Are Voters Moveable?
This week, Politico’s “Playbook,” one of the Beltway’s oldest and most well-read morning newsletters, proposed that midterm elections are, as a rule, “anticlimactic.” As a reminder, in their first midterm election cycles, the president’s party typically loses big. (President George W. Bush’s 2002 post-9/11 midterm election is one of the rare exceptions in modern U.S. electoral history.) Since World War II, dozens of seats in the U.S. House normally are lost by the president’s party in the commander in chief’s first midterm elections. But that’s not all. According to FiveThirtyEight, since World War II the president’s party has consistently gotten a lower share of the national House popular vote in each midterm than in the previous presidential election. Since 1994, the president’s party has lost the national House popular vote in six out of seven midterm elections.
With history against them, and against the backdrop of heightened inflation, a potential recession, and a seemingly never-ending global pandemic, “Playbook” asked, “Can anything change the predicted trajectory for Democrats?”
Let’s take a look.
How Many Voters Are Still Undecided?
That’s a good question, and no one really seems to know the answer.
In 2019, FiveThirtyEight tried to tackle the question of how many swing voters there actually are in any given election. It found:
A Michigan State University political scientist who determined that just six percent of all Americans voted for a different party in 2016 than the one they backed in 2012. (Contrast that number with the 34 percent of Americans who self-identify as independents.) This researcher only looked at Americans who were reliable voters. Midterm elections usually only attract the most stalwart of voters. That would seem to suggest there will actually be fewer last-minute-deciders this year.
A study from the Kaiser Family Foundation which determined as much as 30 percent of registered voters are swing voters. This study looked at a much broader pool of Americans, including people who might not vote, but often have been persuaded to do so. Could a big issue spur voters to come off the bench? Perhaps, but history suggests it’s not a good idea to count on it.
A 2017 report by University of California and Stanford University political scientists that encompassed 49 field experiments found the millions of dollars that campaigns spend to persuade voters during the waning days of a general election do little to change peoples’ minds. Last minute spending does work in primary campaigns, however. According to Vox, the results meant campaigns “could do well to focus more of their energy on boosting turnout at the end of a race than persuading voters earlier on” or “should consider directing more money to primary election and ballot initiatives, where persuasion does appear possible.”
Perhaps backing up that research, Ohio news outlets reported that, before that state’s Republican primary earlier this spring, there were large amounts of undecided voters.
Should Democrats just abandon their November get out the vote campaigns? Before they do, they might find solace in this nugget from April: an AARP poll found that only 17 percent of women aged 50 and older — a group that reliably goes to the polls — have decided how they will cast their ballots this fall. Nearly two-thirds of the women polled, 65 percent, said they won’t make decision until weeks or just days before the election because of “instability and uncertainty of the economy, the pandemic, and the political environment,” MSNBC reported.
Those are the issues. How likely are Americans’ feelings about people likely to change before the November elections?
Important Polls Don’t Move Much Between June and November
According to a recent memo by Democratic strategist Doug Sosnick, polling on presidential job approval and on the direction of the country does not tend to move that much in the last six months before the election. In fact, as Sosnick explained, “In the last four midterm elections, by June the public had made up its mind about the leadership in Washington.”
Here are the Gallup polling numbers going back to 1994, or what FiveThirtyEight calls the modern era of midterm elections:
President Bill Clinton: approval was 51 percent in mid-May 1994 and 46 percent in early November 1994, a five-point shift.
President Clinton: approval was 64 percent in mid-May 1998 and 66 percent in early November 1998, a two-point shift.
President George W. Bush: approval was 76 percent in mid-May 2002 and 68 percent in early November 2002, an eight-point shift (and the largest seen in the modern era). This was the election where Republicans defied odds and did not suffer large congressional losses despite the White House being held by the GOP.
President Bush: approval was 33 percent in mid-May 2006 and 38 percent in early November 2006, a five-point shift.
President Barack Obama: approval was 48 percent in mid-May 2010 and 45 percent in early November 2010, a three-point shift.
President Obama: approval was 43 percent in mid-May 1994 and 40 percent in early November 2014, another three-point shift.
President Donald Trump: approval was 42 percent in May 2018 and 49 percent in November 2014, a seven-point shift.
In 1994, 2006, 2010, and 2018, the president’s party suffered major defeats. President Biden’s Gallup approval rating currently stands at 41 percent and that number has been basically flat for the last several months. Democrats looking for hope in the commander in chief’s polling numbers likely need to look somewhere else for optimism.
Gallup’s polling on satisfaction with the general direction of the country tells a slightly different tale. The numbers were relatively static between the months of May and November in the midterm election years of 2018, 2014, 2010, 1998, and 1994. Again, the anomaly is during the President George W. Bush era. In 2010, satisfaction with the country gained 10 points between May and November, likely as a result of the financial crisis abating — but Democrats were still routed in the midterm elections. In 2002, feelings about the direction of the country dipped eight points between spring and fall, but congressional Republicans held steady.
In other words: even if Democrats can shift perceptions about how things are going when it comes to the economy or other national issues, it might not matter. But that won’t stop them from trying.
Dems Want White House Action on Pocketbook Issues
Indeed, to be clear: Democrats are far from giving up. In fact, many lawmakers are frantically trying to get the White House and congressional leadership to move on economic and consumer issues that they believe will show voters the party is doing something to ease their pocketbook pain.
Last week, for example, more than two dozen Democratic lawmakers from swing districts wrote a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) asking that they use the annual budget to fast-track legislation to extend Affordable Care Act (ACA) health care subsidies. As Politico explained, the credits were enacted as part of the Democrats’ pandemic-relief package last year, resulted in drastic reductions to health care premiums and encouraged 2.5 million people to enroll in the ACA marketplaces. If Congress doesn’t act soon, premiums will increase in 2023 for more than 13 million Americans. But even more problematic than that, at least politically? Americans will receive word of the increases right before the election.
House Democrats also recently approved legislation that would go after corporate energy titans for gouging gas prices. The legislation is unlikely to go anywhere, however, since it would need 60 votes to pass the Senate. Even some Democratic lawmakers said the bill was little more than an election year messaging tool. “The American people don’t need political gimmicks,” said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.). “They need actual relief, and there’s a host of things that we can do that would deliver immediate relief for the inflation issues.”
According to the “Playbook,” Democrats also are hoping that three other policy issues might help them turn around the bleak midterm outlook. These are:
A Supreme Court decision that overturns Roe v. Wade, motivating Democratic and independent voters to come out and vote;
Passage of a new version of Build Back Better that would invest in childcare and prescription drug reform; and
New congressional hearings that investigate President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
But there’s one significant pragmatic challenge for Democrats: with Democratic leaders encouraging their members to spend as much time as possible campaigning in their home districts, the House is only scheduled to be in session for less than 40 days between now and the midterms. Accordingly, the odds of any significant legislative achievements before November are diminishing quickly, providing further tailwinds to the GOP’s hopes of retaking one or both chambers of Congress later this year.