On Tuesday, Democrat Pat Ryan pulled off a special election victory to represent New York’s swingy 19th District—a surprise, given that projections of Democrats’ congressional chances, up to this point, ranged from pessimistic to abysmal. Ryan’s victory was meaningful enough to help inspire the election analysts at The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter to revise their November projection of Republican House gains downward. They estimate that, instead of securing 20 to 35 additional seats, Republicans will pick up only 10 to 20. Furthermore, as Cook’s Dave Wasserman summarized on Twitter, “Dems maintaining control [is] not out of the question.” The New York Times’s data guru, Nate Cohn, similarly concluded that Republicans “remain clearly favored” to take the House, “but the notion that Democrats can even dream about House control is a remarkable turn from earlier in the cycle.”
The data behind these judgments is clear. For the past few months, Democrats have been gaining in polls that ask respondents which party’s House candidate they plan to vote for—what pollsters call the “generic congressional ballot” test. Such increases are highly unusual for the president’s party in a midterm year.
But as The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake explains, in House special elections this year, despite the absence of Donald Trump on the ballot, “Democrats [have been] overperforming Biden’s 2020 numbers by a handful of percentage points and doing so thanks to turnout in more-Democratic-leaning areas.” The Economist’s numbers cruncher, G. Elliott Morris, reported that “special elections so far this cycle are consistent with Democrats winning 51.3% of the two-party vote for the House in Nov[ember]. That is almost exactly the threshold they need to keep their majority.” Democratic prospects look even brighter in the Senate; if today’s FiveThirtyEight polling averages reflected the final results, Democrats would pick up four Senate seats.
Fifteen months ago, I explained that Democrats had a shot at keeping the House—despite their current five-seat margin and the inconvenient fact that the president’s party almost always loses well more than five House seats in midterm elections—because the exceptions to the midterm rule are when the president’s party is successfully managing a crisis.
We saw the president’s party either gain House seats or lose fewer than five in 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was taming the Great Depression; in 1962, when John F. Kennedy resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis; in 1998, when Bill Clinton was staring down the Republican push for impeachment (which was routinely characterized in the media as a “constitutional crisis”); and in 2002, when George W. Bush was responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks (including a popular Iraq War authorization vote in October 2002, when two-thirds of America wrongly believed that Iraq was behind the attacks).
Back in May 2021, I speculated that Democrats could get rewarded for managing the COVID-19 crisis. At that point, President Joe Biden’s handling of the pandemic was garnering 63 percent approval. Now it’s 49 percent, running along party lines. As it turns out, coronavirus scores low today in voters’ sense of what the most important problem facing the country is—0 percent, literally, in a July New York Times/Siena College poll. But I’m not suggesting that Democrats have been rewarded for putting the pandemic in our rearview mirror. Instead, other crises have materialized over the past year. And Democrats are positioning themselves as the party to best tackle them.
One that has dogged Democrats, and battered Biden’s job approval for months, is inflation. And when voters are asked in polls which issue is most important to them, inflation or inflation-related options still typically top the list. But gas prices have been dropping for weeks, and there was no increase in prices overall between June and July. The recent easing of cost-of-living pressures has overlapped with the Democrats’ improved standing in the polls.
Increasingly, what has begun to overshadow inflation is the abortion crisis. As The Washington Post reported this week, “about 20.9 million women have lost access to nearly all elective abortions in their home states, and a slate of strict new trigger laws expected to take effect in the coming days will shut out even more.” Evidence of pro-choice backlash is stark. This month, Kansas voters rejected an anti-abortion state constitutional amendment. Pat Ryan framed his race as a referendum on abortion. A Times analysis of voter registration data in 10 states found that since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, new women registrants increased by 35 percent, quadruple the increase for men.
We also have a democracy crisis. Donald Trump is angling for another presidential run, in part by helping Republicans who peddle the Big Lie win their primaries. Meanwhile, intensifying investigations into the January 6 insurrection and his apparently illegal possession of classified documents provide constant reminders of Trump’s anti-democratic, authoritarian impulses. In the most recent NBC News poll, which asked respondents for their top issue facing the country, “threats to democracy” came in first, at 21 percent, ahead of “cost of living,” at 16 percent—an indication of its rising importance.
How much does any of this matter? There’s a case to be made that it shouldn’t matter at all. A 2010 paper by Joseph Bafumi of Dartmouth, Robert S. Erikson of Columbia, and Christopher Wlezien of Temple argued that midterm elections and their usual shedding of House seats by the president’s party are driven by the public’s innate desire to “balance” Washington. “Net policy must be right of the median voter during Republican administrations and to the left during Democratic administrations,” they argued. “By putting their collective thumbs on the scale in favor of the out party at midterm, voters move policy back toward the center.”
