Democrats are increasingly confident, even euphoric, about the midterms. President Biden’s approval numbers are rising! He signed the Inflation Reduction Act! Gasoline prices are falling! The Dobbs decision mobilized women to defend abortion! Canceling student debt guarantees massive turnout of young Democrats! Democrats will gain Senate seats, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi may hold the House!
Maybe. Or maybe not.
To me the trumpeting from Democrats and their media allies appears premature. This extraordinary comeback scenario seems to ignore underlying realities and assume things that aren’t true.
Start with Mr. Biden’s job approval. It was 42.4% in the FiveThirtyEight.com average on Wednesday. That’s an improvement, but is it enough? President Trump’s average at this same point in 2018 was 40.3%. Republicans lost 42 House seats that November. Does a roughly 2-point difference between Mr. Biden’s approval now and Mr. Trump’s then mean Democrats can turn defeat into a historic victory?
And it isn’t only the top-line number that matters. In NBC’s Aug. 16 poll the president’s overall approval numbers broke down as 42% approve, 55% disapprove. But if you look deeper, 44% of respondents strongly disapprove of Mr. Biden, while only 18% strongly approve. That’s not good and it’s unlikely that those figures will markedly improve over the next 10 weeks.
Then there’s inflation: Prices were up 8.5% year-over-year in July, a 0.6-point decrease from June but still much higher than the 1.4% year-over-year rate in January 2021, when Mr. Biden took office. Average gasoline prices for all formulations were $4.09 Wednesday, while they were $2.42 in January last year.
The Inflation Reduction Act’s passage and inflation’s recent modest slowing may reassure voters, but likely only Democratic true believers can look at a massive spending package and think it will lower prices. Swing voters may reasonably conclude the law is a gigantic mess of liberal special-interest spending that won’t lower the cost of groceries or gas. Team Biden is also really overselling the act; that tactic tends to backfire.
As for student-debt cancellation, this giveaway’s cost—estimated from $500 billion to above $1 trillion—may cause many Americans to conclude it’s unfair and a political payoff to voters the White House thinks won’t turn out for Democrats otherwise. Some student borrowers are already saying a loan is a debt to be paid back, not a burden to be shifted to all taxpayers.
The abortion decision also may not do as much for Democratic fortunes as the party seems to think it will. It’s true that since Dobbs, there’s been a sharp rise in the number of Democrats who consider abortion a “very important” issue, which could mean higher turnout for the party. Yet abortion remains less important to the whole voting population than the economy, crime, immigration, education and other issues that aren’t going well for Democrats. In an Aug. 14 Pew poll, abortion was only the eighth-most-cited “very important” issue.
Democrats also attribute their Aug. 23 New York congressional special election victory to Dobbs. It may have helped them win by 2.2%, or 2,858 votes, in a district Mr. Biden carried by 1.5%. But the contest was held the same day as two high-profile Democratic primaries in a district with 18,544 more enrolled Democrats than Republicans. That probably resulted in higher Democratic than Republican turnout, given that the GOP didn’t have prominent primary battles in that district.
Americans also remain conflicted on abortion. A July 24 CNN/SSRS poll found 63% disapproved of overturning Roe v. Wade, while a June 14 Associated Press poll found that 65% say abortion should be illegal in the second trimester and 80% think it should be illegal in the third trimester. Republicans who argue for banning abortions without exceptions have a problem with swing voters, but so do the many Democrats who support unlimited abortions at any point in a pregnancy.
The GOP faces other challenges too, starting with the fact that since Aug. 8, the national political focus has been on the Mar-a-Lago search for classified documents. This is shifting the midterms from being a referendum on Mr. Biden’s failures to a comparison between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, which diminishes the Republican advantage. An Aug. 10 Politico/Morning Consult Poll found independents approved of the search by 47% to 33%. Those are voters Republican candidates must win to maximize GOP midterm victories. To do that they need to change the subject from Mar-a-Lago to a clear explanation of what they will do if elected.
We’ll see more twists and turns before November. Midterms historically benefit the party that doesn’t hold the White House, but the political environment that several months ago was significantly favorable to Republicans has become somewhat less so. Still, it’s hardly ideal for Democrats. If Republicans make the midterms a referendum on Mr. Biden, they’ll do well, but they have to finesse the documents controversy.