Midterms 2022: April seems like ancient history

Political prognostications were not wrong; the circumstances changed

President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the semiconductor legislation signing ceremony at the White House in August. A string of legislative accomplishments has coincided with a more favorable political environment for Democrats heading into the midterm elections.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Speaker Nancy Pelosi at the semiconductor legislation signing ceremony at the White House in August. A string of legislative accomplishments has coincided with a more favorable political environment for Democrats heading into the midterm elections. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 19, 2022 at 2:18pm

ANALYSIS — Less than six months ago — April, to be specific — Democrats were wringing their hands about the party’s prospects in November and Republicans were counting their chickens before their midterm eggs had hatched.

It was only late April when Republican political guru Karl Rove and veteran Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik agreed that the 2022 midterm elections were likely to be a disaster for Democrats.

Nor was veteran Democratic pollster (and Joe Biden strategist) John Anzalone exactly oozing optimism during a Politico interview with Ryan Lizza in mid-April.

Among journalists following the election cycle closely, Blake Hounshell of The New York Times put it this way in late April:  “The collective mood of Democratic insiders has darkened appreciably in recent weeks. Pollsters and prognosticators are forecasting increasingly dire results for their party in the November midterm elections. Inflation, the No. 1 issue on the minds of voters, is accelerating. And despite a booming job market, the president’s average approval rating hasn’t budged since January, when it settled into the low 40s.”

Hounshell wrote that other Democrats “use words like ‘horrible’ and ‘debacle’ to describe a political environment that has gone from bad to worse over the last three months.”

But all that has changed in what seems like the blink of an eye. Yes, inflation remains a concern, and the midterm dynamic presents challenges for Democratic officeholders and nominees. But constant chatter about “Democrats in disarray” has been replaced by headlines proclaiming, “Biden signs sweeping climate and health care bill into law.

The enthusiasm gap, which once favored Republicans decisively, has closed dramatically. Abortion has energized women and progressive Democrats, many of whom previously told pollsters that the November elections weren’t very important and that they were disappointed in Biden’s performance in the Oval Office.

Recent polling shows that independents, always a key group in competitive statewide contests and toss-up House districts, flipped from strongly favoring the GOP to narrowly preferring Democrats.

Democrats have succeeded in transforming November’s elections from a referendum on Biden to a choice between Biden and former President Donald Trump and his band of 2020 election deniers.

Given all that, it’s not surprising that, as The Washington Post noted, “Democratic candidates now have outperformed President Biden’s 2020 margins in four special elections held since the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

Talk of a Democratic bloodbath has been replaced with whispers that Democrats might well keep the Senate and possibly even the House. 

And, of course, polls show the Democratic Party, including Biden, has a pulse, and female voters are angry — at the Supreme Court. Biden’s job approval has not skyrocketed, but it has crept up to 45 percent in the most recent NBC News survey.

The reversal has been remarkable.

Let me be clear. Rove, Sosnik and all the others who talked in April about an approaching Democratic debacle in November were not wrong. That’s what the data showed during the spring of this year. 

Long-term historical trends, combined with Biden’s standing in national polls, the enthusiasm gap and the public’s fear of inflation, did add up to a worst-case scenario for Democrats.

But circumstances changed, as have the parties’ prospects.

Republicans could still win control of Congress in November, but Democratic Senate seats in Arizona and New Hampshire look less vulnerable now than they did a few months ago, and the nomination of damaged GOP nominees in both House and Senate contests could produce a midterm outcome that looks very different from previous midterm results.

But before Democrats get too euphoric about their prospects, they ought to remember that there are still seven weeks to go until the elections. More bad news on the inflation front, combined with growing talk of a recession, could be just the medicine that Republicans need heading into the midterms.

As of now, Republicans no longer have the momentum they once did. Democrats have a fighting chance to swim against what should be a very strong midterm current. 

Still, we have seen so many twists and turns over the past six years that it’s impossible to predict what developments could once again scramble American politics. As Yogi Berra once said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” To that I would add, “And even then, it may not be over.”