America’s crucial midterm election is about 180 days away, but already some important dynamics are emerging. This preliminary analysis can provide us with some direction about what issues, voter groups and national winds may determine victory or defeat on Election Day. With the dust still settling from yet another primary night in West Virginia and Nebraska, here are four takeaways gleaned from available data and polling.
A divergence is developing between Biden’s net approval and the generic ballot for congressional races.
1. Yes, President Joe Biden’s job approval is an important factor in this election, as the president’s popularity has been in midterm elections over the past 50 years. However, a divergence is developing between Biden’s net approval and the generic ballot for congressional races.
For example, in the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll, Biden has a net minus-12-point approval rating, while Democrats have a 5-point lead on the generic ballot. In mid-August 2010, when President Barack Obama’s approval rating was hovering close to where Biden’s is today, the GOP led on the generic ballot by an average of around 4 points.
2. In addition, Donald Trump’s net unfavorability may be as important as Biden’s. Obviously, it is important for each party to motivate its base voters, as it will be to persuade the large group of independent voters who have consistently been crucial in elections. But digging deeper, a small segment of voters is likely to be key players in the battle for control of Congress and statehouses: voters who dislike both Trump and Biden. Today, that group represents a not insignificant number of all likely voters and a huge opportunity for the party that can capture it.
In the 2016 exit polls, around 14 percent of all voters disliked both Trump and Hillary Clinton, and this group of voters supported Trump by a wide margin. In 2020, voters who disliked both Trump and Biden accounted for only 3 percent of all votes.
3. Among the group of voters who dislike both Trump and Biden heading into the 2022 midterms, each party has advantages on distinct issues. The GOP has a significant advantage on inflation and the economy, with only a small lead on dealing with immigration and the border. Democrats have a large advantage on voting rights, abortion rights, education and protecting the rights of citizens based on sex or race. The GOP will want to try to keep the focus on the economy, while Democrats — if they want to win key races — will need to broaden their talking points to include rights, freedom and democracy.
4. Tied to the above dynamic, the GOP is spending way too much time delving into cultural issues that Democrats lead on. Meanwhile, Democrats are spending too much time worrying and talking about inflation and the economy and not enough time raising the stakes of this election and making a broader argument based on fundamental rights and American democracy.
Democrats can still succeed in this midterm cycle, especially at the state level, if they consistently, clearly and overwhelmingly talk about the issues that favor them — and the ongoing threat posed by Trump. The leaked draft opinion on abortion and the coming public hearings by the Jan. 6 committee give them a major opportunity to make that case.
Everyone covering the midterm elections must be careful not to buy into old patterns that may not apply this year (such as that the GOP is automatically going to win because of Biden’s poor approval ratings, as in previous midterm results). And of course, polling numbers change — they are not always determinative on Election Day, nor do they always perfectly reflect voters’ gut-level motivations. For example, when I was chief strategist for George W. Bush in 2004, the No. 1 issue in the polls was the economy, but our campaign proceeded to make the argument that the election was about national security. (And it worked.)
This midterm election is likely to be one of the most important in at least a generation. It will determine who are the guardians of our democracy — governors, secretaries of state, attorneys general and state legislatures — as the country heads into what is likely to be a very hard-fought presidential election in 2024. And at this definitive moment, we need to free our analysis from old mantras that no longer apply. Similarly, candidates should not let consultants revive old myths and fight wars of the past. As President Abraham Lincoln said: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”