Congressional Midterm Update: The Race Tightens
Don’t count your chickens before your eggs hatch. That adage looks to be the best description for the November 8 midterm elections. Back in the spring, a Red Tsunami seemed to be gathering to sweep Capitol Hill, giving Republicans control of both the House and Senate. Now, just seven weeks out from Election Day, Democrats are favored to keep control of the Senate and look to have cut into the Republicans’ presumptive lead in House races.
Trends looked good for Republicans back in March—and even better in July. The opposition party almost always gains House seats in the midterms, and Republicans needed just five seats to reclaim the speaker’s gavel. Over the past seventy-five years, the president's party has lost, on average, twenty-nine House seats in each president’s first midterm election. The president’s party does especially poorly when the president is struggling in the polls. Joe Biden’s average job approval rating in March was just 42 percent and by July it had hit 37 percent. Add in the fact that inflation was hitting a forty-year high, Republican voters were by all measures far more enthusiastic than Democrats about the midterms, and that far more Democratic incumbents than Republican ones were giving up their seats, and it’s easy to see why Republicans couldn’t wait for November.
The main solace for Democrats back in the spring and summer was that the midterms were still months away. That can be a lifetime in politics. And so it has been. Biden’s average overall approval rating has rebounded to where it was in March, standing once again at 42 percent. Other trends have shifted even more decisively in favor of Democrats. To take just one, Democrats now hold a three-point edge on the so-called generic ballot—a polling device that asks people to say whether they would vote for unnamed Democratic or an unnamed Republican candidate. Back in March, 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 candidate fared better than would have been expected based on the 2020 election. The Democrats even picked up a seat. These and other developments are why FiveThirtyEight.com gives Democrats a seven-in-ten chance to retain control of the Senate and nearly a three-in-ten chance to retain control of the Senate. And it’s why the Cook Report believes that GOP control of the House is no longer a “foregone conclusion.”
What explains the shift in momentum from red to blue? Political scientists will be debating this question for years. They have a lengthy list of contending explanations. Gas prices have fallen steadily since early spring, blunting a prominent Republican talking point. Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act, quieting criticisms that they were a “do-nothing” congressional majority. The House hearings into the January 6 insurrection turned up troubling questions about how then-President Donald Trump and some sitting Republican members of Congress may have encouraged the assault on the Capitol. Extreme candidates won Republican primaries in several states, confirming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s fear that Republicans would prove their own worst enemy in seeking to retake the Senate.
But any account of the shift in the dynamics of the 2022 midterm elections will have to take into account the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson. The Court’s dismissal of Roe v. Wade has sent shock waves through U.S. politics. A few simple numbers give a sense of the impact. The number of women independent voters shifted twenty percentage points in favor of Democrats between March and August. In ten states where voter registration data is available, the percentage of women registering to vote rose by roughly 35 percent after Dobbs, compared with the month before a draft opinion of the decision was leaked. So-called persuadable voters—that is, voters who don’t reliably vote for either party—look to be breaking disproportionately for Democrats compared to past elections. Data like these prompted one Democratic strategist to write that “this is a moment to throw old political assumptions out the window and to consider that Democrats could buck historic trends this cycle.”
But, but, but. Current trends are hardly locked in stone. Seven weeks can be a lifetime in politics. Events could forestall the Democratic surge. Red state efforts to curtail early voting and mail-in ballots could depress Democratic turnout. Polls could, as has happened in the past, be overestimating the strength of Democratic candidates and underestimating the strength of Republican ones.
There is one danger lurking under all these numbers and projections. We assume that the country will know on Election Night which party will control each house of Congress because we almost always do. But if Election Day is a wash rather than a tidal wave, clarity could give way to confusion and controversy. Tight elections make every individual race critical, and every midterm election produces a handful of races that take days or weeks to call.
Add in the fact that some Republican candidates are already hesitating to say whether they will accept the results of their races even if the outcome is decisive—a position that Democrats could easily emulate—then we could potentially see a country in disarray. As is clear from the fact that a majority of Republicans believes against all evidence that Trump won in 2020, facts and dispassionate analysis will not necessarily change minds.
So rather than setting 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 assisted in the preparation of this post.