There’s a point in every election when candidates realize they’re locked into their strategy and there’s no time for major changes. We’re there for the midterms, now less than six weeks away. All that’s left is for candidates to execute their plans, hoping they’ll bring victory. What’s remarkable is how much each party’s blueprint is a mirror image of the other’s.
Take the issues. Each side is talking around the other. GOP candidates are focused on the economy (especially inflation), crime and the border crisis. They’re avoiding abortion, election laws and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. While Democrats are playing down America’s deteriorating economy, ignoring the border, and looking for symbolic measures to protect themselves on crime, they’re fixated on abortion and “threats to democracy”—attacking Republicans as pro-life extremists who promote “Jim Crow” voting laws and won’t accept the 2020 election results.
Each party is trying to play to its strengths. When asked in a Sept. 13 NBC News poll which party was better on the economy, 47% said Republican, 28% Democratic; on crime, it was 45% Republican, 22% Democratic; and on border security, Republican 56%, Democratic 20%. By contrast, 52% told a Sept. 21 ABC News/Washington Post poll that Democrats handle abortion better and 32% said Republicans.
The problem for Democrats is that abortion and climate are less important to voters than pocketbook and safety concerns. When asked in the ABC News/Washington Post poll to pick their “most important” issue, 26% chose the economy, 21% inflation and 14% crime, making the GOP agenda the main focus of 61% of voters. By contrast, 22% picked abortion and 13% climate change, leaving 35% of the electorate prioritizing the Democratic agenda.
Swing voters are another problem for Democrats. Independents are closer in their opinions on major issues to the GOP. In a Sept. 14 New York Times poll, 54% of independents said economic issues would be “most important” in deciding their vote, while 27% picked “societal issues such as abortion, guns or democracy.” On the economy, 55% of independents agreed with the GOP and 31% with Democrats; on illegal immigration, 50% picked Republicans, 34% Democrats; and on crime and policing, they went 49% GOP, 31% Democratic.
The Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade energized some voters, particularly Democratic women previously dispirited by President Biden’s job performance. Democrats claim special elections earlier this year showed abortion helps them and hurts the GOP. It’s likely to affect some races this fall, but on the margin and only if the candidate sounds extreme.
In addition to dancing around each other, each party is also showcasing its unpopular leader. In the September NBC poll, 42% of respondents viewed Mr. Biden “very” or “somewhat” positively and 34% saw Donald Trump that way. Yet both are eager to campaign, a problem for Democrats who need to appear independent and Republicans who want the midterms to be a referendum on Mr. Biden, not a comparison of the two men. At least Mr. Trump has created a super PAC to help his favorites.
The generic ballot keeps vibrating modestly. It was at 44.6% Republican, 43.7% Democratic on Aug. 1 in the RealClearPolitics average, then at 46.1% Republican, 45.1% Democratic on Wednesday. But this is somewhat misleading. Democrats need a big lead on this measure because their voters are more clumped together geographically. A good performance for their party on a national generic ballot might not be enough in a competitive regions. The ABC News/Washington Post poll found the generic ballot in competitive congressional districts was 55% Republican, 34% Democratic among all voters, compared with 51% GOP, 46% Democratic among likely voters nationally.
With a modestly better political standing than six months ago, Democrats are playing up expectations that they could keep the House by pointing to their special-election performances. Republicans are more reserved about their outlook, but it’s highly likely the GOP wins most of the competitive races and takes the House. And there will be surprises—good and bad—for each side. Candidate quality matters and both parties nominated some knuckleheads.
The red wave will likely generate a smaller midterm swing than the average, which since 1934 has been 28 House seats. Republicans are likely to gain closer to 20 than 25. But that’s partly because the GOP got a head start in 2020 by picking up 14 House seats. A net gain of 20 seats this fall would give Republicans 233—the GOP had 230 in 1995 when Newt Gingrich was elected speaker.
How about the Senate, you ask? That important question must wait until next week.