Doug Sosnik is the kind of political analyst who likes to figure out the results of the next election well in advance — it’s just how he’s wired.
But even Sosnik, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who now tries to forecast elections as a hobby, is stumped about the 2022 midterms.
“I can’t figure this one out,” Sosnik said on Monday, a day after Democrats passed Build Back Better — whoops, pardon me, the Inflation Reduction Act, a woolly mammoth-size package that aims to shrink both the deficit and the risk of catastrophic climate change.
The bill’s passage is one of a string of recent victories for beleaguered Democrats, who have spent the past 18 months squabbling among themselves and fretting about the coming elections. Gas prices are ticking down. Jobs are plentiful, with the unemployment rate at a 50-year low.
Congress also passed the bipartisan CHIPS Act, a bill that would provide $52 billion in subsidies and tax credits to companies that manufacture chips in the United States and would add more than $200 billion for applied scientific research.
Even President Biden, whose age and concern about the virus forced him to spend much of the 2020 presidential election campaigning from his home in Wilmington, Del., managed to shrug off 18 days of coronavirus-induced quarantine.
As Ethel Merman might say, everything seems to be coming up roses for Joe and the gang in recent weeks, despite widespread predictions that Democrats are likely to lose the House and possibly the Senate.
A ‘blood bath’ that might never arrive
According to the usual logic Sosnik uses to make predictions, Democrats should expect a “blood bath” in the fall. But he’s not so sure anymore and is questioning everything he knows about the deeper patterns of U.S. elections.
He is puzzled by one thing in particular: Which past elections offer a guide to 2022?
The question doesn’t have an easy answer, in part because times have changed — there was no recent assault on the Capitol with the partial backing of one particular party in the 1982 midterms, for instance — and in part because the nature of political partisanship has changed.
That latter point makes it really hard to compare today’s approval ratings to the past; back in, say, the 1960s, voters were much more inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt. Today, far fewer partisans are willing to give the other side an ounce of credit or respect.
More Coverage of the 2022 Midterm Elections
Midterms are completely different animals than presidential election cycles, too: Fewer voters turn out, and the electorate tends to be older and more Republican.
Historically, or at least since World War II, the party in power has lost seats in every midterm election but two: 1998 and 2002.
The first came as Clinton skillfully exploited the unpopularity of congressional Republicans, whose impeachment drive backfired. The second came after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when patriotic sentiments were still running high.
But these midterms are structurally different from many others. For one thing, many of the Democratic House members in battleground districts — the Cindy Axnes and Elissa Slotkins of the world — were elected in the anti-Trump wave of 2018. Those who held onto their seats in 2020, a good year for Republicans in Congress despite Trump’s loss, may know a thing or two about staying in office.
So they weren’t elected on Biden’s coattails, unlike many of the Democrats who took power after Barack Obama’s commanding win in 2008 but who then lost in the 2010 midterms.
That said, most of the indicators warning of a shellacking for Democrats are blinking red:
Hence Sosnik’s confusion. What he’s wrestling with is the seeming dissonance between the rotten mood of the country, and all the red blinkers, on the one hand, and the string of recent Democratic victories.
You can see some of this nuance reflected in the so-called generic ballot, an average of survey responses to the question of which party voters would like to see represent them in Congress. Right now, the generic ballot is basically tied.
What does history tell us?
One historical clue is the fate of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who rammed his “Great Society” programs through Congress during his first few years in office, only to see voters punish Democrats at the polls in the 1966 midterms. Republicans picked up 47 seats that year.
Two years later, Johnson announced that he would not seek another term — hobbled, unquestionably, by the war in Vietnam.
Johnson’s average approval rating during his first term was 74.2 percent, according to Gallup. That’s a number Biden would love to have. And even his overall average approval rating, which dipped below 40 as the war dragged on, shrank only to 55.1 percent by the end of his presidency.
The point being: If even Johnson, the “master of the Senate,” couldn’t profit from passing landmark legislation, how can anyone expect Biden to fare better?
“We’ve been engaged in a battle all along,” said Representative David Price, a Democrat of North Carolina and a political scientist for many years at Duke University who wrote his dissertation about Johnson’s Great Society. “The counternarrative always was one of inflation and economic distress, and of course that’s a real challenge.”
But even Price, who said he thought many analysts were underrating Democrats’ chances of retaining the House, acknowledged the difficulty of the endeavor. “I don’t think I have a good answer, and I don’t think anybody does as to how to break through,” he said.
On the Senate side, the timing of the Inflation Reduction Act might be especially helpful for Democratic incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire. They are preparing to unleash hundreds of millions of dollars of television ad spending, playing up the prescription drug benefits in the new law along with what proponents say are other provisions intended to help Americans pay for household expenses.
Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, argues that Republicans still have plenty to work with.
The G.O.P. is skilled at exploiting the other party’s major legislative deals for political gain. In addition to hitting Democrats on the overall price tag, the party’s opposition researchers comb through the bill text and find provisions that can be weaponized into talking points and television ads.
“In response to record inflation and two quarters in a row of negative economic growth, Democrats just passed a trillion dollars in new spending that even Bernie Sanders admits won’t have any impact on inflation but will raise taxes on middle-class families and American manufacturers,” Hartline said.
He also pointed to Democrats’ positions on crime and expanding domestic energy production, two issues Republicans have been hammering on amid an uptick in violent crime in cities across America and soaring gas prices.
“Senate Republicans have decided that their platform is opposing lowering costs for Americans’ prescription drugs,” countered David Bergstein, communications director for the Democrats’ own campaign arm. “That’s a deeply unpopular position that will lead their campaigns to defeat.”
What to read
Donald Trump’s supporters in Wisconsin have turned the misguided belief that the results of the 2020 election can be nullified into central campaign issues in the state’s Republican primary for governor, Reid Epstein writes.
And in Wisconsin’s Senate race, Mandela Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor, has consolidated Democrats in his bid to take on Ron Johnson, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate. Jazmine Ulloa takes a look.
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