The basics haven’t changed since Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. From then on, 2022 was likely to be a good year for Republicans simply because the presidents’ parties typically lose seats in the Congress in the midterm elections. Given the slim majorities Democrats hold in the Senate and House of Representatives, it seemed reasonable to expect Republicans to secure majorities in one or both chambers.
The other basic circumstance, however, was that the particular Senate seats for the November election gave the Democrats a chance to hold on to, if not win, a seat or two even in a good year for Republicans. All of this is still true, and it is the context surrounding the uncertainty that remains; that is, the big questions are about the performance of Republicans.
To answer, start with what numbers pundit Nate Silver tweeted about recent changes in the FiveThirtyEight forecast. He cites the Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn its historic 1973 precedent on abortion rights, and adds:
Gas prices are falling. Trump is back in the news because of the January 6 hearings and for other reasons. COVID deaths remain down since the start of the pandemic. Wacky GOP candidates win primaries.
Here’s the thing: Just as each of these factors is breaking nicely for Democrats, Biden’s approval ratings continue their steady march south, hitting a new low of 37.5% last week before recovering slightly to 38. %. Maybe a few weeks of relatively good news for Democrats will reverse the long decline, but maybe not. And it’s hard to believe that a nation so badly treated by its president will do anything but punish his party harshly midterm.
But it also appears that the range of plausible media environments that could emerge in the final weeks of the campaign is exceptionally broad.
Take the economic news. In mid-October, it’s not hard to imagine gasoline prices falling further; a general feeling that inflation has peaked; job creation continues, giving Biden bragging rights of low unemployment and two years of exceptionally good job growth; and a global economy that has not tipped into recession and still looks strong. Nor is it hard to imagine gasoline prices rising again, with inflation defying predictions that it will reverse course; job losses; and economists declaring that a recession has begun. That’s an incredibly wide range of possibilities for 11 or 12 weeks from now.
There is also the unknown evolution of the coronavirus. New cases appear to be quite high (although no one seems to have a good estimate of their exact level), but as Silver points out, the death rate has remained relatively low during the current wave. Admissions to hospital intensive care units have also been subdued since the spring. Thus, even the current situation is not easy to assess. As for what’s next, again, it’s easy to imagine a wide range of what things will look like by mid-October.
The political tea leaves are also harder to read than usual. At this point in most election cycles that end in landslides, the party that ultimately won big had major resource advantages – far fewer retirements, better candidate recruitment, better Fund raising. There are a few during this cycle, but much less than one would have expected. Part of that is about those “wacky” Republican candidates winning nominations at every level, not just for Senate seats. This may be partly because in this era of abundant campaign finance, even parties destined to lose could still have huge war chests.
There is another significant quirk. Normally, politics shifts to the preferences of the president’s party, especially when he has majorities in both houses of Congress, as Democrats have since 2021. As a result, public opinion on politics tends to switch to the positions of the other party; indeed, it may be a big part of why outside parties do well in midterm elections.
But this time, not only have Democrats suffered defeats for many of their partisan initiatives in the Senate, but high-profile Supreme Court rulings have shifted policy outcomes away from Democratic preferences, perhaps enough to affect public opinion. and, subsequently, the results of the elections. The problem is that this circumstance is so unusual that expectations about the effects are only guesswork. This adds to the general uncertainty of a particular midterm election environment.
Barring anything surprising, Biden won’t be popular on Nov. 8, even if his approval ratings soon begin to reverse. On the other hand, he appears to be leading former President Donald Trump in the polls on the 2024 contest. Normally, I’d say ballots pitting a president against potential opponents in an election two years from now don’t provide any useful information, but, yes, Trump is not exactly a normal potential candidate.
All of this confusion comes in the context of what should be a good year for Republicans, which means the odds range from a huge Republican landslide to a more or less balanced year (although I have a hard time believe that the Democrats really have the 16% chance of holding their majority in the House, as suggested by the FiveThirtyEight House model). But in this range? I won’t be surprised.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and politics. A former political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University, he wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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