Over the next four weeks, I will be posting a series of short articles related to the 2022 Midterm Elections. Each article will target a specific narrative being put forward in the media, and evaluate the arguments on their merit. I’ll give the likelihood of each scenario occurring, or an evaluation of the truth or falsehood behind each premise. In the next four weeks, we’ll talk about if the Democrats can outperform Biden’s low approval ratings, the impact the recent abortion rulings will have on female voters, and the Democratic prospects of holding either the House or Senate.
In this first installment, we’ll examine the media’s premise that Democratic Congressional candidates can overcome the burden of President Joe Biden this midterm cycle.
Narrative 1: Democratic candidates will outperform Biden’s approval rating.
Rating: Likely True
You’re probably aware the best indicator of how a party will perform in an election is the President’s approval rating. You’re probably also aware that this fact likely means trouble for the Democrats this fall. Joe Biden is not just unpopular with Republicans and independents; he is also struggling for support within his own party. Even liberal-oriented publications such as The Hill now routinely run stories describing how the Democratic base wants a new nominee in 2024.
President Biden’s approval rating is low by any standard with an average of 43%, though it is up from its nadir of the mid-30s. He’s roughly in the same position as the previous two presidents at this point in the election cycle. Both of those administrations experienced massive losses in the House, and in Obama’s case, the Senate as well. You may approve of Biden’s performance in these last 21 months, but it’s hard not to notice that most Americans view his presidency as problematic. Thus, Democrats have been trying to argue that their slate of candidates will outperform the leader of their party, staving off annihilation at the polls next month.
I would concur that, on the surface, this is a likely probability.
The reasoning is simple: dissatisfied Democrats will still likely vote for their own party’s candidates. When a president’s approval is this far underwater (currently a net negative of -10%), part of the reason is a lack of support from within his own party. Just because you’re a Democrat that doesn’t like Biden doesn’t mean you don’t want your own party to succeed. You’ll still turn out to vote for the governor or senator you like, and probably the House candidate as well. After all, do you really want Trump back in office in two years working with a bunch of Republicans?
If you look at the charts, this reasoning holds true. Biden’s disapproval has leveled off some from its peaks in July. This correlates to the reduction of gas prices that are slowly dropping from the previous, unsustainable levels. That isn’t to say that fuel costs aren’t still a problem- they are, and massively. However, the bandage applied by draining the strategic petroleum reserve will possibly keep prices stable until (conveniently) after the midterms.
As a result, Biden’s net disapproval is down by half in the last three months. Internals of these polls show a gain among Democratic voters, but not a gain among independents- the latter has actually dropped further. The “drop” in gas prices (in Biden’s world, going from $2 to $4 back to $3 is a net decrease) will give Democrats the cover needed to justify coming home to the fold. Fuel costs are both the most noticeable and important to the inflationary pressures the country is feeling. While Republicans and independents may not put much faith into it, right now all the Democrats need is an argument. “Things are returning to normal, even if they aren’t there yet,” doesn’t sound great, but it’s something.
The premise of the original statement is flawed. Though the national media is correct with their assumption that the Democratic slate of candidates can outperform Biden, it’s simply the wrong argument to begin with. To me, the question is not if, but by how much, Democratic candidates will run ahead of Biden’s approval rating.
You need roughly 50% of the vote to get elected. The further behind Biden lags, the further ahead the Democrats have to run in order to win these races. Right now, that’s a lot of ground to make up in many of these battleground states. It’s a lot easier to get to 50% if Biden polls at 45% compared to 40%. In the latter case, most every Democrat is in trouble.
Biden’s bigger problem isn’t that he’s unpopular; it’s why he’s unpopular. Despite the foreign policy debacles, such as last year’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal, America’s economic issues are Biden’s real albatross. He’s currently below 40% with a net -20.6% approval in his handling of economic policies. It’s really hard to turn out your base when your pocketbook is hurting. The affluent liberal elite won’t be affected much, but Biden’s poor economic record- particularly on that of inflation- will depress turnout among those struggling financially. Disillusioned Democrats may not necessarily vote Republican as a result, but they may very well stay home.
Even though it will be easy for Democrats to outperform Biden with a low-40s approval rating, they have to do so significantly in order to be nationally competitive. That is a tall order given the state of the economy. Inflation is over 8%. The economy is in recession by every traditional definition. The stock market, once touted by Joe Biden as a signature achievement, is down nearly 20% for the year. It should be no surprise that Democrats can expect strong headwinds going into November.