In the wake of the Democrats’ poor showing in the 2021 off-year gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey as well as the local elections on Long Island, conventional wisdom has rendered a harsh verdict on Democratic prospects in the 2022 midterm elections for control of the narrowly divided House and Senate. This conventional wisdom projects that the crucial suburban vote that was key to Democratic victories in the 2018 and 2020 elections is now apparently lost to the Democrats heading into 2022.
I have a contrarian view. I do not dispute that the odds are against the Democrats, who have a lot of hard work to do if they want to avoid the usual fate of a new president’s party in his first midterm election. But it is too soon to declare a Republican victory all but preordained. I would argue that the 2022 congressional elections will hinge on how voters—particularly those in the suburbs, where about half the nation’s vote is cast—react to seven stark gambles that have been placed by both the Republicans and the Democrats. The payout on those gambles will not be made based on the electorate’s mood in late 2021, but rather based on its mood next year as summer turns into fall.
1. The Gamble on COVID and the Economy
The first and most consequential gamble both parties are making relates to COVID and the economy. As recently as the spring of this year, that gamble looked like it would pay off for President Joe Biden and the Democrats: The economy was growing and the data on COVID infections, hospitalizations, and deaths were all improving as vaccinations increased. Throughout the first six months of his presidency, Biden’s job approval ratings were consistently in the low to mid-50s, a historically comfortable range for a first-term president and his party heading into the midterms. Back in April, 52 percent of the respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed approval of Biden’s handling of the economy and by 2-1 margins approval for Biden’s handling of COVID.
But as summer turned to fall, as the Delta variant surged and Trumpist attacks on masking and vaccinations became louder—at the same time as inflation sharply rose and the news was dominated by the sad and poignant chaos in Afghanistan—consumer confidence fell, leading to Biden’s job approval ratings dropping to the low 40s on average. That is a dangerous level for Democrats, if it continues into next year. By mid-November, the Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Biden with a negative rating of 55 percent on the economy compared to only 39 percent approval, while on COVID 47 percent approved to 49 percent disapproved of Biden’s performance. His overall job approval rating in that poll stood at only 41 percent. In addition, the poll found that half of independents as well as 48 percent of all Americans blamed Biden for rising inflation.
If raging inflation is dominating the concerns of voters next fall, the Democrats will get clobbered in the midterms. In times of high inflation, voters will tend to gravitate toward the GOP, just they did in 1896, 1946, 1966, and 1980. And if new COVID variants are flaring up as inflation rages next year, the Democratic losses will turn into a full-scale shellacking.
But what if by next summer the rate of inflation subsides, as jobs and wages are growing, while the vaccinations of children and third booster shots for adults coincide with a blunting of any variants and declining rates of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, particularly in the politically potent suburbs. Can anyone doubt that that scenario would lead to rising ratings for Biden and for Democrats in the generic ballot tests?
If Biden’s job approval ratings are back in the low to mid-50s by next Labor Day and the public’s approval of his policies on the economy and COVID are at even higher levels à la last spring, the 51-41 lead the Republicans enjoyed in that most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll could flip to a Democratic edge of perhaps 8 to 12 percent, portending Democratic gains rather than losses.
The Republican gamble is that they can oppose Biden at every turn without paying any significant political price in the swing House districts and the marginal Senate seats because rising inflation is baked into the cake next year.
For Democrats to have any chance to win this gamble on the economy and COVID, they must pass the Build Back Better package in the Senate as well as the House. In the November Post/ABC poll, 70 percent of the respondents viewed the economy negatively. And 60 percent of the respondents, including 71 percent of the independents, said Biden has not accomplished much in office. That is bleak news for Democrats. Yet 63 percent in that same poll supported the bipartisan infrastructure package and 58 percent supported passage of the Build Back Better package (a level of public support confirmed by a subsequent Quinnipiac poll).
For Democrats to regain their footing in the polls, they will have to swallow their fears and use the reconciliation process to pass the second half of their economic package. That should erase the public’s perception that Democrats have not accomplished very much, which in turn opens the door to their owning the recovery should it come next year.
Is it a big gamble? You bet it is. But the Republicans are also taking a huge gamble giving the Democrats a chance to own both the recovery and getting COVID under control.
To Joe Manchin and his less vocal moderate Democratic allies, I would also posit this: The polling data is clear. If you don’t pass the Build Back Better bill, Democrats will almost certainly lose next year’s midterms—and what’s more, you will be irrelevant in 2023. In a Republican-controlled Congress during the second half of a Biden term, you can expect that bipartisanship will be dead. The GOP mission will be what it was in 2011 and 2012: pure obstruction in the hope of defeating the re-election of a Democratic president.
And passing the bill will not be enough to solidify public opinion. Democrats across the country, from the president on down through senior senators to the most junior members of the House, as well as Democratic governors and state legislators, mayors and county executives, must sell the benefits of the package—and keep promoting it even if it takes a while for the polling data to move their way. The formula is pretty simple: First you pass it, then you run on it.
