the gasoline tax for the rest of the year, no matter that the gas tax is the primary regular funding source for transportation infrastructure. Panic is never pretty.)

While we don’t know the trajectory that the Russia/Ukraine crisis will take, and there are many factors that can impact on midterm elections, we do know that in the absence of a large number of U.S. military deaths, Americans rarely vote on foreign-policy issues, particularly in midterms. The state and direction of the economy, particularly change in real disposable personal income, is far more determinative.

Turnout and the relative levels of enthusiasm between the two parties’ bases is key. There was a big gap heading into the 2018 midterm elections with, as usual, the party out of power much more motivated going into the fall of that year—though the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination did a lot to close the gap in predominantly rural areas, which helped Republicans actually score a net gain in the Senate while getting hosed (a political science term) in the House. Right now, Democrats are the party suffering from a lack of motivation among their base.

If someone wanting a read on a midterm is only going to watch two things, it should be a president’s approval rating and the generic congressional ballot test, both pretty good barometers of which way the wind is blowing and whether it’s light, moderate, or heavy.

In my view, Biden and his team are handling this incredibly challenging crisis far better than many other things over the last year. But this is unlikely to save Democrats from what is increasingly looking to be a pretty horrible midterm election.

In short, none of the relevant data indicators are looking very good for Dems at this political moment. But Dems who want a little more hope should check out Andrew Prokop’s analysis of “The Presidential Penalty“at Vox, which Cook cites. As Prokop concludes, “Considering how historically difficult it is for a president to even get a draw in the midterms, Biden will probably need not just one but several things to break his way — an improving approval rating, growing real incomes, and an improving pandemic. And he likely needs both turnout and persuasion to break in his favor: He has to give sporadic Democratic voters a reason to cast ballots this year, and to win back some voters who initially approved of him but who have since soured on his presidency.”

That’s asking a lot. But another factor to chuck into the hope bucket is the deepening Republican split, which could become worse by election day, in light of Republican divisions on Russia’s Ukraine invasion. And Democrats do have a +3 point lead in the latest “generic congressional ballot” indicator. If the primaries in the months ahead help Dems to run the strongest House and Senate candidates – another big “if” – the midterm outcome may not be so bad.

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