How Joe Biden and the Democratic Party challenged midterm history


President Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have pulled off a midterm election for the record books.

Democrats retained the Senate — doing nothing worse than holding steady at 50 seats and potentially gaining one — and look likely to keep House net losses in the single digits.

Midterms are supposed to be the opposition party’s time to shine. This should be especially the case when there is once-in-a-generation inflation and when the vast majority of Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

Instead, Biden and the Democrats are poised to have one of the best four midterms for the party controlling the White House in the past century.

So what happened? It’s pretty clear that general election voters punished Republican candidates they saw as being too extreme – on issues like abortion and/or for being too closely tied to former President Donald Trump.

Still, the election results were extremely unusual. I went through the record books. Since 1922, there have been three previous instances where the president’s party won (or lost none) Senate seats and lost fewer than 10 House seats during the president’s first midterm.

All of them – 1934, 1962 and 2002 – are seen as monumental achievements for the president’s party and major exceptions to the rule, suggesting the party controlling the White House typically loses seats midterm.

The performance of Democrats this year has also reverberated at the state level. We already know, based on projected races, that this will be the first time since 1934 that the president’s party has a net gain in gubernatorial positions in a president’s first midterm. (1986 is the only other midterm after 1934, regardless of when it fell in a presidency, when the president’s party had a net gain of governors, although Ronald Reagan’s GOP suffered massive losses in the Senate that year.)

The shocking thing about this year (assuming current trends continue) is that Biden is quite unpopular. His approval rating was 44% in exit polls. His favorable rating was 41%.

We don’t have any polls from 1934, but given that Franklin Roosevelt won two landslide victories on either end of that midterm, he was probably very popular.

Polls from 1962 and 2002 show the presidents of the day (John F. Kennedy and George W. Bush respectively) with approval ratings north of 60%.

Democrats’ ability to defy expectations this year begins simply with who Republicans have nominated for statewide elections. Analysts, myself included, noted that Republicans seemed to have a candidate sympathy problem. Pre-election polls showed Republicans in all key races had negative net preference ratings. Democrats in nearly every key race were more popular than their opponents.

Many of these Republicans were endorsed by Trump and said (at least at one point) that they thought he won the 2020 election. (This, of course, is wrong, because Biden won the election. )

Exit polls confirm Republicans’ 2022 midterm “candidate problem”. party before the election, more voters said the Republican candidate’s views were too extreme than the Democratic candidate.

We also see it in gubernatorial elections. Republicans have nominated gubernatorial deniers in the 2020 election in a number of blue or swing states. None of them have been projected as the winner, and only Republican Kari Lake of Arizona has a chance of winning.

Perhaps the lack of success for these GOP candidates should come as no surprise given that roughly 60% of voters — in both pre-election polls and exit polls — believe Biden has been legitimately elected.

Still, Democrats appear to have achieved an incredible feat halfway through 2022, especially given how unpopular polls have shown Biden to be.

The last two Democratic presidents with approval ratings matching Biden’s in their first midterms (Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010) saw their party suffer a net loss of more than 50 House seats. , at least five seats in the Senate and at least five governors.

Of course, bad Senate or gubernatorial candidates aren’t the only reason Republicans had a disappointing midterm election.

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

The fact that you have a current president and a former president who are both unpopular is not unusual. Obama and George W. Bush were unpopular before the 2010 midterms.

What’s unusual is that of the 18% who see neither Biden nor Trump favorably in the exit polls, 40% of them voted for the Democrats. The backlash against one president this year may have been negated by the backlash against the other.

In 2010, a September CNN poll found Democrats winning just 21% of those who did not view Bush or Obama favorably.

The reason for the difference between 2010 and 2022 is quite obvious. I had pointed out before the election that Trump was getting more Google search traffic than Biden (meaning the former president was on voters’ minds). However, Bush was not getting Obama’s search traffic anywhere in 2010.

You could say that what really made this semester unique was the abortion. Despite high inflation, only 31% of voters in the exit poll said it was the most important issue for their vote. A nearly identical percentage (27%) declared abortion, and those voters overwhelmingly chose Democratic candidates for Congress.

This matches the dynamic we saw in the House special election after the overthrow of Roe v. Wade in June. Democrats have started to do much better than before the Supreme Court decision.

And while Republicans reclaimed their position somewhat in national House polls in the final weeks of the campaign, they never got back to where they were in the spring.

The fact that “abortion first” voters overwhelmingly chose the Democrats makes sense given that 60% 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 have done something others have tried — and failed — in previous midterms: They turned the election into a two-party choice instead of the usual referendum. on the president’s party.

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