An Updated Election Outlook
The 2022 midterm elections are now six months away—and to say the last four weeks have been politically impactful would be a significant understatement. Gas prices are on the upswing again after a brief dip in April. Interest rates are going up. The most recent data, released earlier today, shows inflation, though minimally lower than it had been earlier this year, is still a significant issue. The stock market has had some of its worst days since the beginning of the pandemic, and members of the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government are dealing with the repercussions of an historic leak from the Supreme Court.
Going into spring 2022, it seemed like Republicans were in good shape to take back the U.S. House of Representatives while the U.S. Senate was up for grabs. How do things stand now? And what is really on voters’ minds these days?
Let’s take a look by starting with how voters feel about the person sitting in the Oval Office: President Joe Biden. As we have written before, when presidents have approval ratings below 50 percent midterm elections typically do not go their party’s way. Are Americans feeling any better about their commander in chief as we inch closer to the midterm elections?
President Biden’s Approval Rating
According to FiveThirtyEight’s latest average, only 41.8 percent of Americans approve of the job President Biden is doing in office. More than 52 percent disapprove. At this point in his first term, President Donald Trump actually was slightly more popular than President Biden. President Trump’s approval sat at 42 percent. That doesn’t bode well for Democrats this November. As readers will recall, Republicans suffered huge losses in the 2018 midterm elections.
President Barack Obama’s approval rating was significantly higher in May 2010—49.5 percent—than President Biden’s is now. Of course, Democrats also suffered huge losses in November 2010. The same was true of President Bill Clinton in 1994. His approval rating in May of that year was an admirable 54 percent, but his party lost control of the House that year for the first time in four decades.
Why is President Biden so unpopular? Part of the reason, of course, is that the country is so polarized that few Republican voters would ever be caught telling a pollster they approve of any Democratic commander in chief. But more substantively, and as President Clinton’s advisers would have said: it’s also the economy, stupid.
Yahoo! Finance dug deep into President Biden’s economic approval numbers in a story this week. The first problem: President Biden’s grades on overall economic performance have gone from stellar to just a little bit above average. He started out with an A grade on the economy and now has a B-plus.
The president has high approval when it comes to overall economic growth, employment, and jobs. On the stock market, however, Yahoo! reporters note President Biden has gone from the second best stock market performance of the last eight presidents down to just the fourth best. (And, thus far this week, things are not moving in the right direction.) President Biden also is lagging when it comes to average hourly wage growth.
In other words: taken as a whole, the economy is not doing that badly. But when it comes to personal economic indicators—how my family is doing and what we are able to afford—the president is not doing that well. Former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously lived by the edict that “all politics is local.” You can’t get more local than your own household. Economic indicators are still moving against Democrats right now.
What Do Americans Care About, and How Much Do They Care About It?
That’s a problem because, according to most recent polls, not much is on Americans’ minds other than the economy.
A March 2022 Gallup poll asked respondents to identify what the most pressing problem facing the country is. A plurality, 39 percent, cited an economic issue. Of a list of economic matters, the high cost of living and inflation was number one followed by the economy in general. (Again, Americans care about the personal more than the general.)
The second-ranking issue, at 22 percent, was “government and poor leadership.” Remarkably—given the volume of news coverage—only nine percent of Americans said the situation in Russia was the top problem facing the country. Other issues that have received significant media attention also were low on the list. Only three percent of Americans said the coronavirus pandemic was the top issue facing the country; five percent said immigration; two percent said the judicial system and the courts; and only one percent said crime and violence.
One question on every lawmaker’s and pundit’s mind: will an earth-shaking ruling from the Supreme Court shift the issues matrix? There is not yet a lot of polling on this issue, but a CBS News survey released this week found it would make 40 percent of Democrats more likely to head to the polls in November. Only 25 percent of Independents and 17 percent of Republicans would be more likely to vote. (Strangely, perhaps, 12 percent of Democrats said the expected Supreme Court ruling would make them less likely to vote.) Higher voter turnout among Democratic voters would of course be welcome news for President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
These numbers bring us to another important polling question: how motivated are Americans to cast their ballots this year? About 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots during presidential years, but that number falls to 40 percent during years in which we’re not electing a commander in chief. Questions about how excited Americans are to vote are an important indicator of what we can expect in November, for obvious reasons. If more GOP voters turnout than Democratic voters, Republican candidates will fare better across the board.
Here we find some good news for Democrats. According to a Politico/Morning Consult poll released last month, prior to the Supreme Court leak, “Democrats are beginning the budding 2022 election cycle with an enthusiasm advantage over Republicans.” Specifically, 81 percent of likely Democratic voters say they are excited to cast their ballots this year. Only 72 percent of Republicans voters said the same. More than half of Democrats, 53 percent, said they are very or extremely enthusiastic about voting compared to 48 percent of Republicans. (Independents are much less motivated: only 30 percent said they are very or extremely enthusiastic about voting this November.)
Those numbers are a shift from what NBC News found at the beginning of 2022. At that point, the television network reported, “Republicans enjoy a double-digit enthusiasm advantage, with 61 percent of Republicans saying they are very interested in the upcoming midterms … That’s compared with 47 percent of Democrats who have the same high level of interest.”
Turnout is key in midterm elections, so watch this metric closely. One more matter worth watching as we prognosticate on what may happen at the polls in November: the continued saga regarding redistricting.
Redistricting Advantage Goes to …
As we’ve written before, the courts also could matter when it comes to redistricting. In fact, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of May 3, 2022, 68 cases have been filed challenging congressional and state legislative maps in 24 states.
While rulings in those cases could shift the landscape, FiveThirtyEight reports that, in general, the redistricting advantage goes to Democrats.
The website’s analysis noted the GOP went into the cycle with redistricting control in more states. Analysts were expecting a handful of new Republican seats because of this advantage, but “redistricting has created seven more Democratic-leaning seats nationally vs. one more Republican-leaning seat” since “aggressive map-drawing by Democrats in states such as Illinois as well as court decisions overturning Republican gerrymanders in Kansas and North Carolina.”
Before Democrats celebrate, there is a caveat: once accounting for incumbency, FiveThirtyEight concludes “Republicans are positioned for a net gain of about four or five seats [in the House of Representatives] in 2022” based on redistricting alone. Four seats would not give the GOP the majority; five would. FiveThirtyEight said, “Republicans have benefited from their own brazen cartography in states like Florida and courts striking down Democratic gerrymanders in states like Maryland and New York. Republicans have also shored up their existing position by converting light-red districts into safer seats in states like Texas.”
Forty-six states either have finished redrawing their congressional maps or have one only congressional district. Missouri and New Hampshire have not yet enacted a map, and Kansas and New York have enacted maps that already have struck down in court.
So: with six months until the midterms, the polls indicate the overall advantage still appears to be on the side of the GOP. But six months is an eternity in politics and a lot could still change.