Will Biden’s 2022 midterms be worse than Obama’s in 2010?

Abortion draft leak probably won’t change things either way

The coming midterm election isn’t looking good for the party of President Joe Biden, seen here behind his former boss at the State of the Union in 2009. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/POOL/file photo)
The coming midterm election isn’t looking good for the party of President Joe Biden, seen here behind his former boss at the State of the Union in 2009. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/POOL/file photo)
Posted May 4, 2022 at 6:00am

Whether it’s reporters or politicians or D.C. insiders, the question I get asked more than any other is, “How many?” — how many seats will Republicans pick up this fall? Forecasting numbers based on the latest polls is never a good idea, but certainly the trend lines are heading in the right direction for the GOP.

Monday night’s bombshell Supreme Court leak notwithstanding, the economy will still likely be the most important issue this fall and will decide the electoral outcome for both parties, and, with it, control of Congress. That’s not to say the abortion issue isn’t important to people on both sides, but two recent surveys put this divisive issue in perspective.

In its April 21-25 survey, Quinnipiac asked people to cite what they saw as the most urgent issue facing the country. Only 5 percent selected abortion.

In the Economist/YouGov’s April 26-27 survey, which asked voters which issue was most important to them, again, only 5 percent said abortion. While both these surveys occurred before the Supreme Court leak, historically this has been an issue people may feel deeply about but not one that has decided elections.

So, leaving the upheaval over the leaked court opinion aside for the moment, one approach to understanding what current poll numbers may be telling us about the future is to do a short comparison with the past — namely 2010, when Republicans won 63 House seats and gained control.

Republicans won the female vote by 1 point in 2010 despite Democratic claims that passage of Obamacare would sustain the women’s vote for the Democratic Party, after having won the women's vote by 14 points in 2008. But that’s not what happened. 

In March 2010, Democrats passed President Barack Obama’s signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act, which he signed into law with great pomp and celebration. Obama prioritized passage of the controversial health care bill over dealing with unemployment, believing it would keep women in the Democratic camp. He was wrong.

In the 2010 congressional election, health care was important to these voters, but the economy was more important. 

President Joe Biden finds himself in a similar situation. He has spent most of his first year in office handling the COVID-19 crisis with mixed results, while trying and failing to pass a huge social spending bill. His focus hasn’t been on the economy and inflation, where it should have been, but on a series of progressive initiatives that had virtually no chance of passing Congress. 

Both presidents ignored voters’ priorities, and Obama paid a heavy price in his first off-year election. The question is whether Biden will face the same reckoning in November. It’s worth comparing the two presidents’ polling numbers to perhaps get some idea of what’s in store for the Democrats this fall.

On April 30, 2010, Obama’s Real Clear Politics job approval average was 48 percent approve to 46 percent disapprove, up by just 2 points. By the November election, Obama was down 11 points, 44 percent approve to 55 percent disapprove, according to the exit polls, and the House was in Republican hands.

On April 30, 2022, Biden’s job approval was already down 11 points, at 42 percent approve to 53 disapprove, in the Real Clear Politics average. Not a good sign.

A comparison of the generic vote for Congress in 2010 and 2022 doesn’t offer Democrats any better news. On April 30, 2010, Republicans enjoyed a 1-point advantage over Democrats in the RCP generic vote average, at 44 percent Republican to 43 percent Democrat. 

To have Republicans ahead at all in the generic vote was unusual after losing badly both the 2006 and 2008 elections and should have raised flags for the Obama White House. In the end, the GOP won the congressional vote nationally by a 7-point margin, 52 percent Republican to 45 percent Democrat.

On April 30 of this year, the RCP generic vote average was 46 percent Republican and 42 percent Democrat, or a 4-point advantage, a significant improvement for Republicans over 2010, when they won control. That’s another bad sign for Democrats if this margin holds.

Finally, over the past week, much of the media seems to have discovered Biden’s terrible issue-handling numbers across the board, but particularly on the economy, which for readers of this column comes as no surprise. In 2010, by this point in the election year, voters’ confidence in Obama’s handling of the economy, the No. 1 issue, was heading south as voters said they had more confidence in Republicans to handle the economy by 5 points (47 percent Republican to 42 percent Democrat in the April 13-14 New Models survey). 

The election exit polls showed that 63 percent of the electorate said the economy was the most important issue facing the country. Republicans won that group by 11 points, 54 percent Republican to 43 percent Democrat. 

Two recent media surveys found that Biden’s issue-handling numbers on the economy are far worse than Obama’s. In the Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour survey taken April 19-26, voters had more confidence in Republicans by a huge, 15-point margin, 43 percent Republican to 28 percent Democrat.

On handling the issue of inflation, Republicans beat Biden by 22 points, a staggering number. 

Last week’s Washington Post/ABC News poll had more bad news for Biden, giving Republicans a 16-point lead over Democrats on handling the economy, 51 percent Republican to 35 percent Democrat, and a 20-point edge on handling inflation, 51 percent Republican to 31 percent Democrat. 

In 2010, unemployment was the key driver of economic concerns. Obama’s decision to focus on health care cost Democrats the House. Today, it is inflation, and the Biden administration’s initial decision to brush it off as “transitory” and focus on progressive social spending was a big mistake, which his numbers reflect.

When politicians think they can change people’s minds regarding their self-defined top priorities and that they know better what’s important and what’s secondary, it usually doesn’t end well.

Obama tried it in 2010 with health care and failed. Trump tried it in 2018 with immigration and failed. If Biden goes down the same path, whatever his alternative priority — be it "Build Back Better 2.0" or some other issue besides the economy or inflation — he’s likely to end up in the same place.

Some argue there’s still time for Democratic prospects to turn around. Theoretically, I suppose that’s true. I’m sure this week’s opinion pages and pundit commentary will be filled with assertions that the “crisis” in the court may be just the opportunity Democrats need to reenergize themselves and beat up on Republicans. 

But choosing another issue over what voters say is their top issue is more likely to deliver a repeat of the past, not a restart for the future.

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.