The authors rejected the theory that midterms are referendums on presidential party performance. After reviewing the 16 prior midterms, they found that “majorities [are] typically ‘approving’ the president’s performance at midterm” so “it is difficult to claim that the presidential party’s typical poor showing in midterm elections is due to voter disillusionment with how the president is handling the job.” Moreover, the opposition party generally gains ground over the course of the midterm year in the generic congressional ballot, regardless of the president’s job approval polling.
What the paper didn’t explore in depth are the exceptions—when the president’s party does gain House seats, or barely loses any. The authors only suggested that the “balance” theory “must reckon with the corollary that voters might sometimes balance in advance—in presidential years when landslide victories are universally anticipated.” To my eye, that’s not a satisfying explanation, especially when taking into account the 1934 and 1962 midterm elections, which Democrats entered already holding huge margins in both chambers of Congress.
I submit an alternate explanation: In a time of crisis, depending on the behavior and reputation of the two parties, voters might conclude that giving power to the opposition party would worsen the situation by upsetting balance.
The president’s party usually struggles in a midterm because the inevitable imperfections of governing strain the majority coalition. Some agenda items don’t make it through Congress. Others do but don’t instantly make everything better. Intractable problems remain intractable. Base voters get demoralized, and swing voters—with their natural interest in balance—swing. Meanwhile, the opposition party can shelve their own internal divisions and keep the focus on the president’s party’s problems.
Today’s abortion crisis flips that script. It is the opposition party that enacted a major policy, thanks to activist judges on the Supreme Court installed by Republicans. And it’s a policy that had an immediate impact, disorienting the lives of millions. The three authors of the 2010 paper noted that “balancing behavior can reflect not only the current party balance at midterm but also party balance from the past,” thanks to “inherited” policies. The conservative unleashing of abortion bans appears poised to be a quintessential case.
Simultaneously, Trump’s aggressive politicking and legal dramas further embroil Republican mistakes in the midterm mix. For example, the slate of Senate Republican nominees in competitive states is entirely composed of Trump endorsees, and they are all underperforming, some comically so. Abortion bans upset balance today. The specter of a Trump return, aided and abetted by a fresh army of minions, risks balance tomorrow.
So how should Democrats synthesize all that data to forge a successful general midterm strategy for the home stretch?
1. Embrace bipartisanship: As I’ve previously argued, Democrats should lean hard into their bipartisan achievements. And they have many more to tout since I first made that argument in February, including legislation to improve gun safety, veterans’ health benefits, and semiconductor manufacturing. The choice to put before voters is between a balanced Congress with Democrats at the helm working with reasonable Republicans to tackle tough problems, and an unbalanced Congress led by Trump’s minions who will bring back crippling Washington dysfunction.
2. Take the abortion fight to the middle: Abortion should absolutely be front and center. But the pro-choice majority extends beyond the progressive faction of the Democratic Party, and Democrats need to win both base and swing voters to survive the midterms.
Therefore, Democrats should replicate what has worked: rhetoric and images that resonate with moderate and right-leaning voters. Pro-choicers in Kansas used male and female surrogates, libertarian appeals to “freedom,” and symbolic nods to religious voters. In New York’s 19th, Pat Ryan incorporated his military combat record to argue that he fought for “freedom” abroad and will now do so at home.
3. Don’t ignore inflation: Assuming that the inflation problem takes care of itself is risky; it’s a source of imbalance. Hawking a fresh raft of big spending policies runs the risk of giving Republicans a fresh opportunity to claim Democratic control would cause further economic spiraling.
Instead, Democrats should consider taking a page from a surprising source: Jimmy Carter. Inflation wrecked him in 1980, and was already dragging his approval down by 1978. But the 1978 midterms weren’t all that bad for Democrats, who lost only 15 House seats but retained control—the last time a Democratic president was able to do so in his first midterm.
Two weeks before the election, Carter delivered an address laying out a fairly conservative anti-inflation strategy: reducing the budget deficit, shrinking the federal workforce, eliminating “unnecessary” regulations, and proposing “voluntary” price standards for the private sector. A Washington Post poll taken just before the election found that his plan gained approval by a two-to-one margin, giving Democratic incumbents cover.
While today’s Democrats—no longer including conservatives in the base—can’t rely on tacking right, they can learn from Carter’s candor, if not his policy specifics. When inflation is high on your watch, addressing it forthrightly is better than ceding the issue to the opposition.
Fundamentally, what should gird and guide the Democratic strategy is an understanding that midterm electorates have a natural desire for balance. That desire almost always dooms the president’s party. But with Trump—and his faction—still menacing the political landscape, a Supreme Court turning the clock back to the 19th century, and a Republican Senate slate of weird grifters like Mehmet Oz and Blake Masters, Democrats have a rare opportunity to be both the party in power and the party that provides the equilibrium midterm voters crave.