Bottom line: Republicans are betting on inflation being the story next year. If the Democrats show themselves to be a party of action, they enhance the odds of winning this gamble.
2. The Gamble on Good Candidates
The second significant gamble lies in the interplay of reapportionment, candidate recruitment, and whether party primaries produce strong or weak candidates in the key congressional races next year. The Republicans look like they will have the early advantage in the House races, reapportionment probably giving them a net advantage of a five-seat pickup at the start.
The Democrats, meanwhile, have a candidate-recruitment challenge, as a significant number of incumbent Democrats have announced their retirements. In some cases, that could work to their advantage: They may find that they have candidates without tough votes to defend, poised to surf next year’s changing political waves in marginal districts. But that will only work if they are successful in recruiting strong candidates. In other words, congressional Democrats will need a healthy dose of discipline on candidate recruitment if they are to avoid the first-term midterm jinx.
The Republicans, meanwhile, should be worried that some of their races for Senate seats could lead to primary victories by candidates who are destined to lose in the general election (as Todd Akin did in Missouri, Richard Mourdock did in Indiana, Christine O’Donnell did in Delaware, and Sharron Angle did in Nevada in recent years). The Republicans should be concerned about who will win Republican primaries for the Senate in states as varied as Missouri, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, and Ohio.
Bottom line: Either party could come out of the primaries with bad candidates, leaving them at a distinct disadvantage for the general election.
3. The Gamble on Turnout
If the national turnout pattern in 2022 resembles the turnout pattern in 2021 in Virginia, New Jersey, and Long Island, it will be the Republicans humming “Happy Days Are Here Again” next November.
The only place where exit polls were taken this year was Virginia, and one of the things they show is this: Biden won by 10 percent in 2020, but the electorate that turned out in 2021 went for Biden over Trump by 48-44. which in turn led to 51 percent viewing the Democrats as too liberal while only 46 percent viewed the Republicans as too conservative. In addition, among the third of the Virginia electorate who cited the economy as their top issue, Republican Glenn Youngkin led by 11 percent and among the just shy of a quarter who cited education as their top issue, Youngkin led by 6 percent (traditionally education a staple Democratic issue in a state like Virginia).
For Democrats to even hold their own, much less to make gains, in next year’s midterms, they would have to do two things: make the turnout look more like 2020 by ensuring that their voters turn out, and carry independents by double digits. Once both parts of the economic package are passed, Democrats can begin to shift their messaging into a crusade to protect America’s democracy anchored in voting rights. That should resonate with minority voters and the party’s progressives, while also getting a nod of approval from moderate independents. (More on messaging in a moment.)
To those caught in the internal debate between the progressive left and moderate middle of the Democratic party, I have a lesson in applied math to impart: Democrats can’t win the swing seats they need in either the House or the Senate unless they can both mobilize the party’s liberal base and carry independents by double digits. That is a stiff test that Democrats passed in 2017, 2018, and 2020 in the presidential race, but flunked in 2014, 2016, and the 2020 congressional races, not to mention in 2021.
Bottom line: Will the turnout template next year be closer to 2014 (the Republicans won that turnout battle) or 2018 (where the Democrats swept the House races)?
4 and 5. The Gambles on Crises
The fourth and fifth gambles are mirror images for each party. In the wake of the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th, the Republicans have no margin for error on further political violence. Which made the Paul Gosar cartoons purporting to slay AOC and do harm to the president, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s antics of calling out fellow Republicans for voting in favor of the bipartisan infrastructure package, not just immoral but politically stupid. Not surprisingly Greene’s tweets were accompanied by threatening messages to at least two Republican members of Congress.
Let’s step back for a moment. After the two most troubling instances of right-wing violence during the Trump years—Charlottesville and January 6th—public opinion turned sharply against Trump. But Trump’s hold on the Republican base scared the congressional wing of the GOP into pretending that neither episode had done any real harm. My assessment is that those two events have become the equivalent of a two-strike count to the opening batter in the bottom of the ninth inning. If the Gosar-Greene wing of the House GOP incites the MAGA-QAnon crowd into some new act of political violence, I believe the vast majority of voters, especially among independents, will hold the GOP’s congressional wing accountable. It would hit the GOP in the same way that the Weathermen bombings damaged McGovern-era Democrats. Whether fairly or unfairly, swing voters tend to hold a political party to account for the actions of the extremist shores of their political movement. Let’s hope that nothing of the sort happens, but let’s be aware that this gamble exists. The failure of McCarthy’s leadership to hold Gosar and Greene to account could come back to haunt the GOP conference next November.
