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When nothing beats something

Midterm elections historically have been referenda on the president

President Joe Biden,  seen in the Capitol last month with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will be the focus of the midterm election dynamic, a pattern following other midterm dynamics, Stuart Rothenberg writes.
President Joe Biden, seen in the Capitol last month with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will be the focus of the midterm election dynamic, a pattern following other midterm dynamics, Stuart Rothenberg writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — Patrick Gaspard was director of the White House Office of Political Affairs under Barack Obama, and he served as national political director for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. He is now president and chief executive officer of the Center for American Progress, a liberal public policy organization.

So, I was surprised when Gaspard responded to former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s criticism of the Biden administration a few days ago on ABC’s “This Week” by saying: “Governor, it’s also a political truism that you can’t beat something with nothing. When we get to November, Americans are going to be helped to understand that there is a comparative analysis here. Every Democrat voted for a stimulus package, voted for being able to get resources into the hands of Americans, so that, in 2021, the average American family had $340 more per month than they did before the pandemic in ’20 and 2019. And that’s when you account for inflation as well. Every single Republican voted against those measures, every last one. That matters.”

Gaspard simply is wrong. In politics, it is possible to beat something with nothing. In fact, it happens all the time.

While presidential elections inevitably involve a choice between two candidates, two parties, and two agendas, midterm elections are almost always referenda on the sitting president. There is no “choice” involved.

The president’s party often tries to make midterms about the opposition, but that strategy rarely succeeds. It never succeeds when the economy is struggling or when the sitting president is unpopular.

When Gaspard says that “Americans are going to be helped to understand that there is a comparative analysis here,” he’s really saying that Biden and congressional Democrats are going to “educate” voters as to what the president and his party have been doing, especially compared to how congressional Republicans have acted — and that will change voters’ attitudes about the president and his party.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with this approach. But in practice, it rarely works. 

Ronald Reagan and the Republicans couldn’t do it in 1982. Bill Clinton and his party couldn’t do it in 1994. George W. Bush and the GOP couldn’t do it in 2006. Obama and Democrats couldn’t do it in 2010 or 2014. And Donald Trump and the Republicans couldn’t do it in 2018.

“Educating” voters presumably means giving them new information that will change their opinions.  Unfortunately for the president’s party, at the same time, voters are also getting information from the other party (in this case the Republicans) — information that reinforces what they already believe. Not surprisingly, it isn’t easy to change voters minds after watching any president’s performance for almost two years.

“Every Democrat voted for a stimulus package,” continued Gaspard on the “This Week” panel. That could be relevant if inflation falls from its stratospheric levels and if President Joe Biden’s standing in national polls improves dramatically. But if neither of those things happen, Democratic votes for a stimulus are not going to matter much.

In fact, all of this reminds me of the argument I’ve heard a gazillion times from underdog House and Senate candidates (usually referring to a poll their campaign conducted) that once they get their message out, the race will change dramatically. 

The problem is that most of the time they don’t get their message out or, at best, their message is muddied or drowned out by the opposition.

Yes, “it’s still early.” Things can change, can’t they? Of course.

Maybe, but as CQ Roll Call elections analyst Nathan L. Gonzales observed recently, “history is a dose of reality for anyone thinking Biden’s standing is going to dramatically improve — or improve much at all.”

“Looking back more than 70 years,” he continued, “there hasn’t been a single president who substantially improved his job approval rating from late January/early February of a midterm election year to late October/early November, according to Gallup’s rich polling archive.”

Given that, Democrats are left with a number of “ifs.” 

If inflation subsides and the economy continues to grow in spite of higher interest rates, and if COVID-19 fades, and if Biden’s job approval surges above the 50 percent mark, and if Donald Trump injects himself into the political debate, seriously dividing the Republican Party, then it’s possible that Republicans will find out that you can’t beat something with nothing. 

But we are a long way from that place, as Patrick Gaspard surely knows.

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