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With Less Than 10 Weeks Until Election Day, Are Democrats Really Surging?

Recent polls suggest the Democrats might fare better this November than many pundits expected.

This weekend the nation will celebrate Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer. As Americans get ready for some revelry, there is a growing sense among the media and political pundits that the last three months have been very good ones – politically – for President Joe Biden and the Democratic party. Inflation and energy prices are ticking down, employment keeps ticking up (even if the stock market and economic growth are not), the president signed a major spending and tax bill that members of his party had been working on for more than a year, and millions of voters became eligible last week for up to $20,000 in student loan forgiveness.

Do polling numbers bear out this feeling? Are Democrats really headed into this fall’s election in a stronger place than they were three months ago? And how do today’s polls compare to surveys at the same time four years ago when a first term Republican president faced his first midterm election cycle?

Let’s take a look.

What is President Joe Biden’s approval rating?

In the past week, both Gallup and Morning Consult have reported that President Biden’s approval ratings are improving. Yesterday morning, AXIOS even said, “As President Biden's political fortunes improve, some swing-state Democrats are acting more comfortable about appearing with the president.” Everyone, it seems, is jumping back on the bandwagon.

The president is getting high praise for his plan to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans for Pell grant recipients who earn less than $125,000 and $10,000 for other individual federal loan recipients. According to one poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans approve of this plan. But will this popular idea move the needle on overall approval?

We will have to wait a few weeks to see just how the numbers bear out. In the meantime, here is where we are: According to the RealClearPolitics’ average of presidential approval rating surveys, 41.9 percent of Americans currently approve of the job President Biden is doing. More than half, 54.7 percent, disapprove. That means the president’s approval numbers are better of than they were on May 30, Memorial Day … but not by much. At that point, 40.3 percent of Americans approved of President Biden’s work as commander in chief while 54.9 percent disapproved.

Bloomberg columnist Jonathan Bernstein, who taught politics at the University of Texas-San Antonio, concluded, “[I]t’s obviously good news for Biden and the Democrats that he’s rebounding from his low point, but it’s still very unlikely he’ll recover enough in time to help his party in the midterms. Historically, the president’s party will almost certainly get clobbered if that president’s approval rating is below 45 percent, and Biden’s going to have to keep gaining to come close to that level.” Bernstein also noted, “After 576 days, there are still only two presidents in the polling era who had worse numbers: Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter.”

How did those presidents fare in their respective midterms? President Truman’s Democrats lost 45 House seats and 12 Senate seats during his first midterm election. President Carter lost 15 seats in the House and three in the Senate in 1978.

Another important point: as Newsweek’s Darragh Roche pointed out, former President Donald Trump’s approval rating at this point in the 2018 was 41.9 percent — exactly where President Biden’s is today — and Republicans were routed that year.

How do Americans feel about the direction of the country?

According to the most recent RealClearPolitics average, only one-fifth of Americans, 20.3 percent, think the country is headed in the right direction. About 10 percent are not sure which direction the country is going while an overwhelming majority, 70.5 percent, think it is headed in the wrong direction.

Today, there are actually fewer Americans who think the country is headed in the right direction than over Memorial Day weekend. At that point, 22.6 percent of people were willing to say the country was headed in the right direction. The wrong track number, at 70.4 percent on May 30, was largely the same as it is today.

At this point in President Trump’s term, almost 40 percent of Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction while 53 percent thought things were going south. In 2010, a year that former President Barack Obama’s Democrats lost dozens of seats in Congress, 31 percent of Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction while 61 percent said it was headed in the wrong one.

In a recent op-ed in The Hill, Democratic strategists Douglas Schoen and Zoe Young touted the advancements Democrats have made over the past few months, but noted the direction of the country metric remains bleak. They wrote, “Americans have a more positive outlook on the direction of the country compared to one month ago, recent polling still shows that 70 percent of the public still feels that the country is on the wrong track.”

While the right direction/wrong direction and presidential approval numbers still signal Democrats are in a difficult position, other surveys and analyses are a little brighter for President Biden and the Democrats.

Who is excited to vote?

Another question pollsters ask to gauge voter sentiment is how eager are Americans to actually get out and vote. In close races, after all, turnout is key.

For most of 2022, Morning Consult polls showed Republicans had a healthy lead when it came to voter enthusiasm. But the GOP’s lead has been rapidly closing. In April 2022, the gap between registered voters of each respective party was nine points. By Memorial Day, it was down to five points and now Republicans’ lead is down to just three points.

Others also are seeing a shift. Last week, NBC News reported, “[D]emocrats have closed the enthusiasm gap. According to the survey, 68 percent of Republicans express a high level of interest in the upcoming election — registering either a ‘9’ or ‘10’ on a 10-point scale — versus 66 percent for Democrats. That two-point GOP advantage is down from 17 points in March and eight points in May.”

Democrats also have crept ahead on another important survey question: the generic ballot query. This question simply asks voters which party’s candidate, in general, they would rather support, Republican or Democratic. Republicans had been leading on the generic ballot question since November 2021, but that shifted early this month. Democrats are now ahead by half a point. While that’s not much of a lead, it’s unquestionably a significant shift.

Election 2022: What’s the bottom line?

As a reminder, in the U.S. House of Representatives, Republicans must flip three seats to win the majority. (That number had been four until Florida Democrat Rep. Charlie Crist announced his intention to resign from Congress to focus on his gubernatorial race against incumbent GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis in November.) With every seat in the House up for grabs, and more Democrats retiring than Republicans, the GOP always has been in a good position to accomplish that goal.

According to the campaign oddsmakers at FiveThirtyEight, things have improved for Democrats over the last few months, but, in the lower chamber of Congress, they still are the underdogs. In fact, FiveThirtyEight’s assessment is that there is a four in five chance that Republicans take the House while only a one in five chance Democrats keep it. And, again, history is on Republicans’ side. Since 1942, the party in control of the White House has lost an average of 27 House seats in midterm elections and four in the Senate.

Still, Democrats are in an increasingly good position in the Senate. While their seats in Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada continue to be listed as tossups by Cook Political Report, Democratic candidates lead their GOP opponents in two states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, which Republicans currently control. This week, Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales concluded, “Less than a year ago, Democrats were struggling to win big races in places where Joe Biden had won handily in 2020. Now, they’re within striking distance of winning in some states that Biden barely carried, and it could be enough to hold the Senate majority.”

In fact, Democrats are feeling so positive right now that the party plans to take a late swing at trying to unseat Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the former GOP presidential primary candidate who is in his second term in the Senate. Sen. Rubio won his last election by eight points, but according to The Hill, Democratic challenger Rep. Val Demings has raised $12 million more than Sen. Rubio, which has allowed her to blanket “airwaves with ads talking about her law enforcement credentials and hitting Rubio over everything from his attendance record in the Senate to his stance on abortion rights.”

The ads might be having an effect. There is only one recent poll on the race, a University of North Florida survey from early August, and it had Rep. Demings ahead by four points.

We’ll have the opportunity to see if the polls are accurate in short order, as Election Day is just 68 days away. Enjoy Labor Day, but then get ready for an exciting fall.

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