washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Partisanship Will Limit Extent of Any Midterm Election Wave

It’s still unclear which way the winds are blowing going into the midterms. But if a GOP wave does develop, Republicans might want to curb their enthusiasm, as I explained at New York:

Republicans are generally upbeat about their midterm prospects while Democrats are fearful, if not necessarily pessimistic. Most of the major indicators of likely midterm performance (notably the generic congressional ballot and polling of a lot of battleground races) are turning steadily red, which is also what one would expect from all historical precedents involving the party of an unpopular president in sour economic times. GOP activists and spinmeisters are excitedly imagining that the wave in their favor will rise and rise and engulf all sorts of Democratic candidates thought to be safe.

They should curb their enthusiasm. There are some structural factors at play this year that limit the probable size of any big turnover in offices in either direction.

The first is what the professionals call “exposure,” which means the number of Democratic-held offices that are reasonably within the reach of any rival. High-exposure cycles are typically those that follow a landslide in the opposite direction, creating a lot of vulnerable incumbents next time around. For example, the 2010 wave that swept 63 House seats into the Republican column came right after two consecutive very good Democratic cycles (2006, in which Democrats gained 31 House seats and flipped control of the chamber, and 2008, when they added 21 more).

While Democrats do go into the midterms with a small House majority, their surprising losses in 2020 essentially took some vulnerable Democratic districts off the table this time around. In the last midterm, in 2018, the authoritative Cook Political Report listed 73 Republican-held House seats as being up for grabs in competitive races (toss-ups or leaning to one party or the other). Democrats ultimately netted 41 seats. In the 2022 cycle, Cook has just 44 Democratic House seats as being at risk in competitive races. The battleground just isn’t as large, so the losses will likely be smaller, even in a rout.

The efforts of both parties to protect their own House seats via control of the redistricting process also reduces exposure to big losses. In essence, both parties are trading the opportunity for big gains for a reduced risk of big losses. And since they are making decisions that will draw maps for an entire decade, they may not be all that opportunistic about short-term gains.

There’s a different calculation for U.S. Senate seats thanks to the eccentric patterns created by six-year terms, which means only one-third of the seats are up in any one election. And the 2022 Senate landscape has never been that promising for Republicans, with only 14 Democratic seats up, none of them in states carried by Donald Trump in either 2016 or 2020. Meanwhile, the GOP is defending 21 seats, two of them in states carried by Joe Biden in 2020 and six left open by retirements.

But there’s another factor as important as reduced exposure in placing something of a cap on Republican gains this year. It’s the sheer partisanship of an electorate that just isn’t as “persuadable” as it used to be and also doesn’t need much “enthusiasm” for its own candidates to become motivated to vote in order to smite a feared and hated enemy party. New York Times columnist Tom Edsall has assembled some political-science literature on this subject. He quotes UC San Diego’s Gary Jacobson on how partisanship modulates big electoral swings:

“Partisans of both parties report extremely high levels of party loyalty in recent surveys, with more than 96 percent opting for their own party’s candidate. Most self-identified independents also lean toward one of the parties, and those who do are just as loyal as self-identified partisans. Party line voting has been increasing for several decades, reaching the 96 percent mark in 2020. This upward trend reflects a rise in negative partisanship — growing dislike for the other party — rather than increasing regard for the voter’s own side. Partisan antipathies keep the vast majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents from voting for Republican candidates regardless of their opinions of Biden and the economy.”

This helps explain the persistent gap between the president’s underwater job-approval ratings and Democratic voting preferences (which we also saw on the other side of the partisan barricades in 2020). But it also helps explain positive assessments of Joe Biden from the vast majority of self-identified Democrats who do think he’s doing a good job, Edsall notes:

“As partisanship intensifies, voters are less likely to punish incumbents of the same party for failures to improve standards of living or to live up to other campaign promises.

“Yphtach Lelkes, a professor of communication and a co-director of the polarization lab at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote by email that ‘people (particularly partisans) are far less likely to, for instance, rely on retrospective voting — that is, they won’t throw the bums out for poor economic conditions or problematic policies.’”

“In the early 1970s, Lelkes wrote, ‘partisanship explained less than 30 percent of the variance in vote choice. Today, partisanship explains more than 70 percent of the variance in vote choice.’”

A wild card is whether either of the two parties gains or loses significant support from whole demographic groups. Republicans are still boasting about the modest but significant gains they made among Latinos in 2020, and Democrats are counting on detaching Republican women offended by the Supreme Court decision abolishing constitutionally protected abortion rights.

But another possibility is that abrupt swings in partisan performance may simply not occur in the immediate future as often as they did in the recent past. If polls continue to redden, then Democrats may profoundly hope this is the case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.