Posted: Sep 28, 2022 12:01 AM
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
If history is any guide, Democrats do not have a chance — not even a small a chance — of keeping control of the House in the midterm elections. But the question is: Is history any guide?
There’s been a lot of attention paid to the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, which makes clear that President Joe Biden is a drag on his party as November approaches. Biden’s job approval rating in the poll was 39% — even lower than some other surveys at the moment — and just 35% of Democrats said they want Biden to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024.
But the big picture is even worse for Democrats. The accompanying analysis from Langer Research Associates, which conducted the poll, made a historical point that is particularly bleak for the party. “The president’s standing customarily is critical to his party’s fortunes in midterms,” Langer began. “Each election has its own dynamic. But in midterm elections since 1946, when a president has had more than 50% job approval, his party has lost an average of 14 seats. When the president’s approval has been less than 50% — as Biden’s is by a considerable margin now — his party has lost an average of 37 seats.”
There it is. Even when a president is doing pretty well — with job approval rating above 50% — his party still loses a significant number of seats. In this case, a Democratic loss of 14 seats would be enough to give control of the House to Republicans. But when a president is doing badly — and Biden is doing badly right now — his party’s losses are much higher.
Look at the examples. Bill Clinton in 1994 — lost 53 seats. Barack Obama in 2010 — lost 63 seats. Donald Trump in 2018 — lost 40 seats. Sometimes, if a president had a really high job approval rating, say in the high 50s or low 60s, he lost fewer than average seats. George H.W. Bush, for example, lost just eight seats in 1990, when his job approval rating was 58%. But Joe Biden is nowhere near 58%, and in any event, an eight-seat loss by Democrats would still narrowly give the House to Republicans.
So … case closed. Except — what if this election is different? The Democrats’ only hope in response to the historical argument is that 2022 is somehow different from all those years when the president’s party lost seats. But how is it different? Of course, each year presents different conditions, but is there something unique about toady?
Look at the two exceptions to the historical rule. In 1998, Republicans were impeaching Clinton. It was a very unpopular move. Clinton’s job approval shot up to 66%. In the midterm elections that year, the president’s party actually picked up five seats. Clinton bucked the historical trend. Just four years later, in 2002, with September 11, global terrorism and the coming war in Iraq dominating the news, George W. Bush’s approval rating shot to 63%. His party picked up six seats in the House.
So the question now: Is there something going on that is similarly huge that would negate the historical trend and boost Democratic hopes? Something as big as the Clinton impeachment or September 11? Well, obviously nothing has happened to rocket Biden’s approval rating into the 60s, as impeachment did with Clinton and 9/11 did with the younger Bush. So unless something happens in the next six weeks to make Biden a wildly popular president — don’t bet on that happening — he will go into the midterms with a huge historical disadvantage.
But what about abortion? The only factor in the race that could be termed historic is the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade. After all, the abortion ruling stood for nearly 50 years and had an enormous effect on American politics and life. Is that a big enough a historical anomaly to change the midterms? It certainly will affect some races. But the decision has hit hard mostly among Democrats, and mostly among Democratic women. It does not seem to have the wide-ranging electoral effect that the Clinton impeachment or 9/11 had. It’s hard to see it as equaling those earlier events.
Indeed, there is evidence in the new poll that Democrats in mostly Democratic districts are particularly fired up about the election, even more than Republicans in mostly Republican districts. But, at the same time, voters in competitive districts are moving toward … Republicans. This is from the Langer Research analysis: “Among those living in congressional districts that are rated as at least somewhat competitive (neither solid Republican nor solid Democratic), registered voters favor Republican candidates by a wide 55%-34% — nearly as big as the Republican lead in solid GOP districts (plus 24 points). Democrats lead by 35 points in solid Democratic districts, pointing to a potential overvote where they’re most prevalent.”
That is consistent with the notion that, say, the abortion decision is going to motivate Democratic voters. The only problem is, it could lead to blowouts in Democratic districts where motivated voters elect Democrats even more emphatically than they did before, while Republicans pick up seats in competitive districts as well as their own GOP districts. Result: Republican victory.
The bottom line is that neither abortion nor any other issue at the moment makes this midterm campaign a historically unusual one, or at least historically unusual enough to break the longtime pattern of unpopular presidents losing a lot of seats in the House. It would take something much more momentous to buck such a solid historical trend.
But still, there is always room to doubt. Remember the Blue Wall? It was a notion cited by pundits almost constantly in the 2016 presidential election. The idea was that a group of battleground states, most importantly Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, had voted Democratic in all six presidential elections between 1992 and 2012. They were thus very, very likely to vote Democrat again in 2016, which would result in a Hillary Clinton victory. A lot of analysts believed that quite strongly. And then Donald Trump came along and won Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The historical analogy worked until it didn’t.
So now, the historical analogy points toward Republican victory. It seems strong — strong enough to bet on. But you never know.
(Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner. For a deeper dive into many of the topics Byron covers, listen to his podcast, The Byron York Show, available on the Ricochet Audio Network at ricochet.com/series/byron-york-show and everywhere else podcasts are found.)