These 4 questions will haunt Democrats this summer

Unless they can find the answers, they’re headed for the congressional wilderness

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have a lot to figure out before November’s midterms, writes Winston. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have a lot to figure out before November’s midterms, writes Winston. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 29, 2022 at 6:00am

With the November elections now just over four months away, it feels like this has become a critical, make-or-break moment for the Biden administration as it continues to be plagued with multiple crises, bad economic news and one adverse court ruling after another. Can the Biden team regroup and keep his presidency and party from going off a political cliff this fall, or are they destined to suffer a major defeat at the hands of a frustrated electorate?

That’s the big question swirling around Washington these days, but what happens in November will be determined by the answers to more than whether this becomes Joe Biden’s personal “summer of recovery.” Here are some of the other questions that will impact the outcome of the congressional midterms.

On election day, will the country be in recession, and if not, how much will it matter to voters if they’re still paying close to $5 a gallon for gas? 

That’s the trillion-dollar question, literally. All the happy talk about the great state of the economy from the Biden White House and their cadre of Democratic economists in the media won’t fool consumers if they’re still paying budget-busting prices for food, still suffering from shortages for basic necessities and wondering how they are going to make ends meet. 

The Real Clear Politics average puts Biden’s job approval on his handling of the economy (5/18–6/21) at 34 percent approve and 61 percent disapprove. It’s hard for any politician to get numbers lower than the base, but if the second quarter GDP numbers released on July 28 are underwater and the country officially slips into recession, Biden just might make the kind of history no president wants to make. What’s happening with inflation is likely to remain more important than whether the country is technically in recession, but July 28 could be yet one more body blow to an already reeling administration. 

Can the Democrats move the election narrative to any other topic but inflation?

They certainly are trying. First, it was the Jan. 6th Select Committee that was going to deliver a winning message for the fall by portraying Republicans as a threat to democracy that the country cannot tolerate. So far, it hasn’t worked with voters who have been supportive of investigating the events of Jan. 6 but are still much more concerned about inflation. 

With the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and New York’s gun law last week, Democrats have added abortion and gun control to their issue mix, hoping to woo back moderate voters and independents, particularly in the suburbs, who have been moving toward the Republican Party over the past year. The AP story Monday detailing a million-vote registration shift in 43 states to the GOP only underlines the problems Democrats are facing this fall.

At this point, we simply don’t have enough data to assess the impact of the Roe decision, and I would caution jumping to conclusions based on one survey. But up to now, the protests have been fairly small and concentrated in large cities and blue states where voters were already likely to vote Democratic anyway. As for guns, from the polling we’ve seen, this is an important issue, but not likely to be a decisive factor for most voters this fall.

What is the Democrats’ strategic reaction to the recent New Hampshire poll putting Gov. Ron DeSantis two points ahead of former President Trump in a possible presidential primary contest?

To date, the Democrats’ strategy for staying alive in 2022 and winning in 2024 seems to have been focused on ending any ability Donald Trump might have for a third run at the presidency while dragging congressional Republicans into the Jan. 6 controversy. 

Whether the committee’s endgame is the indictment of Trump or at least the complete discrediting of the former president, this may turn out to be a situation of “be careful what you wish for.” Another Republican nominee is likely to be a stronger contender against Biden, and one thing is certain — unlike the Democrats, the GOP has a deep bench to turn to whether in the statehouses or the Congress. 

Most polling shows that voters are interested in the hearings and certainly believe the Capitol riot was wrong. Strategically, Republicans need to be ready for the inevitable political shots headed their way over Jan. 6 and Trump’s role, but at this point, voters are focused on the future and where the economy is going. 

Will Biden actually run in 2024 as he has said, and how much will the rumor mill of anonymous Democratic operatives trying to gin up alternatives affect the election this November?

Well, it certainly isn’t helping Biden or his party’s prospects. Undercutting Biden’s leadership seems to reflect more ideological frustration than smart politics in the middle of so many ongoing crises and a political environment of sinking polls and prospects, especially with independents, suburban women and Hispanics. But I suspect their thinking probably goes something like this: “OK, so we go off the cliff this fall, but as painful as it will be, getting rid of Biden is necessary to be better positioned for 2024.” 

The problem is if the party operatives behind the buzz want an even more extreme leftist as an alternative to Biden, they are totally misjudging the mood and priorities of the electorate. Biden’s team now seems to be taking this dump-Biden trial balloon more seriously. Given Biden’s terrible approval numbers, whether the promise of a second-term Biden candidacy helps or hurts Democrats this fall is at least debatable, but giving way to the progressive wing is risky business, as Biden has learned the hard way.

These won’t likely be the only questions affecting the outcome of the 2022 election, given what is a dynamic election environment punctuated with uncertainty, but unless Democrats can address these questions and turn the economy around, they are headed for the congressional wilderness.

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.