US midterm elections: it’s about the economy, stupid – and Trump

National surveys, like last week’s CNBC poll, routinely find that on key economic measures, voters prefer Republicans over Democrats by double-digit margins. A September NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that nearly three-fifths of voters say Biden’s policies have weakened the economy, compared with only about one-third who say they have strengthened it.

Given those attitudes, academic models predict that Democrats should lose about 40 to 45 House seats next month, notes Sides.

Likewise, Democrats are swimming upstream against the growing tendency of voters to align their selections for the Senate with their assessment of the incumbent president.

In 2018, Republicans lost every Senate race in a state where Trump’s approval rating in exit polls stood at 48 per cent or less; in 2010, Democrats lost 13 of the 15 Senate races in states where then-president Barack Obama’s approval rating stood at 47 per cent or less.

This year, Biden’s approval rating does not exceed 45 per cent in any of the states hosting the most hotly contested Senate races, and more often stands at only about 40 per cent, or even less.

Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke addresses a crowd of supporters this week. AP

These precedents could ultimately produce Republican gains closer to these historic benchmarks. In polling, the party out of the White House traditionally has gained strength in the final weeks before midterm voting, as most undecided and less-attuned voters break their way.

Bill McInturff, a veteran Republican pollster, says that dynamic could be compounded this year because independent and less partisan voters remain focused on inflation (rather than the issues of abortion and democracy animating Democrats) and express preponderantly negative views about the economy and Biden’s performance.

Campbell agrees that for those reasons, independent voters could move against Democrats, especially in House races. The number of blue-leaning House districts where Democrats are nonetheless spending heavily on defence in the final weeks testifies to that likelihood.

Several House-race forecasters have recently upped their projections of likely Republican gains closer to the midterm average since World War II for the party out of the White House, about 26 seats.

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But even with all of these formidable headwinds, Democrats have remained highly competitive in polling on national sentiment for the House, and in the key Senate battlegrounds (including Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin).

And although Democrats face unexpectedly difficult challenges in governors’ races in New York and Oregon, they remain ahead or well within reach in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Democrats are not decisive favourites in any of these races (except for governor of Pennsylvania), but despite the gloomy national climate, neither have any of these contests moved out of their reach.

That’s largely because the party has minimised defections and increased engagement from the key groups in its coalition – including young people, college-educated voters, women and people of colour – by focusing more attention on issues where those voters perceive the Trump-era GOP as a threat. Weak or extreme Republican candidates have eased that work in several of these Senate and governor races.

But another factor allowing Democrats to remain competitive is that, for all the doubts Americans are expressing about their performance, there is no evidence of rising confidence in Republicans.

Doublebarrelled scepticism

For instance, the latest national NBC survey, conducted by the bipartisan team of Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, found 48 per cent of voters said they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who promised to continue Biden’s policies. That sounds ominous for Democrats, but voters were slightly more negative about a candidate who promised to pursue Trump’s policies (50 per cent less likely).

Only about one-third of independents said they preferred a candidate who would continue the policies of either Biden or Trump. All of that tracks with the survey’s other finding that although half of voters said they disagreed with most of what Biden and the Democrats are trying to do, even more said they mostly disagreed with the agenda of congressional Republicans (53 per cent) and Trump (56 per cent).

Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for the US Senate in Pennsylvania, in campaign mode. AP

Other polls have also found this doublebarrelled scepticism. The latest CNBC poll (also conducted by the Hart Research/Public Opinion Strategies team) found the two parties facing almost identically bleak verdicts on their ability to improve the economy: Only a little more than one-fifth of voters expressed much confidence in each party, while more than three-quarters expressed little or none.

When a Yahoo/YouGov America poll asked whether each party was focusing on the right issues, only about 30 per cent of voters in each case said yes, and about half said no. Only about a quarter of women said Republicans have the right priorities; only about a quarter of men said Democrats have the right priorities. The capstone on all of these attitudes is the consistent finding that most Americans (an identical 57 per cent in the Yahoo/You Gov survey) don’t want either Biden or Trump to run again in 2024.

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In baseball, they say a tie goes to the runner. The political analogue might be that equally negative assessments of the two parties are likely to break in favour of the side out of power. Campbell points out that while a striking 81 per cent of independents say they have little or no confidence in Republicans to improve the economy, that number rises to 90 per cent about Democrats.

In the NBC survey, voters who said they mostly disagreed with Biden’s and Trump’s policy agenda preferred Republicans to control Congress by a margin of three to one, according to detailed results provided by McInturff.

Democrats seem acutely, though perhaps belatedly, aware of these challenges. They now warn that Republicans, if given control of one or both congressional chambers, would threaten Medicare and Social Security, most pointedly by demanding cuts in return for raising the federal debt ceiling next year.

But it’s not clear that those arguments can break through the lived reality of higher prices for petrol and groceries squeezing so many families. “Inflation, rising gas prices, interest rates – those are things people feel every day,” says Tony Fabrizio, the lead pollster for Trump in 2020. “There is no TV commercial that is going to change what they feel when they go to the grocery store or the gas station.”

The challenge those daily realities pose to Democrats is not unique: As the political analyst John Halpin recently noted, “inflation is a political wrecking ball for incumbent governments” across the Western world (as demonstrated by Britain’s recent chaos and the election of right-wing governments in Sweden and Italy).

No democratically elected government may enjoy much security until more people in its country feel secure about their own finances. For Democrats, the risk of an unexpectedly bad outcome next month seems greater than the possibility of an unexpectedly good one.

Republican gains would only extend a core dynamic of modern American politics: the inability of either party to establish a durable advantage over the other. If Democrats lose one or both congressional chambers, it will mark the fifth consecutive time that a president who went into a midterm election with unified control of government has lost it.

The prospect of very tight races next week in almost all of the same states that decided the 2020 presidential election underscores the likelihood that the 2024 race for the White House will again divide the country closely and bitterly.

Yet the undertow threatening Democrats now previews the difficulty they will face in two years if economic conditions don’t improve. In presidential races, political scientists say voters start to harden their verdicts on the economy about a year before election day. That means Biden is running out of time to tame inflation, especially if, as most economists expect, doing so will require at least a modest recession.

Even amid widespread anxiety about both inflation and recession, Democrats remain competitive by highlighting doubts about Republicans, particularly among the voters in their own coalition. But that cannot be an experiment any Democrat would look forward to repeating in 2024.

Ronald Brownstein is a senior editor at The Atlantic and a senior political analyst for CNN

— Atlantic

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