Alternatively, the Democrats would face a significant negative backlash if an immigration crisis at the Southern border were to appear in the middle of next year’s campaign season. Such an “immigration crisis” would be used by Trump and his allies to stir up the politics of resentment that has worked so well to boost turnout from the GOP’s rural, evangelical, and blue-collar white base. Trump and his allies are skilled at fanning the flames of grievance politics over turmoil at the border. Democrats ought to hope that the Biden administration is adept at not allowing such a border crisis to overtake next year’s campaign. Of course, such a crisis is at root a humanitarian crisis, but to deny its potential political import would be foolish.
Bottom line: If either party loses one of these gambles, that could burn an unfillable hole in the messaging challenge facing that party in next year’s midterms.
6. The Gamble on the Supreme Court
If the Supreme Court lets the Texas abortion law stand and either overturns Roe v. Wade or is perceived to have done so in the Mississippi case (Dobbs) the Court heard yesterday, that could trigger a political explosion.
To understand what that might look like, let’s turn again to the most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, which on this matter is in line with other polling data from the last few years. By a 60-27 percent margin, the respondents called for upholding Roe v. Wade. The 60 percent in support of upholding it are 56 of suburban voters, 64 percent of women, 82 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of independents, 67 percent of white Catholics, and even 42 percent of Republicans.
On the Texas law, meanwhile, 65 percent say it should be rejected, while only 29 percent want it upheld.
In general, 36 percent of the respondents say they support state laws that make it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate, while 58 percent oppose such restrictions (45 percent “strongly oppose” such restrictions).
Perhaps most telling of all, 75 percent of this poll’s respondents said the abortion decision should be left to a woman and her doctor, versus 20 percent who believe abortion should be regulated by law. That 75 percent group represents 95 percent of Democrats (no surprise there) and 81 percent of independents, but even 53 percent of Republicans. In a word, unpopular decisions by the Supreme Court on either the Texas or the Mississippi cases, and certainly on both, could become a wedge issue next year uniting independents with Democrats and dividing Republicans.
The Supreme Court could also get caught in a vise on any reapportionment cases where race-based gerrymandering has been alleged. The timing might make it difficult to affect the 2022 elections, but the Court could in theory rule on some of the kind of gerrymandering in reapportionment that gives House Republicans their likely five-seat beginning edge. Alternatively, if minority voters come to believe that the Supreme Court has failed to prevent discrimination in reapportionment cases, that could have a real effect on Democrats’ attempts to mobilize minority turnout.
Bottom line: The more extreme the Court’s rulings on these cases, and the more out of touch with public opinion, the more explosive the potential political effects could be.
7. The Gamble on Messaging
The final gamble revolves around the effectiveness of each party’s messaging campaign next year. The Republicans understandably see no need to change their approach to next year’s midterm campaign, as they have won three of the last four first-term midterms (1994, 2002, and 2010). They appear eager to bank on a low overall turnout, where their wedge issue narratives on the dangers of inflation, national security, immigration, crime, guns, and now parental control of schools could prove potent. Republican midterm campaigns rarely get bogged down in the nitty-gritty of issue development; instead they intrinsically gravitate toward crafting a narrative for a given year’s most fractious issues.
For Democrats, the task is shaking awake the younger and minority voters who traditionally fail to participate in midterms, while also comfortably carrying independent voters. Democratic campaigns also tend to eschew the potency of a clear narrative, mistakenly thinking that laundry lists of issues will woo voters. So they tend to lose midterms unless the wind is at their back, as in 2006 (send Bush a message on Iraq) and 2018 (pushback against Trump).
To have any hope of winning, Democrats would need to change their approach to messaging in 2022. They would have to embrace campaign narratives that unite their coalition while also resonating with independent voters. What might this look like? At the national level, a TV ad campaign messaging on what they have done on the economy and COVID. Underneath that macro messaging on the economy (with a strong undercard addressing climate change), they would need to develop a narrative around protecting our democracy against violence and infringement on the right to vote, while microtargeting the concerns of female voters should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. That approach would give the Democrats a fighting chance to change the turnout pattern back their way, particularly among younger and minority voters, while reclaiming a favorable gender gap and keeping the Republicans on the defensive among independents down the stretch of next year’s campaign.
Bottom line: Republicans have their traditional wedge-issue approach to midterms at the ready. For any chance of competing, Democrats will need clear, hard-hitting messaging that looks and sounds less like propaganda than most of their recent advertising does.
To end as I began, no one really knows yet how the 2022 midterms will turn out. Today, the Democrats’ prospects look daunting. Yet when you look closely at the conventional wisdom, what you find is that underpinning it is a series of rather extreme bets on where events will lead voters. Until those bets are paid off, no one can confidently handicap the denouement of the midterms.
The current odds and the historical trends certainly favor the Republicans. But perhaps Democrats can make their own luck next year, provided they catch a break on the economy and COVID by next fall and if they also encase their campaigns with a persuasive message-based narrative. In a rising tide economy, a compelling campaign narrative aimed at “Preserving American Democracy As We Know It” while proclaiming “The American Dream for All Americans” might just move a nation.