How Joe Biden and the Democrats are challenging midterm history


President Joe Biden and the Democrats have completed a record midterm run.

Democrats kept the Senate — no worse than keeping 50 seats and potentially gaining one — and looked likely to keep any net losses in the House in the single digits.

The midterm elections were supposed to be the time for the opposition to shine. This is especially true when there is once-in-a-lifetime inflation and when a vast majority of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track.

Instead, Biden and the Democrats are well positioned to win one of the four best midterm elections for a party that controls the White House in the last century.

So what’s going on? It’s clear that general election voters have punished Republican candidates they deemed too extreme on issues like abortion and/or being too close to former President Donald Trump.

Still, the election results were highly unusual. I reviewed the record books. The president’s party has won (or not lost) a Senate seat and lost fewer than 10 House seats in the president’s first midterm election since 1922, three times before.

All of these years – 1934, 1962 and 2002 – are considered major exceptions to the great achievement and dominance of the presidential party, suggesting that the party that controls the White House typically loses seats in the midterms.

Democrats’ performance this year has also fallen to the state level. We already know that, based on forecasted races, this will be the first net gain in the governorship for a president’s party in a president’s first midterm election since 1934. (1986 was the only midterm election since 1934, regardless of when the president was elected, in which the president’s party gained a net governorship, despite Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party losing heavily in the Senate that year.)

The shocking thing about this year (assuming current trends hold) is that Biden is deeply unpopular. He is at 44 percent in exit polls. His positive rating is 41%.

We don’t have any polls for 1934, although Franklin D. Roosevelt was probably popular considering he won two landslide victories on both ends of that midterm.

Polls in 1962 and 2002 put the then-presidents (John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush, respectively) above 60 percent.

Whether Democrats can beat expectations this year will first depend on who Republicans nominate for statewide elections. Analysts, including me, have noted that Republicans appear to have a candidate likability issue. Pre-election polls show negative net approval ratings for Republicans in all key races. Democrats in nearly all key races are more popular than their opponents.

Many of those Republicans have Trump’s endorsement and say (at least at one point) they believe he won the 2020 election. (Of course, this is false if Biden wins the election.)

Exit polls confirm the GOP’s “candidate problem” in the 2022 midterm elections. In every pre-election Senate race that Inside Elections rated as swinging or leaning toward only one party (except Georgia), more voters said the Republican candidate’s views were too extreme than the Democratic candidate’s.

We also saw this in the gubernatorial election. Republicans nominate 2020 deniers for governors of several blue or swing states. None of them were projected to be winners, with only Arizona Republican Carri Lake having any chance of winning.

Given that roughly 60% of voters — both in preelection surveys and exit polls — believe Biden was legitimately elected, it may not be a surprise that these Republican candidates have failed to succeed.

Still, Democrats seem to have an incredible run ahead of them in the 2022 midterms, especially given that polls show Biden as deeply unpopular.

The last two Democratic presidents with Biden-like approval ratings (Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010) have seen their parties net losses of more than 50 House seats, at least five Senate seats and at least five governorships Position.

Of course, poor Senate or gubernatorial candidates aren’t the only reason for disappointing Republican midterms.

At the national level, there are two presidents in the spotlight: the current president (Biden) and the former president (Trump). Both have negative net favorable ratings, according to exit polls.

The fact that the current and former presidents are unpopular is not uncommon. Both Obama and George W. Bush were unpopular until the mid-2010s.

Unusually, 40% of the 18% who viewed neither Biden nor Trump favorably in the exit polls voted Democrat. The backlash against one president this year may have been outweighed by the backlash against another.

In September 2010, a CNN poll showed Democrats winning only 21% of those who had an unfavorable view of both Bush and Obama.

The reason for the difference between 2010 and 2022 is obvious. I pointed out before the election that Trump gets more Google search traffic than Biden (i.e. the former president is in the minds of voters). However, Bush’s search traffic in 2010 was far less than Obama’s.

Arguably, what really sets this midterm apart is the abortion. Despite high inflation, only 31 percent of voters in exit polls said it was the most important issue on their votes. Nearly the same percentage (27%) said abortion, and those voters overwhelmingly chose the Democratic candidate for Congress.

It’s the same as we were in overturning Roe v. Wade in June. Democrats are starting to do much better than they did before the Supreme Court ruling.

While Republicans recovered in national House polls in the final weeks of the campaign, they never returned to where they were in the spring.

The fact that “abortion first” voters overwhelmingly picked Democrats makes sense, given that 60 percent of exit poll respondents said the procedure should be legal in all or most cases.

When you put it all together, Biden and the Democrats seem to be doing what others have tried and failed in previous midterm elections: They’ve made the election a choice between the two parties, rather than the usual A referendum on the party of the president.

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