Don’t count your chickens before your eggs hatch. That saying seems to be the best description of the November 8th midterm elections. In the spring, a red tsunami appeared to be gathering to sweep Capitol Hill and give Republicans control of the House and Senate. Now, just seven weeks before Election Day, Democrats are being favored to retain control of the Senate and seek to narrow the Republicans’ perceived lead in the House races.
Trends looked good for Republicans in March — and even better in July. The opposition party almost always wins House seats in the midterms, and it took the Republicans just five seats to retake the Speaker’s gavel. Over the past 75 years, the president’s party has lost an average of 29 seats in the House of Representatives in the first midterm elections of each president. The president’s party performs particularly poorly when the president is struggling in the polls. Joe Biden’s average job approval rating was just 42 percent in March and 37 percent in July. Add that inflation hit a 40-year high, Republican voters were far more enthusiastic than Democrats about the midterm elections by any measure, and far more Democratic incumbents gave up their seats than Republicans, and it’s easy to see why Republicans couldn’t wait for November.
elections and voting
The greatest consolation for Democrats this spring and summer was that the midterms were months away. That can be a lifetime in politics. And so it was. Biden’s overall average approval rating has returned to where it was in March, standing at 42 percent again. Other trends have shifted even more decisively in favor of the Democrats. To take just one, Democrats now have a three-point advantage on what’s called the generic ballot — a voting device that asks people to say whether they’d be voting for an unnamed Democratic candidate or an unnamed Republican candidate. As recently as March, the Republicans had a five-point lead.
The shift is also visible in actual votes. In five recent special elections to fill open house seats, the Democratic nominee did better than might have been expected based on the 2020 election. The Democrats even got a seat. These and other developments are why FiveThirtyEight.com gives Democrats a seven-in-ten chance of retaining control of the Senate and a nearly three-in-ten chance of retaining control of the Senate. And that’s why the Cook report believes GOP scrutiny of the House of Representatives is no longer “a foregone conclusion.”
What explains the momentum shift from red to blue? Political scientists will debate this question for years. You have a long list of contradicting statements. Gas prices have fallen steadily since the spring, blunting a prominent topic of conversation among Republicans. Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act and assuaged criticism that they were an “do nothing” congressional majority. The House hearings on the Jan. 6 insurgency raised troubling questions about how then-President Donald Trump and some incumbent Republican congressmen might have encouraged the attack on the Capitol. Extreme candidates have won Republican primaries in several states, confirming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fears that Republicans would prove to be their own worst enemy if they try to take back the Senate.
But any consideration of the shift in the dynamics of the 2022 midterm election must take into account the Supreme Court decision Dobbs vs. Jackson. The rejection by the court Roe v. calf has sent shockwaves through US politics. A few simple numbers give an idea of the effect. The number of independent female voters has shifted by twenty percentage points in favor of the Democrats between March and August. In 10 states where voter registration data is available, the percentage of women who registered to vote increased by about 35 percent Dobbs, compared to the month before a draft opinion on the decision was leaked. So-called persuasive voters — that is, voters who do not reliably vote for either party — appear to be voting disproportionately for the Democrats compared to previous elections. Data like this prompted one Democratic strategist to write, “This is a moment to jettison old policy assumptions and consider that Democrats may buck historical trends this cycle.”
But, but, but. Current trends are hardly set in stone. Seven weeks can be a lifetime in politics. The events could forestall the rise of the Democrats. The Red State’s efforts to limit early voting and mail-in ballots could weigh on Democrat turnout. Polls may, as has happened in the past, overestimate the strength of Democratic candidates and underestimate the strength of Republican candidates.
elections and voting
A danger lurks beneath all these figures and forecasts. We expect by election night the country will know which party will control each house of Congress because we almost always know. But if election day is more of a wash than a tidal wave, clarity could give way to confusion and controversy. Tight elections make every single race critical, and each midterm election produces a handful of races that take days or weeks to call.
Add in the fact that some Republican candidates are already hesitant to say whether they will accept the results of their races, even if the outcome is crucial — a position Democrats could easily emulate — then we could potentially see a country in disarray. As evidenced by the fact that a majority of Republicans believe, against all evidence, that Trump won 2020, facts and sober analysis won’t necessarily change minds.
Rather than set the country on a new and more stable course, the 2022 midterms could further fuel political dysfunction and division in the United States.
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Margaret Gach and Michelle Kurilla helped prepare this post.