If history can predict the future, then the Democrats will have difficulty gaining seats in Congress in the November 2022 elections. In this Election Report, voting and elections expert Rhodes Cook reviews historical trends and what the Democrats need to maintain control in 2022.

Document Outline
Presidential Approval and Party Success
Extenuating Circumstances
Not Normal Times

The only way for Democrats to maintain control of Congress this November is to defy history. That is because one of the strongest correlations in midterm elections over the years has been between a president’s last pre-election approval rating and his party’s success or failure at the ballot box, with 50 percent often being seen as the dividing line between the two different outcomes.

With an approval score above that line, the president’s party is often quite competitive in races for Congress, particularly the House of Representatives. But the lower the president’s score, the worse the outcome for his party, especially as it sinks further and further below 50 percent.

Presidential Approval and Party Success

Joe Biden’s presidential approval mark in late September stood at 42 percent in the Gallup Poll (used here because of its long track record dating to the 1930s). Over the decades, that has been dangerous territory for the president’s party.

In 1982, Ronald Reagan’s election-eve approval score was also 42 percent. Republicans went on to lose 26 House seats. In 2018, Donald Trump’s support score on the eve of the midterms stood at 40 percent. The GOP lost fully 40 House seats that year. In 2010, Barack Obama’s approval mark was at 45 percent in the Gallup Poll as the midterm election approached. Democrats lost 63 House seats as well as 4 Senate seats.

But Democrats in 2022 do not have seats to spare. The Senate stands at 50–50, with Vice President Kamala Harris currently breaking tie votes. If the Republicans achieve a net gain of one seat, they will control the Senate. The Democratic advantage in the House is currently 221–212, with two vacancies (one Republican, one Democrat). Credit the vacant seats to the party that last held them and the GOP would need a net gain of just five seats to reach the House majority of 218.

Extenuating Circumstances

Clearly, history is not very kind to the Democrats in their bid to maintain control of Congress this year. Since World War II, the president’s party has gained House seats in just two midterm elections: 1998 and 2002. In both cases there were popular presidents and extenuating circumstances.

In 1998, Republican congressional efforts to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about his sexual misconduct in the White House looked like overreach to many voters in the face of Clinton’s 66 percent election-eve approval rating. Democrats scored a net gain of five House seats. In 2002, George W. Bush’s 63 percent election-eve support score in the wake of September 11 helped Republicans post an eight-seat gain in the House and a one-seat pick up in the Senate.

In no other midterm election since World War II has the loss of House seats by the president’s party been limited to fewer than five seats, the Democrats “magic number” to retain House control.

Biden’s current approval rating is not anywhere near Clinton’s and Bush’s as the 1998 and 2002 midterms approached. But there are signs there could be extenuating circumstances that might offset Biden’s tepid approval numbers and aid the Democrats.

Through the spring, Republicans looked as though they were positioned for a takeover of the House and the Senate, the former by a particularly large margin. Inflation was high. Immigration policy on the southern border was controversial. And Democratic infighting in Congress made the party appear ineffectual and incapable of governing against strong GOP opposition.

But in the summer, the political environment began to change to the Democrats’ advantage. The Supreme Court’s decision in late June to overturn Roe vs. Wade provoked anger and fear among many women, providing a catalyst to vote in 2022 that did not exist before.

In early August, Kansas held a referendum on abortion in conjunction with the primary. Nearly 60 percent of voters in the Republican state rejected an anti-abortion ballot measure. Pro-abortion majorities approached 70 percent in suburban Johnson County (outside Kansas City), neared 75 percent in urban Wyandotte County (Kansas City), and surpassed 80 percent in Douglas County (home of the University of Kansas).

Turnout was extremely high for the referendum. It approached 950,000, or nearly 70 percent of the votes cast in the state’s November 2020 presidential election. Democrats hope that Kansas is a microcosm of how the abortion issue might boost them in November.

As August unfolded, Democrats reeled off a succession of legislative victories in Congress. Gas prices began to drift downward, and Biden announced in September that the COVID-19 pandemic was over. For good measure, his presidential approval rating in the Gallup Poll rose from the high 30s percentagewise in July to the mid-40s in August.

Republicans, though, still occupy the high ground on several basic midterm election factors. The economy is still shaky. Inflation is still a problem. Border policy for immigrants still appears unresolved. And Biden’s approval rating is still underwater, with more voters disapproving of his presidential performance than approving.

Not Normal Times

Yet while these would be compelling factors in normal times, these have not been normal times since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. In the “era of Trump,” election outcomes have been unpredictable and turnouts have been high. In 2018, there was a midterm record of nearly 114 million votes cast in House elections (the only office contested in every state in a midterm election year). The total was a whopping 36 million votes higher than for the previous midterm election in 2014.

In 2020, the size of the presidential vote set another record, soaring past 158 million. That was nearly 22 million more than voted in the 2016 contest. Democrats tended to benefit from the higher numbers in each election. In 2018, they gained the House. In 2020, they won the House, Senate, and White House. The “Trump era” elections have all been for high stakes.

To Democrats, Trump and his Republican allies are threats to American democracy, inflammatory in their language, and willing to tear down the nation’s basic political institutions in order to get their way. To Republicans, Democrats are free-spending liberals, at odds with basic American values as they blithely put the country on the road to socialism.

Between the two sides, there is a wide gulf and plenty of animosity, which has created an unusual political environment where Democrats hope they can be competitive this fall in spite of Biden’s modest approval numbers. Put another way, if Democrats do defy history this November, it is Donald Trump who largely created the conditions that Democrats were able to exploit.

Rhodes Cook September 29, 2022

Document Citation
Can the democrats defy history? (2022).
Document ID: electrpts-2165-117962-3003554
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