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Looking at the Midterm Polls as D.C. Rolls into August


With less than 100 days until the midterm elections, we look at what the polls suggest might happen in November.


The U.S. House of Representatives has adjourned for its annual August recess and the U.S. Senate intends to do so at some point late this week, this weekend, or early next week. The House will take a full 46 days off unless its leaders decide to end recess early to come back to vote on the compromise “Inflation Reduction Act” negotiated between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV)— something House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said is possible if the Senate approves the bill.


If lawmakers did not already have an eye toward the 2022 midterm elections, they do now. With less than 100 days remaining until Election Day, most will spend this month intensely focused on courting voters at county fairs, hometown Labor Day parades, and other events.


What does the landscape look like for the two parties as they head into this pivotal election? We’ll take a look this week, but first …


A Reminder About How Close the Margins Are

Readers should easily recall that the makeup of the U.S. Senate currently is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote for the Democrats. If Democrats lose just one seat in the Senate this November, control of the Senate flips.


The margin on the other side of the Capitol isn’t much wider. Right now in the House, Democrats hold 220 seats, Republicans hold 211, and there are four vacancies. Those numbers mean Democrats have only a four-seat advantage for any given vote. That should be the margin going into November 2022 unless there are surprising results in the four special elections that are set for this month.


First, there is a special election on August 9 to fill the seat for Minnesota’s 1st congressional district, which has been vacant since the late Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R) died in February. Republicans are expected to win that election. Voters will cast ballots in three other special elections this month, too:

  • August 16: A special election to fill the seat representing Alaska’s At-Large Congressional District, which will address the vacancy left by Don Young (R), who died in March. Former Alaska Governor – and GOP nominee for Vice President – Sarah Palin will be on the ballot as a candidate for the seat.

  • August 23: A special election to fill the seat representing New York’s 19th Congressional District, which will address the vacancy left by Antonio Delgado (D) who resigned after Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) selected him as lieutenant governor.

  • August 23: A special election to fill the seat representing New York’s 23rd Congressional District, which will address the vacancy left by Tom Reed (R), who resigned in May.


If Republicans win the three elections to fill their vacant seats and Democrats win their single one, the balance of power is even closer. Democrats would have 221 seats come September and Republicans would have 214. As a reminder, since 1942, midterm elections have resulted in an average loss of 27 House seats and four Senate seats for the party that is in command of the executive branch. Even an average midterm cycle performance would see Democrats lose their majority this November. Amidst challenging economic data and a polarized electorate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has virtually no breathing room when it comes to losing tough races in November.


In fact, according to the data science blog FiveThirtyEight, Republicans have an 85 percent chance of taking back the House while Democrats have just a 15 percent chance of retaining it. In the Senate, meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight, had the odds pretty much evenly split between the two parties. There is a 49 percent chance that Republicans take over and a 51 percent chance that Democrats retain. (Recall that unlike in the House, where every seat is on the ballot every two years, only about one-third of Senate seats are up for election in any given two-year cycle. This cycle’s map is generally favorable to the Democrats.)


What Current Polling Says About Election 2022

There are a few leading indicators that most analysts look to when determining how an election might go: the president’s approval rating, the direction of the country, and the congressional generic ballot question.


President Barack Obama’s approval rating was in the mid-40s around this time in 2010, right before his party suffered massive losses in his first midterm election. (President Obama himself called it “a shellacking.”) President Bill Clinton’s approval ratings were in the low 40s when his party lost big in 1994. One of the few presidents to defy midterm history was President George W. Bush. His approval ratings were nearly 70 percent in the summer of 2002 just a few months before his Republican party fared relatively well in its midterm elections.


President Joe Biden’s current approval rating is well below even President Clinton and President Obama’s. In fact, President Biden’s current approval rating average is below 40 percent and has been for some time. This is a significant headwind for the Democrats this November, even if the President himself won’t be on the ballot.


When it comes to the direction of the country, fewer than one in five Americans think the country is headed in the right direction. Almost 75 percent think the nation is off track. That means an awful lot of Democrats are among the very dissatisfied and with last week’s disappointing second quarter GDP data, there doesn’t appear to be much hope for a change of direction in the near future.


On the generic ballot question — which simply asks which of the two parties a person would rather vote for — as of last week, Republicans had a very slight two-point advantage. Republicans traditionally haven’t fared well on this question, even when they did well in elections, so even a slim margin is a good sign for the GOP.


There is one other survey worth looking at as well: voter enthusiasm. This number tries to gauge how many people actually will come out to vote. According to Gallup’s most recent survey, released last month, Americans seem eager to vote.


Gallup said “nearly half of U.S. adults say they have given ‘quite a lot’ of thought to this year’s midterm elections. This compares with no more than 37 percent saying the same in the summer months before the 1998 through 2014 midterm elections.” Based on this number, Gallup concluded “Americans’ attention to the midterm elections this fall could exceed the previous high of 55 percent measured in October 2010.”


But who is most excited to vote? According to Gallup, it’s Republicans.


“Republicans’ 10-point enthusiasm edge this year is a generally positive sign for the GOP. It is also consistent with several national mood indicators that are highly favorable for Republicans,” Gallup said. The polling powerhouse did note, however, that all of its enthusiasm measures predated “the Supreme Court’s end-of-term decisions that may serve as motivation to vote for Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who are upset with those decisions.”


Enthusiasm matters.


According to Gallup,” “Republicans' enthusiasm eclipsed Democrats' in midterm years when Republicans picked up a substantial number of seats in Congress — those being 1994, 2010 and 2014. Likewise, Democratic enthusiasm outpaced Republican enthusiasm in 2006, leading up to a big seat gain for Democrats. On the other hand, party enthusiasm was similarly high among both parties in 2018, a year that saw strong Democratic gains.”


We will see if Democrats can turn around that enthusiasm gap as they meet with voters this August.


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