Enthusiasm

President Biden endures another tough week; Will it affect Democrats in November?

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They say bad news often comes in batches, and that was the case for President Biden last week: another grim poll, another grim inflation report and a legislative setback. As he traveled through the Middle East, the home front remained politically on fire.

The grim poll came from The New York Times and Siena College. The three worst parts were: Biden’s approval rating recorded at 33%; only 13% of Americans say the country is moving in the right direction; and 64% of Democrats say they would prefer someone else as the party’s nominee in 2024. On the other hand, he was three percentage points ahead of Donald Trump in a rematch in 2024.

The economic report showed prices rose 9.1% year-on-year, a four-decade high. It was the latest reminder of how stubborn this supposedly transitory inflation is and why it continues to be cited as the top issue for voters as they think about November’s midterm elections. Gasoline prices have fallen recently, but perhaps not enough to affect voters’ attitudes.

The legislative setback looked familiar. Sen. Joe Manchin III (DW.Va.) has decided to end ongoing negotiations on a scaled-down version of Biden’s Build Back Better bill. Manchin balked at the president’s desire to spend money to fight climate change. A year ago, this larger bill stalled when, yes, Manchin said he couldn’t go along with it. Democrats are hoping something on health care, including cutting prescription drug costs, can eventually pass. Either way, if it does, it may not impress voters as much as White House officials had hoped.

It’s easy to interpret all of this as more evidence that the Democrats are headed for a bombardment in November’s midterm elections. The political climate remains more than worrying for the party in power. While Republicans need just five seats to take control of the House, most Democrats admit they will be in the minority in the House and possibly the Senate starting in January.

The problem comes from the question of knowing how big this new Republican majority could be. Here, the forecasts are more clouded. Biden’s approval ratings alone suggest a banner year for Republicans, and some GOP members are expansive in their predictions. But how much do Biden’s perceptions relate or not to the decisions some voters will make about their picks in November?

One finding from the Times-Siena poll that hasn’t received much attention is voter preference for the outcome of House races. The poll found 41% said they preferred to see Democrats in charge after the November election, compared to 40% who said they preferred a Republican-led House. Among likely voters, Republicans led 44% to 43%.

The RealClearPolitics average of what pollsters call the generic ballot question — a longstanding measure that asks voters whether they would vote for Republican or Democrat in their race for the House — shows that the GOP currently has an advantage of 1.9 percentage points.

Alan Abramowitz of Emory University analyzed 27 such polls conducted since June 1, which showed Republicans with a 2.5 percentage point advantage. Then he separated them into those who are used to being friendly to Republicans and those who are generally more neutral. Republican-friendly polls showed a GOP advantage of 7.5 points. The others place the Republican advantage at 0.4 points. Democrats are doing even better in polling averages since July 1, or after the Supreme Court ruled on abortion.

Democrats generally need to have a clear lead in the polls to feel comfortable with their prospects, as they did in 2018 when they took control of the House. In 2010, Democrats were roughly on par with Republicans or even slightly ahead on this issue in Post-ABC News polls, and the GOP still had a huge victory. The most recent polls suggest there is some fluidity in the electorate that could affect the size of Republican gains.

Clearly many people, including many who voted for Biden in 2020, have lost faith in his leadership. His approval rating among Democrats in the Times-Siena poll was 70%, lower than you would expect in such a polarized country.

The reasons for voter discontent are manifold. Inflation eats away at family incomes; a president carries the weight of this concern. The pandemic appears to be having lasting effects on many aspects of life and work, adding to the malaise. The feeling that the government is not working is widespread. All of this is working against the Democrats.

But for many swing voters, the prospect of Republican control may not be so appealing either. As Nate Silver put it recently, “voters have good reason to disapprove of Biden without wanting Republicans in Congress.”

The GOP is still under the thumb of former President Donald Trump, who has persuaded many in his party to embrace the lies he continues to spread about the 2020 election. The January 6 committee hearings drew increased focus on Trump’s pivotal role in efforts to overturn the election.

The prospect of a new GOP majority in the House focused on retribution rather than government might not thrill swing voters who already have a cantankerous attitude about how Washington works. At the state level, Republican Holocaust deniers are seeking election and threats to democracy persist.

Beyond that, other issues could help Democrats in competitive House races. The Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion will affect the votes of some and possibly many voters who disagree with the court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade. Mass shootings and GOP resistance to tougher gun laws are another factor some suburban voters might consider.

If this is a wave election year, Republicans should be confident of taking control of a Senate now split 50-50, even if the card isn’t as favorable to them as it has been in some years. But they have flawed or vulnerable candidates in three states where they are defending seats: Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, JD Vance in Ohio and incumbent Ron Johnson in Wisconsin. They also risk losing an opportunity to clinch a seat in Georgia due to the erratic performance of GOP nominee Herschel Walker.

Republicans could still flip Senate seats held by Democrats in Arizona and Nevada. Maybe their flawed candidates will prevail if the wave of Republicans is overwhelming. But the GOP has failed to field strong candidates where they need them most.

Biden being a drag on Democrats this fall is without a doubt, and he has done nothing in recent months to change that. On the contrary, his reputation has weakened. If this election is purely a referendum on the president, the Democrats will and may suffer significantly.

The question remains how much. And on that, the Republicans aren’t doing much to help themselves, and Trump could make it worse. GOP leaders prefer an election centered on Biden, not the past and not Trump. The former president might not grant them their wish. If he were to announce his 2024 candidacy before November, as he suggests, it would put him back in the campaign conversation in a way that could crowd out other GOP messaging.

Democrats hope the House hearings on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol will dampen the enthusiasm of some Republican voters. They also hope that the deer decision will generate more enthusiasm among their base. It is too early to know the answer on each side of this equation. Perceptions of the president seem fixed. The question is whether other factors currently in play will slightly improve the Democrats’ position.